Book Review(s) – Alternative Histories

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick **

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth ****

(Time And Time Again – Ben Elton ****; 11.22.63 – Stephen King ***; Fatherland – Robert Harris ***; Dominion – CJ Sansom ****; The Children’s War – JN Stroyar *****)

 

Regular readers of this blog will have figured out by now that I like history. One of my favourite things about it is the spine-tingling realisation that, on the turn of a knife edge, it could all have gone so very differently.

This is why I will read pretty much any ‘alternative history’ I can get my hands on. Most of the ones I’ve read seem to be along the lines of ‘What if the Germans had won World War II’; I don’t know if that says more about me, or about the people who write them. Last year I read one which broke that mould, Time And Time Again by Ben Elton, which focused instead on World War I. I’ve (rather snobbishly) always thought of Ben Elton as a bit of a populist writer, but Time And Time Again made me eat my words; it was completely different to what I expected, in a really good way. 11.22.63 I found to be less well executed, but made from the same sort of mould.

Towards the end of 2015, I became temporarily fixated by Amazon’s series, The Man In The High Castle. If you haven’t watched it, I’d recommend it very highly – although be warned, Rufus Sewell will give you nightmares. In mourning after watching the last episode, I downloaded the book, and read it over Christmas. Well, what a disappointment – I found it to be fragmented, linguistically uninspiring, and with really poorly-drawn characters. I haven’t read anything else by Philip K Dick, so I have no idea whether that’s characteristic or not – but to be honest, after that experience, I’m not particularly inclined to find out. (I am, though, looking forward to Season 2 of the TV series. I know, I’m a heathen.)

To rectify the situation, I picked up The Plot Against America, which I last read when it was first published, which somehow – horrifyingly – was more than ten years ago. This is also an alternative history, although it doesn’t go quite so far as to show Germany winning the war – rather, it is an imagining of how the early 1940s may have gone, had the US elected an anti-Semitic president in 1940. This was almost the complete opposite of The Man In The High Castle – the story is told through the eyes of a young boy, and the characterisation of him and his family and the rest of the neighbourhood is almost perfect, at times to the point of being heartbreaking. Because this isn’t only an alternative history story; it’s also a coming of age story and a snapshot of a ‘real’ social history which makes the ‘alternative’ stuff seem all too plausible.

To finish, a brief shout-out to three other alternative WWII novels which I read a number of years ago, but which I remember as pretty good (Fatherland), very good (Dominion), and one of the best books I’ve ever read (The Children’s War). All three focus on a post-WWII defeated Europe, with Nazi atrocities proceeding unchecked and conquered people trying to live their lives as best they can. Dominion gets an extra star over Fatherland because of the writing, especially the first scene (a gripping and memorable reimagining of the British Cabinet meeting in 1940 where Churchill took power…or didn’t). The Children’s War gets 5 stars for its unflinching plot (seriously, there is one scene in particular where I had a Joey Tribbiani moment and almost put the book in the freezer), complex characters and sheer richness of detail. It’s not that easy to get hold of, but if you only read one book about what life might have been like if the Nazis had won the war, it really should be this one.

Any other alternative history recommendations gratefully received!

Advertisements

Book Review – War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

The title of War and Peace is entirely accurate. The title of this blog post is not. It’s not really a review. Honestly, it’s the literary equivalent of a teenager’s thoughts on One Direction. I just loved this novel. No, seriously, I did. I’m not being sarcastic or anything. And the next 900-or-so words are an undisguised, unashamed, unabashed (does that mean the same as unashamed? Oh well, it sounds good) attempt to convince you to read it, if you haven’t already.

So, my love for this novel. It didn’t happen all at once. I started off strong, keen, and eager to stay ahead of the BBC miniseries. Then I got a couple of hundred pages in and Life Happened (back to work, horrible cold, general January malaise). My reading was confined to the weekends, and maybe a few minutes snatched at lunchtimes during the week. I was enjoying the book but, well, it was in danger of starting to feel like a bit of a chore.

Then something strange happened. I got to around 4-or-500 pages in, and – my priorities changed. I got really, really into it. I spent a big chunk of the weekend before last reading – probably 10 hours or more. I’ve been reading instead of watching TV in the evenings. One morning last week, sensing the end was in sight, I got the bus into work instead of driving, so I got more reading time.  It just got really good. And it stayed good, with minor exceptions, right to the end. (I’m not telling you what the exceptions were, as I’m terrified of accidental spoilers. Read it, and then we’ll talk; or I might post another, spoiler-y review, a little later. But suffice it to say the exceptions are minor, and you should still read it.)

Anyway, enough of me sounding like a 12-year-old fangirl. What did I like about War and Peace, and what can I say to convince those who remain unconvinced by its 1273 short pages? Well here, holiday-ad style, are a few of the delights which await you:

  • Delight in the brilliance of the writing! Tolstoy’s writing is basically the love child of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. From Jane Austen, he takes a lot of subject matter of the ‘peace’ – writing about the minor aristocracy, getting into the minds (and dressing rooms) of his characters, and exposing them to us, gently enough, but with warts and all. From Dickens, there is the breadth of scope, the feeling of the grand sweep of history behind the individual stories, although – for the most part – Dickens’s anger at social injustice is missing; this is not, in the end, a novel about serfs. In common with both Austen and Dickens, Tolstoy has humour. No, really. Parts of this book are really, really funny. (Pierre’s accidental engagement, for example. Or this: ‘Bonaparte was born lucky. He has excellent soldiers. And the Germans were the first he attacked. You’d have to be a do-nothing not to beat the Germans. Ever since the world began, everybody’s beaten the Germans. And they’ve beaten nobody. Except each other.’ I happen to like Germany quite a bit – but, as a Brit, that’s pretty funny and always will be.) And I was amazed at how modern the whole thing felt. OK, it’s long, and there are parts which are a bit slow – but those are the exceptions rather than the rule. On the whole, it’s pacy, and engaging as hell.

 

  • Fall in love with the characters! Honestly, this is the best bit of the whole thing. The characterisation is wonderful. It’s not your typical character-driven novel, veering off at times into history, philosophy and more (top tip: when you get to the bit about the masons, just take a deep breath and power through it) – but the really innovative thing, to my mind, was Tolstoy’s use of a narrative style which flits between the minds and points of view of almost all of the major characters, almost dizzyingly fast. That style took me some getting used to, but it encouraged empathy for the characters – all of them – perhaps moreso than any ‘classic’ novel I’ve ever read. (Well. I say all. Funnily enough, thinking about which characters I had no empathy for (I’m looking at you, Karagins), I don’t think we ever get inside their heads. So I’m standing by the point.) The character development is supreme. None of them are perfect, but they are all – to a greater or lesser extent – lovable. (Again – not you, Karagins.) My favourites changed throughout the book, and those who’ve read it more than once say that their favourite changed depending on where they were in their lives. Before reading it, I could never have imagined being one of those people, like Andrew Marr, who reads it every year. Now, I can’t imagine not revisiting Pierre and Natasha and Andrei and the rest of them; I finished the book four days ago, and I’m still/already mourning their loss.

 

  • Learn about the Napoleonic Wars! It’s almost a cliché to comment that War and Peace isn’t really a novel. Tolstoy makes that point himself, in an end note, commenting that ‘It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.’ In other words, ‘Don’t fence me in, haters’. I must confess, ‘epic poem’ hadn’t really occurred to me (maybe it would have done, if I had the ability to read it in Russian), but I might have described it as either of the others. I had a vague awareness of what was going on in Europe in the early 19th century, but really only as it pertained to Britain. I’d have been unlikely to have picked up a non-fiction book about Napoleon, and I probably still wouldn’t, but at least now I know my Austerlitzes from my Borodinos. And all without having to wander half-blindly through a battlefield, without even so much as a uniform. (Sorry, Pierre.)

 

  • Bask in the kudos of the bragging rights! Actually, I’m lying. This one doesn’t really work for that long. If you can get two weeks out of saying ‘I’m reading War and Peace, you know’ before people start rolling their eyes at you, you’re doing well. Trust me on this. But still, it’s worth reading. I promise.

 

*****

Bookish Lists – Best Reads of 2015

A little late maybe, but because it’s (still, just about) that time of year again, and because – as I’ve said before – I’m a sucker for a list, here are my top eleven reads of 2015 (where I haven’t reviewed yet, I’ll try to soon):

  1. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell – this was amazing, unexpected, and kept me up till 2.30am and thinking about it for an awful lot longer. Probably my read of the year.
  2. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – review here
  3. Election Notebook by Nick Robinson – review here
  4. Words of Radiance (Stormlight 2) by Brandon Sanderson – I’m not an avid fantasy reader, but I discovered Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss last year as part of a push to read more widely, and this – read last January – was fantastic.
  5. The Boston Girl by Anita Diamond – review here
  6. The Vegetarian by Han Kang – definitely one of the most unexpected novels I read last year; weird, sad and reflective. It’s totally different to The Fishermen, but I sort of think that fans of The Fishermen might like this one as well.
  7. Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie – review here
  8. Tightrope by Simon Mawer – review here
  9. Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg – review here
  10. The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma – review here
  11. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James – I’ve actually not long finished this, because I wanted to wait until I had the time to devote myself to it properly, but its scope and breadth and language are incredible.

And the eight biggest disappointments. When I say ‘disappointments’, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad – just that they haven’t sat quite right with me somehow – maybe because I expected great things. I tend not to review books I haven’t enjoyed very much, on the premise of ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’ – but of these, 1, 4, 5 and 6 are by authors whom I admire and have previously enjoyed; 2 ticked all the boxes (politics, Andrew Marr, thriller) but just could have been better executed; 3 and 7 were my least favourite of a pretty strong field for the Booker Prize; and 8 was maybe the most overrated classic I’ve read in the last ten years.

  1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  2. Head of State by Andrew Marr
  3. Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
  4. The Cocktail Party by TS Eliot
  5. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
  6. The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
  7. The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
  8. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Review – Election Notebook by Nick Robinson, and Live From Downing Street by Nick Robinson

I became borderline obsessed with this year’s UK General Election. Politics interests me at the worst of times and, in terms of interest at least, this certainly wasn’t the worst of times. We were just coming out of the first full-term coalition in living memory; the Prime Minister was either (depending on your view) competent but uninspiring, or bordering on the devil incarnate; the leader of the opposition was rapidly moving from punchline to heartthrob (I still don’t get it, but Google ‘Milifandom’ if you’re not familiar with the concept – it’s truly disturbing). On top of all that, a new political force was rewriting the electoral map north of the border; support for the Lib Dems, the long-time third party of British politics, was collapsing; and the UK Independence Party seemed, somehow, to be blundering into the limelight, dragging along voters from Left and Right alike.

Small wonder, then, that almost nobody predicted the result. I was in Zurich the night of the election. I remember the shock of the first exit poll, announced at 10pm UK time, predicting the Conservatives would be the largest party; I remember that shock being echoed on every news outlet. I made some of my American colleagues stay in the bar with me till 6am, until the result was beyond doubt. I went to sleep for two hours; when I woke up, Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, had lost his seat. It was easily the most interesting election of my lifetime.

Nick Robinson was the BBC’s Political Editor for ten years, up to and including the election. I picked up his Election Notebook, a diary of the year leading up to polling day, expecting it to be gossipy and full of insider knowledge. I wasn’t disappointed. I thought I remembered a lot of the events he describes – most notably perhaps the Scottish referendum – but reading descriptions from someone who had a front-row seat was a real eye-opener. An awful lot of stuff gets cut from the news, and this – around 350 pages on one of the most seminal years in recent political history – was just the ticket to remind me of all the things I didn’t know. (As an aside, I consider myself reasonably politically aware – I watch the Sunday morning political shows, read the websites of the BBC, the Telegraph and the Guardian, as well as some of the American papers when I have the chance – and the gaps in my knowledge reading this made me despair a little. Honestly, where does anyone find the time?)

Anyway. Perhaps inevitably, my favourite parts were the light-hearted anecdotes about the politicians who try to come across as anything but, including this gem – for me, the highlight of the whole book – ‘The other revelation of the night is that Ed and Yvette and the kids went inter-railing this summer, taking in a Sound of Music bike tour in costumes made by the Balls-Coopers themselves from curtain material on the train to Salzburg – lederhosen for the boys, headscarves and neckerchiefs for the girls.’ Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper are the Labour Party’s power couple; both MPs, he is the former Shadow Chancellor, she the former Shadow Home Secretary and recent (unsuccessful) Labour leadership candidate. That is just one of the things which makes that story so delightful. So there’s really something for everybody – if you have only a tangential interest in modern British politics, then you’ll learn a lot; if you are a political nut already, then you’ll learn at least a little, and have some fun, too. (‘Everybody’ might be overstating it. If you have no interest in British politics at all, then, well, it’s probably not for you. But you’d probably figured that much out and stopped reading already.)

I started Live from Downing Street, Robinson’s earlier book, expecting more of the same. It’s not, really. The first half is a history of the BBC and its reporting of British politics, and, well, if that sounds a little dry, then I agree with you. I learned some interesting things, about the independence of the BBC and the opinions about the free press that were held by some of our most famous statesmen (and, latterly, stateswomen), but it felt a bit like a university lecture – improving, but – apart from in isolated places – not a lot of fun. Literary fibre, if you will. There are those who would say that I’d brought this upon myself, picking up a book called ‘Live from Downing Street’, but even with my slightly unusual ways of getting my kicks, I found it hard going.

The second half started to move into territory that was more familiar to me from the Election Notebook – it became more personal, covering the time of Robinson’s tenure at the BBC, and including anecdotes such as this rather charming comment from (then) President Sarkozy of France to (then) Prime Minister Gordon Brown:

‘Even President Sarkozy of France, who’d threatened to boycott the summit, was impressed. Some weeks later, at a dinner at the Elysee Palace, he stunned the British prime minister and his closest aides with the candour of his assessment: ‘You know, Gordon, I should not like you. You are Scottish, we have nothing in common and you are an economist…’ Diplomats and civil servants were, I’m told, fidgeting nervously at this point, wondering where the president’s remarks might be leading. They need not have worried. ‘…but somehow, Gordon, I love you.’ This expression of Gallic ardour so unsettled the Scot known for never showing his emotions that Sarkozy added hastily, if perhaps unnecessarily, ‘But not in a sexual way’.’

Frankly, having that story in my life was worth persevering through the first half of the book. But if you only want to read one book by a former BBC Political Editor about modern British politics this year (and frankly, if you want to read even that many, then I applaud you), then the Election Notebook is the one.

Nick Robinson’s Election Notebook *****
Live from Downing Street ***

Review – Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I actually re-read this (and then wrote this post) earlier in the summer, but for some reason didn’t publish it till now. So, while I take a bit of a break from writing about the Man Booker books, and congratulate myself for guessing 4 out of the final 6 on the shortlist, here are my thoughts on the excellent Kate Atkinson.

—————

Review – Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

‘One day, of course, all this would be consigned to that same history, even the mountains – sand, after all, was the future of rocks.’

I re-read this because I started ‘A God in Ruins’ and realised that I couldn’t remember all that much about Teddy Todd. I know, ‘A God in Ruins’ is supposed to work as a stand-alone novel, but it’s not like re-reading this wonderful book was exactly a hardship. I loved it. I’d forgotten how much I’d loved it, which was great, because it meant that I could fall in love with it all over again.

You could be forgiven, from that last paragraph, for thinking that I’m a Kate Atkinson super-fan. I’m not, or not yet at least, although I might be on my way there. I’ve read, I think, one of the early Jackson Brodie novels, and one which had a character called Bunty, both of them years ago. ‘Life After Life’ is in a different league.

Thousands and thousands of words have been written about this novel, so just in brief: Ursula Todd is born into 1910, again and again, repeating her life over and over until she ‘gets it right’. At first she can’t remember her previous attempts at life, and then – well, it all develops from there. The reader is given a front-row seat to the triumphs and disasters of the Todd family throughout this process, taking in a big chunk of 20th-century British history, but focusing mainly on the inter-war period and WWII (editor’s note: I was on a serious World War Two kick earlier this year; it only ended when I started seriously to contemplate leaving the house in a gas mask).

The premise is intriguing enough – I’m a huge fan of the idea of a ‘do-over’ (I liked Ben Elton’s ‘Time and Time Again’, for the same reason). But the great joy of this novel for me is Atkinson’s voice, the omniscient narrator, caring about her characters (and making us care, too) but never getting sentimental, and bringing out comedy from the things they say and do like a modern-day Jane Austen. I hesitated over this comparison – given Austen’s place in the canon it’s not one I take lightly – but I think in this case it’s fair. Unlike Austen, there is a desire to extend past the ‘two inches of ivory’ – dealing with the great moments of history – but it’s the domestic parts of the novel, the way the family interacts, that I think work the best.

Also like Austen, Atkinson is eminently quotable; cases in point:

‘She married one man (‘a pleasant enough chap’) and woke up with another, one as tightly wound as Sylvie’s little carriage clock.’

‘’They’re so meek,’ Izzie said dismissively. ‘There’ll never be a revolution in this country. Not another one at any rate. We chopped the head off a king once and felt so guilty about it that we’ve been trying to make up for it ever since.’’

‘Sylvie’s knowledge, like Izzie’s, was random yet far-ranging, ‘the sign that one has acquired one’s learning from novels, rather than an education,’ according to Sylvie.’

And if that little trio of quotes doesn’t persuade you to read it, then I’m not sure what will. Now I’m off to read ‘A God in Ruins’, immediately.

*****

Review – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

‘Of course, they craved beauty, but that would have to wait. Or rather, they would have to wait for it.’

IMG_3415

Let me start by saying that this is, easily, my book of the year. It might be my book of the decade. In the week or so since I started it, I have done all of the following:

  • Finished it – in 24 hours, which (given its 700+ pages) should tell you something in itself
  • Cried at it
  • Had, at one point, to go and read it in the bath (you’ll see why)
  • When asked how my weekend was, started my response each time with ‘Well, I read this book…’
  • Wallowed half-awake through a three-day book hangover
  • Seriously considered abandoning the idea of reading the rest of the Booker longlist, and instead just starting this again
  • Realised I didn’t have the emotional strength to read it again just yet
  • Slept with it by my bed for a few more days, just – you know – just because
  • Finally, finally started to move on.

Just kidding on that last one.

Right, now that act of catharsis is over with:

This feels like two different books. At least. For that reason alone, it should come with a health warning. BEWARE: You get drawn into caring about these characters when they seem young and relatively carefree, and you think this is going to be a combination of youth and New York City, in the tradition of Mary McCarthy or JD Salinger or Claire Messud, and then – oh, then all hell breaks loose, frankly. (Before you conclude that I’m a total idiot, I should point out that the UK cover is significantly more subtle than the US one.) Plenty of people have written plenty of words about the more shocking aspects of the plot, and I don’t see the need to repeat them here, so instead I’m just going to pick out a few points that have stayed with me:

‘Nurture over nature’

This novel is a temple – a cathedral, actually – to the power of friendship. The central relationship of Willem and Jude is utterly co-dependent, in a way that is by turns beautiful and heartbreaking and impossibly difficult, but that I found (and I may be mocked for this) ultimately uplifting. There are other relationships, particularly Jude’s relationships (with Harold, Andy, Ana), which are deeply touching, too. By way of contrast, the blood ties in the novel are weak, malnourished:

‘‘‘But they’re your parents,” Malcolm said to him once a year or so. “You can’t just stop talking to them.” But you could, you did: he was proof of that. It was like any relationship, he felt – it took constant pruning, and dedication, and vigilance, and if neither party wanted to make the effort, why wouldn’t it wither?’

The strongest characters in the book are those which build their own families. This point is made overtly:

‘Lately, he had been wondering if codependence was such a bad thing. He took pleasure in his friendships, and it didn’t hurt anyone, so who cared if it was codependent or not? And anyway, how was a friendship any more codependent than a relationship?…Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.’

I found this statement unnecessary; the message is clear throughout the narrative. Which brings me to:

Too much of a good thing?

If I had to pick a flaw, it would probably be this one, and I know I’m not the only one to say it: On occasion, this brick-sized book hits you over the head with its message. Sometimes, the lights are a little too bright, the words a little too many, the misery piling up until you think that surely, surely, nothing else can happen to this poor boy. Afterwards, in the days after I read it when I was absorbing everything I could about the novel (a bit like stalking an ex-boyfriend’s Facebook page), I think I read an interview with Yanagihara where she said this was on purpose, and I think I understand – I actually found it quite cathartic; if Dickens was alive and living in New York, in the 21st century, then I wonder whether he might have written something like this. And just as I forgive Dickens his occasional purple prose, I can’t begrudge it here. I think the reason it’s OK is because of:

The humour

I’m fully aware that all of the above makes me sound like a hypocrite. When I reviewed ‘Lila’, one of my complaints was that it was unrelenting. Well, good Lord, the same charge could be levelled at this, and over more than twice as many pages. And yet, it’s punctuated by exchanges like this one:

‘Now he was researching his fourth book, a sequel of sorts to The American Handshake, about the Constitution, from a similar perspective.

“But only the Bill of Rights, and the sexier amendments,” Harold told him when he was interviewing him for the research assistant position.

“I didn’t know some were sexier than others,” he said.

“Of course some are sexier than others,” said Harold. “Only the eleventh, twelfth, fourteenth and sixteenth are sexy. The rest are basically the dross of politics past.”

“The thirteenth is garbage?” he asked, enjoying himself.

“I didn’t say it was garbage,” Harold said, “just not sexy.

“But I think that’s what dross means.”

Harold sighed dramatically, grabbed the dictionary off his desk, flipped it open, and studied it for a moment. “Okay, fine,” he said, tossing it back onto a heap of papers, which slid toward the edge of the surface.’

(I’m fully aware that this sort of exchange might make some people want to beat their heads against the nearest wall. But I loved it.)

And finally:

The impossible ache of comparing yourself to others

This is dotted throughout, but in particular it’s a very in-your-twenties thing to do, I think, and Yanagihara nails it. This is already a very special novel, long before you get to what you might call its central storyline. For example, look at how it captures feelings like this, of doing well and badly all at the same time:

‘Only to him and Jude would Lispenard Street be considered an achievement…but in those moments he would at times find himself thinking, This is enough. This is more than I hoped. To be in New York, to be an adult, to stand on a raised platform of wood and say other people’s words! – it was an absurd life, a not-life, a life his parents and his brother would never have dreamed for themselves, and yet he got to dream it for himself every day.
But then the feeling would dissipate, and he would be left alone to scan the arts section of the paper, and read about other people who were doing the kinds of things he didn’t even have the expansiveness, the arrogance of imagination to dream of, and in those hours the world would feel very large, and the lake very empty, and the night very black, and he would wish he were back in Wyoming, waiting at the end of the road for Hemming, where the only path he had to navigate was the one back to his parents’ house, where the porch light washed the night with honey.’

I was going to include a separate section on the beauty of the language, but this review is quite long enough already and I think the quote above will do. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to buy copies of this book for everybody I know.

*****