I always take an ambitiously large pile of books on holiday with me and usually don't finish half of them...This year was no exception particularly as I'd brought a lot of nonfiction with me, I did however get through most of my fiction ist and even read one we picked up at a second hand bookshop...So here, in order of reading (more or less) is what I read and what I thought.
1. Before the Fire by Sarah Butler. I first came across Sarah Butler when she was a guest at Oxford's Short Stories Aloud. I was lucky enough to meet her and get hold of her debut novel Ten Things I've Learnt About Love which I absolutely loved. I have been trying to get a copy of Before the Fire for ages, but it has never been in the shops when I've popped in so I was glad Chris finally tracked it down fro me. Butler is a novelist who is very interested in the damage life does to people and how they survive it. In her first book, this was a family secret and a destructive love affair, in her second, she explores the impact of a messy divorce and being a child carer on a young teenager, Stick. A troubled boy, unsure of his place in the world, he is about to take the trip of a lifetime with his best friend Mac, when tragedy strikes, ruining their plans forever. Set in the summer of the 2011 riots, Butler skilfully depicts Stick's world - one of limited choices, random violence, full of howling rage and despair. And yet, as with her first novel, she also shows how reaching out to another human being can provide an opportunity for change, growth and love. A delicate and beautifully written story of loss, grief and the possibilities of hope, this was well worth waiting for, and a book I will definitely read again.
2. The Ship by Antonia Honeywell. This was another one I've been meaning to read, after hearing about the writer through Curtis Brown Creative and having seen great reviews. It didn't disappoint. Lalla is a privileged 16 year old living in London, in a harsh world where not having papers means you starve on the streets, and where the government turns its troops on starving people sheltering in London's parks. For years she has been home educated by her mother, visiting the British Museum where homeless beggars camp out, whilst her father disappears on regular business trips. As the country descends into worse chaos and the family are the victims of a violent attack they escape with 500 others in a ship that Lalla's father has been preparing for years. Initially, Lalla thinks they are heading for a better place to live, but once on board she discovers that all is not as it seems. As her fellow shipmates fall under the sway of her charismatic father, abandoning the past to live in a sterile, homogenised present, Lalla is forced to ask herself is this the life she wants and needs? I thought this was a fascinating premise for a novel, which could be seen as a metaphor for the way those of us with privilege live today - do we ignore the bad things that happen to others less fortunate, or recognise them and work for change? If we escape those bad things is it better to forget or keep trying to stop them from happening? Lalla's journey from self indulged, over protective child to an independent courageous adult, is well drawn, and the dilemmas she and her friends face are very real ones. There were one or two moments near the end when the pace flagged a little, but overall this is a very impressive debut, and I'm looking forward to the author's next. (NB Antonia has very kindly backed Echo Hall without ever having met me, but this review is honestly what I thought!)
3. The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman. I received this novel directly from the independent publishers And Other Stories who I was considering submitting to last year The deal for any prospective authors is you have to sign up for at least two books a year. It's a fair exchange and a good way to be introduced to new writers and support an indie press so I was very happy to read this one. Plus it is set in Mexico, a country I love and my sister Lucy (who lived there and is a translator herself) recommended it. The novel is very short and extremely intense, with the action taking place over a few days. The central character, known as The Redeemer, is holed up in his grotty apartment recovering from a hangover, and hiding from a plague that threatens to infect everyone. When he is approached by the heads of two rival gangs to organise a body exchange, he braves the streets with a nurse called Vicky and a couple of enforcers to try and negotiate a peaceful resolution. I quite liked the noirish feel to this one, and the brooding atmosphere of a city under threat from sickness and violence. The darkness is lightened by the comedy of the Redeemer's fledgling love affair with his neighbour Three Times Blonde, which keeps being interrupted by lack of condoms, and corpses appearing in his bedroom, and ultimately by The Redeemer's compassionate humanity as he patiently works towards his goal. I wasn't as swept away by it as many of the reviewers were, but it was nevertheless intriguing, and stayed with me after I had finished it. I look forward to reading more from Herrera.
4. Number 11 by Jonathan Coe was billed as a sequel to his 1980's satire What A Carve Up! Since I loved that book, and Coe's 1970's novel The Rotter's Club, I had high hopes for this one. The novel follows the fortunes of two young women Rachel and Alison, from their childhood in the Blair years to their adulthood under the coalition government. Told in five parts Coe serves up reflections on the death of David Kelly, the rise of austerity, library closures, foodbanks, social media, the limits of political comedy, the lives of the super-rich. As with the original novel, an old B movie is an obsession of one of the characters, though not the central character on this occasion (as he lets a character point out, the film, like the book, is not a true sequel, but shares characters in common). The next generation of Winshaws (many of whom were murdered in the first novel) feature and are just as horrible as their predecessors, whilst Phoebe, the love interest from the first, also makes an appearance. There are some fine moments such as all too believable twitter tormenting of a vulnerable character after she takes part in 'I'm a Celebrity...' and the political analysis is spot on, but sadly overall the novel didn't work for me. It lacks the humour of the first, and has a tendency to hammer home its important message of the damage austerity has done to us. Furthermore, dividing the novel into five parts with different perspectives was infuriating for two reasons. Firstly, as a reader, I wasn't sure whose story this was, or who I should be rooting for and secondly as a writer, I couldn't help but feel if this had been a debut novel this clumsy structure would have ensured the novel was rejected from the outset. And whilst the overtop ending of What A Carve Up works because Coe has built up the links between the film and the novel so brilliantly, the end of No 11 just felt ludicrous to me. It wasn't bad but it was disappointing that it wasn't better - perhaps another edit would have done it...
5. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan was a book Chris picked up in Truro. I loved a lot of McEwan's early work (The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers being particular favourites) but am a bit hit or miss with the later novels and this one had passed me by.It was, as always, well written, with an intriguing premise. A young Cambridge graduate is set up with a job in MI5 by her former lover. She is then provided with the perfect opportunity to advance her career, when she is asked to set up a phony literary grant funding body to fund writers sympathetic to Western causes. Unbeknownst to her minders, and without meaning to, she falls in love with the first author she approaches, thereby setting up a classic McEwan treatise on trust, fidelity and the frailty of human relationships. It is neatly done and has two good twists, but was a little too self-referential for my tastes, and in the end I felt the author had written a clever intelligent novel that somehow lacked heart. Chesil Beach (the last McEwan I read) is much better.
And then there were the two I didn't finish...
6. The Famished Road by Ben Okri. I have long wanted to read this book, as many people have raved about it and of course it won the 1991 Booker. It is beautifully, poetically written, but, I found it very difficult to get into. The central character Azaro lives in the spirit world and is fated to be born and die endless times. However, at the beginning of the novel he decides to choose life with all its struggling, causing a painful separation from his siblings in the spirit world. I read about 100 pages by which time Azaro had experienced extreme poverty, been parted from his parents and then rescued by his mother, and I was struggling to care about any of it. I hate abandoning books and I have sometimes had the experience of returning to an unfinished novel only to love it later, so I haven't ruled out coming back to it. But at the moment it feels a bit too much like hard work, so maybe I will, maybe I won't...
7.I'll sell you a dog by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated by Rosalind Harvey is my second And Other Stories book. Like The Transmigration of Bodies it is set in Mexico (specifically Mexico City) but this one is a light hearted comedy. It tells the story of an old man eking out an existence in an apartment within a retirement community. A former hot dog seller and failed artist, he spends his time winding up his annoying neighbours, teasing an American missionary and flirting with a revolutionary greengrocer. It's a lot of fun and quite surreal (the annoying neighbours all believe his writing a novel and seem to be able to predict his behaviour) and I have no idea where it is going, so I want to finish it. However, I can't quite find it at the moment, so that's a bit aggravating. This one is worth getting and actually so is anything from And Other Stories which is an interesting publisher and deserves our support.
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