The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood

A lot of the books I’ve been reading this year are ones that other people have said are good. They’ve won awards, they’re critically acclaimed, and their authors can just about pay the rent (O, heady success). The Blind Assassin was one of these. It’s won the Booker, and the Hammet Prize. It’s been nominated for the Orange Prize and is listed by Time as one of the greatest 100 novels since 1923.

I’m also a pretty huge Atwood fan, so let’s just say I had high expectations. The story is told predominantly by Iris Chase, who is reflecting on her life and the mysterious death of her sister. They grew up well off, but sheltered and without a mother, and Iris reflects on this childhood and her her life later on as an unhappily married woman.

The book includes a novel within the novel, which Iris publishes on her sister Laura’s behalf after her death. Inside it is the story of the blind assassin, told by the protagonist’s lover to her after their trysts. I found this story to be the most gripping thing in the book, but then it’s science fiction, and I’ve been in a sci-fi mood of late. A story within a novel within a novel: STORYCEPTION.

I found the going a bit slow at first. Sometimes that can be the case with hefty books — I feel like I’m not getting anywhere with them — but, I sped through the last 200 or so pages. I solved the mysteries myself, before she revealed them. Which means I found myself exclaiming: “I knew it!” a lot, though Atwood leaves enough doubt in your mind that you’re never 100% sure that your assumptions are correct, which means that the reveals never feel too predictable.

It was exceptionally well done, and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t immediately jump into my all-time-faves list. I did cry a bit at the end. The last two pages gave me feels. I’ll admit that.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

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Meet Shadow, an ex-con, who’s released from prison and begins an increasingly strange journey around America with a man who claims to be a god. Their journey takes them through both America, and multiple realities… not in the sense of parallel universes — more like multiple layers of one reality. That is, what we see at face value is given richness and meaning by they things that play out in the layer beneath it. Am I making sense? No? No matter. What is sense anyway?

The story captures your attention from the get-go, the language is clear and direct, and the characters are bizarre and often genuinely hilarious. There are portions of prose that you want to read again and again — which is only problematic because you REALLY want to find out what’s going to happen next.

I loved the fact that all the loose ends were tied up and tucked in by the end of the novel, so you finish it feeling full. I do love a book that leaves you hungry for more, but there’s something to be said for books that feel like a really good meal. You keep eating and eating until you’re about to pop, just because it’s so delicious, and when you finish you can’t fit in another mouthful. When I finished this, I couldn’t start another book right away.

I heard many great things about this book before I started reading it. I was told that it was unputdownable, and also that I may have nightmares for weeks afterwards — both of which were entirely accurate statements. Let’s not forget that it’s also won the Hugo, and Nebula award. I’d never read any of Gaiman’s books before (though I’ve seen Coraline, and his Doctor Who episodes), so I can’t really compare it to any of his other stuff.  The next one on my list is The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Also, read this great article on Gaiman in the New Yorker.

Case Histories, Kate Atkinson

imagesI’ve been drawn to Kate Atkinson’s books after recently reading a blurb for her 2013 release Life After Life. I’d never encountered her before, despite her first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum being quite widely acclaimed (I’ve only just bought this as a secondhand book sale this very afternoon).

In the period between hearing about her new novel, and it actually coming out, I found myself wandering the aisles of an airport bookstore, trying to find something that wasn’t in Dutch. It was then that I happened across Case Histories.

I never think of myself as the murder mystery type. It’s always a bit too CSI for me — infinite variations on the same plots and characters (often it seems like the only difference is that this one is set in Miami, and that one is set in New York, or Las Vegas). Bla bla bla. And, I have to admit that I thought this was going the same way: A young girl, long missing; a trapped young mother; and a promising young woman with her whole life ahead of her, each of whom need the surly ex-cop investigator to avenge her seems very same-y.

But, Ms Atkinson creates a captivating cast, whose interactions are by turns squirmy and hilarious and upsetting. Her plot twists and winds in ways that you do not suspect, and yet which seem so fitting once the veil is lifted that you can’t see how else it could have ended.

I loved the way she told the story as much as I enjoyed the story itself. Her prose is simple, and flows naturally. It’s not flowery writing. It’s get the job done writing. She often hops along her timeline, and between points of view, in a way which makes the story feel multifaceted. This devise also acts in her favour when it comes to big reveals, as it gives her a mechanism with which to delay the delivery of dialogue and other observational tidbits which the characters are privy to.

The women themselves are vivacious characters. At varying points they are innocence personified, cruel, boisterous and lewd. They’re troublemakers. While they may enlist detective Jackson Brodie’s services, they are not damsels (and more often than not, they are the ones causing him distress).

While searching for a cover image I discovered that this has been made into a TV series? I’m so behind the times.

The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes

the-shining-girls-sa-coverI like to devour books like I do chocolate. I want to be torn between savouring every morsel, and consuming the whole in 0.5 seconds flat. I want to feel guilty and glad at the same time.

I have to admit that I’ve never been a great reader of South African fiction because my past experience (with the JM Coetzees and Andre Brinks of the world) is that it’s hard work to read*. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be read, but if you’re looking for escape or pleasure it’s not a good fit. Lauren Beukes, however, is.

The Shining Girls is very simply explained as a book about a time-travelling serial killer. It’s the perfect get-away: Time. Harper Curtis moves between 1929 and 1993, stalking around the peripheries of the lives of the shining girls. He watches them, drinking them in, creating little points of shared connection, and he waits. Then he collects their lives, one by one. Like a cruel little boy obsessed with baseball cards. Kirby Mazrachi, Beukes’ snarky heroine, survives one of his assaults and begins a search to find her would-be murderer.

The novel is set in Chicago and (aside from the fact that the story itself is brilliantly told, and gripping, and fun) that is one of the things I enjoyed most. I hate the fact that South African authors are expected to write about South Africa. That it becomes a ‘thing’ if they don’t. I love the fact that Lauren wrote a book that could easily have been set in South Africa, but wasn’t. I love the element of universality that it lends the story.

The violence in the novel is something to be remarked upon. An article in the Guardian notes that “the killing is so brutal and pitiless that it threatens to overwhelm the rest of the novel. In a way it’s commendable that Beukes hasn’t softened the violence… but the reader may end up slightly confused by the meaning of it all.”

There’s the rub, I think. Because Kirby’s confusion at the meaning behind her murder becomes yours. Meaning shifts, like the changing landscape outside the windows of Harper’s House (though I wonder if Harper owns the House, or the House owns Harper). Being confused at the meaning of violence is meaning in itself. While senseless violence may seem meaningless, it is present nevertheless. It permeates time, and circumstance, and situation — and that is meaningful.

The other two primary criticisms are that Harper and the House go unexplained. We do not hear the internal dialog that would explain to us why Harper does what he does, or what motivates his obsession. We do not know what the story behind the House is, or indeed why it’s a house (rather than any other time traveling device). I asked the latter question of Lauren at her London book launch, and her answer was that it was a spoiler that would be revealed at the end of the book — an unsatisfying answer given that I’d already finished reading it.  That said, leaving the House a mystery and keeping the reader wondering why Harper did it does not detract from Kirby’s story.

I’m going to do my best to not gush too much here, but suffice it to say that Lauren is a very  good writer and storyteller, and one of her two researchers is my soulmate. So you should read it, because it is very  good (and impeccably researched, obviously).

* That said, it’s just that I was put off a long while ago, and haven’t been drawn back in since. I am venturing into these waters with some SL Grey and Margie Orford — any other suggestions are welcome!

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

cloud-atlas-book-coverI’m going to preface this review by saying that I’m a watch-every-episode-three times-and-stop-being-friends-with-you-’til-you’ve-seen it fan of The Hour. When I found out that there wasn’t going to be a 3rd season I cried over a jar of  quickly diminishing Nutella. This may seem irrelevant until you realise that the recent Cloud Atlas movie stars Ben Whishaw (lead of The Hour, and all time fave skinny-boy-crush). Obviously, I had to see him in the movie. The one problem was that I had not read the book. That’s just not allowed. So I stole the book from a house I was house-sitting. Don’t worry, I do intend to return it — eventually.

Cloud Atlas is a captivating set of six novellas, set across six different points in time. Each story is half told, starting at the very earliest point in time. At first, you find yourself in the pages of Adam Ewing’s journal, as the American lawyer travels across the south Pacific. His tale is interrupted by that of Robert Frobisher a virtuoso musician, who is as flawed as he is charming. Robert’s tale is told in the form of letters to his lover Rufus Sixmith.

Robert’s tale overlaps with that of Luisa Rey, a good fifty years later, and well after his death – but not that of Rufus. Rufus is now over 60, and plays a significant part in Luisa’s storyline too. She comes to possess his beloved letters and Frobisher’s final, and greatest, composition (music which is intimately familiar to her the second she hears it). Timothy Cavendish’s tale of imprisonment is at turns unfortunate, and hilarious. At various points throughout the captive book-publisher returns to the only manuscript he has with him: The First Luisa Rey Mystery.

Then we meet Sonmi-451, a cloned slave in a world characterised by rampant consumerism and ruled by corporations, who transcends above her fabricant-status after acquiring perspectives that she was not genomed to have. Her story brings us to the apex: the story of Zachry, a Pacific Islander.

At the mid-point, you are in a far-away dystopian future that is the cumulative effect of the events in the half-told stories that came before it. The attitudes of society have culminated in its downfall. All that remains are those last pockets inhabited by humanity after the “Fall”. You are lead over the apex, and then down again, backwards in time to the first story. The beginning and the end. He finishes each story off in the order that you left the characters – each one of them still alive in your mind. Knitting together, so very neatly, the seams of their overlapping existences.

Mitchell’s command of language and ability to traverse characters, time periods and plots is magnificent. Each story considers the over-arching themes of power and oppression,as well as those of race, class, and status. The characters struggle against these in their own ways, but ultimately each story is the same one, told and retold over eons.

London Book Fair

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And so the London Book Fair has ended. Those three terrifyingly busy days were over almost as quickly as they snuck up on me to begin with.

Most of my fair-related anxiety was with regards to speaking in front of a crowd, and getting lost on the tube – both of which were quite manageable in the end (also, we won an award!). In other news: if you ever need to practice a speech, I can really recommend the lawn in front of Westminster Abbey on one of London’s five sunny days.

We spent our evenings stalking Judy Dench and exploring London. We walked around Hyde Park and passed Buckingham Palace. Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, and Soho also featured. We were waylaid by a secondhand bookstore boasting first edition Hemmingway (as well as Hitler, but we won’t dwell), and I ate bangers and mash in a pub, because England.

Oh, and Will Self autographed a book for me. I’m trying to find a way to fit that into a paragraph, but can’t. I’m just going to let it stand alone.  Woo.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

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Nearly every “Best of 2012” book list I read at the beginning of this year praised Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. It is very captivating.

Gone Girl opens with the discovery that Amy Dunne – the wife of our other lead character, Nick – has disappeared. All that’s left behind are the signs of a struggle and the first clue to a anniversary treasure hunt that Amy had planned for Nick. The police try to solve the mystery of Amy’s disappearance, while Nick tries to solve the clues Amy left for him. The narrative switches between Nick’s frame of mind in the days following Amy’s disappearance, and Amy’s diary entries over the course of their 5 years of marriage — a device that Ms Flynn uses expertly to play with our interpretation of events as they unfold.

Is Amy alive, or is she dead? Did Nick kill her, or didn’t he? I’d read a paragraph and think: he wouldn’t have done that if he was guilty! I’d turn the page and read a few more lines: he wouldn’t have said that if he was innocent! The mystery continues until exactly halfway through the book. Then the story pivots. It’s hard to say what I mean by this without giving away any plot twists. Suffice it to say that at the midpoint, the mystery is solved. We know what happened to Amy. The discovery isn’t predicable, but it’s unsurprising. I mean, there are only a finite number of ways that a missing person case can turn out. You know the options, you just don’t know which option it is. Until you do.

And then what?

The second half of the book is the part that runs away with you. I was torn between wanting to read every word, and wanting to skip 5 pages ahead to find out what happens. Flynn continues to make you like a character and then hate them, then love them again. Much like the book’s genre, the characters defy categorization: they slip between.  They are complex, clever, likable, and evil in the same breath. It was this layering that I enjoyed most about the book. That, and Amy’s clues (I’ll say no more).

The ending is almost darkly comic — another factor that makes the book hard to place in terms of genre. The novel raises interesting questions about gender and identity, gender and violence, money and power, and calls into question what is real and what is imagined. Yet it remains throughout a fun and entertaining read. Is that enough of  recommendation?

On the Road, Jack Kerouac

on the road cover“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…” 

And boy, are they mad.

In fact, I was constantly left feeling that the madness permeating the lives of these characters bordered on actual insanity. I found it very hard to relate to them. Despite the extraordinary beauty of the language (it’s very quotable, see above), it took me much longer than usual to finish this novel. I enjoyed the spirit with which the characters embarked upon their journeys, in their search for meaning and enlightenment. But, constantly felt irritated, and unsatisfied when I put the book down.

The characters’ treatment of each other is by turns callous and caring, sometimes superficial, and often borders on extortion. The men walk all over the female characters, none of whom do anything to change their position apart from throwing tearful, hysteric fits with one baby on their hip and another in their belly. At one point Dean relishes in the view of poor Mexican children sleeping on straw mats in one-roomed houses with shutters for windows, proclaiming “I am digging these interiors”. That really got to me. These are people that I would pick a fight with.

Kerouac’s acclaimed novel was based on his own personal adventures around the American countryside. He recorded notes as he traveled,  and then spent a frenzied three weeks, hopped up on caffeine (among other things), typing furiously on a continuous scroll of paper which he had cut to size and taped together. The novel then went through many rejections and iterations before a heavily-edited version was accepted and published in 1957 by Viking (now a part of Penguin, now a part of Random Penguin*). The result is an apparently watered down version of his original scroll, with the names of the characters changed to avoid potential libel cases. Although, the scroll has since been published as well, because we need to make all the money we can from dead people. The original ending still remains a mystery though, as that part of the original scroll was eaten by a dog. Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up. That’s probably why he wrote a book. Stranger than (autobiographical) fiction.

The book (and the beat-generation it inspired) arose out of a post-war era in which conformity was the norm, and rebellious behavior of all kinds were suspect. Some critics have argued that this is exactly why the book remains relevant today — one American war having given way to another. Others argue that 55 years ago sex, drugs and a journey of self-discovery was far more shocking than it is today. As a result the content, if not the context, is out of date.

There’s also an argument over what “beat” is meant to mean: “tired and beaten down”, or (as Kerouac himself believes) “beatific”. It seems to me that they are both. The characters are weary. They are blissful, but it is an unthinking and careless bliss, achieved at the expense of other characters (usually female ones).

John Clellon Holmes wrote that the beat generation was in search of an answer to the question: how are we to live? I’m not sure I like the answer that Kerouac is proposing. Sal and Dean seem to be trying to find a different way of being in the world, one which allows them to relinquish themselves of the burdens of the society which they find so restricting. They do this by banding together with beer-breathed “I love you, mans” shouted in brawling bars, and driving across country with strangers. That’s cool. But, at some point don’t you have to just grow up?

I’ve also realised that I do love a story in which stuff happens. I like shit to go down. While beautifully told, there is not much plot here, and the main driving force for these characters is sex, which together make for a pretty baseless story arc. I didn’t know that the novel was adapted to the screen last year. I am especially interested to see how they’ve dealt with this.

I discovered why I was struggling through this book just this weekend, and since my realisation it has been much easier for me to read it — and much more enjoyable. Jon and I attended a Skrillex concert with the rest of young Cape Town on Friday night. It was on a farm about 45 minutes from the CBD. Electro and Drum & Bass music pounded over the fields of parked cars. All around us students and teenagers bounced, and jumped, and shouted, and spontaneously broke into song while running circles around their friends. Seeing them revel in the moment, and loose themselves to the music (and the booze et al.) made me realise that these are the Dean Moriaty’s of the world, and I’m just not one of them anymore.

You should also definitely have a look at Paul Rogers’ blog, where he has done an illustration for a quote from each page of the book. They really are quite lovely.

*Yes, I know that’s not the real name, but it should be.

Most Anticipated Books: 2013

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I like to be “of the moment”. I wear neon midriffs. And shorts. Shorts that show off my underbum. I’m trendy. I almost never wear the same pair of jeans two days running, and I’m certainly not wearing yoga pants to work with un-matching flipflops right now. Not me.

Because I am “of the moment”, I am obviously going to be reading “of the moment” books this year. I’ve even done research. What I’ve learnt is that I know very little about “of the moment authors” (despite obviously having my finger to the pulse, as we have already established). That is about to change.

My list of anticipated reads for 2013 are listed below. I may read one, I may read all. It really depends on whether or not I run out of episodes of The Wire.

1. Gun Machine, Warren Ellis (January 1)

“After a shootout claims the life of his partner in a condemned tenement building on Pearl Street, Detective John Tallow unwittingly stumbles across an apartment stacked high with guns. When examined, each weapon leads to a different, previously unsolved murder. Someone has been killing people for twenty years or more and storing the weapons together for some inexplicable purpose.”

2. Tenth of December, George Saunders (8 Jan)

“The title story is an exquisite, moving account of the intersection, at a frozen lake in the woods, of a young misfit and a middle-aged cancer patient who goes there to commit suicide, only to end up saving the boy’s life.”

3. The Last Girlfriend on earth and other love stories, Simon Rich (22 January)

“In “Center of the Universe,” God struggles to balance the demands of his career with the needs of his long-term girlfriend. In “Magical Mr. Goat,” a young girl’s imaginary friend yearns to become “more than friends.” In “Unprotected,” an unused prophylactic recalls his years spent trapped inside a teen boy’s wallet. The stories in Simon Rich’s new book are bizarre, funny, and yet…relatable. “

4. The Mad Scientists’ Daughter, Cassandra Rose Clarke (January 29)

“Finn looks and acts human, though he has no desire to be. A billion-dollar construct, his primary task is to tutor Cat. As she grows into a beautiful young woman, Finn is her guardian, her constant companion… and more. But when the government grants rights to the ever-increasing robot population, however, Finn struggles to find his place in the world.”

5. Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Karen Russell (February 12)

“In the collection’s marvelous title story—an unforgettable parable of addiction and appetite, mortal terror and mortal love—two vampires in a sun-drenched lemon grove try helplessly to slake their thirst for blood.”

6. Z, Therese Anne Fowler (March 26)

“When beautiful, reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in 1918, she is seventeen years old and he is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama. Before long, the “ungettable” Zelda has fallen for him despite his unsuitability: Scott isn’t wealthy or prominent or even a Southerner, and keeps insisting, absurdly, that his writing will bring him both fortune and fame.”

7. Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2 April)

“Cats may have nine lives, but Ursula Todd has somewhat more than that. In this darkly comic novel, she dies over and over again, but lives over and over again too, trying to get it all right.”

8. The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes (15 April)

“A girl who wouldn’t die, hunting a killer who shouldn’t exist.”

9. The Childhood of Jesus, JM Coetzee (April 23)

“After crossing oceans, a man and a boy arrive in a new land. Here they are each assigned a name and an age, and held in a camp in the desert while they learn Spanish, the language of their new country.”

10. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (June 18)

“A brilliantly imaginative and poignant fairy tale from the modern master of wonder and terror, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Neil Gaiman’s first new novel for adults since his #1 New York Times bestseller Anansi Boys.”

11. The Adjacent, Christopher Priests (Author of The Prestige) (June 20)

“In the First World War a magician is asked to travel to the frontline to help a naval aerial reconnaissance unit hide its planes from the German guns. On the way to France he meets a certain H.G. Wells… In the Second World War on the airfields of Bomber Commands there is also an obsession with camouflage, with misdirection. With deceit… And in a garden, an old man raises a conch shell to his ear and initiates the first Adjacency.”

12. MaddAddam, Maragret Atwood (October 10)

“Margaret Atwood follows Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood with MaddAddam to complete her post-apocalyptic trilogy.”

Book info from Goodreads, Amazon, Books Live, and Flavour Pill.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

wolf-hallHomo homini lupus. Man is wolf to man.

I read Wolf Hall because it won the Booker prize. I bought it not really knowing what it was about, which is probably a good thing because historical fiction is not my favourite.

From the very first page Mantel kicks tedium in the balls, and pulls us by our hair through the imagined life-story of Thomas Cromwell. Mantel notes that the novel takes place during “a period of tremendous political change and a clash of ideologies”. The power of the church is pitted against the power of parliament; babies are drowned; men are hung, castrated and gutted, cut down only to be left to die while slipping around in their own entrails. We hear the details of a time we no longer know, second hand, as Cromwelll reminisces, and we see the build up to the sequel mirrored in Henry’s roving eyes, as he desperately, if not despotically, searches for an heir.

Once I got to grips with the overuse of pronouns (“he” is always Cromwell) everything about this novel captured my imagination. I found myself sitting in front of my laptop late at night trawling through Wikipedia articles about the English monarchy, and Googling (from bed, with the lights off and the rest of the house asleep) portraits of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymore.

The New York Times has described Mantel’s turn of phrase as “acerbic” and “diabolical”. Her book is firmly fixed in the 16th century, although it contains no archaic language and is, in some instances, refreshingly modern. In doing this she translated sentiment better than might have been done with old English. Mantel’s novel is also incredibly amusing, and her Cromwell is complex, brilliant, and very likable – a change from all other ways he is represented. Her art is in being able to create suspense, even when we already know the outcome.

I enjoyed it immensely, and am excited to start the second book in the series, which is on the pile beside my bed. I am taking a little break before that, though, with a little Kerouac.