Category Archives: Viking Books

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The finale of the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction seems to have crept up on me all of a sudden. There is that space between the shortlist being announced in April and the winner being announced in June that feels like ages but whizzes by, or maybe I am just getting old? Anyway, I still have two of the shortlisted titles to review and the penultimate is The Power by Naomi Alderman who is one of those authors I have always meant to read yet for some reason or other haven’t. Now, having read her latest, I certainly will be.

9780670919987

Penguin Viking, hardback, 2016, fiction, 342 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Imagine a world where ‘power’ is literally within women’s hands. Sounds a damn site better than the world is at the moment with old President Tango and his chums over the water on one side and Captain Crazy and his nuclear testing on the other, oh yeah and that other one who hates gays but spends weekends riding around on horses topless with several other men. Sorry I seem to have digressed already, where was I? Oh yes, the book…

Young women around the world are waking up with something different ignited in them, literally, they have an electrical power of some kind which has lain dorment for decades is now running through their veins. Initially just one or two younger girls have it, yet soon it is many, many, many of them and what is more they can ignite the power within older women be it their mothers, aunts, teachers, co-workers. This is the world in which we are thrown into by Naomi Alderman, well technically Neil Adam Armon (more on him later) and a world we see through four sets of eyes.

There’s a crackling flash and a sound like a paper snapper. She can smell something a bit like a rainstorm and a bit like burning hair. The taste welling under her tongue is of bitter oranges. The short man is on the floor now. He’s making a crooning, wordless cry. His hand is clenching and unclenching. There is a long, red scar running up his arm from his wrist. She can see it even under the blond hairs, patterned like a fern, leaves and tendrils, budlets and branches. Her mum’s mouth is open, she’s staring, her tears are still forming.

First there is Roxy, who discovers she has the power in her hands when she and her mother find herself threatened at the hands of some gangsters, the outcome of the encounter leading her to look for revenge. Tunde, a young man from Nigeria, who works as a journalist and starts reporting/blogging/vlogging (Alderman embraces the digital world in this novel which I really, really liked and not many authors could pull off as well) as this new electric epidemic begins. We then have Margot, a middle-aged woman working in Government surrounded by men she could do the job a million times better than but due to the patriarchal society, ever the more concentrated in politics, has not risen as high as she could. Finally, we have Allie who after years of abuse uses her power to free herself in a murderous way, and once discovering how strong her power is starts a new kind of gang/cult/religion through the power of the internet, though which becomes ever the more a reality bringing girls with ‘the power’ together.

There’s one girl, Victoria, who showed her mother how to do the thing. Her mother, who, Victoria says as simply as if she were talking about the weather, had been beaten so hard and so often by Victoria’s stepdad that she hasn’t a tooth left in her head. Victoria woke the power up in her with a touch of her hand and showed her how to use it, and her mother threw her out into the street, calling her a witch.

There is a lot that I admire in The Power and the not too distant future world that Aldermen creates. There is the message of empowerment and equality which she looks at in the forefront and start of the book but what I admired more is that she takes it to another level. Many authors would create a world where all women use their power for good and the world becomes a harmonious place where ‘the power’ is used to right the wrongs and punish the bad. Which could be a possibility and, in many cases, is how young girls and women interact with this new-found ability at the start of the novel. However, power is a tricky beast regardless of gender, to use that famous phrase ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ yet also power can become an addictive trip and once people have power it can change them in many ways, women or men, girls or boys.

No one knows why; no one’s done enough research on the thing to venture a suggestion. She’s getting fluctuations. Some days she’s got so much power in her that she trips the house fuse box just turning on a light. Some days she has nothing, not even enough to defend herself if some girl picks a fight with her in the street. There are nasty names now for a girl who can’t or won’t defend herself. Blanket, they call them, and flat battery. Those are the least offensive ones.     

As The Power continues the sense of dread and horror mounts, partially as we get titles of parts of the book like ‘Can’t be more than seven months left’ but also as women start to use the power for their own gains, for revenge, to create terror and fear. We see with Roxy and Allie particularly what can happen when people get a power trip. We also see through Tunde’s eyes just how some women, almost in packs, take this power and use it for revenge. There was one particular scene which I found genuinely horrifying and still gives me the chills every time I think about it. As a reader you start the novel thinking ‘this is so cool’ and ‘those men deserve exactly what is coming to them’ and by the end you are left shocked by what some of the characters do, and not just to the men to other women too. Which hits you all the more when you remind yourself this is a fictional world and in the real world real men are doing these things all the time.

My only slight criticism of the book was that I wanted more narrators, not something I usually say and not something that is meant as a slight. I just wanted to see the world through even more eyes, particularly through the eyes of one of the women living in the woods, admittedly it would be a pretty twisted narration (you can’t say I am someone who doesn’t like an unlikeable character) and also more from Jo’s perspective. This is a minor issue but one I did think on more than one occasion. I think what I am really saying is I wanted more, which is always a good sign.

The Power is like the book equivalent of a rollercoaster, it gives you thrills and then terrifies you leaving you a bit winded and numb at the end – only just sat on your sofa. That is Alderman’s design, she creates a book that will hook you in, take you along at speed and won’t let go until you’re good and done and then leaves you to have a think about it all. This added to by the prologue and epilogue (the latter I won’t spoil but I thought it was a genius stroke) remember I told you about Neil Adam Armon? I will say no more other than I would highly recommend you go and read The Power, I will certainly be going to read more of Alderman’s books that’s for sure.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Naomi Alderman, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

One of the biggest joys of reading is the moment when you find a book that you know is going to remain one of favourite reads for years and years to come, if not the rest of your reading life. It may be that the prose simply sings to you, the subject matter may chime with something in your own life, it may hit you emotionally, or the characters walk off the page and into your brain nestling there leaving you thinking about them and their story long after you have finished the book. In the case of Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey’s debut novel, it was all of these things and more.

Penguin Viking Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Take two mysteries; the recent disappearance of one of your closest friends and the disappearance of a family member in the past, and tell their stories through an 82 year old narrator suffering from dementia and you might have a very confusing and rather daunting read ahead of you. Not in the case of Elizabeth is Missing which, as you may have guessed, is based around that exact premise.

From the start of the novel we meet Maud who, when she is not repeatedly going to the corner shop and buying more (and more) tinned peaches, is always finding notes in her pockets that remind her that her friend Elizabeth is missing. She may sometimes forget the name of the women who come and make her tea or clean her house but with these notes everywhere possible she cannot forget this and she must find out where she went, why her house is empty and why Elizabeth’s son never seems to care. At the start of the novel Maud also discovers a compact mirror, where we are not initially sure, which suddenly brings back the disappearance and mystery of what happened to her sister Sukey 70 years ago.

Whilst we find the mysteries fascinating and are eager to follow Maud as she tries to work it all out, giving the book the element of a thriller and mystery yet being very much a literary novel, those around her do not feel the same, in fact they find it infuriating.

Helen sighs again. She’s doing a lot of that lately. She won’t listen, won’t take me seriously, imagines that I want to live in the past. I know what she’s thinking, that I’ve lost my marbles, that Elizabeth is perfectly well at home and I just don’t remember having seen her recently. But it’s not true. I forget things – I know that – but I’m not mad. Not yet. And I’m sick of being treated as if I am. I’m tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused, and I’m bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen rather than listening to what I have to say. My heartbeat quickens and I clench my teeth.  I have a terrible urge to kick Helen under the table. I kick the table leg instead. The shiny salt and pepper shakers rattle against each other and a wine glass starts to topple. Helen catches it. ‘Mum,’ she says. ‘Be careful. You’ll break something.’

It is through this that Healey wonderfully creates both the angles of a double edged sword of Maud’s current situation, which alongside the mysteries at its heart create a stunningly crafted novel. On the one hand we feel for Maud both in terms of her utter assurance that her friend has gone missing and in the frustration she feels at forgetting things and not being believed. On the other we see how hard it is for the carers of someone and how tough it can be despite how much you might love them. The situation is written and described so honestly, sometimes you feel infuriated with Helen being infuriated with Maud, that it hits you with an emotional wallop.

Having personally been a carer for someone who was terminally ill and someone who used to visit their great uncle with dementia the book really struck chords with me but I think it would with any reader who has a heart to be frank. Healey doesn’t stop there though as she adds depths plus light and shade by giving Elizabeth is Missing both some darkly funny parts (I cackled) and also some utterly gut wrenching ones (I cried three times both times I read the book – yes I have read it twice I loved it so). One minute we will be laughing as Maud goes to buy another tin of peaches, then crying as she is unable to work out where home or her toilet is. Or laughing at a visit from the police before wanting to weep as her condition worsens, another devastating yet brilliant thing for Healey to show, and she realises she is forgetting those around her.

My stomach seems to have dissolved inside me. I didn’t know my own daughter, and it feels like a reproach to hear her call me Mum.

The star of the show is Healey’s writing; in her creation of such an unflinchingly vivid situation and putting us through all the emotions that come with it and her creation of Maud. Both as an elderly woman with dementia and as a young naïve girl in the (brilliantly created) 1940’s, she is one of my favourite characters in years and spending time with her was an absolute joy even when the book takes its darker twists. I still think of her and this book often.

In case you hadn’t guessed I think Elizabeth is Missing is an incredible novel. It is also a novel that looks at the elderly, of whom there are more and more as we live longer and longer and yet we seem to shy away from discussing. Emma Healey creates an insightful, funny, touching and often heart-breaking tale of Maud and the mysteries of her life in a world she is struggling to remember. I laughed. I cried. I wanted to start it all over again the moment I had turned the last page. Highly recommended, in fact I couldn’t recommend it more, easily one of my favourite books of the year. Read it.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Emma Healey, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

Bonkers – Jennifer Saunders

I don’t know about all of you but I am a much bigger fan of Boxing Day than Christmas Day, you still get all the food, chocolates and see relatives but it all feels calmer and less pressurised and you don’t have to worry about offending anyone if you go off into a corner and read a book. If you are anything like me the festive season is all about reading old favourites (some of the Armistead Maupin Tales of the City series), a good gripping crime or two (next read for me), and the celebrity memoir (I am just about to start Angelica Huston, or Jelly Who-who as I like to call her). One celebrity book that I can heartily recommend, and I do have rather a penchant for them on the sly, is Bonkers by Jennifer Saunders who I think gets it spot on.

Penguin Viking, 2013, hardback, autobiography, 292 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Unless you have been living in a cave or been on the moon since the 1980’s it is very unlikely you don’t know who Jennifer Saunders is. She was part of the Comic Strip before French and Saunders took over the telly box for many, many years. There has been Absolutely Fabulous (which The Beard is obsessed with, occasionally spending the day channelling Edina Monsoon – I know, I know), the Fairy Godmother in Shrek and my very favourite Jam & Jerusalem. Through all these we have come across a lot of Jennifer’s wonderful writing and yet she has always remained rather an enigma, this of course adds to the delight of wanting to read Bonkers. From the start you know you are going to enjoy what is to come.

I have been told that publishers these days like a particular type of memoir. They like a little bit of misery. They like a ‘mis mem’.
Well I am afraid I have had very little ‘mis’ in my life, and nowadays I have even less ‘mem’. So we can knock that one on the head.

Really Bonkers’ tagline gives it all away for you – ‘my life in laughs’ and as a reader you will spend many, many chapters just chortling away. Saunders seems to have chosen to write the funniest moments in her life as sketches that could be in a comedy show, or with subjects like cancer where she became ‘Brave Jen’ to the world she looks for the humour in even the darker parts of her life. She also knows what we ‘the reader’ really want to read about.

If you are standing in a bookshop and have accidentally picked me up (as it were), I can guess what you might be thinking. Oh no! Not another celebrity autobiog by someone cashing in on TV fame!
But let me tell you…
Yes! That is exactly what this is.
I realize they’re everywhere nowadays. Like a disease. But a lot of books out there are by babies. Biebers and Tulisas. They’ve only been awake a couple of years. Next we’ll have tiny foetuses writing books.
The thing that this one has going for it is that I am really quite old. I have also met quite a few celebs, which is always a good sales point. I was told to stuff it with celebs and royalty and a touch of sadness.

 So unlike some memoirs  that I can think of, where the writer spends at least a chapter on every audition they tried and failed at from the age of three until fame came a knocking, or how they spent seventy pages picking the perfect dress to wear for a party when they went to their first celeb bash etc, we get an insight into Jennifer’s childhood, some of her first trips away (one which has a link with Ernest Hemmingway and inspired Edina Monsoon), how she met Dawn French and how that initially didn’t go as we might expect, how she felt about making shows on her own, her dealing with fame, dealing with cancer, dealing with children getting older, all with some lovely celeby stories and lots and lots of giggling along the way.

I also felt I got to know her a little bit better, and as she has said herself these are the sort of stories you tell at dinner parties, they aren’t the most intimate of moments but stories you share with people you are getting to know. Interestingly her letters to Joanna ‘Jack’ Lumley, or faxes, and her thoughts on cancer and on the Spice Girls musical closing (not to compare the two) show her at her most natural and funny and honest and rather vulnerable, in both cases letting us in all the more.

So a big recommendation for Bonkers, which I think is the most suiting of titles, if you are a fan then you will have already got your mitts on a copy, or found it in your stocking a few days ago maybe? If not then when you next head to your local bookshop, which of course we all do with our book tokens (I got some woo-hoo) after Christmas, then you might want to add this to the ‘pile of joyous books to read over the festive period’ that I am sure we all have on our bedside tables at the moment.

If you want to hear more about the book, and have a few more giggles, then you can hear Jennifer and I having a pre-Christmas natter on the latest episode of You Wrote The Book here.

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Filed under Jennifer Saunders, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

Ghana Must Go – Taiye Selasi

There has been a lot of buzz; I don’t want to say hype as that is always an off putting word, building around debut novelist Taiye Selasi in the last few months. She became one of the Waterstones 11 authors this year, there were murmured Man Booker predictions around blogs and forums and then this week she was announced as one of Granta’s Best of British Young Novelists. We also learn that her first published short story was written due to a deadline given to her by none other than Toni Morrison. Therefore, before you have even turned the first page, you might have been put off reading ‘Ghana Must Go’ because of the buzz or be expecting something that will completely blow you away. Well, I am about to add to the buzz because I was completely bowled away, and my expectations were high.

***** Viking Books, hardback, 2013, fiction, 318 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

They say that death is the end, in the case of ‘Ghana Must Go’ it is the beginning as in the very first paragraph we find Kweku Sai dying in his garden, he proceeds to die for the next chapter and indeed then for the first ninety-three pages, which is also the first section, of the book. This is a very clever writing device of Selasi’s because, again as we are told is the case, parts of Kweku’s life start to flash before his eyes and what we learn of is a man who tried hard to create a life for his family away from Ghana, in America, and who failed and fled abandoning them all when he did so.

That in itself could be enough story to fill a large novel, Selasi some manages to tell his story but also the ripples and repercussions that have come from that event several decades later and how his family must reunite and face the past and the memories it brings upon learning of their estranged father’s death.

 “Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs. At the moment he is on the threshold between sunroom and garden considering whether to go back and get them. He won’t. His second wife Ama is asleep in that bedroom, her lips parted loosely, her brow lightly furrowed, her cheek hotly seeking some cool patch of pillow, and he doesn’t want to wake her.
He couldn’t if he tried.”

‘Ghana Must Go’ is a book almost overflowing with themes and ideas, in fact sometimes you are amazed at how one story, and one family no matter how estranged, can create all the questions and thoughts that run through your head as you read. The main theme for me was acceptance; how we want to feel accepted by our family no matter how different from them we might be, how we seek acceptance in the place we choose to live and yet want the continued acceptance of where we are from, acceptance in society and most importantly acceptance of ourselves – oddly probably the hardest thing of all.

Home is another theme. It has been well documented that Selasi herself has moved around a lot; born in the UK where she returned to study some of the time, lived in Brookline in the USA, spent time in Switzerland and Paris, now lives in Rome and visits Ghana and Nigeria frequently. As I read ‘Ghana Must Go’ for the first time ever it occurred to me that home isn’t the building you place the label on but it is literally, cliché alert, where the heart is and that is because really you are your own home and the people you surround yourself with make different walls and a ceiling at different times. See, it really, really had me thinking and yet this is all done without bashing these ideas over your head or making the novel a huge epic tome, they just form as you follow the Sai families story.

It is also a book about consequences. Some thinks happen to us and we are obviously conscious of the consequences, in this case Kweku’s death in the present and his abandonment in the past and how it affected his wife Fola and their children both initially and as the years go on. Yet there are also the consequences of things that ripple through we might not think, for example with Fola and the Biafra war and how that changes her life or how our parents and grandparents might have acted or not acted upon things.

What I loved so much about ‘Ghana Must Go’ was that at its very heart it is the beautifully written and compelling tale of a fractured and dysfunctional family and the characters and relationships within it and also a book that really looks at, and gets us thinking, about so much more. It is a book filled with hidden depths and one that left me feeling a real mixture of emotions; heartache, shock, horror and also hope. At a mere 318 pages I think that is an incredible accomplishment and am very much in agreement with anyone else who thinks Taiye Selasi is one author to most definitely watch out for.

If you would like to find out more about the book I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with Taiye last week and she is the latest author on You Wrote The Book here (I think it is my favourite interview so far, if I am allowed to have favourites?) so do have a listen. Who else has read ‘Ghana Must Go’ and if so what did you make of it? Is this book on your periphery at the moment? What are your thoughts on buzz and hype?

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Filed under Books of 2013, Review, Taiye Selasi, Viking Books

Anatomy of a Disappearance – Hisham Matar

I know that deep down a book cover doesn’t matter, but we all have to admit that we can fall for a book without reading the blurb or even a word of it because we have fallen under the covers spell when we set out eyes upon it. This was the case when my eyes fell upon ‘Anatomy of a Disappearance’ by Hisham Matar. I knew nothing of the author, I knew nothing about the book, and yet it was a book I simply had to read. I also think I fell under the spell of the title too. Of course this could have ended up with me being really let down, however I was left spell bound as I devoured the book in a single sitting.

If a book had an emotion then I think the one word that you could conjure up when finishing ‘Anatomy of a Disappearance’ is longing. As we follow the story of Nuri, who is on holiday in Alexandria with his father, who has recently been bereaved by the death of his mother. Here he befriends a foreign woman (who is set alight from the first scene by her bright yellow swimsuit) Mona, a young woman who he soon becomes rather obsessed with before learning that his father has very similar feelings. Of course Nuri only being a boy at the time knows this can lead nowhere yet that doesn’t stop him from being romantic about the whole situation, for his father though it is a different matter. Things are of course going to get complicated and initial problems between father and son since Nuri’s mothers death start to become darker, even bitter.

“She was twenty-six, Father forty-one and I twelve: fifteen years separated them, and fourteen separated her from me. He scarcely had any more right to her than I did. And the fact that Mother was also twenty-six when she and Father had married did not escape me. It was as if Father was trying to turn back the clock.”

If this wasn’t enough to keep a story brimming with tension Matar adds several more strands which simmer in the background. One of the strands is that of Nuri’s fathers place in the past history of Libya where he was the right hand man to a King who was subsequently assassinated leaving him forced to flee to France. This opens a big background underlying subplot about the state the family is in, how they have made the money they have and where they have ended up. There are also two slight mysteries. Nuri’s mothers death leaves some open ended questions and there is also the fact that when the book initially opens, before this fateful holiday, Nuri has told us somewhere in the future sat by Lake Geneva with Mona that his father has strangely disappeared. All these things bubble away in the background as you read on which is incredibly satisfying to have unfolding in the pages in your hands.

It also to me showed what a stunning writer Matar is. I hadn’t heard of him before despite my interest in the Man Booker, for which he was shortlisted with his debut novel ‘In The Country of Men’ in 2006. Yet having done some research after reading the book I discovered that his own father disappeared several decades ago (which he wrote about in the Guardian here) and this seems to be an outpouring of some of that. Not that that should take anything away from this book by the way or Matar’s prose. His writing is exquisite, not a phrase I tend to use very often, and is clearly designed to say the maximum in a minimal way yet effortlessly without force. There is much going on in the book and switches in time and he gives the reader enough information to grasp at the unsaid which he trusts the reader will work out and question.

‘Anatomy of a Disappearance’ felt like one of those rare books you more than just read. You live it. You learn it, and in my case I went off afterwards and learnt far more about it once I had finished. It’s a short book with so much to say I would be amazed if anyone who reads it isn’t left thinking about it or even starting it all over again after their first reading. I am inclined to agree with Dovegreyreader who after reading it tipped it as an early possible Man Booker contender. I certainly would be happy to see it there. 9.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

I am now of course rather eager to get my hands on ‘In The Country of Men’ have any of you read it and what did you think? Do you know any other fictional books based in, about or around the after effects of events in Libya and its history?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Hisham Matar, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

Great House – Nicole Krauss

When I saw that ‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss (which in my head rhymes, should it?) had made the Orange long list I went off and did some research on it and though ‘eurgh’. The reasons for this were thrice fold, first was the fact every review seemed to say it was a book about a desk (which didn’t fill me intrigue or hope), second was a mention that it jumped from strand to strand like one of my nemesis reads ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell and thirdly its scope seemed to wide. How could a book manage to cover the gaps of New York, London, Jerusalem, Paris, Nuremberg, Chile whilst also fitting in the subjects of holocaust, Alzheimer’s, incest and much more? It was going to be a brick of a book that I was going to really, really struggle with wasn’t it? Well I was wrong on both counts, as I discovered when it arrived in the post and I read it only pausing to catch my breath with a cup of tea now and then.

I was expecting that when ‘Great House’ arrived through my letter box it would make itself known with a loud thud that would leave a dent in the hall. Instead a much slimmer volume of 289 pages arrived leaving me slightly non-plussed, yet Nicole Krauss’s latest novel is a book where its size is extremely deceptive and has so much in its 289 pages that I already know I am going to be struggling really hard to convey just how much happens and just how clever this novel is in any form of ‘book thoughts’ I now type.

I have to address the thoughts I had read, prior to picking up the book itself, that this book evolves around a 19 drawer desk. The idea that any item of furniture could hold four very different stories across decades and continents both intrigued me and completely put me off in one go. Yet actually this is possible, every heirloom has a tale and so therefore does every antique. I personally couldn’t go as far as to say that ‘Great House’ is a book about a desk or that the desk is the lead character, in fact the desk gets a mere sentence in the first half of one of the books inner tales ‘True Kindness’.

What I would say is that Nicole Krauss has used a desk to draw, if you will excuse the pun, four compelling tales together – which in their own ways do weave in and out of each other anyway, well, sort of! Krauss only hints at how in each of the parts initial halves but in such a way it teased me to read on and see if I could grab the lose threads and for a fuller picture. This is a clever and compelling tool; a literary book where you find yourself turning the pages in need of finding out more.

So what are these stories? Well the first tells of a novelist Nadia, living in New York, and how she (back before her career really took off) came to be the owner, through a friend of a friend, of all the Chilean poet Daniel Varsky’s furniture including his desk, the desk that she then goes on to write her many novels on thereafter. She also spends a single night with Daniel, a night that stays with her long after as he sends postcards until suddenly they stop and she discovers he has been taken, arrested and tortured by Pinochet back in Chile. From there Daniel goes on to haunt her and when she receives a call asking for his furniture back Nadia begins to unravel and we are left on a cliff hanger as Nadia contemplates a huge change in her life which we will come back to later, this is the narrative jumping I feared would leave me cold, it hooked me in.

Next we find ourselves in Israel as a father talks internally to his son, a son who has returned from England where he is a judge for his mother’s funeral after leaving the family behind several years before. It’s a bitter and occasionally rather uncomfortable narrative looking at how parents don’t always love the children that they have, in fact sometimes it can be quite the opposite. From here we then move to England where the final two narrators, and in some ways pieces of Krauss’s carefully crafted puzzle, are based.

We have Arnold who is looking back on the life of his wife, another author, Lotte. A woman who always wanted her freedom to be hers and her past, she hails from 1930’s Germany, to remain a secret if at all possible – in fact she rarely mentions it in her work, interviews or personal conversations, even with her husband. Slowly secrets of hers are unlocked in stops and starts as her husband learns much more about her when her Alzheimer’s starts to reveal all as they grow old together. Finally there is Izzy who tells her tale of the relationship she has with brother Yoav Weisz, one which seemed doomed from the start with his domineering father George (and antique collector) and the unusually close relationship with his rather jealous sister Leah. You couldn’t get four more different stories and yet Krauss magically and, to put it frankly, effortlessly does make them connect.

How exactly? Well if I told you that you wouldn’t read the book now would you, and I am going to urge that you do so but it might have something to do with the desk! It also has a lot to do with doubt, what we pass on to others and how we move forward in life!

It’s interesting that I love the idea of books that tell completely different stories that have an underlying arch between them all, why do I therefore dread them at the same time, well because often they don’t work. ‘Great House’ works, in fact it works wonderfully. The characters Krauss creates all instantly lend themselves as storytellers who you want to listen to the narrations and memories of, several of them are writers so that could help but then again Aaron, who is one of the strongest narratives for his bitterness, doesn’t like writing. In fact he is very insular which only made his narrative all the more interesting for me. The writing is compelling and also lyrical with sparkles of humour in unlikely places. I was expecting a much more subdued book and while it’s not laugh out loud funny, it is quite sombre really, or an easy read it’s very readable too.

I am sure you can easily tell, from the amount I have already written, that I could go on and on about ‘Great House’. I will stop and simply say read it. It’s a clever and insightful novel, a tale with four tales to tell, and one that will stick with you once you have turned the final page. Not only is it incredible for all its subject matters and the characters but for the fact you might have just read a near perfect novel. 9.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publishers.

So one of the books I was, if I am totally honest, rather fearful of has become one of my favourite reads of the year. It would be easy for me to know say ‘this should win the Orange’ but actually I am only 4/20 down, I can only hope the long list throws many more books like this in my direction. Books that get you fired up and excited about reading. I haven’t read either of her other novels and am now thinking I should… should I? Is she as an exciting author as this book promises? Has anyone else read ‘Great House’? I know it has received a mixed bag of reviews so would be interested in hearing more thoughts from you all, has anyone been as nervous/wary of it as I was?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Nicole Krauss, Orange Prize, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

Legend of a Suicide – David Vann

It seems strange to me that two of the best books I have read in 2009 have been within the last few weeks of it. I am also going to possibly sound like a stuck record when I tell you that my second book review this week is down to Kimbofo once again as she gave me a copy of David Vann’s ‘Legend of a Suicide’ at one of our Book Group meetings after I banged on about how much I wanted to read it on her blog. Though book gifts are always welcome there is then that awkwardness of making sure you read it asap (or in this case within three months of getting it) and then after that what happens if you don’t enjoy it? I wouldn’t know the latter this time luckily as Legend of a Suicide is marvellous, if again another difficult book to capture in words. What is it with these reviews this week, is the end of 2009 testing me?

Legend of a Suicide is less a novel and more a collection of five short stories and one novella sandwiched between them. All the stories here deal with the same subject of a father’s suicide, the effects it has on him and those around him leading up to the event and in the aftermath of it. This is a subject close to the author David Vann’s heart as his father killed himself when he was younger. Though not a work based on his own life the emotions and thoughts are very much in every page of the novel making it quite an affecting book as well as an unsettling one.

Even though each tale is quite different they are all based around Roy and his father or the effects his father has on him and others in varying ways. The first take Ichthyology looks at life through a younger Roy’s eyes as he watches his parents break up and has to deal with it by becoming interested in fish (fish is a theme throughout the book though I am not sure why). However its also an insight to his father and the life he has ended up with that this tale really brings home before the deed in the title is done. Rhoda, the second story, is about Roy’s father’s second wife and the relationship they all have giving you further insight into his life and mind. This tale actually made me laugh quite a lot and seemed darkly comical. The third instalment is also witty; A Legend of Good Men is all about all the men who his mother dates who come and go ‘like the circuses that passed through our town’.

Then comes the novella, we what I think is a novella, in the shape of Sukkwan Island. This tale is so well written and delivers such a punch half way through, I wont say anymore than I had to read the paragraph three times before I could believe what I had just read, that sadly the follow up tales Ketchikan (a tale of his fathers past as Roy revisits) and The Higher Blue (an idealisation of everything) fell a little flatter than they might have. However having said that you need all these isolated tales blanketing the middle novella for it all to work.

Sukkwan Island is just amazing writing, differing from the first person narrative of the rest of the book and written in third person, I don’t think I could put it any other way. It evolves around a year long excursion into the wild for father and son in the Alaskan wilderness. I can see why people have compared him to Cormac McCarthy though I would put this tell as a cross between McCarthy’s The Road and Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ its remarkable, shocking and breathtaking all at once. I was horrified by it yet fascinated and mesmerised by it all at once. I read it in one sitting and couldn’t put it down.

It’s a remarkable book in so many ways, I think Vann has put all his emotions into it which therefore cannot help but pour out of the page and into the reader which is quite an experience and one that you don’t get too often. Will it make it into my Best of 2009 tomorrow? You will have to wait and see. The only reason that it might not is that I haven’t had long enough away from it to let it all settle (even the unsettling bits) with me yet, but you may very well see it in there. Who else has read this, who really wants to? I can fully recommend it.

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Filed under Books of 2009, David Vann, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books