How to be both – Ali Smith

Read July 2015
As always it’s easy and hard to read Ali Smith – easy as her writing style is no natural and flowing, hard because it’s unconventional and doesn’t always follow standard punctuation and patterns.
Anyway this book was great. Part I focuses on the 15th century artist who was largely unknown and had a mixed sense of gender, and looks at what it is to be an artist and to find your way in the world. Part 2 is about a teenage daughter of an academic / activist who is trying to find her way after her mothers death, whilst discovering whether or not she is gay. 
I found the second story most gripping because the dialogue and the insight into the daughter’s mind is powerful. The earlier story was tougher going, it actually makes a lot more sense and you see new elements having read the second one.

Capital – John Lanchester

john lanchester

Read September 2014

Like other Capitals (Marx, Picketty) this is massive and, in fact, left-leaning in its politics. It’s described as a state-of-the-nation novel and a London-novel in its blurb and reviews. Written in 2012, it touches on the big issues facing Britain – and London in particular – in 2008, as the financial crash was about to happen: house prices, the banking industry, debt and consumerism, legal and illegal immigration, terrorism, Islamophobia and work.

It’s a story about the people living on, or connected to, one street in London – Pepys Road – and how their lives pan out. There are no main characters; instead, it’s a book about roughly 15 people: a Senegalese footballer, a banker and his family, an artist, a Polish builder, a Hungarian nanny, a Pakistani family and so on.

By telling the individual, occasionally overlapping, story of each of these characters what we don’t get, I think, is a depth of feeling for any of them: there isn’t enough time to tell each person’s complex story in-depth, so you come away not caring for all the characters and not having explored them at a level you might like to. And, I’m not sure about this, but there’s an occasional feeling that their characterisation is so thin that you’re really reading stereotypes (the banker who’s got in too deep, the immigrant who wants to work and have a better life, the artist who knows how to play the anti-consumerism game, and so on).

But, even if you don’t get the depth, what you do get with this broad range of characters is a great cross-section of the London that this book is about; we see the fate of the super-rich and the struggling immigrant, the old and the young, and so on. It’s this, and the way it tackles Britain’s biggest topics, that makes it an astute – and very readable – state-of-the-nation novel.

Un Lun Dun – China Mieville


Read Feb 2014

An incredibly imaginative story of a girl who discovers an alternative London populated by  bizarre people and creatures. She ends up helping save Un Lun Dun from an evil smog that is trying up destroy it. What’s fantastic about the book is it’s creations and it’s imaginative ideas. It’s fun to read and very intelligent with references to post-structuralism, language and philosophy at various points. But it does lack characters you can identify with and care about. And in the end the plot is a girl reluctantly saves the world from an evil genius.

Sarah Waters – The Little Stranger


Read February 2014

The story of rural post war England, an aristocratic family in a large house and estate, and a doctor whose family had once worked as servants in the house. The doctor visits the house and become more and more involved with the family, who are struggling to keep things together as England becomes less easy for the aristocracy. The house, though, appears to have some kind of malevolent spirit that is tormenting the people there. First the brother goes mad and leaves, then the mother is tormented and eventually commits suicide, and in the end the woman (Caroline) who the doctor is to marry dies too. It becomes gradually clear that the ‘little stranger’ is a dark part of the doctor that is obsessed with the house and the family and gradually destroys them.

It’s an incredibly well written book, very well placed, more gripping than tense exactly. The characters are incredibly well described, and as people have said, it’s the house that it is in fact the central character in the book.