Thursday, 4 August 2016

Reading round-up: July

July 2016 books

Look At Me by Anita BrooknerFull review / Buy
Ah, Look At Me. This book was the high point of July's reading and may well prove to be the high point of the year. Frances, a would-be writer who has recently suffered the death of her mother, is trying desperately to stave off loneliness when she meets a glamorous couple: Dr Nick Fraser and his wife Alix. They 'adopt' Frances, drawing her into their social circle, but the reader can see what Frances shuts out: that the Frasers treat her as a kind of vaguely amusing and slightly pathetic pet. Nevertheless, it is through this relationship that that Frances meets Nick's colleague James, and the love she has longed for seems, at last, a real possibility... You might be able to guess where this is going, but it doesn't matter, because Frances is a masterpiece of a character: Brookner makes her deeply, painfully moving but infuriating at the same time. I could quote something from just about every page. Look At Me is a devastating character study with so much to say about the human condition. It is absolutely brilliant.

Death and the Seaside by Alison MooreBuy
Bonnie Falls feels stuck: she's almost 30, lives with her parents, hasn't got anywhere with her writing and can't seem to pin down a full-time job. She's also got a rather unfortunate surname, since she's dogged by a fear of – and obsession with – falling or jumping from a great height. When Bonnie decides to move out, she's befriended by her landlady, Sylvia Slythe, who takes an overbearing interest in the outcome of her latest short story. Fiction and reality intermingle as Bonnie's fate seems to be caught up with that of her heroine, Susan. Moore weaves a particular kind of magic from everyday details, and her way of making the banal thrilling reminded me of Alice Furse's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, albeit with a rather macabre slant. Death and the Seaside is a story of manipulation and imagination, peppered with literary references, as much about the creative process as it is about the characters. The blend of genres and influences makes it feel, as many great novels do, quite unlike anything else I've read.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn GreenwoodFull review / Pre-order
When Wavy, the daughter of a meth dealer, meets Jesse Joe Kellen, a motorbike-riding loner and ex-con, she is eight and he is 20. They 'fall in love' while Wavy is still a child, and although the story spans 12 years, this is an undeniably troubling and uncomfortable tale. Unlike many early readers, I did know (roughly) what All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was going to be about before I started it. I think fiction should tackle difficult topics, and many of my favourite books have disturbing subject matter. Even so, this was too disturbing for me; not necessarily because of the plot itself, but because of the way the reader's response is blatantly manipulated in one direction, with the use of supposedly divergent narrative voices acting as little more than a smokescreen. That's not to say it is without merit: Greenwood writes beautifully and the story does, whatever you make of it, elicit a strong response.

The Invoice by Jonas Karlsson, translated by Neil SmithFull review / Buy
The Invoice is narrated by a nameless character who receives a mysterious invoice for a huge amount of money. At first convinced it's a mistake, he's slowly made aware that he's missed a large-scale campaign in which Swedish citizens are being invoiced for all the happiness they've experienced throughout their lives. Numerous officials assure him the sum is correct – but how can a man with such an ordinary, uneventful existence owe more than anyone else? The story is part answer to that question and part romantic comedy, as the narrator develops a crush on the helpline operator who's supposed to advise him on the invoice. It's gentle, sweet and life-affirming.

Hold by Kirsten Tranter
Tranter combines the relatable drama of existential/relationship angst with a deft touch of the supernatural in her slim third novel. When Shelley moves in with her partner, David, she finds a small, hidden room that isn't on the house plans and doesn't seem to be accessible to anyone else. She's instantly protective, and the room becomes an outlet for her anxieties and a place to realise her fantasies. There's a shimmering quality to Hold, in which nothing ever quite feels solid, and the obvious question – is the room a product of Shelley's imagination? – is left open. It's as calm and comforting as a maybe-ghost-story can possibly be. It's also so similar to Michelle de Kretser's Springtime – the tone, atmosphere, characters, even the plot – that I couldn't help but see the two books as companions to one another, taking place in the same liminal world.

Our Young Man by Edmund WhiteBuy
A weird yet thoroughly enjoyable book spanning the lengthy career of an apparently ageless male model. Born into a poor family in rural France, Guy finds his looks are his ticket to a luxurious lifestyle, and eventually, he makes it big in the USA. His inability to physically age (which is never defined as anything other than luck, but is bizarre enough that some sort of magic is at least implied) means he enjoys unusually prolonged success, but will he ever be happy? Guy is so cold and robotic that it's difficult to say. Somehow, that makes him compelling rather than offputting. I know this is a contradiction in terms, but if I had to sum Our Young Man up in two words, I'd call it a sombre romp.

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