Books you might enjoy: April to June

It’s been a funny few months, hasn’t it? Do you know what you need? Some cracking book recommendations! Without further ado, let me tell you the three best books I read in the last quarter…

May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes

may-we-be-forgiven

I love A. M. Homes. I really love her. Her writing feels almost dangerous to read; I once read a review of one of her books, which said she writes like a man and, whilst I generally find this offensive, I sort of know what they mean. She is unafraid of saying what she needs to say, she doesn’t hold back, she doesn’t side-step the nasty stuff. I love her.

May We Be Forgiven opens with a series of awful events, none of which I will tell you because I benefitted from not knowing and you should too. But they revolve around George Silver, a deeply unpleasant TV executive and his less unpleasant brother Harry, the book’s main protagonist, who is left to pick up the pieces. So many things follow – random internet hook-ups; the discovery of Nixon’s secret short stories; the disappearance of a local young woman; a Bar Mitzvah in an African village; an experimental correctional facility that is not unlike the setting of Battle Royale; a CIA sting; a swingers’ meet-up at a LazerQuest – that I’ve mostly forgotten and occasionally recall events and am surprised by them all over again.

If all that seems too much, there’s a point to the novel too, direction within the chaos, and the story moves from its grim opening to a resolution that is satisfyingly upbeat. Some might say sentimental, I say just right.

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt

undermajordomo-minor-xlarge

I like quirky novels (as the review above probably suggests) and Undermajordomo Minor is a quirky novel, although not like May We Be Forgiven is a quirky novel.

Lucy Minor is a young man without many prospects. He applies for and unexpectedly secures a posting as an under-major-domo (me neither) in a dilapidated castle that is home to the all but invisible Baron Von Aux; his elderly and loyal major-domo Olderglough; Agnes, a mean cook who specialises in concrete-like porridge; and something terrible that stalks the halls at night. On the slopes of the hill that the castle sits atop, a war is raging but it is one that doesn’t seem to interfere with life inside the castle itself or in the nearby village, where Lucy meets and falls in love with Klara, the daughter of a local thief.

Undermajordomo Minor is strange and funny; at once a gothic folk tale, a comic fable and a love story, it is difficult to place in space or time but is charming all the same.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

Outrun

How to define Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun? It is autobiographical, charting Liptrot’s descent in to alcoholism and her subsequent recovery, but it is also a beautiful piece of nature writing, the Orkney Islands – their flora, fauna and wildlife – featuring centrally as the setting for her journey to abstinence.

The Outrun is arguably something of a busman’s holiday for me but, still, I was struck by Liptrot’s honesty, particularly in the passages that detail her behaviour and her experiences when drinking alcohol, and by how vividly the restorative nature of the islands is described. Sure, the islands are wild and destructive but they are not nearly as wild and destructive as her addiction.

This quarter I also read:

  • Carol by Patricia Highsmith
  • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  • The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
  • Worse. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland
  • Lover by Anna Raverat

Books you might enjoy: January to March

In the lead up to last Christmas, I posted my favourite twelve books read during 2015 and I really enjoyed it. It was interesting to look back and see which books really stuck with me over the year and I had some great feedback from people who loved my recommendations (and some who really didn’t – I appreciated that too). But it was quite a lot of work at a time when I should probably have been doing something more useful: Christmas shopping, redecorating my living room, socialising with friends and family…

Little and often seems a better approach so, this year, I’m going to share the books I’ve most enjoyed each quarter. An added bonus is that I don’t spam your Facebook/Twitter feeds for twelve days in a row. Just once every three months.

Here are my favourite books from January to March!

The Outside Lands by Hannah Kohler

outside lands

I’m cheating a bit with this one because: a) I actually finished it in December (but too late to make it in to my 2015 list) and b) it isn’t published until May. But it is so good, I had to share it. Kohler describes an extended family torn apart by the Vietnam war through the story of siblings, Jeannie and Kip, who we meet as teenagers, shortly after the death of their mother. Their bereavement sets them both on paths which lead them to terrible and irreversible acts. I was struck by the strength of the two protagonists’ voices in this novel: Kip fighting the war in Vietnam and witnessing the most unimaginable horrors, Jeannie at home in California, unanchored by the loss of her mother and rattling dangerously between her husband, a young woman involved in the anti-war movement and a seriously injured veteran. The quality of Kohler’s writing means the novel is extraordinarily powerful, the behaviour of its protagonists complex, flawed and… human. Set yourself a reminder to buy it in May.

spill simmer falter wither by Sara Baume

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A novel written in the second person, addressed to a one-eyed dog, may not sound like your cup of tea – it certainly didn’t sound like mine. In fact, when it was recommended to me at my Mr B’s Book Spa, I left it behind. But I was drawn back by consistently good reviews and am so glad I was. spill simmer falter wither – set over the course of a year, each chapter covering a season – follows Ray, a misfit living alone in his late father’s damp and cluttered house on the coast as he adopts and settles in to life with a scrappy terrier called One-Eye. They suit one another: both have been cast aside, both are unloved, both have been damaged by their lives. After One-Eye violently attacks another dog, Ray gathers a few belongings into his car and flees with his pet, driving cross-country, away from repercussions. But Ray has a terrible secret (the reader’s realisation of this secret is creeping and, truly, awful) and he knows he must eventually return to face it. Baume’s writing, particularly her sensitivity to the natural world and the passing of the seasons, is beautiful. But it’s her stark portrayal of social isolation, its all-encompassing loneliness, that really lingers.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

god in ruins

Atkinson’s first novel about the Todd family – Life After Life – was a huge hit and, although I enjoyed it, it didn’t quite make any of my previous lists. I think its companion novel, A God in Ruins is even better. This time, Ursula Todd’s brother, Teddy, takes centre stage, the novel following him from his early years to his death in the 21st century, through his time as a WWII bomber pilot, a husband, father and grandfather. As in her first novel, Atkinson plays with chronology but does this more subtly here, the small slips and repetitions in the narrative suggesting more about Teddy’s age, the events that play on his mind in his later years, than a literary device. This subtlety makes the ending – which I won’t give away – at once audacious and satisfying (although I think some will absolutely hate it). What I found slightly less subtle was the character of Viola, Teddy’s daughter, who I found to be cliched and, frankly, hateful. But the overwhelming sadness of this novel, its poignancy, hasn’t left me since I put it down.

This quarter I also read:

  • A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
  • A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray
  • Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg
  • Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare

You wouldn’t go far wrong with any of them, either…

On the first day of Christmas…

This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.

incarnations

So here we are: my number one book, my favourite read of 2015, the one I’ve picked over all 40 (ish) others. This has been a lot more work than I’d planned and I’ll probably stick to my top five in future, to be honest, but I hope you’ve read about at least one book you might enjoy. Whichever book that might be, they’re all excellent.

But, in my humble opinion, Susan Barker’s The Incarnations is the best. At the very least, it’s the most expansive, ambitious, epic book on my list.

Wang Jun, a troubled Beijing taxi driver with a history of mental illness, is sleep walking through life, convincing himself daily that he is content with his lot – his work, his wife and daughter – against the backdrop of the 2008 Olympics. But his relatively mundane life is turned upside down by a mysterious letter found in his taxi cab, the writer of which purports to be his soul mate. This letter tells a brutal story, set in 632 AD, in which Sorceress Wu castrates her son, Bitter Root, and sells him to the emperor. Bitter Root, the writer insists, is Wang Jun’s first incarnation. Bitter Root’s daughter (conceived before the unfortunate events) is the writer’s first incarnation.

Four further letters follow, each detailing Wang Jun’s supposed previous incarnations during the most savage periods in China’s history – Ghengis Khan and the Mongols; the Ming dynasty; the Opium Wars; and the Cultural Revolution – and each identifying a shifting relationship between Wang Jun and the letters’ author that is always intense, always troubling. Through the ages, they are lovers and rivals, they are saviour and saved, murdered and murderer. They shift gender, sexuality, age and nationality. Their history is bloody and violent. But who is writing the letters? And are they really Wang Jun’s soul mate or are they playing a cruel trick on a vulnerable man?

As I write this plot summary, I’m in awe all over again of Barker’s ambition and the scope and reach of this wonderful but deeply unpleasant novel. The letters are like individual short stories, whole worlds captured and linked by the thread of Wang Jun’s contemporary story and, ultimately, his struggle to come to terms with his recent history.

To read this book is to go on a journey through China’s history and the mind of a haunted man. And yes, at the end of that journey, both Wang Jun and you, as reader, get to find out the identity of the letters’ author. And yes, it is a most satisfying twist.

On the second day of Christmas…

This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.

Fourth of July

Two days ago, I posted my write up of The Ploughmen, a novel set against the bleak, wintry landscape of rural Montana. Book number two on my Christmas countdown – Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek – has the same backdrop, albeit set thirty years earlier. Men brooding in Big Sky Country has been kind of my bag this year. (Related: I enjoyed men brooding in rural Wisconsin too, as evidenced by book number twelve on this list.)

In Fourth of July Creek, set in the late 70s and early 80s, the brooding man is Pete Snow, a children’s social worker with his own chaotic family: an estranged adulterous wife, a teenage daughter going off the rails and a brother who has just broken his parole and is on the run. But Pete is good at his job, compassionate and driven by what must motivate anyone to be a social worker: a desire to help improve others’ lives.

When he comes across Benjamin Pearl – a malnourished, dirty, almost feral 11 year old boy, Pete tries his best to help, only to be violently driven away by the boy’s reclusive survivalist father, Jeremiah. Over the course of the novel, he perseveres, insinuating his way in to the rootless family. A passage in which Pete helps Jeremiah to recover from snow blindness – gently convincing the man that he has not been struck permanently blind by a higher power, slowly winning his trust – is as tense as any thriller. But just as there’s risk in not gaining Jeremiah’s trust, so the risk of becoming embroiled in the man’s paranoia, conspiracy theories and distinctly illegal activities become apparent. Particularly as Pete can’t quite work out where to draw the line.

First things first, Henderson’s prose is excellent. It’s rich and imaginative, whilst never becoming impenetrable. Fourth of July Creek is so readable and so full of language to really savour. It’s mouthwatering. But this book gets its other ‘bits’ right too: the characters are three-dimensional (Pete could easily have been portrayed as a saint, a saviour, but instead he is far from it); and the plot is driven forward by a pervasive sense of threat, an feeling of dread and a skilfully handled pace to a climax that is not predictable but right.

On the third day of Christmas…

This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.

Station Eleven

You’re bound to have heard of Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic tale of survival and Shakespeare is probably the best selling book in my top 12. To be fair, I bought a good few copies myself, keen as I was to share the joy, but there’s no doubt that this was a popular choice for readers in 2015.

In Toronto, Arthur Leander, at the pinnacle of his acting career, is playing Lear on stage when he collapses with a heart attack. Jeevan, an aspiring paramedic, is in the audience and tries but fails to save Leander’s life. These events appear significant but they’re nothing compared to what’s to come: on leaving the theatre, Jeevan receives a phone call from his friend, an ER doctor, who warns that Georgia Flu has arrived in Canada. In the following weeks, 99% of the world’s population is wiped out.

This premise might seem like a well worn trail; we’ve seen the world wiped out by pandemics, zombies and natural disasters countless times in books, on TV and in films and we know how it plays out. But Station Eleven brings something new to the genre. The plot is almost too complex to summarise here, with multiple strands skilfully woven together by Mandel. It shifts back and forward between the days before Georgia Flu and Year Twenty, when survivors are attempting to rebuild civilisation and are visited by a peripatetic company of actors and musicians, The Traveling Symphony, who perform Shakespeare plays to the communities they come across on the road. Shakespeare, they find, is the playwright of choice in Year Twenty, tapping in to something essential.

Amongst this company is Kirsten. A former child actor, eight years old at the time the flu spread and present at Leander’s death, Kirsten can barely remember life before the pandemic. But she carries with her two comic books given to her by Leander and drawn by his first wife, Miranda, that are almost talismans, proof that a civilisation capable of making and enjoying art once existed. Likewise, in an abandoned airport, Leander’s estranged friend Clark, curates his own Museum of Civilisation, placing defunct credit cards and mobile phones on display as symbols of past human endeavour, now lost to the world.

What I particularly liked about Station Eleven – and what has lingered in my mind – is Mandel’s delicate and beautiful imagery. From the opening scene, fake snow falling gently and silently on to the theatre stage as Jeevan attempts to resuscitate Leander; to the distant twinkling lights of container ships moored off Malaysia, watched by Miranda as she lives out her final days alone in the world; and the forest of grounded and rusting jumbo jets at the airport that is The Traveling Symphony’s final destination. It really is unlike most other post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read.

On the fourth day of Christmas…

This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.

the-ploughmen-978144724778401

Let’s get this out the way: The Ploughman, Kim Zupan’s debut novel, is in my top four because I’ve forgiven it a few sins. Most significantly, I’ve forgiven the fact that it’s a little overwritten, with a few too many adjectives, a few too many flourishes. (Hey, we’re all guilty of that sometimes…)

A Montana sheriff’s deputy, Valentine Millimaki, is in a dark place: haunted by the childhood discovery of his mother’s suicide, he now spends his days traipsing the vast, wintry landscape searching for missing persons, only to find, more often than not, their frozen bodies. To make matters worse, his wife moves out and he is assigned a new job: the night shift in the county jail, currently home to calculating and violent serial killer, John Gload. As Millimaki becomes increasingly sleep deprived and isolated, his nighttime heart-to-hearts with Gload grows their relationship until Millimaki finds himself almost trusting his prisoner. But who is manipulating whom?

Despite the sins I described above, I have placed The Ploughmen fourth in my top 12 countdown and there are good reasons why it deserves that place. Firstly, because some of the flourishes I complained about are actually really good. Zupan’s prose in this novel, at its best, is almost cinematic: when Gload shifts from the shadows in his cell to appear before Millimaki, it will make you flinch like you did watching The Silence of the Lambs; when Millimaki walks down the fluorescent-lit jail corridor, you will hear the click of his boots on the lino like you did watching The Green Mile; when the final showdown comes, you will keep turning the pages, breathlessly, like any good thriller.

You also get the sense that this book is an American classic in the making. Zupan’s Montana is really the novel’s third protagonist: boundless and brutal, vast and uncompromising. It’s no wonder Millimaki finds a friend in a murderer.

On the fifth day of Christmas…

This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.

Sightlines.Cover_

Kathleen Jamie’s second collection of nature essays, Sightlines, is also the second book recommended by Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights to feature in this list. Although I know of Jamie’s poetry, I’ve never read – nor ever really thought about reading – any nature writing. But my Mr B’s bibliotherapist picked up on the fact that I enjoy writing that is rich and poetic and that I also enjoy non-fiction and suggested I try it.

In Sightlines, Jamie casts her net wide across the natural world and draws in subjects as broad as the Northern Lights; a Shetland gannetry; Palaeolithic paintings in a Spanish cave; whales, both dead and on display in Bergen and very much alive off the coast of a Scottish island; and 1970s archeological digs. Throughout, she shares observations that are original but, on reading, strike you as satisfyingly true and considers the way in which we humans interact with the world, whilst never preaching.

What I enjoyed most about this book was Jamie’s attention to the details she observes along the way. She leans close to walls on Rona, listening out for the call of the Leach’s storm petrels she is surveying. She pays as much attention to the eerie iceberg-littered fjord she travels on to see the Northern Lights as she does the great spectacle itself. And, in one surprising essay, she swoops over the valleys, craters, seascapes and shores of the human stomach, viewed through a microscope in a pathology lab.

“‘The natural evidence of our mortality,’ Professor Fleming called it. Hearts and lungs, a colon that could be a pig’s. That’s the deal: if we are to be alive and available for joy and discovery, then it’s as an animal body, available for cancer and infection and pain. Not a deal anyone remembers having struck – we just got here – but it’s not as though we don’t negotiate.”

If, like me, you’ve never read any nature writing, I’d urge you to try this. It’s beautifully written but always accessible, eclectic in its subject matter but always engaging. I think I’m hooked.