Books – general fiction

General fiction, whatever that means.

bookstarBooks that I thought were outstandingly good are now marked with a gold star. That doesn’t mean some of the others aren’t good too, so please read the words I wrote!

rereadicon1And this icon means I’d already read this book at least once before, so that may inform my perspective on it.

A B C D E F G H J K L M N O P R S T V W Y Z

A

150-HalfOfAYellowSun Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi – Half of a Yellow Sun

The civil war in Nigeria is a conflict I knew so little about that I had to look it up to confirm that it actually happened in real life as well as in this book – so if you’re anything like as historically ignorant as me, it’s worth reading just to learn a bit about something rather important that few educators (certainly in Britain) seem to think is worth telling people about. Half of a Yellow Sun is a big, sweeping novel, a portrait of a fiery political situation told through the eyes of three characters from three very different worlds. Their characterisations are vivid, sharp and complex, their emotions often several steps removed from the emotions you might expect them to feel in a given situation. As admirable as this complexity is, the constant subversion of obvious emotions sometimes left me, as a (how shall I put this) somewhat less complex reader, struggling to relate. Only sometimes though. This is definitely up there with a few really great books that I’m annoyed with myself for not appreciating quite as much as I wanted to – but overall I still enjoyed it for its intricacy and intelligence, its humour and sadness. And the ending is pretty beautiful.

150-EenyMeeny Arlidge, M. J. – Eeny Meeny

One of the first audiobooks I’ve listened to in a long time. I have an annoying habit of tuning out of them and having to rewind, so I chose something that seemed like it would be fairly generic and easy to follow. As it turns out, generic barely covers Eeny Meeny. Just about every gritty detective trope ever invented is present and correct here. There’s a brilliant but haunted female cop who indulges in a secret vice because she blames herself for a dark incident in her past. There’s another cop who is an alcoholic, and a few who may or may not be corrupt. There’s a shadowy psychopath playing grisly games with people’s lives. There’s an oppressive, humourless tone that occasionally makes you question why this is the fantasy world you’ve chosen to escape into. I suppose the Saw-like psychological horror of it, when removed from the off-putting gore of those films, appeals to the dark side of my brain. Somehow it kept me engaged enough to finish it, but if this had involved the effort of having to move my eyes, I may well have felt differently.

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Atwood, Margaret – The Handmaid’s Tale

I read this for uni and reread it for book club. It portrays a deeply conservative future society called Gilead, where women like the narrator are forced to work as surrogate mothers in an attempt to counteract a spate of birth defects. This catastrophe seems to have flipped some awful switch in society’s attitudes towards gender: now it is commonly accepted that men can’t be trusted with the sight of female flesh, so women have to cover their bodies and faces; women can’t be trusted with independence, so they are not allowed to read or have money or walk outside alone. With the unflinching intelligence that seems to define her writing, Atwood dredges out the darkest prejudices that probably still lurk in more minds than we care to admit, and in classic dystopian style, creates a world that takes them to their logical, horrifying conclusions. Even if you don’t buy that a society like Gilead could ever really come about — well, first of all, based on historical precedents I would respectfully disagree — but also there is more than enough of our own world in here that it would be complacent not to feel uncomfortable.

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Austen, Jane – Northanger Abbey

My first Austen – and I hope my university doesn’t take back my degree for admitting I skipped Mansfield Park when we studied it. If it makes them feel any better, I regret that now. I was wrong. Based on my fleeting exposure to TV adaptations of her books, I assumed that the people in them were so fundamentally different from me that I’d need to read up on the cultural context of the time and develop some sort of internal translation circuit to make sense of their emotions. But then I picked up Northanger Abbey, got to the early chapter where young Catherine feels awkward about not knowing anyone at a party, and went “oh, hello me”. This is why books are the best thing: you don’t get distracted by what sort of hats people are wearing, you just get to plug your brain right into theirs. And in the case of this book – much more so, I have to assume, than in the adaptations – you get access to Austen’s funny, sarcastic and (by modern standards) refreshingly self-expressive commentary on the social conventions of her time. Now I feel silly about all the years I spent feeling alienated by the society portrayed in her work; it turns out it seemed just as alien to her all along! Why didn’t anyone tell me?!

B

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Banks, Iain – The Bridge

I’m not a particular fan of using metaphor in place of plot, but my main problem is when narratives turn that way only at the end. I don’t mind when novels are open about their metaphorical intentions from the outset, and when they justify it by, for example, setting the metaphorical stuff inside a character’s mind. When a skilled author (and Iain Banks most certainly was that) takes the risk of going far enough down the rabbit hole of weird interlocking symbolism, the result can be quite thrilling and rewarding – a Cloud Atlas style puzzle box to toy with at your leisure. The Bridge is a bit like a cross between Life on Mars and Brazil, a journey into a complicated and unsettling world of steam power and bureaucracy where it’s not always clear what’s a dream – and what’s a dream within a dream. Even if the way it all fits together confuzzles you, there are enough treats along the way – the cleverly confounding world of the bridge, the hilarious barbarian bits, the ever-lively descriptive style – to make this a journey worth taking.

The Wasp Factory Banks, Iain – The Wasp Factory

Be warned, this is the sort of book they’d make you read in high school, and if you’re me you wouldn’t get it at all because it didn’t intersect much with your naive little world – one of those books where everything is almost comically effed up and depressing, and everyone plays their part in a cycle of cruelty, weakness and appallingly bad parenting. But now, as a sort-of adult, I appreciate it more. The most impressive thing is perhaps that it makes the psychotic, misogynistic, animal-torturing protagonist more comprehensible to us than the apathetic world around him. Stick around for: a final chapter that could serve as the subject of a million essays featuring the word “problematic”, and a brilliantly unpleasant account of being drunk.

150-TheMiniaturist Burton, Jessie – The Miniaturist

This book took a while to grab me. At first it has definite shades of Rebecca (one of my favourite books), as the protagonist Nella arrives at the Amsterdam home of her new husband only to find an unsettling house filled with secrets and whispering characters. But it takes a definite turn about a third of the way through, and becomes something else. I suspect it is an angry book, since it contains things the author probably wouldn’t have written about if she weren’t angry, and that made me warm to it a lot more towards the end. It is lovingly crafted and melancholy and has a rather distinctive and interesting style, albeit one that tripped me up for a couple of chapters before I got into the flow of it. (Note: it may be worth mentioning that the Kindle version also has an unfortunate abundance of typos.)

C

150-BreakfastAtTiffanys Capote, Truman – Breakfast at Tiffany’s

An interesting and gorgeously written study of a young woman with a childlike wandering spirit and a prodigious talent for making people fall in love with her, two attributes guaranteed to wreak havoc in the hearts of the men she encounters. Even if readerly distance allows us to see a few more of Holly’s flaws than these men tend to acknowledge, it is hard not to miss her a little bit after the story has come to its quietly beautiful end. Added bonus: the book is slightly less racist than the film. Added bonus number two: most editions include three short stories at the end, which are worth sticking around for, particularly A Christmas Memory.

Carver, Raymond – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

The very deliberately worded title of this short story collection suggests that love is not something that can be neatly summed up by a paragraph in a dictionary, but a complex cultural idea defined by all the contexts in which humans use it. It made me read this book as an attempt to define love, based on what it means to different people, and if the stories here do genuinely define love, it’s certainly not all roses and romance – it’s awkward conversations and awkward sex and awkward breakups and awkward Christmas reunions – and things even worse than awkwardness, if you can imagine. I found these stories were best enjoyed as ambiguous snapshots of scenes, like old out-of-context photographs. The title story and ‘The Bath’ are two that stick in my mind, but even they are of the variety to which my immediate response is “wait, is that the end?”, and of which I find myself having to piece together the possible meanings afterwards, with mixed success. My old university side must be getting rusty, as I’ve found it hard to know what to take away from many of the more literary works I’ve read lately. From this one, I can only draw the rather obvious conclusion that love is the hardest thing in the world aside from not having any.

Telegraph Avenue Chabon, Michael – Telegraph Avenue

Telegraph Avenue interweaves the stories of two families living in Oakland, California, including two men whose record shop is on the brink of going out of business, two disillusioned midwives, two teenage boys experimenting with their sexuality, and an ageing Blaxploitation star trying to escape his criminal past and revive his movie career. It’s nice to read a book that deals with interracial friendship without either glossing over the cultural differences or, worse, making them seem like a huge deal, something deep and unconquerable simmering under the surface of all human nature. Generally the main characters are more worried that they may be racist than actually racist, which feels fundamentally reassuring in a weird way. This is indicative of the book’s restrained tone – we don’t see much in the way of epic confrontations, nervous breakdowns, melodramatic monologuing and so on. Most of the book could be a soap opera if it weren’t so funnily and interestingly written, so sunny and pleasant and filled with rich, colourful language. If you can forgive a few cartoonish moments and a few more that a cynic would see as excuses for Chabon to show off his writing skills, this is a most enjoyable and worthwhile read.

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Chbosky, Stephen – The Perks of Being a Wallflower

A coming-of-age tale which is hard to talk about objectively, because it’s probably either going to hit you like a ton of bricks or sail right past you without making an impact. For me, it was the former. This was unexpected. Early on in the book my cynicism kept chiming in with scathing comments – “oh, of course the narrator is a sweetly naive teenage genius, oh of course he meets a ragtag band of social outcasts who take him in” – but as I got more and more wrapped up in the story, that ugly side of me was left talking to himself in the corner of the room while the rest of me sat with his mouth hanging open, unable to stop reading. There were long passages that hurt to read because clearly they were addressed to me and no one else – though considering the number of people who love this book, I suppose that can’t be the case. How do you build something so powerful out of such simple pieces? It’s not as if Perks is all that original, or all that immediately striking in its style. What it is is an exceptionally kind, open and emotionally honest book, and a friendly reminder that if you really care about the people who care about you, you should try to care about yourself, at least a little bit.

D

Darnielle, John – Universal Harvester

A crooked, nostalgic tale centering around a young man working at a video rental store, where disturbing video clips begin showing up on some of the tapes without explanation. Stylistically, Universal Harvester has a lot in common with the author’s debut Wolf in White Van – non-linear, cryptic, unsettling, and interested in people with unusual obsessions – but because of its horror story setup I can see many people (including me, to some extent) going in expecting something it has no real interest in delivering. Darnielle seems quite aware of these expectations, acknowledging other possible “versions” of the story even as he subverts them. And that’s fine; I would certainly never want to say to an author “forget this strange, original thing you clearly want to do; you should write something more generic and immediately accessible just for me”. Granted, it didn’t connect with me in any profound way, but you might appreciate this book if you’re in the mood for a bit of quiet meditation on the transitive nature of people, places and things.

150-WolfInWhiteVan Darnielle, John – Wolf in White Van

Y’know, another one of those stories about a disfigured boy who runs a play-by-mail choose-your-own-adventure type game called Trace Italian. Wolf in White Van is in that very specific subgenre (if you can call it that) of books which tell their stories in a non-linear way, and which dance teasingly around a central event which took place a while ago but which we don’t really understand until quite late on. (The God of Small Things is another example that jumps to mind.) It’s the sort of book whose implied insidious hidden messages you could probably spend weeks trying to decode if the mood took you. Even skimming it a second time greatly enhanced my appreciation for its subtly poetic language and intricate thematic explorations.

A Study in Scarlet

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Doyle, Arthur Conan – A Study in Scarlet

I had read this already, but happily revisited it for the book club my friends just started. It is a good read, and a great introduction to the character of Sherlock Holmes, though if you’re used to more modern mysteries it may flummox you just because it breaks some of the rules that would later be established in the genre – for example, certain elements that would be crucial to untangling the mystery aren’t introduced until quite late in the book. But the nicely detailed and methodical description of the crime scene lets us feel as though we could work it all out if only we were as clever as Holmes, and the solution, when it comes, is elegant and satisfying. Compared to that of other books from the same period, the language is extremely accessible, and the series is definitely worth reading if you like the modern BBC adaptation of Sherlock, especially since the first episode of that kinda misses the point of the method of murder in this book.

150-EllaMinnowPea Dunn, Mark – Ella Minnow Pea

Ella Minnow Pea is set on a small island whose residents, for reasons too convoluted to go into here, find themselves having to express themselves in an ever-shrinking alphabet. As they do so, their classical letter-writing eloquence is replaced by a different sort of eloquence, as they bend language in all manner of creative ways to get around the new rules. This leads to some laugh-out-loud moments and genuinely ingenious constructions — and a funny sort of slasher movie thrill, as we anticipate which letter may be killed off next. While the island’s slide into tyranny is interesting (beginning with what seems a quirky and inconsequential ruling, ending with neighbours grassing on each other, Nineteen Eighty-Four style), there is not much of an emotional thread, and the ending is perhaps a bit too quick and neat to be entirely satisfying. Still, this is an enjoyable example of what a storyteller can do when s/he makes the very deliberate decision to discard realism – there’s a lot of cool stuff that can only be done without that millstone around your neck.

E

150-americanpsycho Ellis, Bret Easton – American Psycho

Perhaps more than any other book I’ve read since university, American Psycho feels like an Important Work of Literature: serious and striking, with few concessions to readability, often seeming to make an active effort to push readers away. The meanness and vapidity of its characters, the interminable inventories of what people are wearing, the constant cross-purpose conversations that go nowhere — all these caused me to put the book down early on, coming back to it months later out of a sense of literary duty and a desire not to let it beat me. I knew it also contained scenes of graphic sex, murder and mutilation, and while I didn’t expect to enjoy these, I couldn’t shake the slightly psychopathic thought that they might at least break up the mundaneness. As it turned out, they didn’t make me feel much of anything either — it all just blended together into a jarring, numbing collage, and perhaps that was the point. The main character is certainly interesting (though I can’t help but feel that writing a psychopath is a licence to give any inconsistency the air of an enigma), and the overall portrayal of the culture of Wall Street is about as damning as that culture probably deserves. As a believer in artistic freedom I’m glad American Psycho exists, but for me personally, I’m not quite sure the journey was worth the headache.

150-EmpathyProblem Extence, Gavin – The Empathy Problem

One of those reading experiences where the emotional side of my brain wrestled against the intellectual side, and this time there was no clear winner; I kept finding fault with the book, but I also became invested, almost addicted judging by how I binged my way through the latter half of the audiobook in a day. The world it presents struck me early on as impossibly black and white: evil, uncaring bankers vs. the righteous protesters outside their building. Not terribly at odds with my own views, sure, but I’m at the point now where at least part of me wants books to challenge my comfortable assumptions about people. I suppose it sort of works if you view the story not as an attempt at realism but more as a modern fairytale, or an updated take on A Christmas Carol where a brain tumour plays the part of the ghosts, and cane-twirling Victorian capitalists are replaced by even slimier businessmen who’d be right at home in American Psycho. It’s a strange mix, but as a late coming of age story it has its moments, and I couldn’t help but find the lead character’s awakening sense of humanity quite moving. Not Gavin Extence’s best book, but it still shows off his talent for delving into the human mind from odd but often startlingly relatable angles.

150-TheMirrorWorldOfMelodyBlack Extence, Gavin – The Mirror World of Melody Black

A book whose title made me think it was going to involve some manner of journey into a dark and unsettling parallel world — and it does, though in a psychological rather than fantastical way. The main character’s discovery of the body of her neighbour causes her to question the way modern humans live, beginning with a futile, all-too-familiar, insomnia-inspired online search for a cure to alienation. Before long she is disregarding the rules of polite society left, right and centre, and spiralling into depression. I can see some readers being put off by the subtle and oddly episodic nature of the story, but for me this is one of those cases where the narrator IS the book, and the narrator is memorable, complicated and just pretty great. Recommended at the very least for perpetually anxious, intermittently depressed misfits like me.

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Extence, Gavin – The Universe Versus Alex Woods

I thought the main character in The Mirror World of Melody Black reminded me of me, but that was before I met Alex Woods, who is almost scarily like me on a number of levels. He’s socially awkward! He’s called Alex! He has an unhealthily puritanical attitude towards alcohol and drugs! He’s self-deprecating and constantly bemused by situations! Okay, a lot of these attributes are fairly standard ‘nerdy kid’ tropes, but written in Gavin Extence’s wonderfully relatable style, they were quite striking to me. What I appreciate most of all is that this is a coming of age story that isn’t afraid not to check all the usual ‘coming of age’ boxes. Instead, it checks much more interesting boxes like ‘bonked on the head by a meteorite’ and ‘starts a Kurt Vonnegut book club’ and (here comes one of those scarily-like-me things) ‘is home-educated after dropping out of school due to bullying’. Ultimately it celebrates honesty, kindness, and all the strangeness and mystery of the universe. Which is nice. And it made me cry – which felt natural and familiar but on reflection I can’t remember the last book that did that.

F

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Flynn, Gillian – Gone Girl

It all begins, with pleasing swiftness, when a woman goes missing and her husband gets caught up in the ensuing media circus. That’s about all I can say without spoiling Gone Girl. The story takes many twists and turns – the dynamics seem to change almost every chapter – yet it never loses sight of what it’s about: two fascinating, dark, well-drawn characters. It also delves rather intelligently into the ways we pretend, how we try to shape our behaviour to fit with other people’s expectations, and some of the destructive consequences this can have. I found it particularly interesting having just read The Psychopath Test, but it split my book club right down the middle, between those of us who found it a brilliant, addictive page-turner and those who found it so boring they could barely finish it. Never have I been so baffled by people’s reactions to a book, so … be aware that you might hate it, I guess. If you hate awesome things.

150-WeAreAllCompletelyBesideOurselves Fowler, Karen Joy – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

This book was not remotely what I expected. Yes, I expected (from what little I’d heard about it) that it would be about the amusing peculiarities of a family, and it was indeed about that. But, as the narrator points out, everyone may think their family is weird – but hers is that little bit weirder. The reveal of this is one of the bigger “wait, WHAT?!” moments I’ve experienced lately – so if you can go into the book knowing as little as I did, I’d recommend it. It’s fiercely intelligent, witty and philosophical, but also unflinchingly dark and angry. If I have a criticism it’s that the ending seems to come out of nowhere, but I can forgive it that, because overall it doesn’t take the easy way out on the moral dilemmas it raises.

G

The Fault in Our Stars Green, John – The Fault in Our Stars

Hey look! I read something almost timely! See, I’m still down with the kids! The Fault in Our Stars is a book about love and cancer and books. Primarily it is a romance between teenagers, and it is one of the best of those I have ever read, in that at no point did it make me want to hurl myself through a window. This is probably down to the simple fact that Hazel and Augustus have interesting and intelligent thoughts, not just about their own painfully evident mortality but about the universe in general. John Green (who I’ve become mildly obsessed with/envious of after realising he’s the same John Green who does this) skillfully weaves together cynicism about the tropes of simplistically sentimental ‘cancer books’ with philosophy and a great deal of wisdom about everyday relationships. It seemed inevitable that this book would try to make me cry towards the end, and while I somehow (just) managed to resist, it still made me think more than anything I’ve read in a while, and for that reason alone I’d say it is an exemplary Young Adult novel.

H

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Hawkins, Paula – The Girl on the Train

One of those dark twisty modern psychological thriller mystery things. Yes, it has a hint of Gone Girl, but while that book was about characters so screwed up you could only shake your head and let out a low whistle, the characters in this one are generally screwed up in more relatable ways that allow you to root for them. At the centre of it all – or on the fringes, depending on your point of view – is Rachel, a woman with a troubled past, an alcohol problem and a habit of staring out the window of the train, projecting her dreams of a happier life onto a particular couple she sees every day. As the story goes on things get murkier, secrets come out, threads unravel and tangle together, “aha!” moments proliferate alongside “uh-oh!” moments, and readers are kept guessing until late in the game. Overall The Girl on the Train is a highly satisfying package, cleverly interweaving theme with plot, but it is Rachel’s first chapter, which draws us into the life of a character we know almost nothing about, that has stuck with me the most – a masterful example of a writer doling out information in small, addictive doses.

150-IAmPilgrim Hayes, Terry – I Am Pilgrim

It’s that old tale about a troubled but brilliant person being pulled back into a world they tried to leave behind. In this case he’s a superspy type, enlisted first to investigate an unusually perfect murder and then to foil a deadly terrorist plot. Like many thrillers, I suppose, I Am Pilgrim seems to have a slightly Team America view of the world, particularly when it comes to Arab nations, where the populace are portrayed as simple, unhappy and corrupt at best, terrorists and torturers at worst. Meanwhile, our hero is also not above using some morally questionable techniques when shit gets rough, but these unfailingly go off without too much unpleasantness and, in one case, a victim light-heartedly thanks him afterwards, saying that a spot of torture was probably what he needed to turn his life around. Strange how the grittiest stories can sometimes be the most naive. Setting aside these troubling elements – and I’ll give the book partial credit for acknowledging some of the reasons people may end up doing bad things – it is ambitious and decently written, its climax impressively tense, but I must admit the details are already fading from my memory.

Heller, Joseph – Catch-22

If ever there was a classic piece of literature that feels as though it’s trolling you, it’s Catch-22. In Alex terms, it’s somewhere at the intersection of Kurt Vonnegut, Samuel Beckett and… um… Blackadder Goes Forth? Hear me out: it’s darkly absurd, stuffed with silly jokes and contradictions and paradoxes and phrases being repeated until they lose all meaning; there’s even a character named Major Major Major Major who regularly climbs out the window of his office to avoid meeting people. Frankly, it’s ridiculous. And long. And in places infuriating, especially if you aren’t on board with its particular style of wasting your time. But it’s also a classic for a reason – it’s a stunningly bold and unique portrayal of war, not as glorious, or even as unfortunate but necessary, but as absolutely, upside-down-and-back-to-front-ly, mind-twistingly awful. It took me a long old time to get into this book, and I still have some issues with its portrayal of the female characters – surely Heller could have turned a bit more of his indomitable sardonic wit on the absurdity of the gender relations portrayed here? But overall, this is an important work and one that deserves to be read and studied for a long time. Plus, of course, the titular phrase is a contribution to the language of dystopia worthy of Orwell himself.

150-agatheringstorm Hore, Rachel – A Gathering Storm

As an experiment, my book club decided to try out the website Blind Date with a Book, and we ended up with this – certainly a book a lot of us would otherwise have judged by its cover. It was described on the website as a mystery, and while there is an element of that, the mystery does not really unfold in stages or keep the reader guessing as you might hope. There is only really one twist, and it comes near the end; what leads up to it is simply an account of the life of a young woman, with a focus on romance and a brief, somewhat out of place diversion into wartime espionage – all given an air of nostalgia and not entirely justified intrigue by the framing device of Lucy Cardwell, in modern times, digging into her family’s history. I didn’t dislike this book – and towards the end there is some minor but welcome subversion of all the wholesome cosiness – but on this occasion the blind date didn’t really prove much; A Gathering Storm is more or less what I would have assumed it was if I saw it in a book shop.

K

Different Seasons King, Stephen – Different Seasons

Stephen King feels like a storyteller who always knows what he’s doing, in a way that confounds and intimidates me greatly. All the stories in this collection of four are fascinating – they aren’t really classed as horror stories, but there is certainly something to horrify in each one of them. ‘The Body’ was the highlight for me: it explores the connections between childhood and adulthood, and the distinct strangeness of both worlds. The adventure the main four characters go on very much captures the odd mixture of images, both nostalgic and disturbing, that come with memories of childhood – it’s kinda like the prose equivalent of Boards of Canada’s Music Has The Right To Children. The story that was adapted into The Shawshank Redemption is another highlight, and a masterclass in character building to which I’m sure I will return frequently.

150-misery King, Stephen – Misery

The story of a famous author who is kidnapped by an obsessive fan after a car crash, taken to her remote home in the mountains and forced to write a new book to her exacting specifications. I wonder how much of it appeals to me just because it’s about the writing process in all its infuriating, wonderful, soul-crushing glory. There is certainly a lot of insight here – about writing for yourself vs. writing for others, about writing as a reason to stay alive, about the unconscious mind solving sticky plot problems, about the hidden value of uninformed criticism. But surrounding the writing is a claustrophobic psychological thriller with plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle horrors to offer, as poor Paul Sheldon tries to employ the limited toolset at his disposal to find a way out, any way out. And the star, of course, is Annie Wilkes, certainly the most memorable character from any Stephen King book I’ve read, who is by turns scary, sympathetic, funny, clever, stupid, paranoid, trusting, childlike, calculating, puritanical and utterly depraved. I’m sure there are more sensitive ways to depict mental illness, but for better or worse, this book, like Gone Girl, is more than entertaining enough to get away with it.

150-MrMercedes King, Stephen – Mr Mercedes

I would have expected that when a writer as experienced and prolific as Stephen King gets his hands on a new genre, he would want to do something weird and different with it. But instead we get something that feels fairly by-the-numbers: Bill Hodges, a washed up ex-cop haunted by his past, receives a taunting message claiming to be from the Mercedes killer, one of the perps who got away. And of course he goes behind his department’s back in a desperate attempt to solve this one last case and give his life meaning again. The most disappointing thing is the portrayal of the villain, who feels like a grab-bag of psychopath cliches rather than a portrait of an actual human being. King never encourages us to feel what he is feeling, and we are therefore free to dismiss him as a horrible, racist, misogynistic monster. This not only feels like a wasted opportunity, limiting the story to being fairly hollow genre fiction, but it makes spending time in his company not particularly enjoyable. Okay, I’m sounding pretty negative here, but overall Mr Mercedes is a solid enough thriller, with that addictive cat-and-mouse dynamic that always keeps me turning the pages. Just don’t expect anything more.

L

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Lee, Harper – To Kill a Mockingbird

It’s strange picking up a book that’s such a classic you feel as if you already pretty much know the story — then you realise as you go along that you actually don’t know it at all, that behind the familiar names and oft-quoted passages, there’s a lot more to it than you’d always assumed. To Kill a Mockingbird is about race, of course, but it’s also about childhood, family relationships, fear, hypocrisy, demonisation and, perhaps most surprising to me, gender. Maybe everyone else knew this already, but Scout Finch is a fantastic example of a character who doesn’t fit where society expects her to, perhaps because her father has done his best to shield her from the corrupting influence of people’s stupid expectations, and … oh no. I think I’m reverting to my university self. I can’t help it, this book is just so crammed with insight. Not to mention it’s still absurdly, crushingly, shamefully relevant to the modern world. I know my endorsement means nothing at this point, but regardless: read read read.

M

150-CompanyOfLiars Maitland, Karen – Company of Liars

An interesting and very readable novel that takes us on a journey through Medieval England, as a ragtag band of people decide to travel together in an attempt to escape the encroaching plague, and another, less earthly threat that begins to stalk them. The most memorable of these characters, aside from the moral but inscrutable narrator, are the exceedingly creepy horror-child Narigorm, and the consistently objectionable, intolerant, hypocritical, whinging, sexist, racist bully Zophiel, who somehow manages to be dislikeable in quite an enjoyable way, and therefore not actually as dislikeable as he really ought to be. As it is set at a time when elaborate superstition pervaded society in place of science and rationalism, this book made me empathise with non-scientific ways of thinking in a way I hadn’t before, and gave me a clearer (whether entirely accurate or not) sense of Medieval England than any history lesson could. Despite the memorable characters and intriguing plot, I think that’s the main thing I’ll take away from Company of Liars.

Wolf Hall

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Mantel, Hilary – Wolf Hall

I haven’t read much historical fiction, which is both a symptom and a cause of my comprehensive ignorance of history. But this sort of vicious circle can only be broken by fumbling around in the dark for a while, and that’s just what I did throughout a lot of Wolf Hall. Much of the story deals with the technicalities of obtaining a divorce for King Henry VIII of England, but the figures involved (including cunning protagonist Thomas Cromwell, jealous femme fatale Anne Boleyn, and the fascinatingly unpleasant utopian dreamer and torture enthusiast Thomas More) make this a good deal more interesting than it sounds. If you can get over the daunting size of the book, the initially confusing use of pronouns in place of the main character’s name, and the fact that about 50% of the characters are named Thomas, Wolf Hall gets pretty intriguing, and some of the descriptions alone are worth the price of admission. It may even be a good way to begin to understand British history, for people who like their knowledge packaged in a satisfying narrative form.

McGregor, Jon – Reservoir 13

A girl goes missing from a small English town, and if you think you already know what kind of book this is, you’re wrong. Reservoir 13 is written in an unusual style – the whole thing reads like the parts of other books that are designed to convey the passage of time in between key scenes. For the first ten or so pages I was patiently waiting for one of these key scenes to kick in – for our lead characters to make themselves known, start using direct dialogue, give us a sense of what the central driving force of the plot is going to be. But no. Instead things just keep happening – seasons change, years change, people change, kids grow up, sheep graze, harvests are reaped – and all related in a voice that I might describe, if I were feeling less kind, as like the minutes of a community council meeting. I’ll say this though: having been made to question it, I do find it hard to make the case that building a traditional genre story around the tragic disappearance of a child ISN’T just a little bit icky. If that revelation was what the book was trying to provoke, mission accomplished. But that might not be what it was going for at all. It’s kinda hard to tell, to be honest.

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Mitchell, David – Black Swan Green

I seem to have been reading a lot of coming-of-age stories lately, and my jumbled thoughts on the genre will hopefully take the form of a larger blog post soon. This book treads some fairly familiar ground, documenting a year in the life of a 13-year-old poet and stammerer, burdened by secrets and self-doubt, as he traverses the tense tightropes of school and family life in the English village of Black Swan Green. But the journey is made memorable by David Mitchell’s inventive way with words, his talent for suddenly revealing unexpected and beautiful truths that have been there all along, and his habit of shattering his narratives into fragments which feel almost like self-contained stories in themselves, but which together add up to something much more enigmatic and affecting. As with all his books, I’d like to go through this again with a highlighter in an attempt to trace all the secret connections, in this case to figure out what exactly is going on with that moon-grey cat…

Cloud Atlas

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Mitchell, David – Cloud Atlas

It’s hard to describe this book without descending into metaphor: it’s a rollercoaster that spends half its duration cranking you to the top and the latter half plunging you back to earth! It’s a beautiful Rubik’s cube with so many moving parts it may never truly be solved! It’s … okay, if you want to be a literal Linda about it, it’s a series of tangentially connected stories told with amazing skill in various styles, but it can feel very much like those first two things I said. If you’re not used to 19th century adventure stories, the first section might feel a little slow, but it gets more accessible to modern audiences as it goes along. The mystery grows as the layers are pulled back, until the merest hint of a connection between the narratives can set your spine a-tinglin’. If you’re like me you’ll reach the end with the uncomfortable sense that you’ve just read six better books than you’ll ever write, tempered only by the desire to read it again and spot more clues. If that’s not enough for you, it contains a hilariously and depressingly accurate account of travelling by train in Britain.

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Mitchell, David – Ghostwritten

I sort of hoped that, as his first published novel, Ghostwritten might give some clue as to how David Mitchell developed the incredible talent on display in Cloud Atlas, marking an early and educational step on his journey as a writer. But nope, the talent is already in full bloom in this funny, globe-spanning, almost Vonnegut-esque epic. Even more than his other books, it blurs the line between novel and short story collection; some of the chapters – the one set on the holy mountain jumps out – feel easily rich enough to comprise entire novels in themselves. But there are some great “aha” moments when we finally see the quiver of connective threads binding the whole together. If I have one criticism it’s that the book is so sprawling, so dense with echoes and imagery, that it’s hard for a mere mortal like me to know quite what to take away from it, other than a general sense that everything is connected. But that just makes me excited to read it again some day, and the first time round it was an extremely enjoyable ride, and exquisitely written. (Granted, that may be the fanboy in me talking; at this point I’d probably say the same about a telephone directory if David Mitchell wrote it.)

150-DanceDanceDance Murakami, Haruki – Dance Dance Dance

I’d nearly finished this book when I discovered it’s the sequel to another book (A Wild Sheep Chase) which I haven’t read, but the unexplained elements didn’t strike me as out of place, rather feeling right at home within Murakami’s usual dream logic. Talking to a sheep man on a spooky secret floor of a weird hotel? I’d expect nothing less. As ever, I had no idea where the plot was going, or which strands would turn out to be important. At one point I thought it was turning into a murder mystery, but Murakami seems to shoot down anything resembling a recognisable formula before it gets off the ground. This freewheeling style is enjoyable, but also means I never really know what to say after finishing one of his books. At some point I should probably make an effort to read up on interpretations of his work rather than cheerfully bumbling through it like someone admiring the pretty pictures in an art gallery without stopping to look too closely or read the plaques for context. But hey, there’s nothing wrong with pretty pictures for pretty pictures’ sake.

Kafka on the Shore Murakami, Haruki – Kafka on the Shore

After reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, I knew I had to go back to Murakami at some point, as he’s one of the few writers who genuinely inspires me to paint pictures in my head of the things he describes, as readers seem to be expected to but I rarely do. Kafka on the Shore recounts two cryptically interlinked stories: the vaguely Oedipal tale of a teenage runaway, and the strange adventures of an even stranger old man. It shares certain elements with Wind-up Bird: awkward sex, lost cats, surreal vision quests and bizarre events from the past whose consequences echo to the present. In a certain frame of mind – if I were trying to write an essay on the book, say – I might find the muddling of metaphor and reality frustrating. Even reading it for pleasure, the art-sceptical part of my brain sometimes chimes in “What does any of this mean? It’s just a load of random weird stuff happening. I could write this” before the rest of my brain sardonically responds “Oh yeah? And it would be this beautiful and disturbing and downright hypnotic, would it? Now shoosh and enjoy the ride.”

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle cover. Murakami, Haruki – The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

I don’t really know how to talk about this one, since no framework I’ve tried to slot it into has really helped me make sense of it. I’m sure people who read a lot of post-post-modern books (or whatever level we’re at now) would scoff at me for my lack of understanding. But I don’t think you have to have studied English to appreciate it in these ways: it’s poetic, it’s evocative, it’s intriguing, it’s addictive, and it’s unlike almost everything else. In some ways it feels like dozens – if not hundreds – of strange intersecting short stories. If the part of your brain that asks awkward questions like “What’s going on? Is this real, or a dream? What was the point of that bit?” ever takes an evening off, that might be a good time to give this book a chance.

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Nabokov, Vladimir – Lolita

Despite the controversy surrounding this book, the thing that struck me most about it was how beautifully and inventively written it is – certainly enough to make me feel guilty about calling myself a writer, and more disturbingly, enough to calm the sense of moral outrage stirred up by some of the early chapters. Before long, we are swept along on a strange journey in the company of pubescent-girl-fancier Humbert Humbert, a man we would be unlikely to have the chance to get to know in real life, and probably wouldn’t want to. But in the safe realm of fiction, we become desensitised to his unique way of seeing the world, worn down by his poetic vocabulary and biting sense of humour. Like a lot of morally ambiguous books, it’s hard to boil it down to any sort of message other than: “people are people, and people are complicated”. But that’s a lesson worth learning more than a few times.

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Orwell, George – Animal Farm

Another reread. This is the story of a workers’ revolution among the animals of Manor Farm, who chase out their human masters and seize control, before slowly realising that this new configuration of power has not resulted in the golden utopia they were promised. Animal Farm certainly deserves its status as a classic: it’s extremely well crafted and makes its points clearly and elegantly. To me, though, the directness of the allegory has always been mildly off-putting, and gives this book a bit of an educational flavour, like something designed to be taught in schools. But perhaps that’s just because Orwell’s follow-up, the magnificently terrifying Nineteen Eighty-Four, takes a lot of the same ideas and spins them into a much more complex and thought-provoking tapestry.

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Palahniuk, Chuck – Fight Club

I was cautious going into this book, because although it seems to be worshipped by a certain section of the population, I got the impression this was largely to do with the theme of masculinity, a theme so profoundly meaningless to me that when people talk about it in the context of real life they may as well be talking about unicorns. Thankfully, there is a lot more going on here than a bunch of guys reconnecting with their inner man-animals through the medium of beating each other up. Each chapter is beautifully, almost musically structured, with verses and choruses, themes and variations, echoes and refrains which provide a satisfying sense of progression even when the plot is unfolding in three different places and times at once. The writing is peppered with striking, meme-ready sentences which provide a clue as to how it accumulated its massive cult following. And yes, there may be a rebellious, even anarchic streak running through Fight Club, but any reader who sees it all the way to its chilling conclusion and still thinks “yeah, we need to do exactly what those guys did” is not a person I will ever understand.

Crime in the Community cover. Peartree, Cecilia – Crime in the Community

Full disclosure: this one was written by my mum. This means it’s hard to be objective, but I found it fun and surprising. It’s rather strange to venture into a world created by someone you think you know incredibly well, and find things there that it didn’t occur to you that they ever thought about. Along with things, of course, that seem completely in character, like frustration with authority figures and dysfunctional children (uh-oh). As well as a subtly unfolding mystery, this book is a catalogue of observations about people, many of them very funny. You can find it on the Kindle store for free, though it’s the first in a series, so be warned that it may act as a gateway drug to the world of Pitkirtly.

150-TheMountainAndTheFlood Perry, Sheila – The Mountain and the Flood

Another novel by my mum, published under her real name this time! It’s set in a dystopian future version of Scotland which achieved independence from the UK then went a bit evil and began cracking down on citizens of English birth. (Guess which side my mum was on in the independence debate?) In the midst of this, a half-English, half-Scottish family living in Edinburgh struggles to remain together, fighting first faceless bureaucracy and later actual people with actual faces. Oh, and while all this is going on, an apocalyptic storm is brewing that could flood most of Scotland. To do the indie book pitch thing: it’s Nineteen Eighty-Four meets The Day After Tomorrow meets Cat’s Cradle! It’s also very entertaining, even the bits I disagree with politically – which, in any case, tend to be superficial things rather than core philosophical tenets.

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Rowling, J. K. – The Casual Vacancy

It took me a long time to get into The Casual Vacancy. It’s not that I was expecting Quidditch and Polyjuice Potion – honest! – but it seemed reasonable to expect some of the charm of Harry Potter. Instead, this book felt like a rather humdrum soap opera with a focus on unlikeable characters judging one another. To be honest I may not have kept going, except for two things: a) I had bought the audiobook and decided to let it play in the background while doing other things, and b) it was written by J. K. Rowling who is still probably, by some measures at least, my favourite author. I’m glad I made the effort. The cast may be less colourful and cartoonish than that of Harry Potter, but some – Krystal Weedon springs to mind – are no less vivid and fascinating, if you can get past all the ugly hypocrisies Rowling dwells upon so unflinchingly it feels almost unfair. And in the end, all the mundane, unpleasant, judgemental pieces come together to form something powerful, compassionate and furious. In that way, at least, this book lived up to my expectations.

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Spiegelman, Art – Maus

A bold attempt to capture the horrors of the Holocaust in graphic novel form. I’m sure much ink has been spilled debating whether this is appropriate, but to me this debate is not only a waste of time, but borderline offensive considering the depth and breadth of comics as an art form and the extent to which they were pioneered by Jewish artists. Also controversial was (and still is, based on the fiery debates at my book club) Spiegelman’s use of animals to depict various races of people, though how anyone can get through this book thinking this isn’t a deliberate choice to highlight the cartoonish absurdity of racial stereotyping is a mystery to me. The structure is also worthy of note, as it erases the line between fiction and non-fiction: we flash back and forth between a relatively benign present in which Spiegelman himself quizzes his understandably cranky father about his Holocaust experiences, and the up-close-and-personal story of his father’s journey, rife with betrayal, despair and an almost unbearable sense of oppression. Maus is a great book and an essential read, especially in these troubling times. If we refuse to learn from the stories contained here, what possible hope is there for humanity?

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Whitehead, Colson – The Underground Railroad

This lightly Gaiman-esque tale combines a rather harrowing depiction of slavery in the southern United States with a single element of fantasy: the titular underground railroad, which existed in reality as a covert anti-slavery movement, is here given a more literal existence as a network of tunnels and trains. The literalisation of this metaphor occasionally makes you forget that many of the more horrific events portrayed in this story actually happened, meaning that this realisation keeps creeping up on you throughout the book, coming as a fresh shock each time. It also gives the impression that some cosmic force – not just other decent human beings – is looking out for the oppressed. This makes parts of The Underground Railroad feel like a kind of escapism; I was never quite sure whether I was supposed to be reading it that way or as a hard-hitting portrait of slavery. Perhaps this is a tension inherent in all fantasy, but it felt more jarring than usual here. Not that jarring is a bad thing – as far as I’m concerned, if that’s what it takes to break our minds out of society’s prescribed ways of thinking about difficult subjects, jar away. Even if one ignorant white guy like me doesn’t appreciate all the subtleties, someone more important surely will.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Wilde, Oscar – The Picture of Dorian Gray

Brilliant, simple, original ideas are hard to come by. Oscar Wilde had one of them, and the result is The Picture of Dorian Gray, a tragic exploration of a consequence-free life. Conspicuously absent are details about what Dorian actually DOES when he is supposedly indulging in wild excess and vice – I’m guessing these were too riskily risqué for a Victorian readership. As such, it is hard for us to tell exactly whose side we should be on as a modern audience, though Lord Henry’s cruel witticisms which sow the seeds of amorality in young Dorian’s mind can seem less seductive now than they probably did then. Also off-putting are the book’s treatment of class, and certain drawn-out descriptions of faraway things that have little bearing on the story. All in all, though, the book is still interesting for its iconic and genuinely unsettling imagery, its endless paradoxical soundbites and the sort of ending that makes you go “Now, that’s an ending!” (Also, for a bit of context it is well worth reading about Wilde’s life, particularly his trial, to which this book now seems incredibly relevant.)

150-ThankYouJeeves Wodehouse, P. G. – Thank You, Jeeves

My first Wodehouse book, but the characters felt familiar straight away, which is probably a testament to how interwoven they are with British culture by this point. If you don’t know, the central characters are rich idler Bertie Wooster, whose good intentions are matched only by his complete inability to translate them into advisable actions, and his valet Jeeves, who seems to know more or less everything there is to know and will patiently bail his employer out of whatever situations he gets himself into. It all feels very innocent and benign, to the point of being naive, and as such it runs the risk of picking up and playing with certain cultural elements from the time it was written, without stopping to ask if they might be harmful. But throughout the book there’s an absolute lack of malice that makes it hard to take genuine offence; it’s something to shake your head at with a slightly disbelieving smile before moving on. Despite the fact I’ve heard all the books in this series are basically the same, I am tempted to pick up another one some time, and let the convoluted plots and winding conversations waste my time in a pleasant way.

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150-StoriedLifeOfAJFikry Zevin, Gabrielle – The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

On the surface, this story about an embittered bookshop owner learning to love again after a child is abandoned in his shop should be the sort of thing that reaches into your heart and squeezes unbearably tight. But – and I don’t know why this is – it did very little for me. One problem I can actually put my finger on is that the change in Fikry’s character seems to happen almost as soon as the child shows up. There is little reluctance on his part to let someone new into his damaged heart, and once he has, it is pretty much smooth sailing from there on. No major setbacks, not much struggle to adapt to the idea of loving again – just all the pieces of a happy and fulfilling life appearing one by one and falling neatly into place. If there is a message here, it feels a naive and rather alienating one. Also, I wasn’t sold on some of the thematic stuff – I got the sense the author was trying to suggest that stories can interweave with people’s lives in all sorts of subtle but profound ways, but I can’t think of many ways this was actually demonstrated, aside from the literal fact of the main character’s occupation. I will say this though: the rest of my book club loved A. J. Fikry, and they are clever and discerning people. Perhaps parts of it were targeting receptors that are missing from my messed up brain.

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