Category Archives: Books of 2013

Books of 2013; Part II

Blimey, it is the last day of 2013 and before we know it 2014 will be upon us. I hope you have something lovely planned for your New Years Eve? I will be back home in the Peak District with my Mum, aunties and all their children which will be lovely, we are combining Christmas and New Years all in one so much merriment will ensue I am sure. Anyway time for more of my books of 2013. I am continuing the tradition of the last few years, and my inability to whittle books down as favourites, and so this is the second of my books of the year post. Today I celebrate my top ten books that were published for the first time in the UK this year, yesterday I gave you all a list of ten corking books published prior to this year – do have a gander. So without further ado here are my favourite books published this year…

10. The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness

I absolutely adored ‘The Crane Wife’. It made me cry at the start, possibly at the end and a few time, with laughter, through the middle. It has been a good few weeks since I read the book now and I still find myself pondering what has happened to the characters since, always the sign of a good read, and the writing just blew me away.  Patrick Ness says in this book that “A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.” I hope this story grows to be a huge success as it certainly deserves to be read and loved.

9. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil – Stephen Collins

There is one word that sums up the whole reading experience of The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil and that is ‘sublime’. I loved everything about it; the imagery, the atmosphere, the message at its heart, everything. It’s a very moving book and one you cannot help but react to, I even shed a tear or two at the end. There is no doubt that to my mind The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil probably has the best title of any book this year, it also looks set to be one of the most memorable books of the year for its contents too. A quite literally, or maybe that should be quite graphically, stunning book and one of my reads of the year.

8. Maggie & Me – Damian Barr

I really loved ‘Maggie and Me’. I related to it – something that only happens to your very core or bones once or twice in a blue reading moon – and empathised with it. It was the sort of book my younger self was crying out for someone to put in my hands. I can only hope some lovely relatives, librarians, teachers or other influential bods make sure this is passed on to both the younger generation, especially those who call rubbish things ‘gay’, and to everyone they know really. Books like this help make being different both more acceptable and understandable, we need them.

7. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

There is no question that Hannah Kent has crafted an incredibly beautiful novel with ‘Burial Rites’. It is a book which has a sense of isolation and brooding menace throughout and a book where the prose is as sparse (you feel not a word has been wasted) as the Icelandic landscape it is evoking. It is one of my books of the year without question and one lots of people can expect in their season stockings in a few months time. I strongly suggest you read it.

6. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena – Anthony Marra

‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena’ is one of those books that Gran would say ‘manages to educate you on something you have little knowledge of’ and ‘makes you walk in a strangers steps, even if the stranger is fictional’. It is a book that isn’t a comfortable read by any stretch of the imagination yet, and I know I am sometimes stuck on repeat when I mention this, I don’t think that fiction should always be neat and comfortable. Sometimes we need brave bold books and authors like this to highlight what is going on or has gone on which we know little about.  Anthony Marra took on a challenge that even an author on their tenth book might not take on and he excels at it. I urge all of you to give this book a try.

5. Alex – Pierre Lemaitre

What Lemaitre actually does with ‘Alex’, which is far more interesting and potent is make you question, as the twists come, what you think is and isn’t morally right and soon this gripping thriller starts to ask so really serious questions of its reader and their ethics. A very clever move indeed, provide a book that makes you think hard about what you might do or what you find to be the ‘right’ thing for someone to do whilst also creating a read which is a complete page turner that has the readers jaw dropping as they go. That is what has made it my thriller of the year so far, it’s genius, and I personally cannot wait for the next one in the Camille series.

4. All The Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

The way Evie weaves all of this together is just masterful. She doesn’t simply go for the route of alternating chapters from Jake’s present and her past, which would be too simple and has been done before. In the present Evie makes the story move forward with Jake from the latest sheep mauling, in the past though we go backwards making the reader have to work at making everything make sense. I had several ‘oh bloody hell that is why she is where she is’ moments with the past storyline before thinking ‘what there is more, that might not be the reason…’ Jakes mistrust of things it seems it catching. This style is a gamble and admittedly initially requires a leap of faith and chapter or two of acclimatizing to the structure, yet it is a gamble which pays of dividends by the end and if you see the end coming, and aren’t left completely jaw droppingly winded by it, then you are a blooming genius. I was honestly blown away.

2= Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Atkinson is a master of prose in my eyes. I love the way she gives the readers discreet asides and occasional knowing winks. I love her sense of humour, especially when it is at its most wicked and occasionally inappropriate. I think the way her characters come to life is marvellous and the atmosphere in the book, particularly during the strands during World War II and during the London Blitz (though I didn’t think the Hitler parts of the book were needed, even if I loved the brief mention of Unity Mitford) along with the tale of her possible marriage were outstandingly written. There is also the element of family saga, the history of Britain from 1910 onwards and also how the lives of women have changed – all interesting themes which Atkinson deals with throughout.

2 = Magda – Meike Ziervogel

Two of the biggest powers that books can have are to make us think outside our usual periphery or be a spring board to discovering more about subjects we think we know. Some books can do both, they are a rarity though. Magda, the debut novel from Meike Ziervogel, is one such book which gave me both a different outlook on something I thought I had made my mind up about and left me desperate to find out more when challenged. It is the sort of book where I simply want to write ‘you have to read this book’ and leave it at that so you all do, yet it is also one that is designed to be talked about and the questions it raises be discussed.

1. The Language of Dying – Sarah Pinborough

I thought The Language of Dying was a wonderful book for its rawness and emotion. It is a book that I really experienced and one which I am so glad I have read for the cathartic and emotional effects it had on me (I was openly weeping often) and proved that sometimes books are exactly what you need and can show you truths you think no one else quite understands apart from you. I can’t recommend it enough, without question my book of the year.

I have to say I struggled with this list rather a lot. If any of you have listened to the latest episode of The Readers you will have heard me shamelessly cheating as Gavin and I discuss twelve books we are each looking forward to in 2014. So I will here cheat slightly and say that Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English, Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, and particularly both Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, could all easily have made the cut. Maybe I should have created a top twenty?

So which of these have you read and loved? What have been your books of 2013? What are you doing for New Years Eve?

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Books of 2013; Part I

With two days of 2013 to go, I thought it was time to share my books of the year. In the tradition I have set over the last few years, and my inability to whittle books down as favourites, there will be two posts of my books of the year. Today it is the books that were published before 2013 and tomorrow the ones that were published for the first time in the UK this year. Interestingly today’s list has proved so much easier than tomorrows as it seems I didn’t really read many books published before 2013 – and when I did only a few of them blew me away, those ones were…

10. Chocolat – Joanne Harris

I have to say that even though I had seen the film, though it has been a while, ‘Chocolat’ as a book was a whole lot darker and less twee than I thought it would be before picking it up. One of the many things that I admired so much about it was that under the tale of outsiders coming to a place, and quietly causing mayhem, there was the huge theme of people’s individuality and that being different should be celebrated and not ostracised, yet ‘Chocolat’ is also cleverly not a book that smacks you over the head with a moralistic tone.

9. The Detour – Gerbrand Bakker

‘The Detour’ won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year and having read it you can easily see why. Bakker creates a story that is subtle and slow burning yet all at once brimming with a sense of mystery and menace. It is also a book that will linger on with the reader long after you have read it and, if you are like me, long after it devastates you with both its prose and most importantly its story. A much recommended book.

8. The Ministry of Fear – Graham Greene

Greene shows what a master he is not only of atmosphere (war torn and spy strewn London) but of writing a book which takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions as much as it does thrills. Some of the book I found profoundly moving, both the descriptions of the destruction the war inflicted and also in an element I can’t explain here for fear of spoilers. Greene also made me laugh out loud on several occasions which, with all the tension and twists, proved much needed and added a great contrast of light amongst the dark.

7. Riotous Assembly – Tom Sharpe

The more I have thought about Riotous Assembly, the more impressed I have been left by it. The humour gets you through some of the tough bits, some of the bits that people would normally find hard to read and digest palatable by their humour yet equally devastating, if not more so, when the reader realizes the truth in it. So yet there maybe the boobies (and more) and bullets (and more) in it that I was expecting, but the way in which they are used is both titillating and thought provoking.

6. The Long Falling – Keith Ridgway

If I had a little bit of a literary crush on Ridgway’s writing after reading ‘Hawthorn and Child’ last year, I now have something of a full on crush on it from reading ‘The Long Falling’. It shocked me from the first chapter which slowly meanders before a sudden twist, which happens a lot in this book actually, yet unlike some books that first amazing chapter is bettered as the book goes on and for all these reasons I strongly urge you to give it a read. I loved it, if love is the right word? I was also thrilled that this was as brilliant as the previous Ridgway I read yet a completely different book in a completely different style.

5. Good Evening Mrs Craven; The Wartime Stories – Mollie Panter Downes

I think Mollie Panter-Downes writing is astounding. I really remember liking it last time but this time I loved it. There are the wonderful, often rather quirky, characters some of whom, like Mrs Ramsey, Mrs Peters and Mrs Twistle, keep returning in and out of the stories which helps build the consistency of the world Panter-Downes describes as they run from 1939 to 1944, the tone changing slightly as the book goes on. She can bring a character to life in just a mere sentence or two and the brevity of her tales and how much they make your mind create is quite astounding.

4. The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing

Lessing’s writing is unflinchingly brilliant. As I mentioned about the sense of menace and oppression is wonderfully evoked as the landscape and weather match the atmosphere of impending doom the book has and also Mary’s mental state. Mary is also an incredible creation, one of the most complex characters I have read. She is never completely likeable nor dislikeable, yet you find yourself fascinated by a woman who in turns goes from victim to venomous, from independent to weak, from sane to crazy, from racist to not and back again. It is confronting and equally compelling and highlights the society at the time and the conundrum and conflict a country and its society found itself in and in some ways, shockingly, still does.

3.Mariana – Monica Dickens

If someone had told me this is what the book was going to be about before I started I might have been inclined to think that this book really wouldn’t be for me. Yet I loved every single page of it and was completely lost in Mary’s life. Part of that was to do with the character of Mary that Monica creates, she isn’t the picture perfect heroine at all, she can be moody, ungainly and awkward, a little self centred on occasion but she is always likeable, her faults making her more endearing even when she can be rather infuriating. Part of it was also all the characters around her, I want to list them all but there are so many it would be madness, some of them delightful, some spiteful but all of them drawn vividly and Monica Dickens has a wonderful way of introducing a new character with the simplest of paragraphs which instantly sums them up. All of these characters are part of the many things that make you go on reading ‘Mariana’, every page or two someone new lies in store.

2. HHhH – Laurent Binet

I don’t think I have learnt so much about World War II from a book I have read in all my 31, nearly 32, years. Considering that I studied it for about five years in my history lessons at school this is quite something. I had no idea about some of the smaller but utterly fascinating facts behind this time period; that the Hitler wanted authors such as Aldous Huxley, Rebecca West, HG Wells and Virginia Woolf; that the Nazi’s built their own brothel (Kitty’s Salon) to film other Nazi’s to see if they were true to the regime or not. Nor did I know of some of the utterly horrific things, like what an ineffectual plonker Chamberlain was, the plans for Nazi attack cells in all the cities all over the UK and the horrendous atrocities such as Grandmothers Gully in Kiev.

1. The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

… there is very little doubt in my mind that ‘The House of Mirth’ is an absolute masterpiece and could easily be one of my favourite books. I loved Wharton’s prose, her humour and the fact she did completely the opposite of what I was expecting with Lily’s story which alas I can’t discuss in detail for I would completely spoil it for you if you have yet to read it – if that is the case you must go and get it now. Lily Bart walked fully off the page for me and I found myself thinking about her a lot when I wasn’t reading the book. Reading it is an experience, and I don’t say that often. One thing is for sure, I will not be forgetting the tale of Lily Bart for quite some time and I believe I will be returning to it again and again in the years to come.

So that is the first of my selection of books of 2013. I have only taken a small quote from my thoughts on each book, to find out more click on the link to each book. Which of these have you read and what did you think? I have realised I need to get into more of the books from the past and less of the shiny new ones, but that is for discussion more in the New Year. Any other books by these authors that you would recommend I read in 2014?

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Black Vodka – Deborah Levy

And so here is my final review, or set of book thoughts as I think of them, of 2013. This seems fitting considering I read this book not once, not twice but three times in total throughout the year as Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka is a collection of stories that is most beguiling because it evokes many sensations as you read it. There is darkness here, puzzlement and often a sensation that you need to read each story again and again to get more from it – so I did.

And Other Words, 2013, paperback, short stories, 125 pages, bought by my good self

Short story collections, I find, are rather a nightmare to write anything about. The instant thing most people ask is ‘what is the theme of the collection?’ Well to be honest with Black Vodka I am not sure. Many have a sense or need of belonging somewhere within them, though in differing forms. There is also the theme of love in many; sometimes its loss, sometimes where it sparks, sometimes where it lacks, sometimes where it never quite is. This all sounds very vague and if this was for a broadsheet I would probably be fired, but thankfully as it is my I can’t fire myself (well I could but I won’t) but I can ask the question… Does every short story collection really need to be about themes? Can’t a short  story collection just be what it says it is? As to try and give Black Vodka set themes seems to limit it and I don’t think that is what Deborah Levy would want or has set out to do.

What we have is a collection of ten stories that cover a huge spectrum of human experiences, ones which seem to show the signs of our times. Infidelity seems to be one of the most common as within Vienna, Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts, Pillow Talk, Black Vodka, and Roma there is infidelity going on somewhere in the tale. Levy doesn’t preach though, some lovers are forgiven, some are not and occasionally love blossoms from an act of infidelity and we have all heard such tales from friends, or friends of friends. There is also, as I mentioned the sense of belonging, be it to a place (Shining a Light), a person (Roma), or simply just to society (Black Vodka).

My next statement might sound bonkers but the whole collection is also linked by a European feel. America and Asia are mentioned but in every single tale Europe seems to stand out, all the tales are set in Europe but no matter where somewhere else in Europe will be mentioned. Someone will compare something to ‘a fisherman’s cottage in Greece’, ‘orchards of Istanbul’ or be somewhere continental feeling very homesick for the rain in the UK. Shining a Light looks at this as Alice finds herself in Prague, her luggage lost, befriending the people who she thinks are locals but are in fact foreigners too . They become united by their want, or need, of having a good time to cover their homesickness, only Alice can go home her new acquaintances cannot. In Pillow Talk lovers Pavel and Ella are from completely different backgrounds yet have met and started a relationship in London, Pavel has an interview in Dublin so will the relationship last (especially as he does something stupid) long term and can it with these differences we try so hard to be cool with yet also try and cover up as if they don’t matter? Vienna, a tale of a regular extramarital tryst, puts it well…

He thinks about Magret swimming in the cold pool below her apartment, her head surfacing, her mouth opening to take a breath. He knows she is dead inside and he is aroused that this is so, and he takes out a cigarette and lights it. He thinks about  how there is life with rye bread and black tea and there is life with champagne and wild salmon. He can live without champagne but he cannot live without his children; that is grief he knows he cannot endure but he must endure and he knows his hands will itch for ever. He thinks about feeling used, teased, abused and mocked by middle Europe, whose legs were wrapped around his appallingly grateful body ten minutes ago, and he thinks about the twentieth century that ended the same time as his marriage.

I should here mention Levy’s writing, which I fell in love with in Swimming Home and loved just as much in this. Actually I may have loved it more as I got a more varied sense of it and all its shades as every tale in the collection is different, a novel can show many shades in a particular form. With Black Vodka as a collection we have short stories in the literary form you might expect along with tales with a tinge of science fiction like Cave Girl; which sees a woman wanting a body transplant and what effects that has, plus ghostly tales like Placing a Call; which also somehow manages to break your heart, a stand out moment for me. In all the stories the prose is short and to the point and crackles along, there is also a deliciously dark feel to each tale, even when there may be a happy ending, which leads me to my favourites…

I have to say I liked every tale, even when they completely baffled me upon a first read. There were several standouts though. Shining a Light which initially I didn’t quite get, on a re-read or two made me think about Europe, the state of it and my relation to it. Stardust Nation had a wonderful sense of unease, which only tales of madness can, and twists when you least expect it reminding me of everything I love about Daphne Du Maurier at her darkest. It is also a very clever tale looking at the pressures we have as adults and how cracks we have cemented from our past can be triggered by them devastatingly. Placing a Call in a very few pages it broke my heart and made me cry. Finally the title tale Black Vodka which I have now actually read four times and each time have loved the sense of needing to belong which it evokes but have also left feeling it is the most hopeful story or the most heart breaking depending on my mood and I have not experienced that before.

Black Vodka is a marvellous collection because it looks at the internal and external worlds of people and how they affect the worlds of  others through their actions or sometimes lack of them. In Pillow Talk Pavel asks his girlfriend Ella ‘Have you ever had that weird feeling in an airport when you panic and don’t know what to do? One screen says Departures and another screen says Arrivals and for a moment you don’t know which one you are. You think, am I an arrival or am I a departure?’ For me, and I could be wrong, that is really what Levy is looking at with these stories; how we arrive and how we depart from other people’s lives. She then lets us ask questions of what those arrivals and departures mean, occasionally seeing some of our own actions, the good and the bad, in them especially as the real world gets smaller and smaller in modern times. A brilliant collection indeed.

Deborah Levy signed

Who else has read Black Vodka and what did you think? I have to admit that it is one of the hardest collections to write about in part because of its scope and brilliance and also as I met Deborah earlier in the year (one of my 2013 highlights) and she said how much my review of Swimming Home had meant, no pressure with this one then – ha! I am now desperate to read more of her back catalogue of works and have borrowed Billy and Girl from the library though I believe many of her books are being reissued in the new year, have you read any of them and what did you think?

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Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo

Joining a new book group is always a little nerve-wracking however your first choice for a book club I think even more so. By then everyone has got to know you but not necessarily what your book taste is. I decided to take an educated gamble with my first choice and choose Mr Loverman, the latest of Bernadine Evaristo’s novels, after having heard her read from it back in February at a Penguin Bloggers Night where she had everyone laughing – a lot. Throw in the fact that several people whose opinions I trust had loved it. Oh and I thought the subject matter would cause some interesting discussion after I read someone somewhere calling it a geriatric Caribbean Brokeback Mountain set in Stoke Newington…

Hamish Hamilton, 2013, paperback, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Mr Barrington Jedediah Walker, Esq is a character. He is a smart dressing, rum drinking, well off property developing 74 year old, the father of two daughter, husband to Carmel and owner of a decent house. He has also been in a secret relationship with his best friend Morris, and has been since there teenage years in Antigua. Now as his marriage seems to be bringing him more and more unhappiness, his daughters having fled the nest, he is wondering if it is time to come clean with his wife, who thinks he is out most nights womanising, and tell everyone the truth – can he actually do it though?

My first thoughts, well after initially thinking it was sweet that at 74 he was so in love before then thinking ‘hang on, he is cheating on his wife and lying to everyone around him’, was just how on earth Barry had got into this situation, then why he hadn’t left his wife sooner. The latter is something wondered by Morris who at one point in their past, which we get revealed slowly but surely in flashbacks, after his wife leaves him after discovering their secret before her eyes and he wants Barry and himself to be together, Barry refuses and a major bump ensues. Now it seems things might be different, though Barry has a slight issue with everyone knowing that he is a ‘buggerer of men’ as he puts it. As for how this all started, we soon learn that the Caribbean is not a place where homosexuality is responded to well and it is this background to the story that creates the situation they all find themselves in.

I’d been under such pressure back home. A young man showing no interest in girls, when he could have any one of them? I was twenty-four when I married Carmel, and I’d almost left it too late for some. They was talking, and I was afraid I’d be up before a judge on some trumped-up charge of indecent exposure; or end up lying on an operating table with a bar of wood between my teeth and electric volts destroying parts of my brain forever; or in a crazy house pumped full of drugs that would eventually drive a sane man mad.

What I thought was wonderfully done by Evaristo is how fully realised her characters are, with the exception of Barry’s daughters, one stereotypically spiky, the other so camp you know what will happen there. Barry is a charmer and quite loveable, he is also a man who has big secrets and even with the most carefully constructed life the pressure is mounting, cracks are showing and can’t be covered up no matter how big a smile you put on your face. He is also a bit of a swine, the way he treats Carmel, even if sometimes she asks for it, is often harsh and also incredibly chauvinistic admittedly in part due to his social upbringing. Yet you like him and feel for him, even if you don’t always agree with how he handles his issues.

Carmel is also a very interesting character. Initially I really disliked this woman who came across as a controlling harridan, always demanding to know everything and berating her husband no matter what he did good or bad. However as the book went on I really felt for her. This is a woman who longed for love, way back when she was a girl and one of the most handsome men around took an interest in her. Yet really she is a smoke screen for Barry and all the more saddening as it is unwittingly so, which really hit me and I think Evaristo has done this purposefully, if the society of Barry and Carmel’s upbringing had been more tolerant then these people wouldn’t be in this mess. Of course Carmel doesn’t know all of this or why Barry is so distant, and can only guess – wrongly, the result is the same though, she is unloved and turns, with the addition of post natal depression after baby two, to bitterness.

…on your own again, isn’t it, Carmel?
late this night, praying up against your bed, waiting for him to come home, knowing he might not come home at all, but you can’t help yourself, can you, acting like a right mug as the English people say…
waiting, waiting, always waiting…

If this all sounds thoroughly depressing, trust me it isn’t. Mr Loverman is brimming with humour which makes all the sad parts all the more heartbreaking. I don’t often belly laugh out loud but I did often and (very) loudly thanks to Evaristo’s humour which always comes along just at the right moment. There are several wonderful set pieces based around Morris’ observations or Carmel’s coven of friends who live in fear of the homosicksickals their Pastor George forewarns them of. Small minds can make big laughter, which also leaves poignancy in the air.

Merty’s getting into her stride now; plays her trump card.
‘And another thing, I hear from very good authority on the grapevine that Melissa is one of those women who lies down with women.’
Yes, you go-wan Merty. All roads in  your dutty mind lead back to sex.
‘Yes , I think I heard that too… er…’ Drusilla says unconvincingly, glancing nervously at Merty but determined to continue her id for power. ‘What I always say is, if woman was meant to lie with woman, God would have given woman penis.’

As you may have guessed I really, really loved Mr Loverman (what’s more so did my book group, I think it is one of the highest scoring books in a while) and found it a funny, touching and thoughtful book on a subject which I don’t think many authors would write about, there is still a huge stereotyping and homophobia towards black gay men which makes this book all the more important. One of my books of the year, and an end of year surprise rather like My Policeman at the end of last year, and one which has also introduced me to an author I have been meaning to read since Blonde Roots and now will definitely read much, much more of. Highly, highly recommended reading!

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Filed under Bernadine Evaristo, Books of 2013, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books, Review

The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing

After the sad news that Doris Lessing passed away earlier in the year, and seeing everyone’s incredibly positive thoughts on her works I started thinking about all the authors, including Doris, who I hadn’t read but really felt I should have. Along with Nathan Dunbar, a lovely bookseller across the ocean, we decided that we would read The Grass is Singing, her first novel from the 1950’s, and have a read-a-long of sorts in the form of #DorisInDecember. I have to admit though I was rather daunted about the task ahead.

4th Estate Books, 1950 (2013 edition), paperback, 206 pages, fiction, bought by my good self

The Grass is Singing starts with the announcement in a local paper of the shocking news that on one of the farms in Ngesi, Southern Rhodesia, there has been a murder. Mary Turner has been murdered by her and Richard Turner’s houseboy, one of the natives. The mystery at the heart of the article, and indeed The Grass is Singing, is why this has happened. What adds to the interest from the start is that it isn’t the police that have taken over the investigation but the neighbouring farmer Charlie Slatter and, as we learn in the first chapter, Tony Marston, the new English farm hand, thinks there may have been more to the incident than meets the eye. Even if Moses, the houseboy, has admitted to the murder what led him to committing it, and what was the relationship between himself and Mrs Turner?

The newspaper did not say much. People all over the country must have glanced at the paragraph with its sensational heading and felt a little spurt of anger mingled with what was almost satisfaction, as if some belief had been confirmed, as if something had happened which could only have been expected. When natives steal, murder or rape, that is the feeling white people have.
And then they turned the page to something else.
But the people in ‘the district’ who knew the Turners, either by sight, or from gossiping about them for so many years, did not turn the page so quickly.

Considering that The Grass is Singing is relatively slight at 206 pages, there is so much going on within it that I left the book feeling that Doris Lessing (who was only 25 when she wrote this) was an utter genius. The big story at its core initially seems to be the one about race and the racist attitudes of society in what is now known as Zimbabwe. The way that ‘natives’, as they were called, are treated is horrendous and we get to see this as we follow Mary once she marries Dick and joins him on his ramshackle farm. Which leads to another subject of white poverty, but I am ahead of myself already.

Really is it Mary, who we initially see as the victim of the piece, whose story we follow. As a young girl she grew up on the farms in Southern Rhodesia and hated it. She hated the way her father drank and behaved, she hated her mother’s shrill voice and low tolerance of the staff and after the bliss of boarding school gets away to a town as fast as she can. Once alone she blossoms through her late teens and early twenties yet by thirty she is still not married. Mary sees nothing wrong with this until she overhears so called friends laughing and gossiping about her. Deflated she looks for a husband to escape the life she loved but now believes is tainted; only her escape route is a completely miserable one.

Five years earlier she would have drugged herself by the reading of romantic novels. In towns women like her live vicariously through the lives of film stars. Or they take up religion, preferably one of the more sensuous Eastern religions. Better educated, living in the town with access to books, she would have found Tagore perhaps, and gone into a sweet dream of words.
Instead, she thought, vaguely that she must get herself something to do. Should she increase the number of chickens? Should she take in sewing?

Mary is bored. While she likes her husband, Dick, she also thinks he is rather ineffectual, there is a wonderful yet rather sad sequence of Dick’s attempts to make them money with bee’s, then pigs, then turkeys, then bicycles. They are living in extreme poverty, which even his neighbours – the vile Slatters – can’t bear to see as apparently there is nothing worse than seeing poor white people almost living in the squalor black people do, which depresses her and she longs for town or just escape. Instead she becomes angry and embittered, hating the landscape (which Lessing gives a wonderful sense of menace) and the weather (Lessing making the descriptions of heat utterly oppressive) and going slowly mad. Of course anger needs a focus point to be unleashed on and soon Mary does this with her husband but then more and more so with her servants.

The next day at lunch, the servant dropped a plate through nervousness, and she dismissed him at once. Again she had to do her own work, and this time she felt aggrieved, hating it, and blaming it on the offending native whom she had sacked without payment. She cleaned and polished tables and chairs and plates, as if she were scrubbing skin off a black face. She was consumed with hatred. At the same time, she was making a secret resolution not to be quite so pernickety with the next servant she found.

Lessing’s writing is unflinchingly brilliant. As I mentioned about the sense of menace and oppression is wonderfully evoked as the landscape and weather match the atmosphere of impending doom the book has and also Mary’s mental state. Mary is also an incredible creation, one of the most complex characters I have read. She is never completely likeable nor dislikeable, yet you find yourself fascinated by a woman who in turns goes from victim to venomous, from independent to weak, from sane to crazy, from racist to not and back again. It is confronting and equally compelling and highlights the society at the time and the conundrum and conflict a country and its society found itself in and in some ways, shockingly, still does.

When old settlers say, ‘One has to understand the country,’ what they mean is, ‘You have to get used to our ideas about the native.’ They are saying, in effect, ‘Learn our ideas, or otherwise get out: we don’t want you.’ Most of these young men were brought up on vague ideas about equality. They were shocked for the first week or so, by the way natives were treated. They were revolted hundred times a day by the casual way they were spoken of, as if they were so many cattle; or by a blow or a look. They had been prepared to treat them as human beings. But they could not stand out against the society they were joining. It did not take long for them to change. It was hard, of course, becoming as bad as oneself. But it was not very long that they thought of it as ‘bad’. And anyway, what had one’s ideas amounted to?

The Grass is Singing is not the easiest of reads. The characters are often far from likeable (I haven’t gone into the vileness of the Slatter’s but they are quite a creation) yet they all have a truth to them no matter how awful, it is the fact you know this was happening that makes them all the more scary, along with the situation of course. There is also the dense atmosphere of the book which rightly so is menacing and cloying but sometimes can feel like slowly wading through mud, yet again this is apt. Then there is Mary, a character on the edge of madness which is hard to watch both emotionally knowing the ending as you do and also because she reflects all the varying sides of society, the good, the bad and the ugly. Yet it is for all these reasons that The Grass is Singing is a book which needs to, and must be, read. It is a small but perfectly formed melancholic masterpiece that will leave you with a huge amount to think about – a true reading experience.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Doris Lessing, Fourth Estate Books, Review

HHhH – Laurent Binet

One of the biggest surprises for me in 2013 is that this year has lead to me doing a complete u-turn on my opinions of books based around war, in particular WWI and WWII, with special reservations for the latter. Having studied it so much at school and then read so, so, so many novels about it I guess I just felt there was nothing new to be found in it and actually that as a subject for me it was over done. Then I went and read HHhH by Laurent Binet, and indeed Magda by Meike Ziervogel, and the originality of the writing and the way the books were structured and what they were trying to say made them stand out and ignited my interest in the subject once again from the very different angles which they portray events. 

Vintage Books, 2012, hardback, 336 pages, translated by Sam Taylor, kindly sent by the publisher

Laurent Binet’s HHhH is a work which cleverly tells three stories. Firstly there is the story of Operation Anthropoid, which during WWII in 1942 saw two parachutists sent on a mission from the UK to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich. The second story is that of Heydrich himself and how he came to be the chief of the Nazi secret service and on of the most trusted and feared men in the regime. Thirdly it is also the story of a man called Laurent Binet who is trying to write a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, on Heydrich and Operation Anthropoid. If you think this meta-factional book sounds confusing then please don’t because it is actually utterly amazing and is a book likely to make you gasp, laugh and cry often within a few pages.

For some people the very idea of the author of a work popping into the text would be an annoyance regardless of the subject matter, with something as harrowing as the second world war it is a huge risk for Binet to take but one that I am so grateful he did as this is what stops it from becoming a book with just facts and figures, no personality, no emotion behind it and no real lasting effect. Binet’s narrative/writing has all of those things in abundance and what makes it all the more affective is that he writes the book from the first moment he really discovered the story of Operation Anthropoid when he discovered where it ended and we join him from that moment as his interest and intrigue are piqued and as he discovers more and more about these brave parachutists and this monster Heydrich, and all they do, we as the reader also become more and more engrossed.

There were still fresh traces of the drama that had occurred in this room more than sixty years before: a tunnel dug several yards deep; bullet marks in the walls and the vaulted ceiling. There were also photographs of the parachutists’ faces, with a text written in Czech and English. There was a traitors name and a raincoat. There was a poster of a bag and a bicycle. There was a Sten submachine gun (which jammed at the worst possible moment). All of this was actually in the room. But there was something else here, conjured by the story I read, that existed only in spirit.

I don’t think I have learnt so much about World War II from a book I have read in all my 31, nearly 32, years. Considering that I studied it for about five years in my history lessons at school this is quite something. I had no idea about some of the smaller but utterly fascinating facts behind this time period; that the Hitler wanted authors such as Aldous Huxley, Rebecca West, HG Wells and Virginia Woolf; that the Nazi’s built their own brothel (Kitty’s Salon) to film other Nazi’s to see if they were true to the regime or not. Nor did I know of some of the utterly horrific things, like what an ineffectual plonker Chamberlain was, the plans for Nazi attack cells in all the cities all over the UK and the horrendous atrocities such as Grandmothers Gully in Kiev.

Heydrich in Prague

This could have become too much and with all the descriptions of how Heydrich changed how Jews, and anyone who got in his way, were killed could simply have made me want to run away from the confrontational imagery that it depicts. Binet does something clever here, which could have easily epically failed him, by inserting a sort of light humoured alternative (or interrupting)voice of himself as he shows how farcical some of the Nazi’s idea’s were, and how far delusions of grandeur went, as well as interjecting his own voice about the nightmare of writing a book.

Of course I could, perhaps I should – to be like Victor Hugo, for example – describe at length, by way of introduction, over ten pages or so, the town of Halle, where Heydrich was born in 1904. I would talk of the streets, the shops, the statues, of all the local curiosities, of the municipal government, the town’s infrastructure, of the culinary specialities, of the inhabitants and the way they thin, their political tendencies, their tastes, of what they do in their spare time. Then I would zoom in on the Heydrich’s house: the colour of its shutters and its curtains, the layout of the rooms, the wood from which the living-room table is made. Following this would be a minutely detailed description of the piano, accompanied by a long disquisition of on German music at the beginning of the century, its composers and how their works were received, the importance of Wagner…and there, only at that point, would my actual story begin.  

As I said this is very risky some people might be put off by sections such as the above or lines such as Once again I find myself frustrated by my genre’s constraints. No ordinary novel would encumber itself with three characters sharing the same name – unless the author were after a very particular effect or All good stories need a traitor. Personally I thought it was brilliant. He both manages to show the horrors of the time and then also highlight with hindsight how utterly horrendous those horrors were, which gives the book a double whammy effect. He also holds your hand when things get tough in a way; you are going through this story and this time together and as his enthusiasm and admiration for the parachutists increases, along with his mounting anger at the Nazi regime, so do yours.

I found the ending of the book incredibly emotional and incredibly hard going but boy, oh boy, was I glad (which seems the wrong word, maybe thankful is better) to have gone through it. HHhH is one of those rare books which change your perceptions, where you feel your world has been altered by reading it. In Binet’s case (and I must here say a huge congrats to Sam Taylor with his translation and capturing the authors nuances) it made me not only think about the importance of remembering what happened in WWII he also reminded me of the importance of history and of how and why we need to keep telling these stories – and indeed the stories of how we tell these stories. Everyone should read this book; I think it should be on syllabuses in schools around Europe.

To hear more discussion on Laurent Binet’s HHhH listen to the first episode of Hear Read This where you can hear myself along with Gavin, Kate and Rob talking about it in more detail.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Laurent Binet, Review, Vintage Books

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

I don’t often wonder if I have got too comfortable in my literary tastes as I tend to think that I am quite eclectic in my choices of genres within fiction, though I am always aware I could really try and read more non-fiction. However when I picked up Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and began to read I discovered that whilst I might experiment in genre I am not really used to experimenting with prose, or indeed the many forms that a novel can take.

9780957185326

Galley Beggar Press, 2013, paperback, fiction, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It is not often that as a reader we realistically open a book and are almost instantly thrown by the text. The thing is in reality, the truth of the matter and all that, experimental fiction/literature is much more than what many describe it now; a complex plot, a book of unlikeable narrators or the occasional book written in verse. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is, from the very start a truly experimental piece of literature and one that from the start may put many an avid reader off as it throws you out of sync with what you are used to, I would urge every reader to be a little more adventurous and read on…

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skim she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

If you are anything like me, the words ‘what the blooming heck is that all about?’ might just have escaped your lips. I couldn’t work out what on earth was being said yet as I read it over and over (I suggest trying about four or five times) there is something lyrical, poetic and fluid about it that I then did the same for the next paragraph, and the next, and the next and slowly the story formed for me of a girl living with her Catholic mother and sick brother, who has a tumour all through his brain like the roots of trees’ and growing up in Ireland in an unnamed place and unspecific time.

McBride places us firmly in her equally unnamed narrators head, this is less someone telling us a story and more a case of just getting the stream of conscious as it forms in her head from the age of two and then leading into her formative years where she learns she can protect her brother from the cruelty of the world quite literally with herself, but in sheltering him from the pain she contains double herself and as we read on the way in which she deals with this is through sex, and preferably sex with violence hiding pain with more pain. She rebels, to put it mildly, yet in a country so religious she also has to deal with the shame, guilt and sin she feels (particularly when she takes her uncle, not by blood, as a lover) and so the cycle and confusion continues. It is confronting writing and a confronting set of subjects, yet has a raw beauty to it.

I met a man. I met a man. I let him throw me round the bed. And smoked, me, spliffs and choked my neck until I said I was dead. I met a man who took me for long walks. Long ones in the country. I offer up. I offer up in the hedge. I met a man I met with her. She and me and his friend to bars at night and drink champagne and bought me chips at every teatime. I met a man with condoms in his pockets. Don’t use them. He loves children in his heart. No. I met a man who knew me once. Who saw me round when I was a child. Who said you’re a fine looking woman now. Who said come back marry me live on my farm. No. I met a man who was a priest I didn’t I did. Just as well as many another one would. I met a man. I met a man.

There is much that I found impressive about this novel. Whilst there is no time specifically set within the book the sense of place and the religious and family traditions of Ireland, and how oppressive that could be depending on your beliefs and family situation, comes through completely. Our narrator is wild and rebellious, initially I found myself thinking ‘good on you’ before soon thinking quite the opposite, she never becomes dislikeable even though she does some rather concerning and dark things. One of the main themes of the book for me was the nature of evil, what been evil really means and why people judge themselves evil. Much food for thought there, in fact throughout the book you are made to question yourself and how you judge or deem her actions, nature or nurture – or lack of the latter?

Having read it I can completely understand why it won the inaugural Goldsmith’s Prize, which celebrates ‘fiction at its most novel’ and I think you would be hard pushed to find another novel this year, or indeed in the last several, that pushes the conventional sense of prose we are all used to. As I said it took me some time to get into it, a few paragraphs were re-read, some read aloud, but once I was in the rhythm of it I had to read it in one big gulp – the author has herself since told me that she recommends people read it fast. You are sure to find yourself speeding up to the climactic ending though as the character seems to unwind and unravel further and further, faster and faster.

I found A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing a book that confused, then compelled and finally confronted me. Not just because of the subject matter but also because it made me rethink the way I read. The abstract sentences and initially rather confusing style start to form a very clear, if quite dark, picture. You just need to reset your brain and allow it to do the work, or working in a different way. This is of course the point of prose after all, it shouldn’t always be spelt out just so and I hugely admire (and thank) Eimear McBride for writing such an original and startling book which will reward intrepid readers out there greatly.

For more on A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing you can hear myself and the author on the latest episode of You Wrote The Book.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Eimear McBride, Galley Beggar Press, Review