books 2021

    Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (Books 2021, 7)

    I know, JK Rowling is a somewhat troubling figure now. When this book came out, last year, my daughter was adamant that we not buy it, because of Rowling’s anti-trans statements, and I had respected her feelings up till now; as well as having my own concerns. But… the art, not the artist, I guess? Even if I’m further enriching her by buying the art?

    The truth is twofold: one, I don’t think she’s actively antithetical to trans people. She has a complex, nuanced position about various aspects of the situation, which gets blown out of all proportion on Twitter, when nuance, as it does, heads over there to die. And which, surprisingly and disappointingly for a wordsmith, she doesn’t seem able to elucidate that well.

    And two, I really like the books and wanted to read it.

    Furthermore, I was sick, and I had decided that I was going to treat the time on the sofa as an extension of the holiday, and not try to get back to working on the novel/dissertation till the Monday. I wanted some comfort reading, and this was what I wanted. I knew I’d rip through it in a few days, even if I was trying to work at the time. So I killed two birds with one stone.

    It’s good, as ever. I don’t really understand how she makes the pages turn so fast (there are a lot of them, especially as an ebook). I did pick up a couple of typos, and some odd line break errors, which might be to do with the translation to ebook – either way, it’s very sloppy editing/proofreading by the publishers. Also some – several – places where I would have edited a line to make it better. I noticed fewer of those as the plot roared on, unsurprisingly. Which at least means I’m reading even a book like this in a more writerly fashion. Or I was at the start.

    The main other weaknesses are:

    • Everything comes together just a bit too tidily.
    • There’s too much about some of the secondary cases the agency is working on, over and above the main one. Those can be interesting or amusing, and sure, it’s realistic that they’d have to have more than just a forty-year-old cold case to work on, over a year. But in the end they feel like padding.
    • As the denouement unfolds she uses a gimmick where the characters learn or work out something, which they relate to each other, but which is not revealed to us. It’s kind of annoying, because it’s suddenly hiding info from the reader that the characters have, where earlier in the story that wasn’t happening. I think she’s done it before in some (maybe all) of the Strike novels.

    But a lot of fun, anyway.

    Bernard and the Cloth Monkey by Judith Bryan (Books 2021, 6)

    This is a story of a family – especially two sisters – and things that brought them together and pushed them apart. It varies between straightforward realist events, and ambiguous, almost fantastic scenes, which may be memories, or partly memories, or a way for the character to deal with memories.

    It’s part of a series that Bernardine Evaristo has curated for Penguin, called Black Britain: Writing Back, aiming to bring lost works back into publication. This one won awards back in 1997 (even though, confusingly, the copyright date is 1998). It’s been out of print since.

    Worth checking out.

    Heartburn by Nora Ephron (Books 2021, 5)

    When I wrote about watching When Harry Met Sally… last year, I said that ‘Nora Ephron may be my favourite screenwriter after Aaron Sorkin, where dialogue is concerned.’ The dialogue in this novel isn’t so sparkling, but the narration is.

    It’s a fictionalisation of the breakdown of her marriage to the journalist Carl Bernstein, and it’s amazing how funny she makes it, considering how painful the experience clearly was.

    Seems to be her only novel, which is kind of a shame.

    The strangest thing is that the woman Bernstein had an affair with is the daughter of prime minister Jim Callaghan.

    Far more interestingly, though, is that, according to Wikipedia, Ephron was one of the few people who knew the identity of Deep Throat.

    None of which has anything to do with the book, which you should just read.

    How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (Books 2021, 4)

    Despite the title, this is not a writing ‘how-to’ book, except maybe by example. Nor is it a novel itself; it is a collection of essays. The subjects they cover do include writing and writing courses, most notably the Iowa Writers' Workshop. That was one of the first, if not the first, postgraduate-level courses in creative writing, and Chee studied on it.

    But the book covers a lot else, too. As Chee is a mixed-race gay man, you won’t be surprised to hear that those details feature in a number of the essays. As does living in New York and trying to make it as a writer. And growing roses, and the origin of Catholic rosary beads.

    I was drawn to this because one of the essays was assigned reading on the MA early this term, and he was also cited at various other points on at least two modules.

    His debut novel is called Edinburgh, which immediately interests me. Though you learn from a couple of the essays that he hoped, when younger, to go to Edinburgh to study parapsychology, but didn’t; and that the Edinburgh connection in the novel didn’t survive the writing and editing process, but he kept the title anyway.

    I don’t know what his fiction is like yet, but he’s a fine essayist.

    Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Books 2021, 3)

    This book is infuriating. At times, and in certain ways, at least. Or not the book, but some of the characters.

    For example, the parents, especially the dad – are so fucking pathetic it makes me angry. He can’t even boil an egg for his kids' breakfast when his wife’s away.

    And throughout the early part you’re wondering why do they both love Lydia much more than their other two kids? Even before she dies, I mean?

    Oh, yes it’s a dead girl story, did I mention that? Lydia is fridged in the first line, so it’s not a spoiler. It’s totally a fridging, though. That page tells you that the term means killing a female character ‘often as a plot device intended to move a male character’s story arc forward.’ Lydia’s death drives the whole plot, including the actions of her father and brother, so it definitely qualifies.

    Her mother and little sister too, but that doesn’t lessen the truth of it.

    It’s a very good exposition of a family with secrets at its heart. Though in the case of some of the secrets, there’s no very good reason for the person to keep them secret. A lot of problems could have been avoided – including, probably, the death of Lydia – if people had just talked to each other. That’s part of what’s so infuriating about it at times.

    But maybe that – the difficulties people, families, have in communicating – is the point.

    I also wondered why she chose to set it in the time she does. The present day parts are in 1977-8. I think it’s so that she can write about the particular immigrant experience she does: second and third generation Chinese immigrants to the US.

    I picked this up because one of my tutors recommended it to me, due to its use of an omniscient narrator. I’m trying something similar with something I’m working on at the moment. This article in the New York Times practically credits Ng with bringing omniscient narration back into fashion. I don’t feel that it ever really went away, but maybe it has remained more common in SF than in literary fiction. Though as I write that I’m not sure I could cite an example from recent SF either, so maybe I’m wrong.

    Here’s a good article by Ng herself about her decision to use the device. It’s been useful to me, anyway. And I actually enjoyed the book, aside from being annoyed at times.

    Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (Books 2021, 2)

    It took me quite a long while to read this. I enjoyed it whenever I read a section, and I read it in large chunks at a time; but between times I wasn’t particularly drawn back to it. I think that’s probably because it doesn’t have any significant plot.

    Instead it’s a series of character explorations, looking at a series of Black women (and a few men) over several decades of the twentieth century and the first two of the twenty-first.

    Each story is compelling and enjoyable, and they’re all interlinked – almost too interlinked at times, you might say, because there’s an element of coincidence. But that doesn’t matter: coincidences happen, after all.

    Perhaps the major downside is that you get interested and invested in a character, and their chapter ends and we move on to another one. So it’s like you’re always starting fresh. Or fresh-ish. That’s probably also part of why I had the experience I described at the start, of not being drawn back to it.

    Because of my course, I’ve been thinking a lot about the choices writers make. So I was particularly aware of Evaristo’s unconventional choices regarding punctuation and capitalisation. Specifically, she capitalises proper nouns, but no other words. So sentences all start with lower-case letters. And she eschews almost all punctuation. Only the comma, the apostrophe, the question mark, and an occasional exclamation mark, are used.1 {.has-dropcap}

    No full stops means – and I only consciously realised this when looking it over to write this – that every sentence starts a new paragraph, and comprises the whole of the paragraph. Even when a sentence does end with a question mark or exclamation mark, she has it end the paragraph.

    All of which is fine. I found it noticeable, but not distracting. I just wonder what the intended effect is. Some people say they find things like quotes to delineate speech intrusive, and I’ve heard it said that leaving capitals off the start of sentences feels more informal. But I feel generally that most established conventions have good reasons for existing, and that the best approach is to keep to them, unless you have a very good reason for not doing so. I don’t think this novel would in any way be lessened if it were capitalised and punctuated conventionally.

    And then I would be talking more about the content, not the form.

    1. There may be the odd colon or semicolon, but I couldn’t find any on looking it over just now. And there are probably a couple of dashes and brackets. ↩︎

    The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (Books 2021, 1)

    It looks as if I haven’t read anything yet this year. That’s far from true, of course, but this is the first book-length work I’ve finished. Though that ‘book-length’ is extremely deceptive, as it’s very short.

    I read it for my course – specifically the Creative Nonfiction module that I’m doing this term. It’s a powerful statement about the position of Black people in America in the early 60s, when it was written. Things have sadly not changed much.

    In terms of presentation, it’s a little odd. It’s titled as two letters: one to his nephew, and another ‘from a region in my mind.’ The first is short, and does read as if it were a letter. The second, not so much.

    It’s more of a personal essay, combining memoir and political analysis. It shows a great deal of empathy, both for Black people and the white majority in his country. And it ends with a note of hope, that America can still become the country it claimed to be. I wonder what he’d think of things now.

    Both parts are available at those links, so you don’t even have to buy it if you want to check it out, which you should.

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