Category Archives: Realistic drama

Us – David Nicholls

us

David Nicholls is perhaps best known for soppy fiction (or at least, soppier than the style I normally read). A good writer he is, but with funny, rom-com novels like Starter for Ten and smash hit One Day under his belt, I don’t think he ever had any pretence of implying he’s an author of literary fiction. Out of the two books I mentioned there it’s worth pointing out that I hated the latter – hate is a strong word, perhaps, but the way the plot zooms into a pair of people one day a year is clever in principle, but madly frustrating in practice. The highly anticipated film adaptation turned out to be a bit of a disaster, too, although this may be explained by the director casting American beauty Anne Hathaway as the dowdy, Yorkshire-born Emma (Hathaway can master a fairly RP English accent, but even the best British actresses have trouble with the Yorkshire drawl – it’s hardly a surprise Hathaway disappointed).

With that in mind, when the Man Booker longlist was announced and Nicholls’s funny, marriage-focused Us was on it, critics were surprised. But the judges were firm – the book was highly deserving, in their opinion. Still, I never planned to read it. In fact, it came to me as a result of rather contrived circumstances – I had an hour to kill in Starbucks and I’d just finished a book. Terrified of spending an hour with nothing to pass the time, I realised it was 6.59pm and Waterstones closed at 7, so I rushed in in a panic and picked up the first book I came across (Us was strategically placed by the door). I remember lamenting it a bit at the time because the hardback is absolutely massive, but the literary snob inside me thought, hey, it made the Booker longlist, it’s got to be some cop.

Wow – sometimes it feels like things happen for a reason.

Us is one of my favourite novels that I read in 2015. Told in first person narration from a man named Douglas Peterson, the book opens when his wife, Connie, wakes him up and announces she wants to leave him. With their only son about to depart off to university, the plot then flips between the present day, when Douglas desperately organises and drags his despairing wife and reluctant son on a tour around all the major European cities, and the past, when Douglas (a relatively dull, intellectual biochemist) meets and slowly falls in love with Connie (an artistic free spirit), as well as the way their marriage and parenthood progress. Spoilers ahead.

It had the typical, easy writing style I was expecting, but the mundanity of everyday life juxtaposed with the vivid description of European landmarks (and some tight artistic observations) made it captivating. I particularly felt very emotionally invested in Douglas’s relationship with his son, Albie, a rebellious 18-year-old who is struggling to connect his creative aspirations with who he feels his father expects him to be (intellectual and straight-laced, to say the least). This is given a whole other poignant level when we as readers eventually find out he was struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality, too. Some of Douglas’s interactions with Albie made me cry quite openly, and Nicholls writes in such a real, hard-hitting way about the struggle of parenthood (and the tragic emotion surrounding ‘cot deaths’) that immediately after finishing I felt a desperate desire to call my dad and tell him how much I love him.

Reviews were favourable. The only thing I noticed is that the Telegraph picked up on the slight implausibility of the Connie/Douglas relationship – even though she seems set on leaving him after the trip ends, in all aspects she still seems very much in love with him. The plot rather cruelly highlights the idea that some people are meant to be together, and others simply get in the way – Connie reconnects with an old boyfriend after splitting with Douglas, and Douglas wonders if he was just a blip in her lifetime, standing in the way of her destined love. The Telegraph review mentions how difficult it is to understand her mentality of wanting to leave Douglas when she so seems so loving and emotionally close with him, and I agreed to an extent, but I wonder if it’s because I haven’t been married and might be a bit too emotionally immature to understand it properly. I can certainly relate to (and observe constantly) the way two people bond, a bond that transcends a break-up – it’s difficult to let go of the intimacy and seems almost unnatural to cut off the familiarity when you’re forced to ‘break up’ with a person so bluntly.

Goodreads review: five stars, of course. This is a book that will stay with me for a while, and one I’d recommend to anyone.

[Coming next: Hyperion by Dan Simmons]

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The Rachel Papers – Martin Amis

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God, I’m a sucker for Martin Amis’s writing. I’ve only read three of his books, admittedly, but each one is packed full of a humour and easy wit that seems utterly effortless; The Rachel Papers immediately brought back memories of Money, though with a much more likeable protagonist this time around (well, in the sense that it’s easy to admire his youthful naivety – he’s a bit less tragic than Money‘s John Self). I bought this book for my sister initially as it looked like a good, tight read, and it went down well (naturally, she read it in about a day – if you can find a quicker reader than my sister Lou I’ll eat my hat). Spoilers below!

The Rachel Papers is the junior Amis’s debut, published when he was 24. It’s a young age to begin a literary career, but I’m sure his surname helped to open a few doors. I don’t want to imply that nepotism had too much of a hand, mind – Amis Jr. is an extremely talented writer in his own right. It’s interesting that the older Martin now deplores the style of his debut, though he admires the writing, and it’s easy to see why.

The plot follows 19-year-old Charles Highway, a man who is cultured, intelligent, and a bit of a prick, obsessed with women and sex. As the title might suggest, he is rereading his diary as the book progresses – a diary that documents the time in his life when he was about to turn 20 and pursuing a woman named Rachel. It’s supposedly autobiographical, which is an interesting way of reading it, as I couldn’t help reading Charles’s description of his relationship with his dad as Martin’s relationship with Kingsley (not that it was particularly descriptive). It seemed typical of one of those ‘privileged white boy’ autobiographical plots you see in a lot of modern literature, following the trials and tribulations of how a bright but lazy man can get into Oxford. Oh, first world problems…

It’s not really told in a chronological order but rather by way of the diary entries, with Charles commenting and reflecting on the particular excerpts he’s reading. There isn’t a lot of plot, either, with the story choosing to focus on the way Charles’s and Rachel’s relationship begins, then ends. Charles very naturally loses interest in Rachel, not for any particular reason – my sister Lou was fond of this realism, but I found it almost painful to read (in that it’s all too characteristic of how young, flaky men behave, I suppose). The compact nature of the novel suits the lack of plot – you don’t leave it wanting, nor does it feel dragged out, so it’s commendable for that alone (and maybe has a one-up on Money for that).

The blurb was obviously written by someone who’s never read it. Take a look:

Charles Highway, a precociously intelligent and highly sexed teenager, is determined to sleep with an older woman before he turns twenty. Rachel fits the bill perfectly and Charles plans his seduction meticulously, sets the scene with infinite care – but it doesn’t come off quite as Charles expects…

Let’s break it down, shall we?

Charles Highway, a precociously intelligent and highly sexed teenager, is determined to sleep with an older woman before he turns twenty.

Well, no. He’s not particularly interested in sleeping with someone older. He does mention it in passing to a friend, at one point, and is quickly discouraged.

Rachel fits the bill perfectly

Eh? Does she? Even if he DID have particular interest in sleeping with someone older, Rachel has only got one month on him, and his reasons for pursuing her are far from how old she is – though again, once she turns 20, he does note, internally, very casually, that he got his older conquest after all. But again, this is hardly a plot point – you might as well put on the blurb that he looked at a blue teapot once, for all the narrative attention it gets.

Charles plans his seduction meticulously, sets the scene with infinite care – but it doesn’t come off quite as Charles expects…

What scene is carefully planned and doesn’t come off as he expects? He manages to sleep with her successfully time and time again; indeed she pretty much falls in love with him and HE ditches HER well before he turns 20. I feel like this blurb is suggesting there’s some kind of comedy scenario in the pipeline, but pushing aside any bullshitty metaphorical ‘scene’ you could argue for, this blurb is total nonsense. It reminds me a little bit of clickbait. What’s the literary version? Litbait? I can see the headline now: ‘Charles wants to seduce Rachel – you won’t BELIEVE what happened next!’

So – a respectable four stars on the old Goodreads. Disregard the blurb and check it out for what it is – it doesn’t disappoint.

[Coming next – Us by David Nicholls]

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The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

the miniaturist

Jessie Burton had a good year in 2014. I mean, she’s probably still having a good time, sure, but to publish your debut and have it shoot to Waterstones’ Book of the Year in the same twelve-month period must be pretty exciting. I got hold of the book after seeing it in pride of place in Waterstones, and what a treat it was; be warned, spoilers ahead.

The novel is set in Amsterdam in the 1600s and follows 18-year-old protagonist Nella Brandt (née Oortman) as she prepares for a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. At the start of the book she moves into his home, but, much to her displeasure, joins his cutting sister Marin and two uninterested servants, Corneila and Otto. Poor Nella’s having a bad time. She doesn’t know her husband ahead of their marriage – it was arranged for his wealth, and he’s much older – and, understandably, she is fairly miserable at first, in a house she feels unwelcome in. Johannes pays her little to no attention, with the exception giving her a grand wedding gift: an enormous miniature (or dollhouse) of their house. Nella comforts herself by ordering figurines and furniture from a miniaturist, who, as you may have worked out already, turns out to be pretty important.

As Nella makes her first order she soon discovers that the creations that arrive are not only spookily accurate – supernaturally so – but also, in some cases, prophetic. From time to time she sees a blonde woman watching her before disappearing into crowds, or often thin air, and Nella comes to the conclusion that this must be the miniaturist, with an insight on Nella’s life that is entirely unprecedented.

What holds the novel together is the writing. It’s beautiful and original, with Burton creating imagery in an effortless way. The novel is full of surprises and keeps you on your toes, though the biggest twist is rather obvious from the get-go: Johannes, despite being a fairly kind and affectionate man, won’t touch his arranged wife or consummate their marriage, which is pretty mystifying for Nella – until she walks in on him with another man. With sodomy being illegal and punishable by death at the time, she has to conceal his secret along with the others in the household, three people she warms to in spite of the setbacks they endure (something the miniaturist is constantly hinting at, if not directly causing).

A lot of the book circulates around the miniaturist; she herself is spooky, gothic and downright compelling – at least at first. Unfortunately, the pay off is poor. I had expected her to be paranormal or perhaps non-existent, but her backstory is simple and, in a word, underwhelming. I would also have liked to have seen more of her as a prophetess. There’s an eerie section of the book where a figurine of Johannes’ spurned male lover is cast out of the window and Nella retrieves it, preceding a dramatic showdown where the man himself breaks into their home and torments them. I wanted this to be a taste of what was to come; I wanted to see more of the figurines as voodoo dolls, not just bits of wood to spook Nella.

The small, well-developed cast of characters and swift plot meant I was guaranteed a pleasurable read whenever I picked it up. Still, I was disappointed it didn’t develop into something more. There was a lot of untapped potential there, but perhaps it could have easily turned into something cheesy and altogether predictable had Burton gone down that route. I’ve noticed there are a few criticisms of the novel that say Nella grew in maturity a little too easily and become much more clever (and business-savvy) than her situation would rightly allow. I can’t speak for the business side, but I didn’t find her rapid maturity unrealistic. Nella is chucked in at the deep as soon as the book opens, and that kind of thing can make or break a person. I relate to that, so while Nella’s quick ascension from miserable young bride to head of the household (protecting the family’s political and financial interests) is not as believable as it might have been, it’s not the worst flaw I’ve spotted in a novel.

A small treat for me: my sister invited me to a talk in London where two authors, two publishers and an agent were speaking about the fiction industry on the whole – with Burton on the panel. It was similar to a Hay talk, in that the authors spoke about the creations of their books respectively and how they found the overall experience. It was pretty special to greet Burton during the drinks and nibbles after the talk and to tell her how much I liked the book – plus, her advice was inspiring. Give it a few years and I hope to be on a panel like that – hopefully not there to discuss the worst ever plummet in book sales.

Goodreads review: four stars. One knocked off the full five for the way it rapidly fizzled out, but otherwise, a pretty perfect book.

[Coming next: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan]

 

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Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanah

So Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is kind of a big shot. I’d say there were three things that propelled her towards becoming a household name: her bestseller Half of a Yellow Sun; her famous TED talk on feminism; and the fact global superstar Beyonce chose to play out an extract from said talk in her own 2014 anthem, Flawless. I mean, a lot of people (myself included) can now quote that speech off the top of their heads thanks to the exposure from Flawless (‘we teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller…’ etc) and Beyonce has been known to write it out in full behind her during her live performances, particularly the closing line of the extract: ‘feminist: a person who believe in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes’. You can’t pay for that kind of exposure. I often wonder what Adichie thinks of the rather extreme spotlight, but her publishers are surely rubbing their hands in glee; last year they released a small book of feminist essays penned by Adichie that flew off the shelves.

On reading Americanah, my initial reaction was to compare it to We Need New Names. There are clear similarities between the two novels; in both, a female protagonist is escaping from an African country rife with political tension and moving to the USA to study abroad, observing American life (and African-American life) from an outsider’s perspective. In fact, Americanah kind of filled the hole I had left from We Need New Names; in the latter I felt the book ended too soon, I wanted to know more about the protagonist’s life in the States. Americanah successfully fleshed that out for me (though, obviously, in the eyes of a different character).

Americanah follows two characters through the course of their lives: Ifemelu, the main protagonist, and her childhood sweetheart, Obinze. Both born and raised in Nigeria, they grow up together and part ways to explore separate countries – Ifemelu heading the USA, Obinze going to the UK. As a result of their background and the colour of their skin, they both face alienation in their respective countries, but have vastly different racial experiences on either side of the pond. In the US, Ifemelu is dealing with the stigma and consequences of living as a racial outsider in America, where social segregation is still very much in place, while Obinze is living in a state of paranoia as an illegal immigrant in England, struggling for money and with the constant fear of being discovered and deported back to Nigeria.

It was interesting to read that there wasn’t the same racial disapproval in the UK as there was in the USA – though I was half-expecting that, to be honest. Ifemelu has a white boyfriend for a section of the book and I found it fascinating to read how her fictional American friends reacted to an interracial couple; this is something I find interesting in real life, too (forgive me for my vast generalisation of both Americans and Brits). Take a recent, well-publicised example: Robert Pattinson got engaged to talented singer FKA Twigs, yet many of his American fans commented in disbelief that he had the audacity to marry a ‘black chick’, as if it’s something surprising or shocking; I don’t feel you see the same reaction to interracial couples in the UK, particularly speaking as a child of an interracial couple myself. I found it utterly perplexing, in Pattinson’s case.

But back to the book. By and large, it was a huge insight on how black people are treated in Western white-dominated countries, whether they are born into that country or not. As I probably implied, I enjoyed the satire of America, but felt particularly thoughtful about my own country, England. At times, the racial comments felt a little too obvious. Often they were woven into her characters’ lives, at other times the book would write out great explanatory chunks of Ifemelu’s blog about her own racial experiences, which felt a bit too stark for me. Yet Adichie addresses the idea of racial commentary always needing to be ‘subtle’, arguing (through a character who is a writer) that all too often black writers are accused of not being subtle enough in fiction, when in real life, it’s anything but. I find it hard to write about this book and comment on her messages without sounding like the kind of character she is mocking: an entitled white person making basic assumptions on race without truly experiencing it. I want to say it changed my frame of mind – I truly think it did – but I don’t know how patronising that sounds.

Alongside the general commentary, there is a very charming love story between the two characters; I often wondered if it was semi-autobiographical. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the book, but I thoroughly recommend reading it. Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar-winning star of 12 Years a Slave) supposedly obtained the rights of produce and star in an adaptation, so I look forward to that immensely. On Goodreads, it got five stars from me. Beautifully written, thoughtful and captivating – what more do you need?

[Coming next: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton]

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The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – Hilary Mantel

the-assassination-of-margaret-thatcher

Ah, the continuing success of Hilary Mantel. No doubt desperate to capitalise on the anticipation for her third Cromwell novel, Macmillan released a book of her short stories in 2014, with a similar book cover to Wolf Hall et al. Judging by the list of the stories’ origins at the back of the book, it appears that the only original story written specifically for this collection was the eponymous piece, the controversially-titled ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’. I’m not normally the biggest fan of short story collections – Nadine Gordimer being the exception – but I had very good things about this one, and the friendly Waterstones worker (damn it! They always get me!) talked me into it at the till. I mean, I hardly expected to be disappointed.

That said … I’m not sure it lived up to the hype. In fact, in realising what I disliked about these stories, I realised what I loved the most about her Cromwell novels: that they’re not autobiographical at all. Sure, like any writer she would have poured her wisdom and emotional experience into her fictional Cromwell, but there was no possible way I could have read it and thought, ‘well, this all sounds a bit too familiar.’ I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it in this blog before (probably), but I have a particular dislike for writers whose writing is obviously autobiographical, in that it just seems unimaginative. I’m well used to studying authors at great length and making note of every tiny habit and tic in their writing so I can waffle on in essays (or, well, blog posts). I like forgetting that they’re there.

I don’t know for sure, but I felt there were many autobiographical elements in TAoMT, which weakened it slightly. Of course, Mantel is such a good writer it’s almost obscene – no argument there. Yet what puts me off short stories is that they often follow a pattern of good writing and weak plots, without sufficient time (or pages) to really lead a story to its natural end. They always seem to end too soon. Was the potentially autobiographical element obstructive, here? Perhaps. The first story – ‘Sorry to Disturb’ – follows a woman living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the 1980s – like Mantel – married but childless, and on medication for a condition – like Mantel – and obviously a talented author – like Mantel. Given that the name of the author isn’t mentioned and she is reading from and and commenting on a diary she wrote at the time, this story could be entirely based on fact. Mantel did publish memoirs about this particular time of life, so for all I know, this might have been an excerpt. Whilst the sexual and cultural politics makes for an engaging plot, the story fizzles out before it goes anywhere, exactly like it might do in real life – and perhaps exactly how it DID go down in real life. But it’s important for stories to be realistic, right? I’m not so sure, and it’s a struggle for me to justify why that is.

The second story, ‘Comma’, is the same, following two children in Derbyshire (judging by the dialect) – again, potentially autobiographical. In ‘Comma’ the children experience something so bizarre they cannot make sense of it, in the general way that children see something odd and can’t rationalise it in their heads, which was pretty frustrating for me. Mantel (or her narrator? Or Mantel?) never did make sense of the unique phenomenon but I, as a reader, needed that closure.

Some stories felt a lot more poignant than others. ‘The Heart Fails Without Warning’ was a lot stronger than ‘Offences Against the Person’. My favourite was the very small story ‘The Long QT’, where a man laments on the sudden death of his wife as a result of her stumbling in on him with another woman – it’s a lot more humorous than it sounds. I also felt close to ‘Terminus’, given my familiarity with Waterloo train station, and I can easily relate to that sickening panic of thinking you’ve seen your dead parent. The standout story is ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’, which is exactly what it says on the tin – set in the 1980s, a bystander is taken hostage in their own flat while a sniper plans an execution of Margaret Thatcher as she leaves a nearby private hospital. Perhaps not exactly what it says on the tin; this is a fictional attempt, after all, and the ending is left suitably vague. The overall book? Worth a read, but perhaps not one of the most memorable collections I’ll ever come across.

Goodreads, then: four stars. I would have given the stories themselves only three but the brilliant writing and astonishing visual detail bumped it up. Come on, Mantel, we need more Cromwell!

[Coming next: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood]

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We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo

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I first heard of this book at Hay Festival in 2013. As you might remember from my other Hay blog posts, the festival puts on regular talks called ‘Fictions’, where one or two authors are probed about the latest novels they are promoting. NoViolet Bulawayo was in front of a tiny audience (with Meike Ziervogel promoting Magda) talking about We Need New Names; the book sounded vaguely interesting at the time, but I didn’t really consider picking it up. Then, a few months later, the book – her debut novel – was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Up against the mammoth contender The Luminaries it’s not overly surprising she didn’t scrape the top spot, but to be shortlisted is a pretty respectable start to a literary career, it’s got to be said. It wasn’t until last year that I had a chance to read it – no spoilers below.

The book follows 10-year-old Darling, a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe before being taken to the USA and spending her teenage years stateside. There’s no doubt an autobiographical element to that; Bulawayo also grew up in Zimbabwe, though she didn’t move to Michigan until she was a litte bit older. The novel is told in the voice of Darling, written in a simplistic style that’s easy to read – I raced through it in a matter of days – which is something particularly characteristic of African fiction written in English. In fact, certain sections reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (and the phrase ‘things fall apart’ was often used to describe the deteriorating state of Zimbabwe in WNNN).

At their Hay talk, Bulawayo and Ziervogel talked about writing about history from a fictional standpoint. In literature, you have to forget about facts and statistics, and instead submerge yourself into the story. Bulawayo said that writing about a crumbling society through the eyes of a child is powerful, as often children are the most vulnerable due to their ignorance and lack of control over what is happening around them. A child’s eye depoliticises a situation, meaning that the writer (and reader) must suspend their disbelief and look at the scenario through innocent eyes (even if they themselves have a lot of knowledge about it). It’s an effective technique but, personally, I’m not totally in love with it. It’s all right when you’re already familiar with a situation, but as an outsider with little or no knowledge it’s tricky to follow current affairs through the perspective of a child, considering children often have a warped understanding of what is happening or are simply uninterested in it. If I had done more research, maybe I wouldn’t feel that way about We Need New Names.

But then does that take away the point? There’s a poignant part in WNNN when the children take a local tragedy and turn it into a game, re-enacting it like a play. Darling’s voice becomes very adult at that point and we are subject to an astute description of the attackers, the victim, and the stoic faces watching the violence unfold with the knowledge that they are powerless to prevent it. When a BBC crew asks the children what game they are playing, one of her friends replies with (paraphrasing): ‘a game? No, this is real life.’ Seeing innocent children accept horrific violence as part of their normality is disturbing, to say the least.

My only criticism of the book is that it feels slightly rushed. It’s not very long, and if each character, very vivid in their own right, was given their due attention, it might feel a little more fleshed out. By the time the book ends we have only seen a brief glimpse into Darling’s life in America – I would have liked to have seen more of it, more of the trials and tribulations she faced there, as well as the generally confusing experience of growing up and going through puberty. Another thing that misled me was the timescale. When Darling was 10 and living a poverty-stricken life in Zimbabwe, her friends were talking about singing Lady Gaga, indicating that at that point in time, Gaga must have been fairly famous (to reach impoverished children in Zimbabwe, at least). However, a fair few years later (maybe 4 years?) when Darling is in America, she mentions a very recent scandal – when Rihanna was beaten up by her boyfriend Chris Brown. Lady Gaga released Just Dance (and began her climb to fame) in 2008, yet Rihanna was attacked by Chris Brown in 2009. Sure, it’s pedantic of me to point out, but given that there were very limited hints as to when the book was set, I relied on these cultural references to give it a framework. It felt a little jumbled.

Bulawayo mentioned at Hay that she was working on a collection of AIDS stories, again addressing a silence and taboo with a creative voice, on another subject that is personal to her. AIDS is touched on in WNNN, with it being described as ‘the sickness’ and presented as a real epidemic. I’m looking forward to seeing her approach to building stories around it, whenever it may appear.

Goodreads, then: four stars. It was written so well but the abruptness of the ending took it down a notch. I should be on the Booker committee at this rate.

[Coming next: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel]

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Money – Martin Amis

money

Ah, Martin Amis, the marmite man of 20th Century British literature, beloved and loathed by many. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that his books are beloved and the man himself is loathed, but that seems too black and white for Amis. Regardless; he’s a very famous author not hindered by the international acclaim that surrounds his literary father, author Kingsley Amis, but boasting plenty of talent of his own. Money (full title: Money: A Suicide Note) is considered by many to be his best work, but I confess that I hadn’t heard of it or read it before. In fact, it was merely a book I found on my dad’s shelf and decided to nick from him. Not that he knows that. Woops, sorry Tez. Anywho…

If you saw 2014’s Oscar contender The Wolf of Wall Street, you’ll get the gist of Money. Parties, alcohol, drugs, luxury locations, the best food and the best prostitutes money can buy – the two have clear parallels. John Self is the focus of Money, a man who appears to have a LOT in his pocket by working as a small-time commercial director (your guess is as good as mine) who spends his days hopping between London and New York to work on his first feature-length project, a Hollywood production with some of the USA’s biggest stars. During his jaunts back and forth across the pond, he faces a problematic love life, makes tedious but frequent visits to movie stars so he can stroke their increasingly bloated egos, and – you guessed it – spends lots of money. Every now and then he receives anonymous phone calls from someone watching him closely, taunting him and apparently trying to better him, with the sinister promise that they will meet one day. Self is a fairly selfish man (funnily enough!) and a very dislikeable character, with bad health and horrible attitudes. Still, you can’t really blame him for the latter when you see who else is in his life. Spoilers below.

Like The Wolf of Wall Street, the overall message here is that money doesn’t lead to happiness. Quite the opposite, in fact, when you put hedonism and material possessions before your own emotional health. Self has few friends, no real friends it seems, and the woman he loves – loves is a strong word, perhaps I will say the woman he’s closest to – is only with him for his wealth, a fact which he embraces. He pities her, but overall he pities himself, and there’s a telling moment when he watches some degrading porn that results in a ‘facial’ and he wonders who the real loser is – the female porn star, the male, or himself (the viewer). Even when you’re in a position of power, it’s a shallow world with little dignity. Looking at it from a modern perspective is interesting; Money was published in 1984 long before the days of social media, but today the world’s richest have the power to photograph and brag about their exploits online, quite literally putting a filter over their lifestyles to show them in the best possible lights. Are their lives as glossy and beautiful as their Instagram pages, or are they emotionally drained, too? We know from the first page how little Self enjoys his life – the clue is in the full title.

Not a lot happens in the book, but it’s saved by its fantastic style. The writing is infectious; you never want to stop reading. It’s somehow both flippant and extremely detailed at the same time, with a furious pace. Amis’s observations are original, witty, and often painfully accurate – a review on the back of my copy praises his depiction of the movie star ego, which I have to agree with. When Self meets Lorne Guyland, an established Hollywood actor he’s hoping to tie into his film project, the interaction makes you squirm, as Lorne’s inflated sense of importance wrestles with his insecurity. Yet for me, one of the most astute observations about movie stars and their occasionally inflated attitudes is as follows:

‘I replaced the receiver and stared at my lap. On it lay a cellophaned wallet of Guyland press handouts – this was where I’d scribbled his number. Running my eye down the page I saw that Lorne had, in his time, on stage or screen, interpreted the roles of Genghis Khan, Al Capone, Marco Polo, Huckleberry Finn, Charlemagne, Paul Revere, Erasmus, Wyatt Earp, Voltaire, Sky Masterson, Einstein, Jack Kennedy, Rembrandt, Babe Ruth, Oliver Cromwell, Amerigo Vespucci, Zorro, Darwin, Sitting Bull, Freud, Napoleon, Spiderman, Macbeth, Melville, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Methuselah, Mozart, Merlin, Marx, Mars, Moses and Jesus Christ. I didn’t have the lowdown on every last one of these guys but presumably they were all bigshots. Perhaps, then, it wasn’t so surprising that Lorne had one or two funny ideas about himself.’

Is John Self based on Amis at all? I doubt it, but I always wonder if writing characters like these makes for a cathartic experience. Self is sleazy and misogynistic. His views are not those of reasonable men – he feebly attempts to rape his girlfriend numerous times, and points out disgusting observations about women around him – and  whilst I suspect Amis would never be so violent or demeaning (despite the odd misogynistic sound bite), I wonder if having an artistic excuse to be as vulgar as possible (while emphasising the kind of miserable, pitiful character underneath the vulgarity) is satisfying. I suspect the same of actors, when they are required to portray someone so unlike themselves, so utterly despicable they could never comprehend behaving that way… there must be a small release in that.

Amis actually inserts himself into the book as a fictional character, and it all gets very meta from there. John Self initially hates Amis – hates writers in general – but gradually warms to him and eventually brings him in to adapt the screenplay that occupies the plot of the novel. At various points, the fictional Amis goes into monologues about authors, narrators, and story structures in general, such as the sense of moral duty authors have to protect their characters’ interests – it’s obvious here that he’s speaking through his fictional self about his own creation John Self – and also what the end of the novel feels like, conveniently placed near the end of Money. It felt very odd (and almost a little self aware?) to read – something dad Kingsley agreed with, supposedly lobbing the book across the room as a result. The fictional Martin Amis was the closest thing John Self had to a real friend throughout the entire novel. You might say he was the only sane one in it, observing the destruction from an external, impartial viewpoint – not unlike the way an author would.

Oddly, Amis seems to pop up in a fictional form in a few books – in Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, McEwan’s writer character Tom Haley performs a reading at an event that Amis is also taking part in. Given the obvious parallel between McEwan and Haley, it’s likely that that entire section is based on a real encounter between Amis and McEwan (two very prominent writers, although Haley remarks how inferior he feels in the presence of the talented and charming Amis) – however, I also wonder if it’s a tongue-in-cheek nod from McEwan, as if he knew of Amis’s tendency to insert himself into fiction and wanted to pay a little tribute. Then again, I haven’t read any of Amis’s books apart from this one so I’m not sure if it’s something he does fairly often, or if this is just a one-off (that McEwan might not have even registered). Still, it struck me as an amusing coincidence. In fact, the whole novel had a McEwan-ish air about it – particularly with a twist at the end. I’m half expecting the two of them to buddy up and write a novel about themselves (that might have already happened…)

So, the aforementioned twist. Well, I guess the first twist is the fact that the full title doesn’t quite reflect the plot: Self does try to off himself at the end, but doesn’t succeed. The main twist, however, is that the movie Self has spent all his time working on wasn’t actually a real movie; rather he was being conned by his henchmen, who fed him his own money back under the pretence that this was fresh payment from a production company. Presumably this plunged him into debt, for I have no idea how a commercial director had that kind of credit to wave around in the first place. The scam and the ending itself aren’t well-explained and I closed the novel with many questions. There is a pinnacle scene where Self confronts the man who had been taunting him down the phone, but the scene is confusingly described and didn’t make a lot of sense in the grand scheme of things. I originally expected the voice at the end of the telephone to be metaphorical – Self’s own conscience berating him for his actions – but instead it was attributed to a character who wasn’t even that closely connected to him. Very odd, indeed.

It was adapted for the BBC in 2010, with Nick Frost in the lead role – partner-in-crime to Simon Pegg (my favourite ever actor) and a talented and charismatic guy in his own right. Frost said in a Reddit AMA interview that it was his favourite role to play, and indeed Amis praised his depiction of Self, which is exciting as Frost doesn’t flex his serious acting skills that often. I’m interested to see what the BBC would do with the famous text. I haven’t yet found a version I can stream or download, but I’ll be sure to check it out when the opportunity arises

So. Not an overly exciting plot but saved by its fantastic style – four stars on Goodreads from me. Good save, Amis.

[Coming next: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy]

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The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

wasp-factory 1

Cripes – it’s been a while! Things have been nuts over the last couple of months, and only now am I getting a chance to catch up with this blog – which is bad, because I’ve done a LOT of reading since my last post. You’ll notice that in my schedule I had Catch-22 and The Road down to blog about before this one, but I’ve shifted those back a bit. They both have famous films I’m dying to watch and analyse in their respective blog posts, but I haven’t had a chance or the means to watch either (yet) so for now, we’ll look at The Wasp Factory.

Ah, Iain Banks. Or Iain M. Banks, as you might know him, depending on your preference of fiction. Banks went by two pen-names to differentiate between his styles of fiction – mainstream literature as Iain Banks (which includes The Wasp Factory) and science-fiction as Iain M. Banks. Handy for when you spot his name on a dust jacket in a bookshop and are wondering what type of book it is. My dad in particular is a big fan of Iain M. Banks (not so much Iain Banks) and was disheartened to learn of his passing last year, at the relatively young age of 59. Let this review be written as something of a tribute, then, as we turn to the very start of Banks’ literary career.

The Wasp Factory was the first novel he wrote, published in 1984 (Banks was 30 at the time). One of the things that drew me to the book was the mention of an anti-hero – a particular love of mine, which I’ll go into later – but also the bizarre mix of reviews that featured in the paperback copy I found on my dad’s shelf. Alongside the usual glowing praise, there were reviews from critics that told readers to stay away from the book at all costs. Clever move from the marketing team: sell controversy and the novel is likely to fly off the shelves. If you bear in mind that my favourite book is A Clockwork Orange, you can see why this might have appealed to me. Spoilers ahead.

The story follows Frank, a dysfunctional teenager living on a tiny Scottish island. He’s a 16-year-old with an obsessive personality, someone who murdered for recreation in the past and has a habit of mutilating animals for what he believes are supernatural reasons. It’s a short novel and there isn’t a lot of plot, per se, but much of the story revolves around the return of Eric, Frank’s older brother who is completely mad and has escaped from a psychiatric hospital. Every now and then Eric will phone Frank, who lives with his father, to taunt him with this whereabouts and imply he is getting closer to home while Frank desperately tries to keep his father from suspecting anything. Frank kills time by killing animals, getting drunk with his friend Jamie, or catching wasps for his ‘Wasp Factory’, a strange death-trap he has set up for the insects that he believes will predict the future, depending on the wasps’ manner of death. As the book progresses, Eric draws closer, culminating in his (rather anti-climactic) arrival.

Eric is perhaps the most intriguing character in the novel. The highlights of the book are when he phones Frank, and Banks gets to demonstrate his witty dialogue and convey the overall disastrous experience of trying to talk to someone who is teasing you, is completely mad, and who you are afraid of aggravating, all at the same time. Eric’s backstory and descent into madness is explained and you get a sense that this character is quite tragic, particularly with the breakdown of the relationship between the two brothers. It’s a shame that his arrival isn’t quite the tense showdown you expect, mainly because a lot of Eric’s character revolves around his wordplay, and instead all we see of him at the end is a failed attempt to burn the house down with almost no dialogue whatsoever. There’s also another event that happens that detracts from the Eric storyline entirely – but I’ll explain that in a bit.

Why do I love an anti-hero? Part of what drew me to this book was the mention of a character who murders for fun, and I worry that makes me come across as pretty disturbed. I like to think this attraction is because I’m so far removed from that kind of character that I find them fascinating in fiction, and you get to see all sides of their personalities. Murderers and criminals are presented as classic villains in the media, men and women you expect were simply born out of the devil himself who are incapable of love, remorse, and affection for anything; in contrast, it’s interesting to see them in literature with outside interests and a level of emotion we simply don’t find elsewhere. Alex in A Clockwork Orange has his love of Beethoven. Pinkie in Brighton Rock has a confusing time with his love life. Frank here at least has some friends and some interests. It builds a slightly bigger picture of people who we expect to be completely one-dimensional, and I like that. But continuing with The Wasp Factory… it gets weird from here.

I intended for this review to be spoiler-free but there is such a big, bizarre twist at the end that I have to discuss it. Throughout the novel we learn that early in Frank’s life, he was mutilated by a dog who, er, bit off his genitals. I thought this seemed like a very odd character trait to be given, and indeed Frank seemed to live a remarkably normal life despite this rather severe setback, although he does lament how much he dislikes having to sit down to use the toilet, ‘like a woman’. Frank despises women and female traits, which makes his discovery at the end of the book all the more shocking. Right at the end, he inadvertently stumbles across male hormones, a pack of tampons, and his own minuscule genitals in his dad’s study – which end up to be made of plasticine. Frank was attacked by a dog when he was young, or rather FRANCES was – for Frank is in fact a girl, who has been tricked and secretly fed male hormones for his entire life as an ‘experiment’. Frank reflects that this might be why he murdered family members in the past and the cause of his fixation on destruction, but this isn’t delved into too much. Instead you, the reader, are left with a blank page and the overwhelming desire to shout ‘what the FU – ??’

I’m not sure how I feel about this novel on the whole. On the one hand, it feels slightly underdeveloped, almost what I think of as a Creative Writing project, which is when we (at university, myself and the fellow Creative Writing undergrads) would stumble around writing the kind of fiction that could evolve into some very good stuff, but we hadn’t yet learned how to structure a plot and create a satisfying experience for the reader. True, this was often because we’d written our class projects horribly hungover ten minutes before the seminar began (er, just me?) but you do get that kind of impression with The Wasp Factory, which seems quite self-aware, as if Banks was more focused on writing powerful description and proving himself as a talented writer than actually thinking about the emotional reactions of his readers. I think of that as an amateur quality.

On the other hand, the novel is rich with symbolism and a very good depiction of an obsessive, murderous personality. I could easily envision writing an essay about this book, going through and examining Frank’s character and how he has been nurtured to become the rather violent man (or woman?) he has become. It could even be a very good study for a feminist essay. Banks is undoubtedly a phenomenal writer and indeed, became very famous after (although not necessarily as a result of) this debut. The dialogue is sharp and the writing is witty, and some of the imagery is the most powerful I’ve ever read. On my search for a good book cover to include in this post, I stumbled across this one, and I can’t help thinking this is an inspired bit of symbolism:

wasp factory 2

There’s no adaptation as far as I’m aware, and I cannot imagine one ever being made. The descriptions are so gruesome in places that it would not be very enjoyable on screen, and I don’t know how the camera would be able to capture Frank’s internal conflict from an external viewpoint. But then, that’s why I’m not a filmmaker. Perhaps one day someone will take it on and do a very good job of it, but I won’t put any bets on it happening.

Goodreads, then: I gave this novel three stars. I think if it was slightly longer and we had a chance really explore the mentality of each character, it might get bumped up a notch, but as a short novel it’s a solid three. Still, as a debut, it’s not bad at all – and it certainly didn’t dent the career of a great writer.

[Coming next: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller]

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The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

The Little Friend

Happy World Book Day! It seemed appropriate to write a blog post today in honour of the occasion, although unfortunately this review might not be as positive as I’d like. I got The Little Friend as yet another Christmas present – this one from my dad, again. I hadn’t heard of Donna Tartt before but she’s an American writer who seems to publish her books ten years apart, leaving readers with a real sense of anticipation. In particular, The Secret History was renowned, so I was optimistic that this award-winning book (published in 2002) would be a nice addition to my bookshelf. I’ll mention now that this review does contain spoilers, but if you DO read this entire blog post,  I don’t think you’ll come out overly keen to pick it up.

To sum up. Harriet, our protagonist, is a precocious and steely twelve-year-old girl, living in a small town in Mississippi in what I assume is the 1970s, going by the pop culture references. When she was a baby, her older brother, nine-year-old Robin, beloved by all, was found hanging from a tree in the front garden. The general consensus was that he was murdered, and the circumstances were suspicious – Harriet and her older sister Allison were in the garden, too (Allison being around four years old at the time), the family was nearby, and he only disappeared for a moment. The incident shouldn’t have happened to all intents and purposes and as a result, the entire Cleve family (consisting generally of a matriarchy of Harriet’s grandmother and her sisters) refuse to reflect on the memory. Harriet, however, grows up curious – and at age twelve, sets about finding exactly what happened on that day and who she can punish as a result.

It’s a promising concept, and the blurb suggests a dark and menacing plot. The first chapter of the book is tense and well-written, and you go in feeling that if handled well, the book will be unforgettable. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. For an extremely long book (well over 500 pages), very little happens, and whilst the writing can be mesmerising at times, at other points it drags and removes any suspense or interest from a scene by slowing the pace so significantly. None of the characters are particularly likeable, Harriet probably the least so – I can’t think of one point in the book where she is actually happy. In any situation she’s in, she seems to find flaws, which doesn’t pass for great character development in my eyes and quickly becomes tedious. She has mild whims that seem downright ridiculous – throughout the first two thirds of the novel she seems obsessed with catching a poisonous snake (and there are enough of them around) and develops a strange interest in a junkie redneck family, one of whom she thinks is responsible for Robin’s death. Her motivations are barely explained, but she is fixated nonetheless. Alongside the narrative focusing on her life, we are also given an insight into said redneck family’s lives, the Ratliffs, who spend the vast majority of their time dangerously high. Unfortunately the dreamy sequences in these particular sections of the narrative are little relief from Harriet’s life.

Then there’s the fact that – spoiler alert – we never actually find out how Robin dies. The book seems to abandon this promising concept very early on, and it’s only mentioned again once or twice. I wouldn’t particularly mind (after all, it’s not unrealistic for a murderer never to be caught) but the way Tartt emphasises how IMPOSSIBLE it would have been to have murdered the child, given that he was surrounded by family and in the comfort of his own garden, ensures that you’re waiting for some kind of explanation. Without that, the book descends into fantasy – there’s no way that actually would have happened, therefore I refuse to accept it in a novel that’s intended to be realistic. I’m not entirely sure why Tartt included it at all – it would have been much more interesting to imply that Robin was suicidal (and still have Harriet obsessed with finding a culprit regardless) but nope. No explanation. Nada.

This leads on to another of my major qualms with the novel, how death was handled. While Tartt’s description of grief was beautifully poignant and really hit home, the deaths in the novel (or lack thereof) all felt contrived. Throughout the novel, various characters (and generally the bad guys) are victim to dangerous circumstances – an old woman is bitten by a huge, poisonous cobra, one man is shot in the head and then in the neck, another man who cannot swim is left to drown in a water tank. Despite these circumstances, they all survive. Similarly, right at the end of the novel, Harriet faces a scenario where she is forcibly drowned by another character, but she seems to miraculously pull through, too – somehow developing epilepsy (?!) in the process. The only character who actually dies (not including Robin) is one of Harriet’s great-aunts, which would have been tragic had we had enough character description to actually care who she was.

And of course… the title. Who ‘the little friend’ is is anyone’s guess. I presume from the book cover that it might be referencing a snake, but given that there a large number of snakes in the novel (and none of them bear any particular relevance to the central themes or plot), I’m not sure which one it’s referring to. In fact the original book cover seems to feature what looks like a doll’s head, so that blows my theory out of the water. It’s as if Tartt submitted the manuscript without a title, and the publishers just called it the first thing that came into their heads.

Now, despite all this raging criticism, my dad didn’t pick up this book at random. Aside from the fact Donna Tartt is fairly revered, the book is showered with praise. It won the WH Smith Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (which we now know as the Women’s Prize for Fiction), and the reviews on the front, back, and first page of the book are glowing. Yet again, one of those baffling scenarios where a book is critically acclaimed but while you’re reading it, you’re just not sure why. Cue the reader identity crisis (is it me? Am I just too thick to get it?). But it’s true that not everyone has to love every book in the world, no matter how many critics fawn all over it. And I think I’ve highlighted enough of the problems prevalent in the text to feel confident about my own sense of judgement. As far as I can tell, there is no film or television adaptation, so I can’t compare it to see how well it measures up.

So, Goodreads review. Technically my Goodreads reviews says three stars, because I do feel like there was enough decent writing in it to deem it better than average, but I think I’m more inclined to give it two stars based on the disappointing plot. We’ll say two and a half, for good measure. Sorry, Donna – I’m sure I’ll read The Secret History one day, but this is not one I’ll be revisiting.

[Coming next: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez]

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Stoner – John Williams

Stoner

Stoner is the kind of book that has been around for decades but no one has really noticed it until now. It was Waterstones’s Book of the Year in 2013, despite being originally published in 1965 (and Williams himself dying in 1994). It was another Christmas present that I devoured not long after reading The Luminaries – compared to the vast length and steady pace of The LuminariesStoner seemed to whizz by in a flash. It’s only around 200 pages long and is essentially a detailed biography of an unremarkable man named William Stoner.

I would aim to avoid spoilers here but there aren’t really any spoilers to give. On the first page of the book we are given a quick summary of Stoner’s life and death – where he grew up, where he went to university, his career, and his death – before the book plunges into a more detailed account. With that in mind, as a reader you never expect anything radical or remarkable to happen, and nothing ever really does. From a young age Stoner lives a life full of awkward encounters and few friends, seemingly unable to really connect with anyone on an emotional level – at least, not until later in the novel. He has a respectable career as a professor and academic, but doesn’t really make much of a mark on the university he works at, much less the world. In short, his life is fairly bland, if not downright disheartening at times. As I read this book I was constantly thinking, ‘but why? Isn’t fiction supposed to be escapism? Shouldn’t there be drama, and fun, and twists and turns?’ But I think it’s a novel you don’t really appreciate until you’ve finished it, and can reflect back on what you’ve read.

Stoner lived the life many of us will live – completely ordinary, satisfying but maybe slightly disappointing, unhappily married (unfortunately), and ending in a slow and fairly undramatic death. We often turn to fiction, whether it be on the page or on the screen, to escape from that monotony, but there’s something fairly poignant about seeing it written down so simply. It helps that the writing style is beautiful. It’s virtually perfect – concise, elegant, and fairly uplifting, despite the subject matter. A review on my edition of the book from the Sunday Express reads: ‘What rescues the novel from being unbearably sad is Williams’s gift for emotional precision’, and I fully agree. Indeed, Stoner has what looks on the surface like a rather miserable life, but it’s his own quiet contemplation and satisfaction that makes it seem ordinary, instead of depressing. The book effectively takes a normal life and turns it into something quite extraordinary by the virtue of reflection. The description of Stoner’s death is particularly fascinating, especially as the author of course couldn’t know EXACTLY what it felt like.

From what I know there is no adaptation, but I do think it would make quite a nice onscreen story. True, the producers might have to apply some dramatic licence to make it appeal to the masses, as the story itself is quite straightforward, but I think with the right director and the right cast it could become its own artistic piece that would complement the book nicely, particularly as the plot delves carefully into the politics of a work environment and the emotions and compromises of many different types of relationship. I don’t know whether Williams sold the rights or not, but if so, with the book coming into public consciousness so recently, it might be something to look out for in the upcoming years. All that said, perhaps it is just one of those works that should stay on the page to be truly appreciated.

Goodreads review, then: Stoner gets four stars. Without the dramatic plot I can’t say I enjoyed it enough to give it the full five, but I still think it was a strong enough book to be deemed excellent, not just good. William Stoner had little lasting impact on his fictional world, but in real life, I suspect we won’t forget his name so easily.

[Coming next: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt]

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