“At first nothing crossed his mind. He was in that mostly empty-headed state of grace which is sometimes fertile soil: it’s the ground from which our brightest dreams and biggest ideas (both the good and the spectacularly bad) suddenly burst forth, often full-blown. Yet there is always a chain of association.”

Stephen King, Under the Dome

Advertisements

Freaky Deaky – Elmore Leonard

This has everything you’d expect from a Leonard book – cool and ludicrously readable dialogue (of course), a string of morally ambiguous characters, murder and drugs and plotting and theft – plus, in this book, bombs and 60s radicals gone bad, taking a dose of nihilism and bomb making skills with them.

It’s the story of once-radicals Robin and stoner-slash-bomb maker Skip, who put together a plan to use bombs and deceit to dupe super rich Woody and Mark Ricks out of a few million. It’s complicated by Woody’s assistant Donnell who also wants to benefit from their wealth, and by explosives cop Chris and Greta, a wanna-be actress. As you’d expect, the plot twists and turns satisfyingly, and the good-ish guys kind of win out, though there’s certainly no moral to be taken from this tale.

I was, though, particularly aware of Leonard’s treatment of women in this novel. Greta says early on that she has been raped by Woody. It’s unclear whether this is true or not, and at times Leonard seems to be saying she led him on, especially as Woody is an obese semi-comatose alcoholic. It’s never dealt with or clarified, and Greta seems untroubled by it. I guess it’s indicative of his treatment of female characters. Some of them anyway are little more than objects of playthings for men, and have little depth to them. Obviously this isn’t always true – Robin in Freaky Deaky is the brains and probably the most interesting character in the book – but in the case of Greta it certainly is.

This doesn’t make it a bad book – it’s a fun, gripping and character-packed read, but you do need a certain detachment I think, so you don’t think that the treatment of Greta as a character is ok.

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

Wow. This is a brilliant book – complex, thought-provoking, gripping, surprising and, I think, covering some of the big historical moments of the twentieth century from the perspective of women who are forced to compensate for their powerlessness with determination and wit.

Written in the first person by Iris Chase-Griffin, it tells the story of her and her sister Laura – who had driven herself off a bridge fifty years earlier.

Beginning in rural Canada in the early twentieth century, Iris and Laura are well-off children of a family which had made its fortune in button manufacturing. As the Depression kicks in, though, their fortunes change, their father turns to drink, as the economy collapses and the business folds, leading to unemployment in the town, circling by capitalist Richard Griffin and eventually the death of their father.

Iris ends up marrying Richard Griffin, to endure their family get financial support as the business closes down, and the narrative from Iris covers all these years – from the pair as young children to just after Laura has driven off the bridge.

Iris is an excellent character – until the end of the book her steeliness and resourcefulness are hidden to the reader and, importantly, to her husband Richard. She is treated at times horrifically and at others like a child by him and his scheming sister, and it’s only at the end of the book that Iris reveals what she’d really being doing all those years.

Laura is an intriguing character, highly moral and obsessed with God in most ways but rebellious and clear-sighted in others. We learn of her apparent relationship with Alex, a communist sympathiser who burnt down one of her father’s factories, and after Iris is married to Richard, how she is treated like a lunatic by Richard. In fact, none of this is quite as it seems and it transpires that in fact Richard and Laura had a very different relationship, as did Iris and Alex.

An apparently posthumously published book by Laura has led to her becoming an acclaimed literary celebrity – and chapters from the book, called the Blind Assassin, punctuate the book, telling a story that we assume until the end is a semi-autobiographical account of her relationship with Alex – a shocking, pulp-style tale of a well-off women carrying out a secret affair with a hard drinking, itinerant writer.

This is such a good novel – characters, the style, the complexity, the cagy narrator – but more than anything it’s like a take on the Great American Novel that tries to highlight the role of women in the great themes of history, economics and politics. Iris, Laura and even Richard’s sister have no power in the patriarchal world in which they live and so are forced to use ingenuity and determination to find ways to live with meaning and purpose and a future – ways that ultimately affect their lives, and those of their female children, detrimentally.

“But perhaps Laura wasn’t very different from other people after all. Perhaps she was the same – the same as some odd, skewed element in them that most people keep hidden but that Laura did not, and this was why she frightened them.”

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Fasting, Feasting – Anita Desai

This is a captivating, readable and sad story about the repressed upbringing of a traditional, aspirational Indian family.

It focuses on a sister and a brother, with the novel split into two halves, focusing on each.

Uma is a kind but not beautiful or especially competent girl who watches other girls be married off and boys get an education. Her parents – the strict Mama and worried Papa – take her out of school to look after her younger brother and arrange for two marriages for her, both of which turn out to be scams, and eventually she is left at home, little more than a help. She longs to volunteer at local Christian school, the only people that have ever offered them any autonomy, but her parents refuse.

Arun, as a boy is offered so much more, but in a way that has a similarly repressive effect. From a young age he is at school and in tutoring almost constantly, eventually getting into a good university in the States. But his upbringing has made him chronically introverted and unable to deal with the people and situations he encounters – the other students and especially the Pattons, the American family he stays with over the summer. Mr Patton is a football loving, meat eating worker, Mrs Patton someone who loves having Arun and a chance to mother someone again, while her two kids have their own lives, the girl bulimic and the boy sport obsessed.

The Patton family is as dysfunctional as Arun’s but in a different way, one stemming from having too much rather than the risk of too little. And it’s this comparison or similarity that’s at the heart of this book, with each family set to reproduce itself again and again.

The contrast between men and women is as marked as that between rural India and suburban America. Uma has a freedom within, a life of the mind, a will, but her outward possibilities are limited, whereas Arun has all the chances but his upbringing was so stultified that he is imprisoned in his own mind, and so unable to make the most of any of them.

This is a brilliant book, but there’s something of its time about it, at least in its portrayal of the traditional patriarchal Indian family, where Uma is strictly prohibited from most activities because of her gender and marital status – today novels on these themes are often more complex, with resistance and oppression and snatches of freedom mixed together, the portrayal of people not quite so one dimensional.

“No, he had not escaped. He had travelled and he had stumbled into what was like a plastic representation of what he had known at home; not the real thing – which was plain, unbeautiful, misshapen, fraught, and compromised – but the unreal thing – clean, bright, gleaming, without taste, savour or nourishment.”

From India to America. Anita Desai in Fasting, Feasting

The Half God of Rainfall – Inua Ellams

This a beautifully written epic poem, riven with joy and despair, that combines classical Gods, basketball and brutality as a way to illuminate how women struggle and succeed against the odds in a deeply unequal world.

It’s a simple story, of Demi, the son of Modupe, a beautiful woman who was raped by Zeus. Demi, the half God of the title, is conceived – part man and part powerful being, who among other things is able to conjure up water and rainfall when in despair.

Growing up in Nigeria, he joins the basketball team and discovers that he has skills and ability beyond compare, a consequence it turns out, of being a half God. He leads the Nigerian team to the world basketball finals, but just as the deciding game begins, the crowd chanting for Demi, he has his Godly powers removed, making him nothing more than a normal player and his team is destroyed. Angry he confronts Zeus and is killed, and his family, his mother Mordupe is distraught.

It’s a beautifully written, elegant poem, that tells of the despair, the rage, that so many people feel because they lack control over their lives. Demi, of course, who has a gift but not the power to direct it when he needs to. But also, and more than anything, this is a poem about women – about the powerful, resilient Modupe who despite being attacked by Zeus, despite being oppressed, remains a strong woman intent on raising a brilliant child.

The fact that Zeus, a privileged, powerful, untouchable male is able to brutally attack and rape her with impunity is the horror at the heart of this poem, one that both she and Demi try to seek justice for, and one for which they both fail. A reflection, surely, of the realities of our unequal world where Zeus-like men can get away with, quite literally in this case, murder.

The style of the poem is lyrical and upbeat and beautiful, and one that optimistically celebrates the power of the powerless, but nevertheless it is this sad theme that is the main message of the book.

You get this mix of power and despair in the opening lines to the second part of the poem:

“They say when Modupe was born her own mother,

Who worshipped the God of vision and fiction, screamed

When she foresaw the future looks of her daughter:

the iridescent moon she’d resemble, the dream

she’d seem to men and thus the object she’d become.

Her mother had known these men her whole life, had seen

them all … from the weak and pathetic overcome

by lust, to warlords who to crush rebellion

would attack the women to daunt their men and son.

She’d suffered such brands of violence. It had churned

her for years.”

The High Window – Raymond Chandler

I don’t read Chandler or other hard-boiled fiction for it’s characters or plot, but it’s dialogue, style and atmosphere.

Set in a corrupt LA, populated by a pool of greedy rich people and a sea of desperate souls searching for money, security and happiness, The High Window is classic Chandler.

Marlowe is enlisted on a job for Mrs Murdoch, an ageing patriarch tracking down her daughter in law, Linda, who Murdoch says she suspects of stealing a valuable coin. As always, the trail takes Marlowe far and wide into a seedy world of high and low crime. There are murders, new character after new character, twist after twist as it turns no one is who they say they (except Marlowe), and in the end a resolution of a case that is as much to do with revenge and justice as the legal system.

I can’t say I followed all the plot twists, but it’s a joy to read. In fact, the style of writing, the incessant plot changes, encourages you read like Marlowe lives – in the moment, dealing with one situation after another as it arises, enjoying each scene as it’s happening.

Spring – Ali Smith

Written in Ali Smith’s wonderfully readable style, this a story about hope and positivity set against a very contemporary setting of immigration and discrimination.

Two tales interweave over the book. One is of an ageing BBC play director who is grieving the loss of his best friend, a women called Paddy. He impetuously gets on a train to Scotland to get away from the pressures of a new play he’s been asked to direct.

The other is of a security guard at a migrant detention centre, Brit, who apparently randomly meets a 12 year old called Florence who she thinks she recognises as a pro-migrant activist and, mostly out of curiousness and a sense of adventure, joins her on a train journey to Scotland. And it’s on the train that they meet Richard.

They are picked up by a women called Alda from the station who, it turns out, is part of a network of resistance against migrant detention.

This novel is an insightful take on the injustice and downright unfairness of migrant detention centres. But more than this it’s a positive exploration of human motivation. Brit, in particular, is far from the stereotypical prison guard; her reasons for doing her job are not clear but she does her job with care and attention, and her sense of protection towards Florence is huge, and she begins to develop a friendship with her, one as equals, even if she ends up disappointed at the end.

Florence meanwhile is a beacon of hope – impossibly intelligent, mature, brave, challenging, charming, a symbol of what immigrants offer.

It is spring after all, so much of this is about hope, even against a backdrop of racism and sexism and immigrant sentiment.

And as always, it’s as much Ali Smith’s style that makes this book. She writes in long flowing sentences that you kind of gulp down, that are realistic, that read just as you’d hear them, without adornment or metaphor or pretension. Despite tackling weighty themes and the big ideas of social theory that lie behind much of her writing, her style is fluid and readable and digestible.

Cousins – Angela Carter

A simple and simply told short story but one that lingers, making you reflect on humans and animals, men and women, and hierarchies.

In the first couple of pages we meet a family attacked by wolves who’s young children disappear, save from one baby boy. Years later, as a child of nine or so, he comes across a pack of wolves with a female among them who is more human than wolf and he thinks is in fact his cousin, thought killed years ago by the wolves.

The family capture and take her to their home, where she prowls around on all fours, her body grown into the shape of a wolf, and her mannerisms more animal than human. Eventually the family is attacked by the wolves who return her to their pack.

What’s so interesting is how Carter uses this simple tale to show that the difference between animal and human is not too big – how over a few years a child socialising only with animals might develop things like longer ankles, walking on all fours, defacating as they walk and so on, taking on the characteristics of animals not humans. The gap is so small.

Likewise, the way the boy gazes at his female cousin’s naked body leads you to wonder not only about how humans are so divorced from what’s natural, the naked body, but also how men objectify women, liken them to an irrational species, to animals, and use this to create a hierarchy between men and women. In this way Cousins is an allegory about how women are treated by men, as animals to be tamed rather than equals.

Anna Burns – Milkman

Blimey. Milkman offers a hugely inventive, insightful and darkly comic take on the cultures that develop in divided places. But it is a difficult book too, it’s stream of consciousness style both readable and tough in equal measure.

Set in an unnamed city divided by religious / ethnic conflict, it follows the story of an unnamed 18 year old as she describes her fate when a member of the paramilitary elite (known as the Milkman) starts to fall for her and follows her around. Rumours begin to spread about their involvement, meaning she’s treated a bit like royalty in some ways, but looked down on in others. It leads to fall-outs with her complex family and her ‘maybe-boyfriend’ and ‘longest best friend’.

It’s not so much the plot that makes this such an interesting book but the insights into living in a city divided by religion – clearly supposed to be Belfast – where violence, murder and conformity are constants that force people to live self-censored and limited lives for fear of standing out. It’s the everyday nature of the narrator, the writing and the events that brings the ever-present threat and terrible affects of the divided culture to life.

Beastings – Benjamin Myers

There’s a simplicity to this novel that’s really refreshing – the writing is pared down and harsh, mirroring the tough fells that form the story’s backdrop, and the plot focuses in on just three characters.

The girl (we don’t know her name) has taken a child from the Hinckley’s, who she was a help for. She’s been there since being assigned by the orphanage where she was raised, and – we learn slowly – abused by the sisters and raped repeatedly by the priest. The girl is mute, though most likely through trauma rather than anything solely physical.

She has taken the baby and is fleeing across the hills of Cumbria, pursued by the Priest who has enlisted help from a Poacher, and its this chase that forms the core of the story.

The girl – we never know her name – makes her way across crags and moors and woods, half starving to death, meeting all kinds of strangers, some kind, some horrific, all the time trying to keep the baby as safe as possible, despite having no money, only a tiny amount of food and almost no opportunity to get any, save for what little she can forage or beg.

She meets occasional farmers and wanderers, some of whom help her, others quite the opposite, but on the whole she’s alone with her baby.

The Priest and the Poacher are in pursuit, tracking her. The Priest is hard, thin, mean, cites God constantly, and takes drugs rather than eats. At the end of the book the building sense of menace about him is realised in brilliant and surprising ways (I’ll say no more than that).

The Poacher is a simple country man, lives in and from the wild, and the Priest looks down on him, often refusing to engage in conversation with the Poacher, as if it’s beneath him. The Poacher begins as a rough character but he is slowly redeemed by Myers, as a plain talker who gradually reveals the true character of the Priest.

The relationship between the Priest and the Poacher is perhaps the most interesting and engaging part of the book. There’s something suggestive of Waiting for Godot in their ongoing dialogue. The dynamic between them gradually changes as the Poacher starts to see what the Priest is really like, that the Priest is pursuing the girl for self-interested and perhaps even malevolent reasons, and by the final third of the book the Priest avoids conversation with the Poacher, not because he considers it beneath him anymore, but because the Poacher is too close to the bone in his blunt and often funny questions and taunts to the Priest.

Like others of Myers’s books – like Under the Rock – it’s the evocation of the countryside that is so strong in Beastings too, alongside the characters – not as a rural idyll but as a tough, unruly place where nature dominates humans rather than vice versa.

“She couldn’t remember. Her thoughts no longer sat in a line like stepping stones over a stream but instead were scattered far and wide and without formation like buttercups in long grass. Alone and disconnected from their nearest neighbours.”

Benjamin Myers, Beastings

Days of Awe – A.M Homes

Days of Awe is a darkly comic and unsettling short story about a woman novelist on a speaking engagement at a conference on the Holocaust, at which she meets a guy she used to know at university and has a brief affair. But it’s about so much more than this – guilt, truth, forgiveness, openness, what it is to be yourself…

She recognises the guy when she arrives at the airport (we never know the protagonists’ names; the woman is the Trangressive Novelist or just ‘she’, he is the War Correspondent) and they strike up a conversation when they meet in the hotel lobby. They soon get together and have a one night stand, despite the fact that she is in a relationship with her girlfriend, a relationship close enough that her girlfriend and her mother play online scrabble with one another.

This is followed the next day when she finds a synagogue to go and worship at, only to find him there too. They spend time together, time in which they are able to be playful and honest and maybe very different from how they normally are – but eventually fall out and she leaves him in the middle of nowhere to walk back to the hotel.

Alongside this story is their relationship to war and genocide. He is a war correspondent, a witness to genocides, and held in high esteem. She is a novelist who has no direct experience of genocide but who is trying to understand its effect on future generations, and is taunted by holocaust survivors at the conference for having no right to talk to about the subject. Her treatment by some of those attending the conference is just hilarious.

The Days of Awe is a ten day religious period in the Jewish calendar when people ask for forgiveness from those they have wronged, and it’s this question of forgiveness and how much is owed that is at the heart of this story – to holocaust survivors, to parents, to partners. At the same time, though, it’s as if everyday life for the woman (and probably the man) are frozen and normal rules don’t apply at the conference, as she acts in ways that seem to be at odds with how she typically behaves.

The question is, does she need to ask for forgiveness for how she behaves during these Days of Awe that we witness in the story, or for how she normally behaves?

“The Priest’s mouth was a gash in his face as if the flesh of his mouth had been pulled tight across his skull then slit with a knife.”

Macabre and vivid description from Benjamin Myers in Beastings

Dead Men’s Trousers – Irvine Welsh

It’s hard to know where to begin with this book. Maybe the plot. This is about the reuniting of the four main characters from Welsh’s earlier book, Trainspotting: Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Frank Begbie. It’s twenty years later and all have changed, some more than others.

Renton is a successful DJ manager, but dissatisfied, travelling around the world, living out of hotels, and drinking and using drugs too much. Sick Boy is sex obsessed, and runs an escort agency. Spud is on the streets, in the worst position of the lot. Begbie is an internationally known artist, married with two kids, living in LA, his angry past apparently behind him.

Renton and Begbie run into each other on a flight and they begin to be friends again, despite Renton owing Begbie and Sick Boy thousands after ripping them off at the end of Trainspotting. We meet the others, and in the process [a few spoilers coming up] Sick Boy spikes his brother in law, Euan’s, drink with drugs, leading him to leave his wife; Spud gets involved in human organ smuggling, but his dog eats it; he has his own kidney extracted by Sick Boy; Begbie reveals he’s not entirely changed; Renton and Sick Boy find love; one of the four dies… it’s a great story, gripping, funny and sad.

What makes this book stand out, other than plot? The writing style. As Welsh is well known for, he writes in a Scottish dialect, hard to read at the start, but you quickly adapt. He even varies the depth of accent among the characters, with the globe trotting Renton having a minimal accent and Spud’s much thicker, hard to understand at times.

And each of them is presented in the first person, an approach that draws you in to each character, and allows you to see the differences in views between them, especially the animosity between Renton and Sick Boy, and Begbie’s hidden side.

What’s interesting is how, for each of the characters, little has changed in their personality, despite living different lives: Renton is still unhappy with his life and trying, largely unsuccessfully, to better himself; Sick Boy has replaced his drug addiction with sex addiction; Spud has never got his act together; Begbie’s previous traits are there still, just hidden.

Black Girl, White Girl – Joyce Carole Oates

This is a truly brilliant book, a thorough and often uncomfortable character study that highlights differences in race, class, privilege and values.

Genna Meade is the narrator, the wealthy daughter of radical liberals Max and Veronica, who were active in the activism of the 60s and early 70s. Max is a lawyer to the counter culture movement, and Genna saw countless hippies and radicals live in their shambolic house as she grew up. They are are from a rich family of Quakers, the Meades, though what Genna had in terms of financial wealth she lacked in family support.

At the liberal arts college that was paid for by her family, she gets a roommate in Minette Swift, one of the few black girls in the college hall. Minette is from a church family, is devoutly Christian, and despite all of Genna’s attempts to be her friend, is consistently aloof and guarded and self-reliant.

We hear the story through Geneva fifteen years after Minette’s death at the college. Through their time as roommates, Minette is subjected to apparently racist acts that Genna at first doesn’t see but gradually comes to understand. At the same time she tries to befriend Minette, but Minette always keeps her distance, refusing to accept Genna’s overtures of friendship – something that Genna can’t comprehend.

What’s so powerful about this novel is the detail of emotion – the fact that Minette can’t be pigeonholed, that Genna is both privileged and traumatised by her upbringing, that the relationship between the two girls is so tense, that Genna still can’t see what was going on even a decade and a half later.

And what’s here, too, is the impact of racism and racial stereotyping on Minette, how she is tense and awkward, how she has different values and ways of relating to people, when compared to Genna; and Genna can’t or doesn’t comprehend this, always thinking that Minette will

at any moment accept the generous hand of friendship and support she is offering.

We see, as well, the impact of historic forces on individuals’ lives – Minette who is shaped by a history of racism and resistance in America, and Genna who is traumatised by the life her parents forced upon her.

This is an uncomfortable read at times, not least because Minette is often unlikable, and the fact that it’s a white woman, Oates, writing about black experience, makes you wonder whether the portrayal is fair or ought to be more understanding or sympathetic.

Ultimately for me this book is about how, when two people with radically different and difficult histories, values and daily experiences, are thrown together, they can’t easily just get one another, they can’t just connect, there’s too much there holding them apart.

The Ghost Rider – Ismail Kadare

A mysterious and beautiful story that uses a classic Albanian folk tale to talk about the supernatural surrounding love, loss and debt.

The heart of this novella is the story, also known as the ‘Lenore Motif’, of a family – a mother, her daughter Doruntine and her nine brothers, including Doruntine’s favourite brother Konstandin.

Set in a pre-industrial time, Doruntine had married far away from the village of her family, but in the three years she’s been away all but her mother died of the plague. After the mother was overheard cursing Konstandin’s grave for failing to keep his promise to return his sister home, something inexplicable happens – Doruntine returns on the back of a horse she says was ridden by Konstandin.

The story then turns to local lawman, Stres, who is intent on discovering what happened, how this could have been. He considers theory after theory, a person is even arrested. But as his investigation continues, and fear and suspicion are whipped up in the village, he eventually accepts that the only explanation is a supernatural one – that the brother did rise from the dead to return his sister home.

Ultimately, what Stres is accepting, I think, is the limits of the rational and the explainable. He doesn’t want to believe it but in the end he accepts that where love, honour and grief are concerned, sometimes things can only be accounted for by things that are beyond empirical verification. And what Stres accepts, too, is that the norms and conventions of the village, which see the return of the sister as an act by the dead Konstandin, are important their own right, more so than the authority of religion or deduction.

“He now realised that everyone, each in his own way, would take some stand in this affair, and that each person’s attitude would have everything to do with their station in life, their luck in love and marriage, their looks, the measure of good or ill fortune that had been their lot, the events that had marked the course of their life, and their most secret feelings, those that people sometimes hide even from themselves… though they would believe they were passing judgement on someone else’s tragedy, in reality, they would simply be giving expression to their own.”

Ismail Kadare, The Ghost Rider

Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the story of a group of four women investigating an apparently post-apocalyptic part of the world, Area X. It is an expanse of wildness, separated it seems from the rest of world by a man-made border. The area may once have been populated but now the natural and supernatural world is taking it over, it’s history never fully explained.

There have been 11 previous excursions into Area X, to get information we think, although the purpose of the excursions isn’t entirely clear. It’s clear that for at least the last two, if not more, many people died whilst there or made it back but their psyche was shot afterwards.

We experience the 12th expedition through narration by a female biologist who goes into Area X with a psychologist (who has powers of hypnosis), a surveyor and an anthropologist (we never know their names). She signed up for the expedition it transpires, in part because she’s a biologist who’s fascinated by the wildness of nature, and in part because her husband was on the 11th expedition and came back as a shell.

Nature abounds in the abandoned Area X, but beyond the lush wildness it has two significant features – an obscure tower or tunnel, and a lighthouse.

The tunnel is the source of much fascination for the biologist, and they begin exploring it at once. They discover it continues for a long way down and, intriguingly, appears to be an organism – alive, growing, pulsating – with organically growing writing along the walls. In reviews of Annihilation there are frequent references to Lovecraft, Ballard and Poe, and you can see these influences in this mysterious supernatural being.

After things start to go very wrong in the tunnel, the biologist makes her way to the lighthouse where she finds the psychologist and an archive of the previous expeditions’ notes, including her husband’s.

It’s hard to talk about the plot, as the core of Annihilation is less plot and more atmosphere – a disturbing build of tension and uncertainty about the biologist’s co-workers, the secrets behind Area X and most of all the terrifying and uncanny unknown at work in the tunnel and beyond.

And equally interesting, Annihilation is also an excellent character study of the biologist – a woman captivated by nature not people, who longed to sit by a pond and observe, and who struggled in a relationship for years with a man who was extroverted and craved company.