And The Worst…

I get cold feet before writing negative reviews. Just because I didn’t like a book doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. There are so many variable influences on reading – mood, expectations, the hangover from the last book you’ve just read, and all the little personal niggles, foibles and phobias that no writer could ever guess. Reading is extremely subjective and falls victim to all sorts of irrationalities. I’ll try to explain my own as we go along.


god is an astronautGod Is An Astronaut by Alyson Foster

Well this was the one I hated most from the entire year and I even got to the end of it. Jess Frobisher is a professor of botany at a Michigan university, unhappily married to Liam, who runs Spaceco, the first travel firm to send their clients up in rockets. When the novel opens, Spaceco have had a tragic disaster and they are besieged by the media. In an attempt to cheer herself up, Jess starts building a greenhouse. The story is told through the emails she writes to her former colleague and ex-lover, Arthur. Why she bothered with emails, I have no idea as it’s just a novel chopped up in bits, with some excuse to say ‘Arthur’ at the end of each paragraph, so we don’t forget. Jess is miserable and takes it out on both Arthur and Liam, for whom I developed misplaced sympathy, as the novel ends with Jess stitching up his firm completely. I will never understand the people at Goodreads. They moan about sympathetic characters, but Jess, who was quite the least likeable character I encountered this year, is apparently an enjoyable source of ‘snark’. So, to be clear, if characters take their negativity out on themselves, this is self-pity and unpleasant, whereas if they take it out on others, this is snark and enjoyable? I didn’t like When God Was a Rabbit, either, so I’ll steer clear of such titles in future.


tom's midnight gardenTom’s Midnight Garden by Phillippa Pearce

Oh I am so sorry, really truly sorry to all of you who commented in droves about how much you loved this book. It is indeed charming and nostalgic, and the premise of a magic garden is lovely. I just… put it down and didn’t manage to pick it up again. I think perhaps I only like children’s books when I’m reading them to a child. I wish it were different!


The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh

Ah, continuation novels, how tricky they are. Jill Paton Walsh has Peter Wimsey pitch perfect, and Harriet Vane isn’t bad either. But the plot bothered me. The murders are all supposedly drawn from books Harriet has written (which are in turn drawn from the cases her husband has solved) and I can see that might be considered a lovely trip down memory lane for Dorothy L. Sayers fans. But it was a rotten excuse for a murderer who piled up bodies hither and thither. The thing is, Sayers was a clever plotter, and I didn’t believe she would ever have used such a clunky device.


blackoutBlackout by Lisa Unger and That Night by Chevy Stevens

Two thrillers with the same issue for me – excessive and unreasonable peril for their female protagonists. Both books began slowly with a lot of back story, in which it seemed no author would be satisfied unless the woman in question had been abused as a child, bullied, incarcerated, stalked and raped and living in constant theat and still managing to keep a smile on her face ‘cos she’s a ‘fighter’. Are women so unsympathetic to other women that this is what a heroine must endure? I’ve recently read one of Ann Cleeves’ novels, one featuring detective Vera Stanhope, in which a woman with a past was ostracized in the community by an uptight head-of-committee type, and it was very well done because only one scene was needed for me to feel outraged. There was space for my imagination to do all the necessary work and it was far more effective than ladling on the strife.


the visionistThe Visionist by Rachel Urquhart

This one wasn’t the book’s fault. Although the female protagonist was sexually abused by a drunkard father to whom she set light so that she and her mother and brother could run away (see above for excessive peril). But then she ends up in a Shaker community (sorry should have said – starts in the 1840s in America), supposedly for safety. This was as far as I got. I could see it was a very well-written book and well-researched and cleverly told. Somehow the historical period didn’t click with me and the style of writing (nothing wrong with it) isn’t one I’m drawn to. Just the wrong book for me.


balancing actBalancing Act by Joanna Trollope

I’m usually a Joanna Trollope fan. I think she has the capacity to be profoundly realistic, and present the reader with exactly the sort of cares and concerns that families do have nowadays. I really like books that seem real. This one didn’t come together for me. It’s based on a family who run a pottery firm – the matriarch, Suzy, set it up and now her three adult daughters are working for her. The problem is, some of those daughters think it’s time to move the firm on in more modern ways but their controlling mother wants to keep it all the same, and remain true to her own vision. It’s also a book about women who work and men who look after the kids, with Trollope ultimately saying that mothers count for more than fathers on the domestic scene. What bothered me was the motivations for the characters’ actions, which seemed weak (something Trollope normally does very well). And there are way too many scenes that take place in people’s heads as they approach a confrontation of some sort, in order to end on a cliffhanger. Later, we hear some of what happened. So for me, I felt that Trollope just didn’t get into her characters the way she normally does, and ducking out of those vital interactions was the result. The book lacked the vibrancy and energy she is capable of producing.


breakfast-with-the-borgiasBreakfast with the Borgias by DBC Pierre

One of the new series of Hammer Horror books. I was intrigued to read DBC Pierre, well, for the first fifteen minutes or so. He had his main character’s plane land in fog at Stansted airport, but somehow the driver of the taxi he was in couldn’t seem to locate him a hotel until he reached the coast beyond Ipswich. ‘This must be the last room in the country,’ he says, which is quite a notion, since by my reckoning they’ve been driving for about an hour and a half through a densely populated area. What does DBC Pierre think East Anglia is like? Then his character descends to the hotel bar where he meets a more unruly version of the Addams family, and my credulity was stretched to the point where it snapped entirely and I put the book down. Sometimes it is best not to read books about areas where you have lived all your life written by people who may only have whistled through once on a book tour.


the visitorsThe Visitors by Patrick O’Keefe

This was perhaps a victim of literary burnout. It came at the end of a longish stretch of literary novels and the sameness of the voice was wearing me down. That distanced but melancholic tone, those shapely, direct sentences with their carefully chosen words. A general impression of each scene having been laminated. The novel began in America, and that part was okay. But when we went back to the old country, to Ireland, and the protagonist’s dysfunctional family I just lost the will to live. I felt I’d read it too many times. Which might have been true in the moment, but was not necessarily fair to this book at all.

And that’s it! A bunch of books that you may absolutely ADORE under different circumstances. I give you full permission to do so.




It’s A Jungle Out There

orchardthiefEvery so often a non-fiction book becomes surprisingly popular, as I understand The Orchid Thief did after the release of Adaptation, the Charlie Kaufman film that was very loosely based upon it. I haven’t seen the film (tell me: should I?) but I did recently read the book. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was extremely intriguing in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Basically, Susan Orlean, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, read a small article in a paper about an eccentric named John Laroche who was on trial for having attempted to steal a large quantity of ghost orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand in Florida. Curious about his motivations, Orlean went to Florida to follow the trial and to learn more about both Laroche and the world of orchid thieves and collectors (can be tricky to distinguish the two). Initially, this became a New Yorker article, and then Orleans turned it into a book, which is maybe why the story of Laroche bookends a mass of digressive but often engaging information about the history of orchid collecting, the character of the plant men that she meets in Florida, life on an Indian reservation and the nature, in all its meanings, of the state of Florida.

But first, Laroche, whom she describes as ‘a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games.’ Laroche has a history of manic obsession, beginning as a child with turtles, and moving on to Ice Age fossils, lapidary, old mirrors, tropical fish and then, finally, orchids. Each passion was intense, short-lived, and fiercely compartmentalised. After he had given away the 60 fish tanks he collected, for example, he did not go near the Atlantic, despite living so close to it, for the next 17 years. Or so he says – Orleans reports him faithfully I don’t doubt, but you do begin to wonder quite how much confabulation occurs in every one of Laroche’s stories. Still, he does appear to be one of those people to whom extreme things happen. In the run-up to stealing the orchids, he went through a particularly taxing few years. He spilled toxic pesticide on a cut and suffered irreversible heart and liver damage from it. He was in a dreadful car crash that cost him his front teeth, put his wife in a coma and killed his mother and uncle. Then he separated from his wife. Then the plant nursery he owned was decimated by severe frosts, contaminated fungicide and Hurricane Andrew. In need of work, he came to work on the Seminole reservation, starting up a nursery for them.

Obsessed by orchids, and aware of how much money could be made from a ready source of hard-to-find ghost orchids, he believed he could get around the laws that preserve endangered species. The Fakahatchee strand is Seminole land, and land belonging to Indians is supposed to be free from the usual laws in the U.S. Laroche took two Indians with him into the swamp and made them do the collecting, but as they emerged with four cotton pillowcases full of two hundred species of orchid and bromeliad they were, as the phrase goes, ‘apprehended’ and charged with theft.

Just when you think that Laroche is a unique oddity, Orleans launches into the history of orchid collecting, in which a large number of rich and greedy and obsessed patrons sent plant hunters off to the wild and dangerous parts of the globe with unreasonable demands. The plant hunters, themselves obsessed, reckless, greedy and, in the way they depleted large areas of indigenous plants, thoughtless, were happy to do their bidding. Somehow the world survived and plants trotted the globe, mostly dying en route until someone figured out the bell jar. Orchids more than any other plant seem to inspire a certain frantic passion and because they are, on the whole, a lot tougher than they look, have produced thousands of different species to keep collectors on their toes. Laroche had his own methods of maintaining a clear conscience, while going about the business of stealing plants:

he would poach only a limited number at a time and he would never strip every one off a single tree and, most important, he would be poaching so that he could help the species in the long run by propagating it in his lab and making the orchids cheap and available. He trusted himself alone to balance out pros and cons, to disregard rules and use real judgement instead. He thought that no one else in the world could see things his way because other people had attitudes that were as narrow as ribbon and they had no common sense at all. For a single-minded lunatic like John Laroche, this seemed like a very bold position to take.’

This is a book packed full of eccentrics, madmen (very few lady collectors) and con artists. And when you reach Florida, the state of outsize everything, you seem to be in a landscape that inspires crazy schemes on a huge scale. I enjoyed reading about the Florida land scam that began somewhere around 1824 with a number of wide boys selling plots of Florida that they didn’t own, and which multiplied and grew until 1975 when the main company involved was $350 million in debt.

The subsequent bankruptcy took thirteen years to settle and is considered the biggest and most complex reorganization in Florida’s corporate history, involving more than nine thousand creditors, twenty-seven thousand lot owners and five hundred thousand acres of land.’

It’s almost as if Florida invites this sort of trouble, Orleans explains. The land is permanently changing as more coastal areas are reclaimed, and what’s there is so vast and wild and uncontrollable. Nature always wins in the end, but the urge to battle her is irresistible. ‘The flat plainness of Florida doesn’t impose itself on you, so you can impose upon it your own kind of dream,’ Orleans writes. And this is the core of the book, not so much articulated as voyaged around repeatedly. Man vs. nature results in all kinds of unhealthy obsessions, all of them doomed, but all hypnotic nevertheless.

There is a lot going on in this book, huge amounts of data on offer, outlandish characters, hair-raising exploits, lots of chances to shake your head in sighing pity for the silly things people do on tenuous justification. Orleans has a repetitive style that can grate at times, but then she said a lot of things I marked up as interesting, too. An enjoyable and worthwhile read, just don’t expect as much about John Laroche as the blurb implies.

Best Books of 2014

I thought I’d read quite a few books this year, and a lot of newly-published ones, too, and yet the best-of lists remain full of titles I haven’t got around to, or have never even heard of. So while my wish list takes a battering, here’s my chance to return the favour. I know I ought to wait until the end of the month but something about this time of year just provokes the urge to tot up the balance sheet. It’s been an excellent reading year, as what follows will show.


mrs hemmingwayBest literary fiction of 2014

Alice McDermott – Someone

Jill Dawson – The Tell-Tale Heart

Naomi Wood – Mrs Hemingway

Jane Smiley – Some Luck

Heather O’Neill – The Girl who was Saturday Night



sisterlandBest literary fiction of 2013 I only got around to reading in 2014

Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries

Curtis Sittenfeld – Sisterland


Best fiction recommendation I gave Mr Litlove

Monique Roffey – Archipelago


izasBalladBest literary fiction in translation

Magda Szabo – Iza’s Ballad


Best general fiction

Liane Moriarty – Little Lies

Patricia Ferguson – Aren’t We Sisters


Best historical fiction

Laurie Graham – The Grand Duchess of Nowhere

Elizabeth Fremantle – Queen’s Gambit


Best books that made me laugh

Graeme Simsion – The Rosie Project

Rebecca Harrington – Penelope


stay up with meBest short stories

Tom Barbash – Stay Up With Me


Best crime fiction

Eva Dolan – Long Way Home

Frances Brody – Death of an Avid Reader


the last asylumBest memoirs of 2014

Joanna Rakoff – My Salinger Year

Barbara Taylor – The Last Asylum


Best memoir of any year

Hilary Mantel – Giving Up the Ghost


Best non-fiction about mental health issues

Christine Montross – Falling into the Fire


RiddleOfThe LabyrinthBest general non-fiction

Richard Benson – The Valley

Margalit Fox – The Riddle of the Labyrinth


What a year for the women! Only two male authors made it onto the list this year. But a formidable year overall. Before Christmas I might mention a few stinkers too, and the books I liked least this year. You have been warned.


AmnesiaI first read Peter Carey in 1988, when Oscar and Lucinda won the Booker Prize. I wasn’t sure I could say I liked him exactly, but I knew I was in the presence of a very special kind of talent. There was so much energy in the narrative, and the strangest mix of degradation and beauty. It seemed to me that a fierce and far-sighted imagination was at work, conjuring up characters who were riveted to an outrageous and fantastical dream. More than 25 years later, the essence of Peter Carey remains the same in his latest novel, Amnesia. Inspired by Australian-born activist, Julian Assange and his wiki-leaks, it is the story of present day computer hacking that sits perilously atop a long-forgotten history of animosity between Australia and America.

The opening salvo of the narrative is the release of the Angel Worm virus into Australia’s computerised prison system, opening the doors of institutions across the country and allowing hundreds of inmates to walk free. Unfortunately, the system is run by an American corporation, and so the same has happened in the United States. The perpetrator of this crime is a young woman, Gaby Baillieux, who has since gone into hiding, threatened with extradition to the US where the death penalty may await her. Only disgraced journalist Felix Moore (Moore-or-less-correct to his frenemies) has the chance of a lifetime to redeem himself by writing her story. Felix’s long-standing friendship with her mother, Celine, puts him in prime position to tell the tale, as does his relationship to his property tycoon patron, Woody Townes, who has bailed Gaby out and is prepared to bankroll Felix’s time. From the start, though, the situation is unclear and fraught with mixed motives. Celine, Woody and Felix all have their particular axes to grind, their own perspectives on a complicated and unclear situation. And Felix isn’t sure who he can really trust; particularly when his removal to a safe place involves his being kidnapped and thrust into the boot of a car.

But it’s Felix’s story and Felix’s take that we are presented with, as he types away at an ancient Oliveti, fuelled by upsettingly cheap red wine. Felix is convinced that at the heart of this internet terrorism lies old, festering wounds between America and Australia. The first half of the book recounts Celine’s origins, born from a night of violence in 1943 dubbed The Battle of Brisbane, when supposedly allied soldiers fought on the streets over who had rights to the women of Australia. Or maybe other motives were involved – that’s the thing about history; if it’s hard in retrospect to pin down, it’s even more impossible during the event itself. This flare up of rage and rivalry slumbered under the weight of years, only to awaken again when Celine gave birth to daughter Gaby in 1975, just as Gough Whitlam’s Labour government was overthrown, an event thought to have been orchestrated – or at least aided – by CIA involvement as revenge for Australian troops pulling out of Vietnam.

We were naïve of course. We continued to think of the Americans as our friends and allies. We criticised them, of course. Why not? We loved them, didn’t we? We sang their songs. They had saved us from the Japanese. We sacrificed the lives of our beloved sons in Korea, then Vietnam. It never occurred to us that they would murder our democracy. So when it happened, in plain sight, we forgot it right away.’

This is the amnesia to which the title refers, and Gaby becomes in its context a sort of return of the repressed. Only when we get to the second part of the book, which moves out of Felix’s first person narrative and into a dream-like third, as Felix stitches together Gaby’s history from a mess of cassette tapes recording herself and her mother speaking, this clarity of cause and consequence seems much less certain. Gaby’s story is one of teenage infatuation with a nail-varnished, long-haired geek named Frederick. Her first love occurs whilst her mother and father are involved in a bitter, slow-burning marriage bust-up, and Gaby turns to Frederick and his fascination with computers to escape her unhappy home life. The usual teenage disasters take place – forbidden assignations, petty law-breaking, school work ignored – and Gaby’s own activism grows out of displaced emotions of rage, hope, idealism and fear that belong in the family dynamic. Politics itself looks very different from this angle, not a neat story told from the outside, where conspirators can be sized up from a distance, but an upsurge of emotion married to chance circumstance and a longing to break out, fight, rebel and be seen.

Peter Carey has long been fascinated by transgression: My Life as a Fake, Theft; A Love Story, True History of the Kelly Gang, His Illegal Self… the way criminality makes his protagonists feel, or perhaps the way that his protagonists find themselves launched inevitably into lives of crime, remain a constant preoccupation. In this novel, that fascination overreaches itself a bit. All of his characters are engaged in energetic rule-breaking of one kind or another, which muddies the notion that America-Australian enmity is at the heart of the story. But then, there’s very little in the way of clarity here, not least in the style the narrative is written. Carey enjoys some grammatical anarchy of his own, removing quotation marks in the second part, skipping across different points of view, zooming around his story with only a few oblique signposts to guide the reader. For me, this whole notion of ‘amnesia’ worked much better with regard to the act of storytelling itself. Felix shows if nothing else how easy it is to ‘forget’ the sources of a story, how once that story comes together, it become an entity that is bigger and stronger than its component parts. The new story replaces and erases the many smaller stories it sprung from, though the ragged edges of Amnesia remind us where they lurk.

I don’t think Peter Carey is capable of writing a boring book, and this one is full of arresting images, gorgeous writing and intriguing ideas. It’s also a bit messy, confusing and not without its slow patches, especially in the second section. But just as I was wondering how on earth he would tie the second part up with the first, he managed a neat twist in a couple of pages to provide a clever ending. Not his finest book, perhaps, but provocative and worthwhile nevertheless.