Relationships are about stories, not truth

Apple Tree Yard
by Louise Doughty

This got lots of great reviews when it came out, which is how it came to be on my shelves but it wasn’t until my Twitter stream was full of responses to the recent BBC adaptation that I decided to read it.

I remember the reviews gave me a sense that this was different from the standard crime novel in some way, and they were right, but even now I struggle a little to put my finger on the exact difference. It wasn’t quite what I expected.

For starters, the actual crime is held back until late in the story. The first half of the book builds up tension while filling in the back story. Biologist Dr Yvonne Carmichael has just given evidence to a Select Committee in the Houses of Parliament when she bumps into an attractive stranger who offers to show her the private chapel. Thus begins their affair. But while they are both married, it isn’t clear for a long time exactly what crime this leads to, or why the book’s prologue has Yvonne being questioned in a criminal court.

Continue reading “Relationships are about stories, not truth”

Had he said that? Or had she just made him say it inside her head?

A Jealous Ghost
by A N Wilson

Way way back at primary school, I think for my 10th birthday, a boy in my class gave me the book Stray by A N Wilson. I hadn’t heard of the author and I wasn’t especially close friends with the boy, but it was a really well chosen gift. I loved that book (it’s about a stray cat and it’s sad and lovely and I’m pretty sure I still have it). But for some reason I never looked out for other books by the same author.

Then two years ago, Tim’s mum was clearing out some books and offered me my pick of them first. I couldn’t quite figure out why the author’s name was familiar when I picked this up but the story appealed to me, and then later I realised and was glad I was finally going back to Wilson.

The story is that of Sallie, an American student in London writing her PhD on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. She’s struggling to make friends, struggling to come up with a thesis argument that her PhD supervisor is happy with, struggling to pay rent. So someone suggests she takes time out with a summer job – perhaps as a live-in nanny so she doesn’t even have to pay rent. When at her job interview she learns that she will be looking after two young children in a country house with neither parent around – just like in The Turn of the Screw – it seems like fate.

Continue reading “Had he said that? Or had she just made him say it inside her head?”

Recent reads: winter

Work has been crazy busy and while I have been able to find time to read, I have not been keeping notes or thinking about writing reviews while I read. So here’s some very brief thoughts.

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty islands I have not visited and never will
by Judith Schalansky
translated from German by Christine Lo

atlas of remote islands

This might just be the most beautiful book ever made. Judith Schalansky was raised in East Germany, and in her early childhood it looked like she would never be able to travel, so maps and atlases held a fascination for her. She has created the most gorgeous object here – every detail is considered, functional, exquisite – typography, art, infographic, end papers, edging.

Continue reading “Recent reads: winter”

She would fling these pin-pricks in the air

MyCousinRachelMy Cousin Rachel
by Daphne du Maurier

I really truly thought I had read this before and that picking it up on holiday would be a re-read, but it became increasingly clear that this was entirely new to me. It’s nice when you find a new-to-you book by a favourite author, right? This was Daphne du Maurier’s last real big success, though she wrote several more books after it, and is often held up as her greatest work (yes – even greater than Rebecca, some say).

Philip has been raised by his cousin Ambrose since he was orphaned young and together they run an estate in Cornwall. Philip is a young man, while middle-aged Ambrose has never married. Until, that is, he travels to Italy for his health and meets his distant cousin Rachel. She’s a half-Italian widow in her 30s who shares Ambrose’s love for gardens and he is soon besotted. But can she be trusted? And is naïve Philip going to be forever spoiled by knowing her?

Continue reading “She would fling these pin-pricks in the air”

Cornwall reads in brief

Yes, I’ve been on holiday again. This time a long weekend in Cornwall. It wasn’t what most people might consider beach weather, but that just provided an excuse to stay indoors reading while looking out at the sea and listening to the waves crash. (It’s a comforting noise, which possibly doesn’t make any sense.)

It was a lovely holiday with old friends in a place we have visited many times, so it’s like a home from home. I didn’t actually have my nose in a book the whole time – there were beach/clifftop walks, games to play, crosswords to complete, a whole lot of tasty food to eat and even (in my case very briefly because brrr) swimming in the sea.

porthcothan-beach

But I did get a lot of reading done too.

Continue reading “Cornwall reads in brief”

I liked pretending my body was two hundred tons of unstoppable steel

Machine Man

Machine Man
by Max Barry

Max Barry was one of the first authors Tim introduced me to that he loved, back in the heady early days of our relationship when we were young and worried about agreeing on things like whether a book or film or album or TV show was complete genius. We’re over that now, but on Max Barry we still agree – he’s a great author and it is criminal that this book was never properly published in the UK (a Kindle version was eventually released in 2013, presumably after he signed a publishing deal for his new book Lexicon). Tim picked this up in the US and after waiting a year to let him to read it first, I gave up on that and read it for myself.

In fairness, Tim has read the first third or so of this before, albeit in its original unedited form. Barry did something a bit unusual with this book: he published the whole thing online in daily excerpts, initially free and later to subscribers only. Possibly this is related to the lack of a UK publisher, but the formally published version has been heavily edited because, as Barry concedes in his author’s note, what his online fans read (and often fed back on) was just a first draft, and one that was for the most part written on an odd schedule to meet the self-imposed daily deadline.

“As a boy, I wanted to be a train. I didn’t realise this was unusual – that other kids played with trains, not as them. They liked to build tracks and have trains not fall off them. Watch them go through tunnels. I didn’t understand that. What I liked was pretending my body was two hundred tons of unstoppable steel. Imagining I was pistons and valves and hydraulic compressors.”

The story is typical Barry – a sci-fi thriller with great characters, love, humour and a strong anti-corporate theme. Charles Neumann is a scientist and engineer working for Better Future, a large company with fingers in many pies. Charlie is socially awkward, probably autistic. Certainly, his reaction to losing his leg in an industrial accident isn’t a typical one, but in his voice it seems perfectly reasonable. He sees the opportunity to build himself a new leg that’s more than just a prosthesis. But then the artificial leg will be better than his remaining healthy leg, which poses a problem. Or is it an opportunity?

“I woke to a terrible cramp in my foot. Not the foot I had. The other one. I groped around in the dark, grimacing and clutching at empty sheets. I hauled myself upright and turned on the lamp and threw back the sheets. ‘See. Nothing there.’ I was talking to my brain. ‘Nothing to hurt.’ I leaned forward and pretended to massage the space where my toes would have been. As a scientist, I am not proud of this. But it seemed to help.”

An added romantic complication is Lola, the prosthetist, who is surprisingly sympathetic to Charlie’s way of thinking. And there’s a whole array of managers from Better Future whose reaction to Charlie’s surreptitious new project isn’t wholly expected either. He soon finds himself caught in a bewildering web of people he isn’t sure he can trust.

“I had been going about this all wrong. Biology was not ideal. When you thought about it, biological legs couldn’t do anything except convey a small mass from A to B, so long as A and B were not particularly far apart and you were in no hurry. That wasn’t great…If you were designing something within that limitation, then okay, good job. But if you weren’t, it seemed to me you could build in a lot more features.”

This book has some surprising plot turns (not exactly twists) and it definitely fulfils the thriller requirement of keeping you reading avidly. Charlie’s narration gives it all a fresh angle as he often doesn’t understand why people react the way they do, but of course as the reader you can see both sides. It’s darkly funny and also quite moving. I felt at times that this had a lot in common with Flowers for Algernon (which is my favourite sci-fi book) and I wonder if Charlie’s name might be a nod to that classic.

Published 2011 by Vintage Books.

Source: Tim bought it at the Last Bookstore, LA.

For the record this is me talking

The Last Thing He Wanted
by Joan Didion

The Last Thing He Wanted

So Tim went on holiday without me and the only thing about it I am jealous of is his discovery of the Last Bookstore in LA, which looks pretty darned amazing. And because Tim is quite nice really he bought me some books there, a couple by authors he knew I’d like and one book entirely based on the recommendation of the bookseller. Now I’m not sure how long Tim spent telling this bookseller about my taste in books, but she got it so very right. I had never read any Didion (although I had heard of her and may even have one of her journalistic pieces on my wishlist) but this novel is completely up my street.

Usually this is the point where I give a very brief plot synopsis but that’s going to be quite tough here, not necessarily for fear of spoilers, but more because for most of the book I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on or what it was all about. It did all come together in the end, but I think that feeling a bit lost was an integral part of the reading experience for me.

“There were hints all along, clues we should have registered , processed, sifted for their application to the general condition.”

I suppose you could call it a thriller, maybe a political thriller. It has the right elements: spies, embassies, arms deals, shady characters, multiple identities, an unspecified island location. It even has a reporter as its central character, Elena McMahon, only she’s not there as a journalist, she’s somehow involved more deeply in the murky goings-on of an island that should be tourist heaven but isn’t. However, it’s not written like any thriller I’ve ever read before. The story is in a jumble, not stream of consciousness but not straightforward narrative either. But it’s not messy, it’s carefully constructed. There are repeated phrases and fragments, like memories someone is trying to put back together in the right order.

Goddamn what’s the matter out there.
Smell of jasmine, pool of jacaranda, blue so intense you could drown again.
We had a real life and now we don’t and just because I’m your daughter I’m supposed to like it and I don’t.”

And who is that someone? The story is narrated by a curious combination of omniscient narrator and background character. But how can one character possibly have all these veiled links to Elena and have access to all these government files and interviews that are supposedly being used to put together the story of what happened to Elena McMahon on that island in 1984? So are we being misled?

“For the record this is me talking.
You know me, or think you do.
The not quite omniscient author.
No longer moving past.
No longer traveling light.
When I resolved in 1994 to finally tell this story, register the clues I had missed ten years before, process the information before it vanished altogether, I considered reinventing myself…a strategy I ultimately jettisoned as limiting, small-scale, an artifice to no point…
The best story I ever told was a reef dream. This is something different.”

In some ways, this book reminded me of a good film, like Open Your Eyes or Tell No-one, in the way it unfolds, with repeated flashes of key scenes and the situation devolving further and further from safe normality. As a reader, it’s an odd experience. I never felt I “settled into” the story; more than halfway through I was still shaking my head trying to figure out where it was going (though the clues are all there, and it would be interesting to read this again to see if it’s a more straightforward read second time around) but I still enjoyed it.

My only reservation is that to sell the government side of the plot, there are forays into political language that I would characterise as mumbo jumbo, or even corporate speak. And there’s a very definite attempt to make sure you don’t know if you can trust Elena, to the point that it becomes a little alienating. But then again not knowing who to trust is half the fun of a thriller, right?

Published 1996 by Vintage Books.

Source: Present from Tim, who bought it in a real (and awesome-looking) bookshop.

This is a disaster movie directed by Satan

Dead Air

Dead Air
by Iain Banks

Timing, huh? Ever since my GCSE English teacher put beautiful posters of Banks’ book Whit on the classroom wall I have intended to read his books and just not got round to it. When planning my Easter read-a-thon Tim picked this book out from my TBR and I finally became a legitimate Iain Banks fan just a couple of days before learning the very sad news of his terribly ill health.

Ken Nott is a London DJ, an extreme liberal who likes to shock. He’s a good guy, except when it comes to relationships because he is major cheatypants.

The story opens with a hedonistic party. Drugs, scandal, bitching and bad behaviour are cranked up high and then news filters through that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center. In the aftermath of 9/11, Nott’s brand of humour is right on the edge of uncomfortable, using liberalism as a form of attack. He says a lot of things any left-wing person might say now, 11+ years later, but few would have dared to say in those heightened days.

“That day, sitting in the ruins of the abandoned party…we kept going out onto the terrace to look at the Canary Wharf towers, tall against the skyline less than a mile away, half expecting to see them hit by a plane and crumble with the same awful grandeur as the first tower. ‘It’s Pearl Harbor II,’ we said. ‘They’ll fucking nuke Baghdad.’…’The barbarians have seized the narrative.’ ‘Fuck, the bad guys are re-writing the scripts…this is a disaster movie directed by Satan.'”

Between saying crazy things to the wrong people and being an ass when it comes to women, Nott gets himself into trouble in various ways, so when his life comes under threat, there are all sorts of possible reasons for it, most of which are red herrings.

I must admit I came to like Nott and even found myself thinking he talked a lot of sense. But the story definitely got better when it became a thriller, albeit a literary one. And it was funny. Gotta love a book that’s both literary and funny.

“Liberals…They’re my kind of people. Liberals want niceness. What the hell is wrong with that? And, bless them, they do it in the teeth of such adversity! The world, people, are disappointing them all the time, constantly throwing up examples of what total shites human beings can be, but liberals just take it all…and they keep on going…sending cheques to good causes, turning up at marches, getting politely embarrassed by working-class oafism and just generally getting all hot under the collar…I’m telling you, it’s a sick, sick nation that turned the word ‘liberal’ into an expletive.”

Published 2002 by Little, Brown.

Source: I’m pretty sure I bought it from a real live bookshop but a long time ago now. Too long ago.

We invent memories without thinking

Before I Go to Sleep
by S J Watson

I think this may be one of those books that is best not analysed. While reading it I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, was gripped even, but since putting it down I have been picking it apart.

The story is that of Christine who has an unusual form of amnesia whereby she is only able to retain new memories until she falls asleep, so each morning she wakes up not knowing where she is or who the man lying next to her is. Every day this man must explain that he is her husband Ben and that she is 47 years old, not in her early 20s as she feels. The novel begins with her meeting a doctor who gives her a journal he says she has been keeping. On the first page is written “Don’t trust Ben”. And so begins a rollercoaster ride of paranoia and uncertainty.

“The bedroom is strange. Unfamiliar. I don’t know where I am, how I came to be here. I don’t know how I’m going to get home.”

The writing is simple, effective and without flourish. I did not mark any notable quotes while reading but I didn’t cringe at anything either. It’s a thriller that does its job and does not try to be any more than that. Which is fair enough. And I was hooked while it lasted.

“We’re constantly changing facts, rewriting history to make things easier, to make them fit in with our preferred version of events. We do it automatically. We invent memories. Without thinking. If we tell ourselves something happened often enough we start to believe it, and then we can actually remember it.”

But when it ended I began spotting plot holes, mostly relating to the ending, so I won’t discuss them. One failing is that the majority of the book is supposed to be Christine’s journal, but it doesn’t read like a journal at all. Another failing is, I suppose, a product of the amnesia plot device: Christine has no real character and all the people she meets essentially seem the same to her – friendly-seeming but potentially lying and therefore slightly creepy.

There are some criticisms I have heard from elsewhere that I don’t agree with. While the form of Christine’s amnesia seems too good to be true for a thriller writer, it is actually based on real-life cases (the author’s bio says rather vaguely that he worked for the NHS). And a few people said they guessed the end and were therefore disappointed. While the ending was one possibility that occurred to me early on, it wasn’t the only one. I probably won’t re-read this, but it was a good read at the time.

Published 2011 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld.

What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths

Enduring Love
by Ian McEwan

This is a story of love in all its forms, and both how painful and how uplifting that love can be. It also manages to be a compelling thriller, beginning with an event that sets wheels in motion for a series of misfortunes, building up to a dramatic climax.

Clarissa and Joe are happy, utterly in love after many years together. While at a picnic, they unwittingly become part of a terrible accident. At first it seems that the rest of the book will be them coming to terms with tragedy. But it quickly turns out to be something else, or at least, as the narrator, Joe keeps insisting that something else is going on, but Clarissa and the police don’t believe him. Is this a classic case of the unreliable narrator? Or is there a genuine terror stalking Joe and Clarissa, ready to erupt at any time?

For a start, Joe is easily lost in daydreams or work-related thoughts from the reality at hand. From the first page he is challenging his own memory. Did it happen the way he describes? He knows certain details conflict with other witness accounts gathered by the police and Clarissa’s memory. He says, “I’m holding back, delaying the information. I’m lingering in the prior moment because it was a time when other outcomes were still possible.”

Joe is a freelance science writer, a successful one, but also a man who feels that he made a mistake leaving research behind, so he is not entirely happy with where he is. He loves Clarissa unreservedly but she is unable to have children, which has always been a huge source of pain for them both. It’s a set-up that allows pure happiness to fall apart very quickly.

Through a psychological thriller framework, McEwan examines relationship love, parental love, religious love (though only at the extreme end), the love shared in friendship, sibling love (quite briefly) and obsessive love. It also examines a few forms of psychological instability, from the uncertainties of grief through to a far more troubling example.

McEwan writes well and keeps the possibilities open as he carries us along to the climax. In true thriller style, the augurs are all there that something is coming, but as a literary novel you know that the actual ending may be a more mundane realisation of truth.

I didn’t greatly like Joe. He is a bit dismissive of Clarissa, even condescending at times. While he has acquired tidbits of knowledge from far outside his original physics training, he seems to assume Clarissa’s only interests are her scholarly work on Keats, and children. I’m not sure if this is a failing of the character or of McEwan. Certainly, neither of the other female characters comes off well from Joe’s descriptions either. One is a widow too distracted by her loss to pay attention to her children, the other essentially a bimbo. I hope the problem is Joe’s.

Interestingly, although this all sounds plot-driven, despite having watched the film made of this book a few years back, I could not remember where it was going. Perhaps that’s just my memory, or the film was somehow incoherent, but perhaps it is because this book is sneakily about the writing after all: “What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness.”

First published 1997 by Jonathan Cape.