Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Books – The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

The Rabbit Back Literature Society was written by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen in 2006 and translated from Finnish last year). It is a wonderful and wonderfully bizarre book. The Society, are a select group of nine authors around the town of Rabbit Back, chosen as children by the eminent (and enigmatic) author Laura White, to be her protégés and tutees. Decades later, the members of the Society are adults and published writers. After Ella Milana, a young literature teacher, gets a short story published in a magazine, she somehow finds herself invited into the strange goings-on of the Society and caught up in the strange characters within it.

The writing is very good. It is clear, vivid, and funny, and if it is at times a little detached this narrative detachment works quite effectively. The shifting of tenses is a bit confusing and unnecessary, but this may be a translation issue. It’s possible the shifting between present and past tense might be more fluid and more effective in the original Finnish than now.

Nonetheless, the novel’s true strength is the characters and story – and the premise, I suppose. Or perhaps rather than premise I mean the tone. What I really like about The Rabbit Back Literature Society is the sort of underlying magic realism that never gets explained, and never really even gets questioned. I love that the novels in Laura White’s house and in the Rabbit Back library are rearranging themselves, that a plague of book mould is slowly messing with classic stories. It’s such a simple and yet powerful idea. And I love that we never quite understand Laura White, that the novel is constantly ambiguous without ever being too ambiguous. I suppose I mean I liked the randomness of this book, and the fact that its randomness never feels random, if that makes sense. I also love the idea of the Society’s mysterious Game. In general, the novel is just a fantastic idea. It is delightfully unexpected. 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Books – if nobody speaks of remarkable things, by jon mcgregor

(On the cover of the book there are no capital letters. I thought I’d honour McGregor’s choice.)

I refer you all to the first paragraph of my review of Life After Life, in which I ramble on about those books that are so fabulous and thoroughly amazing that you want everybody ever in the world to read them. And yes, this is another one of those books. if nobody speaks of remarkable things is truly on of the best books I have ever read, and certainly the best book I have read in the last year. Or perhaps two years. Since whenever it was I read Ishigruo’s Remains of the Day.

I have no words to explain the sheer brilliance of this book, but I can and will rant about how much I liked it.  if nobody speaks of remarkable things is a novel about the ordinary and the extraordinary. The books centres on one single street over one single day, in which normality is shattered by an awful event. Simultaneously we get the story of one of the street’s residents, looking back on that day from a few years on. It is a portrait of the normal existence of one street, and of the effects of tragedy, but it is also so much more. It is also a novel about death, family, friendship, love, life. I’m amazed at how this book encompasses so many snapshots of different bits of life in one single novel.

That McGregor manages to create such strong and moving characters by naming so few is incredible. Somehow the young man from number eighteen, the elderly couple from number twenty, the man with the scared hands, the twin boys, the girl with the short blonde hair and the little square glasses – all of these people come to life in details, in their actions, their movements, without ever being given the solid identifier of a name. And yet we recognise all the residents of the street as they appear again and again, moving in and out of view for the reader. It’s an incredible achievement.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Books – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

After its release two years ago, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry became a bestseller almost immediately, and was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to read since it came out, not only because of its brilliant title, but because it was thoroughly recommended to me by so many people. So I finally got around to reading it (or perhaps I should say listening, as I’ve got the audiobook), and I was not disappointed.

The premise of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is both simple and effective. Reeling from the news that an old friend of his is dying of cancer, Harold Fry, a pensioner from Devon, sets out to post a letter to her. And then he just keeps on walking. In fact, he decides to walk all the way from where he is now to Queenie Hennessy’s hospice. He sets out to walk from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed, in the hope that somehow the very act of walking with save her life.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Books – Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Published in 2004, Cloud Atlas is strange, clever and original novel. It is made up of six separate but connected narratives, spanning continents and centuries, from the early 1800s into the distance and dystopian future.

I’ve been meaning to read this novel for ages, and finally got round to it a couple of weeks ago. Having had it recommended to me by several people, and given vague hints as to what it was about, and having had the structure explained to me several times before I read it, I came to the novel with certain expectations. The structure certainly met those exactly. I’ve always been really interested in form (in both my writing and reading) and love novels with unusual structures. I also love multiple narrators, because I find voices and what you can do with different voices one of the most interesting things in literature. We get six narrators/main characters: Adam Erwing, Robert Frobisher, Luisa Rey, Timothy Cavendish, Somni, and Zachary. So as you can imagine the general set up of Cloud Atlas very much appeals to me.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Books - Rites, by Sophie Coulombeau

Before I begin, let me tell you how I discovered this novel. I did some work experience last year at the literary agency who represents Coulombeau, and read part of the book there. I then promptly forgot what it was called and spent about a year scouring amazon for a novel called ‘Roots’, until I managed to find the novel under its actual title, Rites, about a month ago. I’ve started with this story because I want to make clear that this is the sort of book you remember for a year, even when you can’t remember what it’s called.

Published in 2012, Sophie Coulombeau’s Rites tells the story of four teenagers growing up in Manchester. Fourteen years old and bored, they make a pact to lose their virginity at the same time, and formulate a complex plan to hide their actions from their parents. Fifteen years on, we hear from over ten different narrators the story of how it all went wrong.

When you give a brief plot summary like that, it sounds a little messed up. Which is the point, of course. But I just want to make clear now that this isn’t really a novel about sex, although the crux of the plot revolves around it. It’s not a coming of age story, and it’s not a teenage romance. It’s a story about being young and messed up. Or, more accurately (because the adult characters in the novel are hardly more grown up than their kids), it’s a story about being human and messed up. It’s also a story about truth – or, more accurately, a story about the lack of it.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Books - Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Every now and then in life, you read a book that is so thoroughly brilliant you want to shout off the rooftops that everyone in the world should read it. I have read several books like this my time (Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, for example, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, plus, for me, most of Dickens). Since starting this blog a few months ago I’ve read a lot of very good books, but I’ve read two that come into this category. The first was Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, and the second is this, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

It is an incredible novel.

In 1910, a baby is born, and dies at birth. In 1910, the same baby is born, and lives through her first moments. In fact, every time Ursula Todd dies, she is reborn, with some vague sense of her previous lives hanging over her. So we follow Ursula through the First and Second World Wars, through the first half of the twentieth century, somehow both stuck to history and outside of it, because she can change her own. With her half memories, she manages to undo her mistakes, and avoid the mistakes of others towards her. We sit with her as she dies death after death, and lives life after life after life.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Books – Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I appear to be keeping on an '80s theme. However, this novel shares little else with my last review, except perhaps my fondness for both novels. This was another one of my random finds: I picked Eleanor & Park off the shelf at Foyles without knowing anything about it, not even that it’s a piece of young adult fiction.

I want to talk about genre and audience for a moment, prompted partly this month’s Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, which was devoted to discussing Young Adult fiction – or ‘Crossover Fiction’, as it’s apparently now known. I somehow managed to miss out on Young Adult fiction when I was actually a ‘young adult’ (by which I mean a teenager; I’m fairly sure I’m still a young adult), because at thirteen or so I went straight from kid’s books to Victorian literature, where genre and age-based audience were somewhat less of a thing. In the last year or so, however, I’ve read and loved The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, and Eleanor & Park. I also reread and rediscovered His Dark Materials, and got much more out of it. According to the SYP magazine, over half the people who buy Young Adult fiction are over eighteen. This doesn’t surprise me, actually, because there are some Young Adult novels that are too good to miss out on simply because I happen to be a few years out of adolescence. I think I count Eleanor & Park as one of these.

Eleanor & Park is essentially a love story. Again, something I don’t read very often. I’m used to Victorian love stories, and subplot love stories. This is a love story about two sixteen year olds: Park, who has spent his life so far ensuring he is invisible, and Eleanor, who finds it impossible to be so. Park is fairly content; Eleanor, new in town and living once more with her terrifying step-father, sharing a bedroom with four younger siblings, is entirely unhappy. They fall in love over Smiths songs, mix-tapes and X-men comics.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Books - Meeting the English, by Kate Clanchy

Kate Clanchy’s 2013 novel, Meeting The English, was a random find of mine. Not necessarily an original find, as it was shortlisted for the Coast First Novel Award last year – but a random find nonetheless. I went into Foyles with a book token and picked three novels from the New Releases section, none of which I had heard of before. I briefly glanced over the blurb and first pages of each, but that was it. I like doing this, because it’s something I rarely got the chance to do during my degree, when novels are of course recommended and prescribed left right and centre. I also like doing this because, while I do own a kindle and often buy books online, I also like real paper books, and I also love bookshops, and I’m a little scared that one of these days both might die out.

So I started Meeting The English blind, and it was definitely a great discovery.

The novel, set in 1980s London, is somewhere between surreal romance and social examination, and I loved it. After the famous playwright Philip Prys suffers a stroke, the world of those around him alters, descending into a chaotic muddle of a distracted wife, an interfering ex-wife, two confused teenage children, and a terrified literary agent. Struan Robertson, a Scottish student taking on nursing in his gap year, is thrown into the midst of this chaos, and is bemused by the world he finds.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Books - Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

So I may have slightly lied. 

I did say I’d be reviewing Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared this week, but as I’ve been slightly busier than I predicted and the novel is taking me longer to get through that I thought it might, I’ve decided to go for a book I read a few months back: Diane Setterfield’s Bellman & Black.

Bellman & Black, Setterfield’s second novel, was published last year. It follows the life and death of William Bellman, a work-obsessed man haunted by death and time – and the occasional rook. It is a ghost story, and a whole lot more.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Books - The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

Disclaimer: I still know nothing about writing book reviews.

This problem of mine is made worse by my decision to pick, for my second review, so flawless a novel as this.

Published last year, Nathan Filer’s book The Shock of the Fall tells the story of a young man, Matthew Homes, coming to term with the death of his brother ten years earlier. It’s a book about mental illness, family and grief. It’s also a book about writing books. And I loved it.

I’ll give you three main reasons why, which handily separate into the three things I usually judge books by:

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Things - An Introduction

Let’s start with a quote. I like quotes.

Heavenly: I said what are you thinking about.

Arthur: Oh – things.

Heavenly: Books and things?

Arthur: No.

Heavenly: Just books?

Arthur: No.

Heavenly: Oh! Just things. That’s nice. I wish I could think about things.

- Spring Storm, Tennessee Williams

Well Heavenly, perhaps so do I. As it is I just think about books.