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.

 

 

 

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.

Balthasar’s Gift

balthasar's giftThere’s a back story to this one. Once upon a time, now many years ago, a group of women writers, all friends online, came together over a feminist blog: What We Said. We were all involved with different kinds of writing; novels, short stories, nonfiction. Now one of our group has published her crime novel, Balthasar’s Gift, which is the first in a series featuring maverick journalist, Maggie Cloete.

The setting is South Africa, post-apartheid but before the turn of the millenium. Maggie is going about her normal business (chasing muggers on her motorcycle, in fact) when the call comes in: a shooting at the local AIDS mission. Maggie arrives to find a young man dying in the arms of the woman who runs the place, and it’s only when a passer-by knows the victim’s name, Balthasar Meiring, that Maggie realises she’s heard of him. A little while back he had called her on the phone, urging her to attend the court hearing of a class action against a doctor selling a fake cure for AIDS. Maggie had decided to pass the information onto her colleague at the paper who works on health issues, mostly because she was resisting the pressure Meiring seemed to want to put on her. And of course now, she regrets it.

While the general assumption is that his death is a robbery gone wrong, Maggie begins to suspect there’s a great deal more behind it. Following up on leads that she hides from her editor at the paper, she begins to believe that the two sides of Balthasar’s life have clashed: his private school friends, some of whom are now operating far too close to the limits of the law, and his work with AIDS sufferers, of whom there are escalating numbers. It’s the mid-90s and the government is reluctant to provide the drugs that could save thousands of lives, while the people react with fear and superstition. It’s a bad situation, ripe with all the urgency and exploitation that leads to murder.

Maggie is a terrific character: determined to be the alpha male in any situation, stubborn and provocative and with the subtlety of a jackhammer, but fundamentally it’s her tender side that gets her into trouble, undermining any professional distance she might try to have. She reminds me a whole lot of V. I. Warshawski.

But perhaps what I admired most in this novel is the setting of Pietermaritzburg. I’ve never been to South Africa and know very little about the country, but this story is so steeped in the atmosphere of place and time, I felt as if I’d been there. The best crime fiction doesn’t just tell a pacy, high-octane story, it also has a profound awareness of the social injustices and loopholes that create the right conditions for crime to flourish. I really admired this in Eva Dolan’s crime novel, Long Way Home, a few weeks back, and was again impressed by that same depth in Charlotte Otter’s.

I should also say that I read an early version of this novel, when Charlotte was first drafting it. It was a great read then, but now it’s amazing. Every scene is crisp, the transitions are smooth, the characterisation sharp and vivid, the story unfolds so neatly and lucidly… All too often I read books that feel a bit ragged still, as if they should have gone through another edit before reaching their readers. But this one is as slick and tough as a turbo engine. And finally, hard-boiled crime fiction has a new edge in the 21st century, led by women writers who marry uncompromising social insight with compassion. The old sisterhood would be justly proud to bits of Charlotte.

 

Last Minute on Friday

I am so sorry for my absence from the blogworld this week; things have just been really busy around here. But I’m hoping that next week will be a lot better.

I must just tell you a funny story, however. Earlier in the week, Mr Litlove had to go to the Groucho Club in London for a work do. He was approaching the entrance when he saw the footballer, Rio Ferdinand (? I know nothing about football and no need to enlighten me) going in ahead of him. Mr Litlove did not say so when telling me the anecdote, but I imagine he was so busy watching this guy that he tripped over the threshold. Noticing, he says, a lady behind him who in stature, hairstyle, etc, resembled one of his mother’s friends, he turned around and advised her to take care with the step (or I believe the way he jokingly phrased it was that he’d stumbled just to warn her of the possible danger) only to find it was Margaret from The Apprentice!*

That’s my boy; he falls over only in the very best company.

 

* The Apprentice, for those outside the UK, is a reality game show in which young people with personality disorders and a strong desire to appear on television compete in a series of staged entrepreneurial tasks for a ‘coveted’ place working with business mogul, Sir Alan Sugar, a man who seems to me to be the epitome of a nightmare boss. It’s best to erase the word ‘why?’ from your vocabulary when watching. Alan Sugar, when deciding who to hire and fire used to have two grey-haired and bespectacled henchman with him, one of whom was this Margaret. It has to be said that the henchmen provided a welcome burst of sanity and normality in an otherwise crazy parallel universe.