I have read a lot of books this year and posted the reviews on Amazon. The only one I picked out for special mention here on the blog was Burial Rites, which I reviewed back in July. Still the best new novel I have read this year.
I just finished The Martian which I enjoyed for most of the time, although I felt it slumped badly in the final third. It’s very popular, nr 330 in the Amazon top sellers list, so it must be selling in barrowloads. Good luck to Andy Weir, the author who like me, began life as a self-published writer. Sent it to forty Literary Agents and Publishers and turned down by all of them. Now he is high in the Amazon top seller lists.
Before that, I read The Loneliness of Survival by a friend of mine, Diana Finley, who lives here in Newcastle. We both had the same Creative Writing teacher, John Seymour. It’s not bad. I gave it three stars and a rather too glowing review on Amazon. It’s not really my thing, unfortunately. It’s about a woman who lives a privileged, Jewish life in pre-war Vienna; cars, carriages, servants, private schools, who escapes to Palestine just before the Nazi’s invade. Her husband, mother and grandmother are all sent to Auschwitz, but she survives. She meets and then marries a handsome British officer in Haifa who by a twist of fate, is posted to post-war Berlin in 1946. So, she finds herself living a privileged, Jewish life in Germany; cars, carriages, servants, private schools for the children . . . amongst the starving skeletons of Berlin who just a few years earlier had been her deadly enemies.
An interesting story and based in fact on her mother’s life. She was 102 when he died in a Care Home in 2012.
Prior to that, I read The Swan by Gudbergur Bergsson, translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder. It has good reviews but I found it hard work. It is a kind of contemporary fable about a little girl who turns into a swan, full of existential meaning.
Before that I read a wonderful book, An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel, first published in 1995 but I just got around to reading it now. Astonishingly, it gets only 3* on Goodreads. I thought it was a toure de force; everything most readers today find anathema; middle-class angst; dated; self absorbed . . . you name it. I absolutely loved it. One of the newspaper reviewers is quoted on the back cover as saying, ‘A near faultless masterpiece of pathos, observation, feeling . . . written in angelic prose’. Couldn’t have put it better myself. What’s it about? It almost doesn’t matter; the pleasure is entirely in reading the angelic prose . . . it just takes your breath away. However, if you need to know, it is entirely concerned with the early life, from toddler to teenager, of a young working-class Catholic girl who is the first in her family, in her school in fact to go to university. Spellbinding, huh? But it is.
Evie Wylde was next. All The Birds Singing, with its clever, unusual structure that keeps you guessing to almost the very end. It is very ambitious and kind of loses its way during the scenes on the farm but I don’t need perfection every time and it is more than good enough. What is it about? Well the blurb doesn’t give much away but it is more or less the story of a young Australian girl who runs away from a sheep ranch and finds herself in Wales, on the other side of the world and buys a smallholding which she runs by herself. Then we hear her horrific backstory.
Then Alice Munro and The Beggar Maid, winner of the Man Booker Prize, it says on the cover. Just fabulous writing; line after line, paragraph after paragraph of the most tremendous prose. She deeply influenced a generation of women writers; Anne Enright; A S Byatt [Susan Duffy] and probably millions of other creative writing students on college courses right now. I have to say that if I had read it on my creative writing course or indeed at any point in my life prior to writing Riccarton Junction, I would probably have written a different book. Mesmerising.
Before that, I think it was In the Country of Men. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award; ‘glowing with emotional truth . . .’ says the blurb. But not for me. It was a struggle to finish it. The author, Hisham Matar has used the facts of his own background as a child in Libya during Gaddafi’s barbaric rule, to try to give a sense of the terror of those times. But he adopts the narrative voice of a child . . . who keeps misunderstanding what he sees and hears and it gets in the way.
Then way back at the beginning of the year I read, All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe, a clever crime fiction story set in metropolitan Tokyo. I liked actually. It is better if you have been to Japan, I suspect and have at least a working knowledge of where all the major cities are. Also, it needs all your attention because of the unfamiliarity of the Japanese names. There are a lot of characters; more than once I forgot who Mizoguchi was and later, who Machiko was in a way that with British or American crime fiction, you wont get confused between Jane or John. It is good though and worth the effort.