Tag Archives: The Luminaries

My Year In Books: Best Reads of 2014

It’s that time of year again: the last day before New Year. As with last year, it’s time to look back and consider the books I’ve read.

This post will deal with my favourite reads this year. Worst reads (of which there weren’t that many!) will come later – follow this link to see them! So this is, I suppose, like the Booker Prize… Except that there’s no money on offer… And that these are books read in rather than published in the last year.

So not very much like the Man Booker at all really! Although there will be some overlapping books.

Right let’s aim for a top five.

#5 The Golem and The Djinni by Helene Wecker was actually my first read of the year! Beautiful depictions of immigrant cultures to New York and compelling on many levels: sociological, fantastical, personal and a rollicking good plot!

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#4 Room by Emma Donoghue. A powerful and poignant story of a mother and child brought up in the most appalling situation as captives. Donoghue said she wanted to create that story at a distance from the horror and terror of the kidnapping when rituals had been established and tedium set in. And the most beautifully realised child’s voice I’ve read.

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#3 Harvest by Jim Crace which was a Man Booker nominee in 2013 – as Room was in 2010. An absolutely astounding evocation of a moment in time and a wonderfully breathy summery feel to it which makes it wonderful to recall in this grey weather.

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#2 The History Of The Rain by Niall Williams.

I really did love this book, a Man Booker longlist nominee. I loved the poetry of the language, the literariness of it, the humour and humanity.

Just absolutely wonderful.

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#1 The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton.

I only came upon this book and Catton because of her Booker-winning The Luminaries which was also wonderful. But for me The Rehearsal was sublime. It was coruscating and complex and writhed like a snake under the reader’s eyes. Exquisitely discomforting.

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Ahhh… But now I’m already worrying about this list. Am I happy with the order? Should The Luminaries have been included? What of all the other books that were great but I’ve not included.

So a handful of honourable mentions, perhaps?

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

More Than This by Patrick Ness

Good Omens by Messrs Pratchett and Gaiman

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The Man Booker Prize Longlist

Okay, so I uploaded a photo of the Longlist a couple of week or so ago. This photo here, from The Guardian:

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Since then, I’ve managed to get my hands on half a dozen of the list. Not read them yet but I’ve got hold of them!

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.

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IMG_5100-0.JPG No prizes for guessing the most obvious thing here! As I fear many people would say, my stepson’s response was

“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.

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IMG_5092.JPG 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.

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IMG_5098.JPG 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.

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The novel by Richard Flanagan

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.

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IMG_5104.JPG 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:

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Our narrator here is Ruth Swain, sick with some undefined illness and closeted in the attic room recounting her and her family’s lives as well as searching for her father amongst the books.

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!

Back to the blog…

Good golly it’s been a long time since I added to this blog!

Blame a hectic – nay, traumatic – time at work.

Blame the demands placed on time by a nearly eleven-month old baby.

Blame anything but my own laziness!

Perhaps an excess of humility made me doubt whether anyone was actually reading my blog; and whether it was fair to impose my thoughts and ramblings and meanderings on anyone else.

Anyway, it is now half term and the weather is starting to feel distinctly summery. Currently, to finish my half term, I am sitting in the sun, outside Costa nursing both a Red Berry Cooler and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, Man Booker winner, and looking forward to the chocolate fudge cake waiting at home.

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Now, on the subject of The Luminaries, I am absolutely loving it! There are some negative reviews around complaining that Catton tells rather than shows us her characters – which she does – but that’s not been a barrier to her characters for me. The New Zealand township is one of the most vivid, alive settings I’ve come across. Not necessarily realistic. But vivid and alive.

And I adore the way the narrator – who is very self-aware – piggybacks the point of view if one individual character at a time so we get to see these twelve men circling around each other and we piece together the history and relationships and interconnected stories. It really is a tapestry of a novel, woven rather than written.

Currently, I’m reaching the end of Part One where our main protagonist, Walter Moody, has happened upon a meeting of the twelve main characters and is discovering their involvement in the death of the hermit Crosbie Wells, the subsequent discovery of a fortune in his cottage, the overdose and apparent suicide attempt of the whore Anna Wetherell and the disappearance of the magnate Emery Staines. Catton has her twelve actors narrate their parts to Moody which her narrative voice then edits and conveys to us: a very self aware story-within-a-story which fit perfectly the title of this part, A Sphere Within A Sphere.

On that structural point, I’m given to understand that there’s a parallel between the story and phases of the moon and the influence of the stars and things like that. That intention is patent from the character “chart“:

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Personally, I can appreciate the effort and thought behind that, and at some intellectual level I may make a wry half-smile. But that structural approach holds very little emotional sway for me and, certainly so far, has not encroached on the plot or the characters who – in my opinion and in contrast to some reviews – I do feel are engaging and more than two dimensional.

So, currently, the sphere that is part one is coming to an end and there’s the distinct satisfaction of watching the narrative return to the point where we first encountered it.

And now I intend to finish my holiday by finishing Part One and joining our luminaries in uncovering the secrets of hidden fortunes in gold, disturbed whores, sinister ships’ captains and mysterious things haunting their vessels.