September 21st, 2011

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but not much more

Back in March I reviewed all the books I'd read, thus far, in 2011. This is the next batch. There are quite a few others, too, but I either can't find or can't remember them. Oddly, for a voracious reader and an English Literature graduate, I don't really like writing 'proper' reviews.

An Experiment in Love, Hilary Mantel JJJJJI read this just after watching the documentary about the author. It's extremely autobiographical, thus it was impossible not to 'hear' her voice as I read it. It's a very good book about female friendships, class, culture, food, and going to Uni in 1970. There is also a really violent shock near the end. Highly recommended, and just as good as her historical fiction.

Ethan Frome,Edith Wharton JJJJ This was first published in 1911, but is very accessible, by which I mean it would make a fine teaching text. It reads much more intimately, somehow, than is usual for fiction of that time. It's a wintry, rather depressing novella. I'd recommend reading it in snowy weather, in the middle of the night, with a hot toddy. I was distracted somewhat, all the way through, by planning how I would teach it.

Mantrapped, Fay Weldon J I used to really like Fay Weldon. This book is one of the few I have ever left unfinished, but leaving bad books unfinished is part of my post-tumour insistence on not wasting my time on anything rubbish. It's half novel, half autobiography, by which I mean a bit of a novel is followed by a bit of autobiography. It really doesn't work. The protagonist of the novel is a bit feeble, a bit too easily led, and the autobiography was - as far as I read - bitterness about the failure of her marriage and the fact that she's not fashionable anymore. Tiresome.

The Children's Book, AS Byatt JJJJJ Lovely shewho got drunk and left this under the living room table, which was fortunate as I'd wanted to read it for ages. It's a very compelling account of a Edwardian Bohemians and bankers and the beginnings of the V and A, effectively a family saga, but one as erudite as it is vivid. Her characterisation is superb, with all the characters, especially the children, having entirely convincing interior lives. The backdrop is explained in detail, which can be a little irritating is you are familiar with it, but is a boon if you are not (I had a foot in each camp). As one of the main characters is the author of the titular book, there are some slightly jarring declamations about the nature of writing. That, and the sense of hurry to tie off all the narrative threads at the end of the First World War are the only flaws.

Birdsong, Sebastien Faulks JJ I'd read this before, both for pleasure and for teaching and always used to think it his best work, perhaps because it's the ony one where, (previously at least) I cared what happened to the characters. Except this time I didn't, even though I'm generally fascinated by anything to do with WWI. The hero is weak, sulky and unpleasant. The women are classic Faulks, so we are much more likely to get a desription of their tits than a strong indication of their thoughts or motivations. The rest of the men are cliches; there's a salt of the earth working class chap, and a neurotic, sexually repressed alcoholic upper class chap. It's an accomplished historical novel, which like everything else he writes, is derivative (mostly of Flaubert) and strangely soulless.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, Helen Simonson JJJ This is an odd book. It would make a brilliant holiday read, as it is cheering, funny and thoughtful but not remotely taxing. It's about a romance between a retired Major (impossible not to love him if you like repressed, uptight Englishmen whose hearts are way too big to be displayed upon their sleeves) and an Indian grocer's widow. The writer is English and grew up in a small village like the one in the book, but has lived in the states for a long time. She writes about England as if she's listened to a lot of Radio 4, not as if she'd lived there. I'd be amazed if this doesn't end up as TV drama. It seems to have been written with adaptation in mind.

Every Man for Himself, Beryl Bainbridge JJJJJ This is a damn good, depressing little book, not much more than a novella, about the interplay between some of the upper class passengers on the Titanic. Ideal brain bleach if some cruel swine has made you sit through the unspeakable film of the same name. It's clever, disturbing and strange, which is quite an achievement for such a hackneyed topic.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro JJJJJ Christ, this was depressing. It is, I suppose, a sort of science fiction about an alternative 1970s, with clones. It is absolutely, heartbreakingly convincing about the nature of childhood and adolescent relationships. What an imagination he must have. But so, so sombre. Read it and weep.

Joy in the Morning, PG Wodehouse JJJJ wardytron suggested this to cheer me up after the above. Oh lovely, lovely comforting Wodehouse. The literary equivalent of a hearty cream tea after a bracing stroll in spring sunshine on Tennyson Down on the Isle of Wight. I don't care what he did in the war, he's a national treasure.

The Bolter,Frances Osborne JJJJ This was my birthday present to myself. It's written by George Osborne's missus about her great-grandmother, the five-times-married and five-times-divorced Idina Sackville. She's the only kind of celeb I like reading about: posh, English, dead and historically significant (see also: The Mitfords). It's a solid and engaging narrative account, drawing on brilliantly intimate sources and refreshingly short on anachronistic psychanalysis.

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver JJJ I loved The Poisonwood Bible but was much less impressed with this story about a gay American raised in Mexico who hooks up with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and and ends up working for Trotsky, then falling foul of the MacCarthyite tendency back in the states. The famous characters are vividly drawn, but I struggled to care about the others, much. Worth reading (even at 700 pages) but ultimately unsatisfying.

You Can't do Both, Kingsley Amis JJJ This was one of the best of the many Amis novels I've read (and I've read a stack since living here). It's probably the most autobiographical, given the account of growing up in South London in the fifties, and would be great for research if you wanted to write about the sexual mores of the times. It's about marriage, and the protagonist is as unappealing and convincing as all Amis' men.

The Alteration, Kingsley Amis JJJThis dates from a phase in Amis' writing life when he was trying different types of genre fiction. This is technically fantasy fiction, but would be classed as steam punk now. It's an odd little book about castration, catholicism (set in an alternate England where the Reformation didn't happen) and the supposed evils of electricity. A nifty, intelligent little book.

The Riverside Villas Murder, Kingsley Amis JJJJJ This is Amis' detective novel and easily my favourite Amis, because the central character - a teenaged boy - is so well-drawn and so involving. If you've read much Agatha Christie you'll see the McGuffin a mile away, but it doesn't detract from the characterisation or the fairly savage depiction of suburban life in the fifties.

The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal JJJJ This was an occasionally frustrating, not particularly well-written (badly edited, Isuspect) but fascinating story of a wealthy Jewish family, starting with the man who was the inspiration for Proust's Swann, all the way to the author, told in terms of a collection of tiny jade sculptures. It's rather self-indulgent, and the author clearly has no grasp of just how wealthy and privileged he is, a trait he obviously inherited from his forebears. At one extraordinary point, this collection is preserved for the family by a loyal servant in wartime Vienna. She risked her life to do so, but no one in the family ever thought to record her surname. That said, I'd buy an illustrated account with extended quotes from the works it touches on and pictures of the paintings and other treasures owned by the family, just for the historical interest.

The Hundred and Ninety Nine StepsJJJ,This is a novella written at the request of a friend of his, who was writer-in-residence at Whitby Abbey, to commemorate the English Heritage dig there a few years ago. Consequently it feels a little constrained and limited by it's Whitbyness, though that adds to its charm if you know Whitby. A nifty little holiday read for goth festivallers.

London Triptych, Jonathan Kemp J I'm not sure why I finished this, really. It's about three gay men: one of Wilde's rent boys, a repressed artist in the 50s, and an unhappy chap in teh late nineties. It's overwritten in places, gives a pretty hackneyed account of the historical settings and he really didn't do his research, so the dialogue is woefully anachronistic in places.

The Outcast, Sadie Jones JJJ A first novel, with shades of Atonement that I really liked, eventually. It's an account of a dysfunctional family and a terrible beareavement just after WW2 and the chain of repercussions. Good stuff, if you like that sort of thing, and a hero one really comes to care for. It feels like a first novel and is a little slow to start.

Amsterdam, Ian McKewan JJ McKewan is a brilliant writer but you'd never know it from this turkey. I think it's because the characters are all supposed to be famous in their fields (musical composition, Mail-style journalism, and politics) but they are completely unconvincing, unlike his intimate portraits of more ordinary people. The denouement is utterly unrealistic and frankly daft.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery J This was the other book I didn't finish. two and a half million people bought it, but I bet only ten of them read it. It's French and about a posh appartment block' concierge and various inhabitants. It's guiding premise is an assumed reverse snobbery (that the concierge has to pretend to be thick) masquerading as social commentary. It's full of tiresome clever-clever references to arthouse movies and philosophy. Tedious, pretentious wankery.

At Home, Bill Bryson JJ Bryson's stretching his talent a bit thin,it seems. I ended up wondering if he wrote this because he wanted to, or was contracted to. It's a social history of homes and homewares, somewhat tenuously linked to the rather unexciting history of his own Norfolk home. Amusingly written, as always, and quite interesting, but the scholarship is a bit pub quizzy and with one or two errors that I could spot (about the Regency, which is an period I know fairly well) and this made me wonder if there were howlers elsewhere in the text.