Now these are jolly nice looking covers. And Dragons!
I know when I meet a good book, when I find myself blogging quotations from it. Doerr’s language is wonderfully sensuous and rich. So far, the story of Marie-Laure has resonated more than Werner’s
Color – that’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel. It’s scientists are lilac, lemon yellow and fox brown. Piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues down the hall towards the key pound. Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver; pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden. The huge cypress trees she and her father pass on their morning walk are shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of light.
“You know how diamonds – how all crystals – grow, Laurette? By adding microscopic layers, a few thousand atoms every month, each atop the next. That’s how stories accumulate too. All the old stories accumulate stories. That little rock you’re so curious about may have seen Alaric sack Rome; it may have glittered in the eyes of Pharoahs. Scythian queens might have danced all night wearing it. Wars might have been fought over it.”
Okay, so I uploaded a photo of the Longlist a couple of week or so ago. This photo here, from The Guardian:
What I thought I’d do is read the first page of each and give me humble thoughts. So, firstly, the beautifully bound The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth.
“It’s very hard to read”
and my wife’s was
“There’s crappy spelling.”
It appears that Kingsnorth has set this, his debut novel, specifically in 1066. I have no problem with historical fiction: I love Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies as well as Jim Crace’s Harvest and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, last year’s winner, both of which were historical. C J Sansom, Shardlake series are fully enjoyable. But none of these attempted this faux-archaic language as the novel
is written entirely in its own language: my interpretation of Old English, recreated for modern eyes and ears.
Well, that’s jolly clever; it is a brave decision. And, I think, a wrong decision. The story, according to Kingsnorth’s website is set during the Norman invasion as an Englishman’s familiar world is destroyed by the invaders, which is no doubt represented by the “great wind” in the opening page when “all wolde be blaec after and for all time”. Which does sound very similar to Crace’s narrative from last year’s Shortlist.
But why create that language barrier between your reader and what sounds like a gripping story? I have a Literature degree from Cambridge; I’ve studied Chaucer. And it’s not an easy read! To say the least. And not only that, but eliminating all words of a French-Latinate etymology may create an earthy narrative voice but is also likely to adversely affect the lyricism of the writing.
I may be wrong.
I hope I’m wrong because it does sound like it could be a great story.
But I imagine it will be one of those books many people start from a sense of obligation and never finish.
Next, let’s look at Orfeo by Richard Powers.
Now I bought this one in paperback rather than (or actually in addition to) electronically for one simple reason: I’d locked myself out of the house and had to pass a couple of hours in Costa before Mrs P came home to let me back in! So I have read a bit more of this than the others.
It brings us back to the modern day: our protagonist is a retired music professor with a hobbyist’s interest in biochemistry. Which, following the death of his dog, attracts the attention of Homeland Security and he finds himself investigated as a potential bioterrorist. A good premise with the potential for a lot of comedy, actually!
In this opening page, we do come across mismatched jargons: musical and chemical (lexuses? lexi? lexa? lexus?) vocabularies dance together as the
nucleotides … fall in line like enlisted men for a five am reveille
and there’s a certain charm to the description of the pipetting of
no more colorless liquid than a hoverfly might take from a sprig of bee balm
albeit that droplet is then described – somewhat clumsily in my opinion – as a “dollop” in the next line. To me, a dollop is a large quantity of something thrown somewhat carelessly about. It puts me in mind of a prison (or school) canteen serving mashed potato. It sounds almost onomatopoeic, even if its original meaning was more pastoral. In any event, it jars with the description of the droplet.
The narrative continues to interweave the current misunderstanding with Homeland Security with a Bildungsroman of Els childhood and education. It’s enjoyable enough: unlike Kingsnorth’s novel, I got through a fair proportion of it in the 90 minutes I had. I suspect my lack of knowledge of music, rhythm and chemistry may be to blame, but I wasn’t gripped by it. The narrative voice was a little distant for my liking.
Moving on to The Lives Of Others by Neel Mukherjee.
Now, I have only read the first page of this so, beyond the blurb I have no idea of where the novel is going. But there’s a power to that opening page which I love: the harshness of the sun that “burns his blood dry” and the irony of his “lingering grain of hope” for the monsoon. There’s a sparseness to the sentences here which captures the harshness of the world and which isn’t undermined by that metaphorical imagery.
The blurb for this one describes it as
An epic saga telling the story of a Bengali family in Calcutta – exploring a family that is decaying as the society around it fractures, and one young man who tries to reimagine his place in the world.
From this, I anticipate a contrast and conflict between the abject poverty that we see in this opening page and the opulence of, perhaps the ruling classes. I do have a penchant for Indian Literature and post-colonial writing from Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Rohinton Mistry, V. S. Naipaul, Vikram Chandra and Arundhati Roy to name a few. So, this one I’m looking forward to seeing on the Shortlist.
It feels like it has been a while since there was a non-Anglo-Saxon Man Booker winner (was it Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger?)
Next is The Narrow Road To The Deep North which is an lovely title and conjured up images of journeys into a mythical and rather British past. Which would be completely and utterly wrong.
tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a wartime love affair with his uncle’s wife. Post war, he finds his growing celebrity as a war hero at odds with his sense of his own failings and guilt.
Again, there is a vividness to the imagery here which is delicious: the description of the crying’s rhythm as a noise which
reminded him of a rabbit’s hind legs thumping the ground as it is strangled by a snare
is particularly striking but what I love in this opening page is the unfolding of the memory: light interrupted by shadow which becomes a shape, then an arm, then a person.
Our final two nominees – the last two that I have anyway – appear to be curiously similar: two somewhat rambling Bildungsromans written from the point of view of two female characters.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler opens not dissimilarly to The Narrow Road To The Deep North as our narrator tell us of her first memory, preserved in a home movie.
There is something beautiful about the way this simple home movie slides into the profundity of a fairytale, the worthless piece of quartz transforms in memory and imagination to a diamond. And perception and the language used to create and convey that perception may be important in this novel: what we don’t realise from this page is that the sister is a chimpanzee.
Meet the Cooke family: Mother and Dad, brother Lowell, sister Fern, and our narrator, Rosemary, who begins her story in the middle. She has her reasons. “I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact: that I was raised with a chimpanzee,” she tells us. “It’s never going to be the first thing I share with someone. I tell you Fern was a chimp and already you aren’t thinking of her as my sister. But until Fern’s expulsion, I’d scarcely known a moment alone. She was my twin, my funhouse mirror, my whirlwind other half, and I loved her as a sister.”
There is a Q & A session with Karen Joy Fowler on the book and her ideas for it here.
The book which has most caught my eye, ear and imagination, though, is this one:
There’s an interview with Niall Williams about this book on Radio 4’s Open Book here.
We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling.
This is a book steeped in language and literature and teeming with vivid imagery
the throat of the river laughed, realising what a peculiar thing was a father and daughter
and a genuinely joyful comedic language. The episode where Jesus is stolen from the Nativity is wonderful:
By this time the whole school was on the side of the kidnappers and false sightings were announced hourly. Jesus was in the Chemistry Lab. He was in the Girls’ Changing Room before Games. He was taking French Oral with the Sub Miss Trigot.
That lad is everywhere, Thomas Halvey said.
He is eventually replaced for Mass with “a lamb on whose forehead someone had taped the word ‘Jesus’.”
This book has a lyricism that makes it stand out: the sparkle of a real diamond. As well quirky self-aware narrator. It seems to explore and tease the heart of any writing: the relationship between the writer and reader. It reminds me of nothing so much as The Life And Times Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, along with a smattering of Dickens, both of whom are explicitly referenced in the text itself.
Is it a little too knowing and smug? Is the description of Faha a little too cliched and romanticised? A little too Sunday Evening television? Possibly some people would think so but nothing has grated on me so far. It is a book that has sung.
So, my rank list so far would look like this:
1. Niall Williams, History Of The Rain
2. Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
3. Neel Mukherjee, The Lives Of Others
4. Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road To The Deep North
5. Richard Powers, Orfeo
6. Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake
However, this is an incredibly superficial assessment of only a portion of the books on the Longlist.
Good luck to you all!
I am shocked. Genuinely shocked.
And then dismayed at the world form being so self-centred that a small act of generosity can shock me.
Patrick Ness is a multiple Carnegie award winning author – and I’m sure winner and nominee in numerous other awards too. I’m not going to say that he’s a Young Adult author: he is just an author. For us all. His novels range from science fiction to mythic magic realism to genuine emotion. His A Monster Calls still gets me: lump in throat, eyes prickling kind of getting.
Anyways… Patrick Ness’ trilogy Chaos Walking is brilliant: a wonderfully realised universe; fully rounded and engaging characters; a fabulous balance between action and emotion. And in addition to the three books of the trilogy, there are three short stories filling in some of the gaps in this fantastic world.
Available for free.
Three original shirt stories from a truly exceptional writer.
Why did I not know of this before?
Stop reading this; read them!
2013 drags itself damply and limply to an end this week. Unlike Dr Who, whose Matt Smith incarnation went out on Christmas Day with a bang, the final days of 2013 remind me of the lines from Eliot
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Anyway, I thought that I would bring the year to a close with a review of 2013 in books. And, to preface, this is books read by me in 2013 rather than written in 2013. There are still some 2013 books I’ve not got round to reading yet: The Luminaries and Jim Crace’s Harvest among them.
So. Here goes.
Top of my list is the Man Booker shortlisted A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.
Utterly compelling and intriguing narrative voices, engaging characters, thoughtful, thought provoking and haunting. It is a book about reading and the relationship between reader and writer and genuinely made me think. And as my family and students will tell you, I try to avoid that if necessary! My somewhat gushing review is here as is a link to what happens when you gush too much about your book, here.
Second place on this wholly subjective list would go to Neil Gaiman whose beautiful Ocean At The End Of The Lane was powerful, touching, mythic and domestic all at the same time.
And a rollicking good read! Again, my review of it is here.
And at number three, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.
Unexpected, tender, utterly humane. Simply a genuinely lovely book about an ordinary man and his ability to simple journey to say goodbye to an old friend who is dying. There were so many ways this could have become cloying or sentimental or just go wrong… but Rachel Joyce judged everything perfectly! Another link to my review.
Ali Shaw’s The Girl With Glass Feet certainly needs a mention. As I do this I question whether ranking them has value… Maybe just my top ten. I also realised that February was a great month for my reading!
I loved this book: again it was remarkably tender and quiet and personal and with a remarkable sensitivity to light. The descriptions were gorgeous – especially of the glass feet themselves. Yes it is that literal a title! My review of this modern fairy tale is here.
I think The Woman in Black by Susan Hill needs a mention too. A great book with a cracking plot and so consciously crafted by Hill’s own apparent delight in the gothic. It has been an ideal book to teach simply because of that conscious crafting of language. And also genuinely chilling and creepy. Some notes on it can be found here and here.
The film adaptation of The Woman In Black was, however, a massive disappointment… which leads me onto another of my books of 2013 which also had a really bad film: World War Z by Max Brooks.
The book is your standard zombie-fare: for unknown reasons, the dead rise and kill and convert much of humanity before the human race makes a stand. What I enjoyed about it – and what was taken out of the film – was the multitude of voices and stories which took an unmanageably large global narrative and reduced it down to domestic individual stories. My original blog, follow the link.
And 2013 was a good year for the undead for me: Justin Cronin’s first two books of The Passage trilogy were a powerfully and occasionally lyrical post-apocalyptic vampiric vision with one massively evocative protagonist, Amy Harper Bellafonte. The US military discover a virus capable of imbuing great strength and healing and predictably attempt to create a super soldier serum which in fact creates vampires who – somewhat inevitably – take over the world. My review of The Passage is here and the slightly less satisfying The Twelve is here.
To continue I do want to include the Man Booker shortlisted Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín.
. This is a hauntingly sad novel of the gospel story of Christ from the point of view of his mother trying to deal with the crushing fact of his death. I just wish I’d read this without having seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian! My review is here.
Finally, I’ll mention Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett just because it is by Terry Pratchett and therefore a ways going to be a great big fun read! My review of this is here.
And what will be my first books of 2014?
Well, I’ve just bought The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Ooooo that was more complicated than expected!!
Mrs P is pregnant and lacking in iron and gets rather tired rather early of an evening. Rather than leave her lonely and isolated upstairs, I like to retire up to bed with her. But the external light on my Sony ereader is rather bright and illuminates the room like a miniature solar flare! So I wondered whether reading on my iPhone would be less obtrusive for her.
Do you see what a good husband I am here? Supportive and considerate.
So I set about today trying to work out how to transfer the 5000+ books I have on Calibre (brilliant library app!) to iTunes (clunky, ubiquitous and hegemaniacal – my own word and I like it! It means “maniacally seeking hegemony”). Having owned an iPhone now for nearly two years I don’t think I have ever opened my iTunes before today!
The Connect/Share button on Calibre includes an option to Connect to iTunes.
There now seems to be two levels of selection to transfer them actually onto the phone!
I may have got this wrong but it seems to work if I select the books I want on the iTunes list as seen in the last picture.
Then, connecting the iPhone itself and clicking on the iPhone Books tab you can select which books to sync in a second box ticking exercise.
And there we have it: 1737 of my 5047 books transferred to iTunes (my library is desperately in need of pruning!); and a paltry 388 transferred to my phone, taking up 295 MB and available on the iBooks app.
And the experience of reading on a phone? I’ve held out against it for a long long time grumbling primarily about its stupid tiny screen and its backlight is so bad for your eyes and it’s not like real reading…
But actually it was fine.
Mrs P slept undisturbed, step-son continued to ignore all requests and suggestions to sleep, my eyes neither bled nor blurred, the book continued to make sense. Life continued as normal.
Yes, the screen is tiny and you do need to page-turn very frequently. But it was actually smaller lighter and more one-hand friendly than the Sony.