books

    Finished reading: My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid πŸ“š

    The latest bookclub book. Kincaid’s brother died in 1996 of AIDS. Kincaid herself was estranged from her family for 20 years, so she saw her brother when he was three, and then again when he was 33, and dying.

    Unsurprisingly this is more about her than about him. She looks at feelings towards her birth family: does she love her brother? Does she love her mother? ‘No’ is her conclusion for both. But she examines different kinds of love, different ways of loving.

    Parts of it are kind of like cubist art in a way: examining the same place, person, or event, at different times, in the way the cubists would try to show a subject from different angles at the same time.

    The writing flows very smoothly despite some impressively- if not excessively-long sentences.


    Books 2024, 7

    Finished reading: Monument Maker by David Keenan πŸ“š

    This is a monster, behemoth of a book. At over 800 pages it’s not the longest I’ve read in recent years, but it’s up there. And it is… very strange.

    I’ve read several of Keenan’s books before, and enjoyed them, but found them strange. This one is composed of three or four different narratives. They’re interlinked, or at least interconnected, but they’re very different.

    A love story in France of a few years ago about someone who is studying cathedrals (sort of); a historical story about the Siege of Khartoum; a far-future science-fiction story supposedly written by two of the characters in one of the other sections.

    And so on. It will bear rereading, I imagine, but I’m not sure I’ll dedicate the time. I started it just before Christmas and finished it this morning. With a few other books in between, but still.


    Books 2024, 5

    Finished reading: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie πŸ“š

    The latest book club book for me, and I read it in a day. Short, easy, and supposedly the most popular crime novel ever, or something.

    It was OK, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as Murder on the Orient Express, which I read at Christmas.

    Ten people are invited to a house on an island. Ten people die. But there’s no one else on the island! How can this be?


    Books 2024, 4


    Finished reading: The House at the End of the Sea by Victoria M. Adams πŸ“š

    First, a disclaimer: the author of this book was on the same Creative Writing MA as me, and I read a prerelease PDF that she sent me.

    That said, it’s a really good young-adult fantasy story set in the real world, present day.

    Or I think ‘middle grade’ is the sort of level it’s marketed towards. The main character, Saffi, is about 12. Her younger brother is maybe eight or ten. Their mum has died tragically young and their dad takes them from London to live with their grandparents in a B&B by the sea in Yorkshire.

    The titular house has been in the family for generations, and it has A History. The kids hate it at first, but Saffi tries to adjust and to keep her brother’s spirits up. She is helped by a slightly mysterious local boy they meet.

    And then a group of guests arrive at the B&B. In the middle of the night. Without coming through the door.

    Things get stranger after that. Will Saffi and Milo save the family’s legacy, themselves, and their new friend’s home, from the plans of these powerful figures out of myth and fairytale? Only by reading will you find out.

    It’s great. Get it for your kids.


    Books 2024, 3

    Finished reading: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka πŸ“š

    I can see why this won the Booker last year the year before last. It’s beautifully written, with a kind of light, easy style. And yet it goes to some very, very dark places.

    The titular Maali is dead at the start, finds himself in the afterlife, and doesn’t know how he died. He’s given seven days β€” the ‘moons’ of the title β€” to find out, or not, before he has to decide whether or not to go into ‘The Light’.

    There are ghosts, ghouls, demons, and horrors. Most of the latter two are living humans, because we’re in Sri Lanka’s civil war, and Maali was a photographer who photographed the horrors. Many of the dead he meets died in atrocities, and they’re not shy about sharing their stories.

    I can highly recommend this, but not if you’ll be too disturbed by stories of atrocities. So think of this as a content warning.


    Books 2024, 2

    Finished reading: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone πŸ“š

    A Christmas present from my son. I know I read it before, but that was on Kindle, and he didn’t know that, and this is a nice physical book.

    It’s a lovely story as well as a lovely book, about two near-immortal warriors, competing and falling in love as they range up and down the timestreams.

    All that I said in 2020 still applies.


    Books 2024, 1

    Edinburgh by Alexander Chee (Books 2023, 27) πŸ“š

    Back in 2021, when I read Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, I expressed an interest in this book, Edinburgh, largely because of its title. As I said then, ‘the Edinburgh connection in the novel didn’t survive the writing and editing process, but he kept the title anyway.’ There is, in fact, a tangential character in this who has a loose connection to the city, but it’s not relevant.

    What we have is a bildungsroman, the story of a boy becoming a man, knowing he’s gay from an early age, and going through various experiences both because of that fact and having nothing to do with it.

    But about halfway through, the first-person narrative switches to a different character’s first-person narrative, which caused me some confusion. The sections are headed with the name of the narrator, but since there is only this one change, then a change back for the last quarter, it wasn’t immediately obvious what was going on.

    That was OK though. What I didn’t enjoy so much was a kind of allusiveness that really became vagueness, which at times made it slightly hard to see what he was getting at. Especially in the last quarter.

    And that last quarter is the most difficult and problematic part of the whole. See, early on, the first narrator is abused, along with several classmates, by a teacher. This doesn’t seem to have much effect on the narrator, though it does on some of the other victims.

    But in the end the main narrator becomes an abuser himself; of the other narrator, who is linked to the whole story in a way that is, frankly, too coincidental. And it all ends in a kind of unresolved ambiguity which I found left a bad taste.

    All in all, I preferred his nonfiction.

    Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (Books 2023, 26) πŸ“š

    The first Christmas-present book, finished on boxing day. Short, and a page-turner.

    I’ve never read an Agatha Christie before, perhaps surprisingly. I’m not even sure I’ve seen any significant adaptation, except I once caught the end of one. Of this novel, unfortunately. So I sort of knew what the conclusion was, which meant I was seeing how the clues pointed in that direction.

    No matter, it’s still a great read, and makes me want to read more.

    The Running Grave by Robert Galbraith (Books 2023, 25) πŸ“š

    A reread so soon? Hell, yes, why not? I think I enjoyed it even more this time. It’s amazing how compelling a book can still be on a reread.

    The Affirmation by Christopher Priest (Books 2023, 24) πŸ“š

    I’ve had this book for years, and I thought I had read it. Took a look at it a week or two back and realised I hadn’t. So I did.

    What I also didn’t realise was that it’s a Dream Archipelago story. Which is surprising, since it starts in present-day (1980s) London. In fact it’s the first novel (though not, I think, the first story) to use the Dream Archipelago as a setting, or state of mind.

    Peter Sinclair suffers various crises in his personal life, and decides to write an autobiography to better understand himself. Through various revisions his writing becomes more fictionalised, until he’s writing about the islands. Or living in them. Is it alternative world or madness? Portal fantasy or mental breakdown?

    Or maybe both, or neither. You could argue that as a story it doesn’t entirely make sense, but I don’t think I’d go there. I mean, I’d go there, to the Archipelago, for sure (it feels a lot like Greece to me, and indeed Sinclair and his ex/not-ex girlfriend met there, we are told).

    It’s a novel that leaves you questioning its realities, and maybe your own. And that seems like a good thing to me.

    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Books 2023, 23)πŸ“š

    Why did nobody ever tell me that this book is funny? I had it in my head as a slightly worthy, if much-loved, courtroom drama. But the trial is only part of it, and quite small part at that. Though its ramifications play out to the end, and echo back to near the start.

    Scout is an endearing narrator, wise beyond her years, tough, smart. Lee conjures a believable, well-formed picture of life in small-town Alabama in the thirties. A place of community and friendship, gossip and criticism, poverty and hard work. And a few people, notably Atticus, of course, willing to do the right thing in the face of dangerous racist neighbours.

    It’s intriguing, from a writer’s perspective, how the narrative voice changes in the courtroom scenes when they do come.

    And Boo Radley gave the band their name. I don’t think I knew that, or if I did I’d forgotten.

    You don’t need me to tell you it’s a classic, and it turns out, for good reason.

    Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler (Books 2023, 22) πŸ“š

    There is no evidence in the text of this book that it is SF. Yet here I have a copy, published in the SF Masterworks series.

    Graham Sleight addresses this in his introduction, but doesn’t try to give a conclusive reading either. There is no definitive answer, as the work is deliberately ambiguous.

    The titular Sarah is a woman described as β€˜ugly’ who turns up in the camp of some Chinese men who are working on railroads in the USA of the 1870s. She speaks no known human language, though she does make sounds. She gains her name later because, a character says, β€˜she sings like an angel’. One of the men, a young man called Chin, is volunteered to try to find where she belongs, or failing that, at least get rid of her, so she stops distracting them.

    So begins a trek across the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Along the ways we meet various characters with various good and bad qualities.

    The ending is, as I say, ambiguous. We never find out who or what Sarah Canary is. But the journey is quite enjoyable.

    White Riot by Joe Thomas (Books 2023, 21) πŸ“š

    I picked this up because of the title, taken as it obviously is from an early song by my favourite band. I bought it because it is set in and around the famous anti-Nazi festival in Victoria Park in London. Or at least it starts there.

    Though that’s not quite true. It starts even closer to home for me: my kids' primary school is mentioned early on, and many other streets, pubs, takeaways and landmarks that still exist are visited.

    Joe Thomas was born in 1977, so he’s doing this from research, not memory, but it captures the area very well, and the time β€” well, from what I know of those times in London, I think he’s done a great job.

    It’s not mainly about the music scene, though. Thomas is a crime writer, and this is, kind of, a crime novel. And becomes more so as it goes on, and jumps to 1983. As you might imagine, given the notoriety of Stoke Newington Police Station of the time, it’s about bent coppers. And one more-or-less decent cop who is β€” we think β€” trying to bring them down.

    I say ‘We think’, because it’s not finished. It turns out it’s the start of a trilogy, with Red Menace and True Blue to follow. This one was only published this year, so I guess it’ll be a while before we see the followups.

    It’s all pretty good. It uses a slightly odd, cut-up sort of style: half sentences, fragments ending in dashes. But it’s very readable. As I say, I was drawn to it by the music and the locations, but I enjoyed spending time with the characters, and the situation is compelling. Real life events are stitched into fictional ones (or vice-versa).

    Unsurprisingly, then, it’s a very political book. And surprisingly Thatcher turns up as a character. I’m not sure why Thomas choose to do that. Maybe since most of the characters are on the left, it was to provide some sort of balance. Why not go as far up and right as possible, I suppose. I don’t mean Thatcher is the furthest-right person in it, to be fair: the National Front are heavily involved, too.

    The main police character is running ‘spycops’, and has operatives inside both the NF and the loose coalition of groups that oppose them (the Anti-Nazi League, Rock Against Racism, the Socialist Workers' Party). I expect as the series goes on we’ll see some version of the scandals around that whole business, too.

    In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (Books 2023, 20) πŸ“š

    This isn’t the kind of thing I’d normally think of reading, but I’ve joined a book club at work, and this was the latest book. The China MΓ­eville I read recently was the first.

    This one is a historical novel based on the true story of the Mirabal sisters, three women from the Dominican Republic who were assassinated for political activism by the regime of the dictator Trujillo, in 1960. Among the history of Latin American dictatorships, that was one I had never heard of.

    A fictionalised story, bringing the characters to the fore. There’s relatively little about what they actually did regarding revolutionary activities, but lots about them as daughters, as mothers. It’s told from four points of view: each of the murdered sisters, Patria, Minerva, and Mate; and that of their surviving sister, DedΓ©.

    It’s a beautifully written novel, heartbreaking because you know how it’s going to end, and because the characters are so well-realised, so brought to life.

    The day they were murdered, the 25th of November 1960, is memorialised by the UN as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

    The Running Grave by Robert Galbraith (Books 2023, 19) πŸ“š

    It’s only a few days since I finished β€” just over a week since the year-long wait was over β€” and it seems like ages. Now we’re back into another wait β€” hopefully not more than a year β€” till we find out what’s next for Strike and Robin.

    Here, Robin has to go undercover to investigate a cult. By which I mean, she has to sign up as if she were a believer, and go deep, deep undercover. It gets very tense.

    Minor spoilers follow.

    I didn’t enjoy this as much as the previous one or two, I think. Certainly at first I was a bit disappointed because of the time-jump. We’re eight months after the end of The Ink Black Heart, when I had expected it to continue straight on, the way Troubled Blood flowed right into IBH.

    But I think the main problem was that the two main characters are separated for much of it, precisely because she’s undercover, so can’t really communicate with him.

    Of course, once it all kicked into gear, the pages kept turning like they always do. But, while it was great to see them bring down an appalling cult, it just wasn’t as emotionally resonant for me as, especially, the previous two.

    Canal Dreams by Iain Banks (Books 2023, 18) πŸ“š

    I’ve always considered this the least of Iain Banks’s novels. As, I think, did he. If I remember correctly, this was the one about which he said he wrote it without a plan, and he’d never do that again.

    So it’s strange, coming back to The Great Banksie Reread, and reading this for the first time in many years, to find that I liked it far more than I expected to. (Funny to note that my only other reference to it here was saying it was better than I remembered.)

    It’s not that bad at all. It doesn’t meander the way you might expect the ‘no plan’ thing to imply. What is striking is how apt the title is. A significant proportion of the narrative is taken up with the main character’s dreams. All of which either illuminate her past or tie in to other events in the plot, so they make sense.

    But whichever novelist it was that I remember saying, ‘Never have a dream sequence’ β€” Chris Priest, I think β€” must hate it.

    Fatal Revenant: The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Book 2 by Stephen Donaldson (Books 2023, 17) πŸ“š

    Wordy, as I mentioned before. Long. Unnecessarily repetitive.

    But I enjoyed it nonetheless.

    I’m quite glad, though, I don’t have the other books yet. I feel it’s best to take a break after a story like this. Let it sink in. Prepare yourself, maybe, for the next one.

    Anyway, more of the same: The Land is in danger, Linden Avery’s son is in Lord Foul’s clutches, and she’s prepared to do just about anything to save it, and him. But especially him. I expect we’re going to see a situation where she puts the whole Land β€” the whole of Earth, indeed β€” in danger, by trying to save Jeremiah.

    Maybe she already has.

    Oh: people have far too many different names in this. I mean, names by which various people refer to them. In the very last chapter someone refers to ‘The Timewarden’. I was like, ‘That sounds like The Doctor; what the hell is going on?’ But they just meant Thomas Covenant.

    Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (Books 2023, 16) πŸ“š

    Normally speaking I’d claim a novel written in the 1930s and set in the late 40s for science fiction. But this doesn’t quite reach the threshold. There are around three obvious things that are futuristic: a reference to the Anglo-Nicaraguan war of 1946; ‘air mail’, where a package sent from London is dropped into a field in Sussex; and the astonishing combination of phone and television, allowing the callers to see as well as hear each other! Or rather, one caller to see the other, since phone boxes don’t have ‘television dials’ (but must at least have cameras).

    Oh, and the train service has become rubbish, not because of the car or Beeching, but because (wealthy) people mostly fly.

    But all that is nothing compared to how funny and overall good this novel is. Stella Gibbons wrote many other novels, but all of them are out of print but this, which is a great shame.

    The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (Books 2023, 15) πŸ“š

    I started readingthis a few years back, and stopped after the first chapter or so, because it seemed too similar to the thing I was trying to write at the time. I didn’t want to be overly influenced, or worse, unconsciously plagiarise it.

    But it’s always been in the back of my mind. And recently I’ve been trying to get back into that novel I was working on then, and finding it difficult. So I thought maybe reading the space opera I backed away from because it was too similar to my own nascent space opera would be just what I needed to get me kickstarted.

    That hasn’t quite happened yet (maybe because I read it on holiday), but I loved the hell out of this.

    Great characters you enjoy spending time with. A plot that’s just believable enough, with stakes that are high for the characters and then get higher. An interesting, believable galactic political background, with Earth as very much the minor player.

    None of the nonhuman characters feel really alien, except from in their physical descriptions, but that’s OK.

    I’d say, if you liked Firefly, you’ll like this.

    Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Books 2023, 14) πŸ“š

    I’ve been meaning to read this since I read a review of it back when it came out, in 2017. So, six years on, I finally did.

    It’s surprisingly slight, given all the fuss and praise. I wasn’t familiar with Saunders before reading that review, but he is famous for his short stories. I’ve read a few of those since β€” at least one during my MA β€” and they’re fine, but to my mind tend to suffer from the problem that many short stories have.

    I’ve mentioned this here before, though seemingly only once. Often, when I read a short story β€” even, or perhaps especially, by one of the supposed greats of of the form: Carver, Hemingway, even Chekhov β€” I’m left thinking, ‘So what? What was the point of writing that, and why did you leave it where you did?’

    However, I recognise the skill that it takes to conjure a life, a character, in few words. And Saunders makes good use of that ability here. Because the story is not very much about Abraham Lincoln. It’s not even that much about his son, Willie, who is the one who is actually in the ‘bardo’, a place where souls wait after death in some schools of Buddhism. Rather, it’s about some of the other souls that are trapped in the same Washington graveyard. We get a whole host of compressed backstories.

    And we get altogether too many quotes from books and articles about Lincoln and the death of his son. I haven’t investigated to see whether these are from actual Lincoln biographies, histories of the American Civil War, and so on, or they are cleverly invented by Saunders. (This Wikipedia article suggests it’s a mixture.) But I found them much less interesting than the stories of the dead souls. A few would have been fine, for background, but it feels like they make up about half the book.

    More stories about the dead, please.

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