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
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Random Bookish Thoughts – 13 November

On things being a little spooky

So, we’ve had Halloween and Friday 13th within a couple of weeks of each other. I’m not normally one for spooky reading – my imagination is far too overactive – but I found myself at home, on Halloween, at a bit of a loose end, and so I read Susan Hill’s classic The Woman in Black.

I’ve got to say, I think I just don’t really ‘get’ Susan Hill’s ghost stories. I mean, people rave about this book. They study it for GCSE, for heaven’s sake. Daniel Radcliffe was in the movie adaptation, and – well – after Harry Potter, isn’t that a pretty high bar? I’ve read a couple of Susan Hill novellas before – The Mist in the Mirror, and one or two others – and they didn’t leave much of an impression, but I always thought this one would be different.

Well, sorry. It just wasn’t. It wasn’t bad, exactly. The whole thing just left me a little….meh.

I downloaded The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson) to my Kindle at the same time, but haven’t read it yet. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of my favourite favourites, so I have high hopes.

On the honest-to-goodness God-damn-awesomeness of David Mitchell

I’m going through a wee bout of insomnia at present. (Being only two weeks back from California,  I blame jet lag, rather than a subconscious impact of Susan Hill’s ghost stories. But there are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, etc.) Anyway, for whatever reason, I haven’t got to sleep before 2.30am any night this week. It’s a trial. But at least it gives me plenty of time for reading.

On two consecutive nights, I stayed up late finishing David Mitchell novels – on Sunday, The Bone Clocks, which I read in a day. I’ll review it, at some point, but really, you shouldn’t wait till then to read it. You should go and read it right now. If not sooner. Seriously, if you’re still reading this, stop it and go and read David Mitchell. You won’t regret it.

And if you’re still reading this, then I can only assume you’ve already read The Bone Clocks, and are mulling over whether to read Slade House. Well, that was the one which kept me up till the small hours on Monday night, so – you should. Problem solved. Although maybe don’t read it alone, in a quiet house, at 2am like I did. Cos, you know, at 2am the boundaries between fantasy and reality sort of….thin out. A bit. Enough to stop you getting to sleep, anyway.

On things I’ve recently read, am currently reading, and am possibly reading next, as well as arbitrary targets and deadlines

Apart from all the spookiness and David Mitchell, I’ve recently finished Down Under by Bill Bryson (funny and informative, like all the best non-fiction), and The Cocktail Party, a play by TS Eliot (not great, if I’m honest, despite its author being the best poet of the 20th century). I’m halfway through The Lake House by Kate Morton, which I downloaded as a little light relief, and which is diverting enough, but somewhat unfortunately almost identical to every novel the author has ever written. Perhaps I’m just getting old.

I’m close to admitting that I’m not going to reach my goal of reading 100 books this year. Once it becomes a clearly impossible task, I’m anticipating a little relief, because I’m actually finding myself drawn to longer books  – and classics – for winter. I’m not sure I’ll set myself an absolute reading target again. It drives me towards quantity over quality, and in a world where more books are published each year than one could possibly read in a lifetime, what on earth – really – is the point? I’d much rather (she says sniffily) focus on the books which I actually want to read, the tomes recommended by people I trust.

I do like a good list, though. Well, we’ll see, when the new year rolls around.

Review – The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant, and Sweet Caress by William Boyd

I’ve said elsewhere that I really liked The Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant. I read it on holiday, and liked it enough to go to Barnes and Noble and seek out – although not, in the end, buy (luggage allowance) – a couple of her other titles.

Superficially, it reminded me a lot of Sweet Caress by William Boyd. Both purport to tell the story of a woman, born more or less at the turn of the last century, and trying to navigate her way through the twentieth century and whatever that meant. The fact that the two novels are really nothing alike is a testament to both the century and the writers; as Boyd has his main character note, however full a life one lives these days, the world is so complex that we’re always going to feel as if ‘the century was galloping away without us’. However, one of these novels surprised me in a good way and one disappointed me, so I thought I’d deal with them together to soften the blow.

Let’s deal with the problem child first. I liked ‘Any Human Heart’ (I read it before the miniseries, thank you very much), and I also liked Boyd’s lesser-known but similar-format ‘The New Confessions’. ‘Waiting for Sunrise’ was better than OK, as was ‘A Good Man in Africa’, and I more-than-liked ‘Restless’, the only attempt of Boyd’s that I’ve read where he writes a female protagonist. Reading the blurb for Sweet Caress, then, I got very excited about Boyd’s century-charting story of Amory Clay.

Oh dear. It was…it was fine. There were great bits; Boyd is, on the whole, a fantastic writer; the moment when Amory comes into contact with British fascists, in particular, haunted me. And he prods Amory to get on her soapbox about some really important issues (euthanasia, war, the power of the state to shape individual lives), and to be very eloquent in her views of them.

But the thing as a whole just left me cold. I wasn’t convinced by her voice. In particular, her habit of describing in detail the penis of every man she slept with irritated me; it felt very, very male. (He never did this in ‘Restless’, which contains one of the best female-point-of-view first-kiss moments I’ve ever read.) In the end, it just annoyed me too much for me to be able to give Sweet Caress more than three stars, however much I wanted to.

The Boston Girl, on the other hand, was a delight. Charting the life of Addie, the first in her family to be born in the United States, it captivated me completely. There was an unbleak, but unflinching, portrait of growing up in poverty in early twentieth-century Boston; there was a lot about culture clash among first-generation immigrants. There was a constant thread about the redemptive power of art. An early ‘men-are-b*stards’ theme was successfully reined in and counteracted later on. And the ending, coincidentally in the same year as Sweet Caress, was charming, and full of hope.

At bottom, I think Sweet Caress is very British, and The Boston Girl very American. That is a sweeping generalisation for which I have very little evidence or justification, but here goes: The former deals with the years more evenly, and in particular has the big 20th century wars as defining events, but most particularly seems to subscribe to the theory that everything is getting just a little bit worse. (I won’t give away the plot. But read it, and you’ll see what I mean.) The latter is skewed very heavily towards adolescence, and the immigrant experience, a part of the American story still written so large in the nation’s history that – to an outsider, at least – it almost eclipses everything else. The later years are dealt with in comparatively few pages, but the narrative is explicit – very explicit, and down to its closing sentence – in its message that things are getting better, not worse.

Thing is, I prefer the American message. And Diamant wrote her Addie far more convincingly, to my mind, than Boyd his Avery. If there was a cage fight between these two novels, then for me, the American wins hands-down.

Sweet Caress by William Boyd – ***
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamond – ****

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 – Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

This was released on Tuesday. I actually downloaded it on Monday, because I’m currently in the US and so eight hours behind London time, and because my Kindle is still hooked up to Amazon UK, and because I’m really just that much of a fan of anything written by JK Rowling or her alter ego, Robert Galbraith.

This was great. I think it was the best yet of the Robert Galbraith novels, which I put off reading for ages because – well, hype – but which I finally succumbed to at the beginning of this year. For those of you not yet converted, these are written by JK Rowling under a pen name, but they are Not. For. Kids. Seriously. Although they are easy to race through, because of the quality of the writing, subject-matter-wise they are reasonably heavy crime fiction (this one starts with the delivery of a severed leg).

The novels follow the – adventures, except that’s really too benign a word – of Cormoran Strike, private investigator, one-legged Afghanistan veteran, and love child of a rock star and a ‘super-groupie’, and his assistant-cum-work-partner-definitely-just-a-work-partner-nothing-more, green but sharp-as-a-razor Robin Ellacott. Reading about the developing relationship between these two is enormous fun – the characterisation is well-rounded and generally superb, which won’t be a surprise to anybody who’s read Harry Potter.

‘Fun’ is actually an important word here. In the acknowledgements, JK Rowling says she’s never enjoyed writing a novel more than she did this one. She notes that that’s strange, given the subject matter, which is pretty grim. But I sort of get it. It was certainly great fun to read. (I finished it on Wednesday night – reading it in two days of pretty heavy travel, getting out my Kindle whenever my travelling companions did anything like get their phones out, or go to the bathroom.)

This isn’t going to be one of those reviews full of words of the author; it’s not a novel that’s full of quotable quotes. But it’s got a cracking plot that keeps you guessing almost right to the end, a fantastic sense of place (I’ve been in California for two weeks, and it almost made me miss London), and you can’t help but care about the characters. If you need a good old-fashioned crime novel, to read on holiday or on the Tube or really anywhere, then this series is a damn good bet.

****

Review – Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

‘This is the story of a jinnia, a great princess of the jinn, known as the Lightning Princess on account of her mastery over the thunderbolt, who loved a mortal man long ago, in the twelfth century, as we would say, and of her many descendants, and of her return to the world, after a long absence, to fall in love again, at least for a moment, and then to go to war.’

Two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights equals, as I think has been pointed out by every single reviewer of this novel, 1001 nights; this is, then, Rushdie’s nod to the Arabian Nights, to ‘stories told against death, to civilise a barbarian’. Instead of Scheherazade, we have Dunia; instead of 1001 stories, we have 2+ years of chaos, narrated from a thousand years hence but set in the very near future, when the jinnia come to wage war on the earth. Well, they come to wage war on each other, but the earth is the battleground, and so to all intents and purposes it ends up being the same thing.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether I’d recommend this novel as a starting point, to someone who hadn’t read any Rushdie before. I don’t think I would, but – apart from my lifelong devotion to Midnight’s Children – I don’t know why not. It certainly possesses all of the hallmarks of his writing; if you’d asked me to read it blind, I’m pretty sure I would have been able to name him as the author. It is magic realism, of course; it fuses East and West (there’s even a little bit of India, hurrah); the language fizzes with energy as though the words themselves are creating something new – which of course they are. There is the slightly uncomfortable wish-fulfilment sex, older men with younger women, which has been present in most – if not all – of the later novels: ‘He was so tired in her bed that there was little in the way of lovemaking, one night in four or five was about his speed these days anyway, but she was full of understanding. He was her warrior to be loved and waited for and she would take what little of him she could get and wait for the rest.’ (It mirrors Rushdie’s own love life, but that’s hardly an original story.) There is lengthy meditation on the nature and power of stories, a topic on which he is – following the furore over The Satanic Verses – almost uniquely qualified to speak. There’s a worrying away at religion, not quite believing or unbelieving but unable to leave it alone, like a tongue probing an aching tooth; there’s irreverence, as ever, but it’s less defiant than in previous novels, and it feels more like it might be a mask for doubt. There is, above all, an inexhaustible sense of energy and fun.

All of this is both a strength and a weakness. I love Rushdie’s writing. I have done ever since I was eighteen, and read Midnight’s Children for university, and suddenly realised what language could do. He has a permanent spot in my list of top three favourite 20th century writers. (One of the others is John Steinbeck; the other rotates according to my mood at the time.) I took a day’s holiday to finish Joseph Anton. I am, at the most fundamental level, A Fan. How can you not be, when in the space of one page opened at random, you get: an explanation of the English/American difference between knocking on wood and touching it; a comment that, ‘if you walk away from God you should probably try to stay in the good books of Luck’, and a by-the-by comment that an epic, three-day storm threw up in northern Manhattan ‘the original casket containing the actual trinkets worth sixty guilders with which a certain Peter Minuit bought an island of hills from the Lenape Indians, [which] had been deposited at Linwood Hill Park, at the northern tip of Mannahatta, as if the storm was telling our ancestors, Fuck you, I’m buying the island back.’ Linguistic difference, supersition, a little religion, and history, all on one page, with a large dollop of tongue-in-cheek insouciance; this is the kind of wide-ranging conversation that I like to think I have, with my favourite friends, on my best days; it makes me think that, when he’s in a good mood, Rushdie would be a blast, whether in a bar or a lecture theatre or on an open-top tour bus.

That said, this is Rushdie’s…twelfth? novel, I think. (I’m counting up the ones I’ve read; I think I’ve read them all, except for The Ground Beneath Her Feet.) Should I really be able to tell that it’s him writing? I wouldn’t mind so much if I felt his heart was really in it, but in places I don’t think it was; the plotting could have been tighter and there were short passages where I was a little bored.

This is a minor quibble; in the same way that I hold people to a higher standard the more I love them (this, predictably, drives them crazy), this book would have had to have blown my mind in order not to disappoint me a little. I am still in love with the language he uses; I read this on my Kindle, and I highlighted more passages than in any other fiction book I’ve ever read electronically. I love how one of the characters has a father who ‘flies the coop with a secretary bird’. I love how one of the jinnia speaks a certain kind of Bombay-English: ‘Portaal is busted open. Border between what imagineers are imagining and what imagineers are desiring is leaky now like Mexico-USA, and we-all, who before were caged in Phantom Zone, can go fast now through wormholes and land up here like General Zod with superpowers. So many wanting to come. Soon we will be taking over. Hundred and one per cent. Forget about it.’ Again, sometimes it goes a little too far; like Shakespeare, he doesn’t seem to be able to resist a pun – a one-woman show named ‘Lebanonymous’ is a particular low point, and feels too groanworthy to include even ironically – but those moments are rare, very rare.

The story is bonkers; they often are. Starting with Midnight’s Children in 1981, he was a great pioneer of magic realism, with an emphasis on the magic, and he has remained so. If weirdness isn’t your bag, then he’s not for you. But the realism is there, too; at his best, he uses magic and madness and metaphor to expose the deepest cracks in humanity, and everything – good and bad – he finds there. I think he does that more successfully in other novels; in this, he raises Big Questions but pulls back from them pretty quickly in favour of comedy. A three-day superstorm at the beginning of the 1001 nights has echoes of climate change; referenced later, this becomes ‘This was a species with an exceptional ability to ignore its approaching doom.’ The full stop provides a momentary pause for reflection, before the punchline: ‘If one sought to be the embodiment of the doom that was approaching, this was a little frustrating.’ There is what feels like real anger at the actions of a not-at-all-veiled Taliban-esque force in the ‘land of A’ (just as subtle as he means it to be), but presented as a small part of a larger problem which is fixed by a sci-fi-esque deus ex machina.

I’ve just reread this review in draft, and I appear to have taken some 1300+ words to say ‘it’s not as good as Midnight’s Children’. And it isn’t. The fact that I still give it a high four stars, though – not to mention the longest review I think I’ve ever written – should give you some indication as to what an incredibly high bar that is.

****

Review – Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

First up, an apology in advance for some of the content of this review, which may well be unbearable. This novel made me rediscover some of my youthful pretensions, a fact that I realised about 15 pages in, when I found myself thinking ‘This is like Tristram Shandy as written by Thomas Pynchon’.

Well, I stand by it. On the offchance that not everyone wasted quite as much of their misspent youth on esoteric literature as I did: Tristram Shandy was described by my favourite university lecturer as ‘the first postmodern novel’, quite some feat when you consider that it was published in 1759. It is, at bottom, a send-up; in an attempt to catalogue absolutely everything about his life, the narrator starts with his birth and – due to the fact that, to explain his birth, you have to go back to how and why his parents met, at least – ends some 500 pages later and five years earlier. Thomas Pynchon wrote one of my favourite cult novels, The Crying of Lot 49, which is a concise little masterpiece of connectivity and conspiracy theories.

The – I was going to say plot, but maybe ‘premise’ would be a better word. The premise of Satin Island is that everything is connected. The main character (and yes, he’s called U, and yes, that’s heavy-handed) is a corporate anthropologist, and has been tasked by his slightly shadowy boss with cataloguing modern life. ‘An anthropologist, she’d said; that’s…exotic. Not at all, I’d replied; I work for an incorporated business, in a basement.’

You’ll note that this novel is short, running to a little under 200 pages, and you may conclude from that that he doesn’t in fact achieve his goal. Well, wait and see. It’s a gloriously comic chronicle of the attempt, though. It’s also sprinkled with some pithy truisms of modern life, particularly modern corporate life, such as this one: ‘Not that it was secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring.’

Duncan White in the Telegraph said this about this novel: ‘Reading a McCarthy novel is like being in a McCarthy novel: everything is part of a fizzing network, the scope of which can never be fully apprehended.’ I couldn’t have put it better myself. I think it’s the use of the word ‘fizzing’ that is perfect; that’s exactly how my brain felt when I was reading this, like it had been dipped in Alka-Seltzer. Passages like this one made me think about things and make connections in a way I hadn’t done before, or perhaps a way I had only done subconsciously (in the way that you read something and stop and say to yourself, surprised, ‘That’s so true!’):

‘Forget family, or ethnic and religious groupings: corporations have supplanted all these as the primary structure of the modern tribe. My use of the word tribe here isn’t fanciful; it’s modern that’s the dubious term. The logic underlying the corporation is completely primitive.’

So is this one my Booker winner? Hmm, I don’t think so. Before the shortlist was announced I placed this one seventh on my list, so just outside it, but I actually quite like the fact that it got the nod – it’s part of the overall diversity of the shortlist, and I think it deserves it. I don’t hope it wins, though. There are a few places where I found it tripped over itself for trying to be so clever (the references to Schrodinger’s cat were a bit too laboured, for example, and it wasn’t the only place), and I think wherever McCarthy needed to make choices between including something to make him look clever and something else (plot, character, lyricism), the cleverness won. That will limit his audience; I think he knows that, and I don’t think he cares. But I expect the Booker panel will, and I don’t disagree with them for that.

****