‘The New Wilderness’ by Diane Cook ****

I had been seeing Diane Cook’s latest novel, The New Wilderness, everywhere before receiving a review copy. The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2020, and television rights have already been purchased by Warner Brothers. The New Wilderness has been highly praised everywhere I have looked; Lemn Sissay deems it ‘the environmental novel of our times’, and Emily St. John Mandel applauds it as a ‘virtuosic debut, brutal and beautiful in equal measure.

Cook’s dystopian novel is about a future in which climate change has ravaged our cities, making them unlivable. She has focused upon the relationship between a mother, Bea, and her daughter, Agnes. When Agnes is five, she is gravely ill, as a consequence of the damaged world. She is wasting away, ‘consumed by the smog and pollution of the over-developed metropolis they call home.’ Bea knows that if they stay in the city, where medical treatment is difficult to find, Agnes is sure to die. They have no choice but to join a social experiment, pioneered by Bea’s husband, Glen; they will move to the last remaining wilderness – the ‘unwelcoming, untamed’ Wilderness State – to join a group of volunteers. They travel here simply ‘because there was no other place they could go’.

This experiment, overseen by a series of Rangers and officials who fill the Wilderness space, ‘took almost a year of working and waiting to get the permission to place humans into what was essentially a refuge for wildlife, the last Wilderness area left… It was risky. It was uncomfortably unknown. It was an extreme idea and an even more extreme reality.’ The family slowly learn how to survive in their new surroundings, which are unpredictable, and often fraught with danger. Their experience quickly becomes a disorienting one; they stop measuring days, and have only vague maps on which to mark their journeys and location. They are nomads, really; they traverse the land, not permitted to stay in any one place for more than a week.

From its very beginning, The New Wilderness is vivid, and plays to our collective visceral fear of the world changing irreversibly. In the first scene, Bea gives birth to a baby daughter, who is stillborn. Cook writes of this in prose which sets the largely bleak tone for the whole novel: ‘The body emerged from Bea the color of a bruise. Bea burned the cord somewhere between them and uncoiled it from the girl’s slight neck and, though she knew it was useless, swept her daughter up into her hands, tapped on her soft chest, and blew a few shallow breaths into her skinny mouth.’ The reader is quickly given an insight into Bea’s state of mind; she reflects that she did not want to bring a baby into this new world, and doing so would have been wrong.

We learn a lot about Bea’s approach to motherhood, as well as her constantly shifting relationship with her daughter, as the novel progresses. Early on, it is revealed that Bea ‘loved Agnes fiercely, though motherhood felt like a heavy coat she was compelled to put on each day no matter the weather.’ Bea soon learns that as Agnes grows healthier, and becomes more independent, their new life will threaten their relationship in a very real way.

The boundaries between the human and animal worlds are wonderfully blurred in The New Wilderness; indeed, I believe that this is one of the elements which Cook handles most impressively. The human group often finds itself trespassing into habitats which animals have called home for centuries. Of course, they rely on the animals being around them as a source of food and clothing, amongst other things, but Cook makes it clear that the animals themselves are disappearing at an alarming rate; they are becoming rare. The characters’ primal instincts are also often compared to animal counterparts, which I found to be an interesting touch: ‘Like an animal, Agnes froze when fearful and bolted when endangered. Bea imagined that as Agnes grew up this world would change. She might feel less like prey and more like a predator.’

Descriptions of the natural world are plentiful here. The environment in which the group lives is recognisable, but their circumstances are so out of the ordinary. Cook builds a believable scenario very early on, and her world-building is competent and thorough. We do not know where exactly the novel is set, or in which year, but it provides a scary glimpse into what the future really could hold, unless we as a civilisation drastically change our ways. The reader quickly gets a feel for their environment, and the way in which they are forced to live within it.

There are, as one might expect, many trigger warnings in this novel, from death and violence particularly. Also shocking, if perhaps inevitable, is the approach which the members of the group take toward death: ‘They had seen a lot of death. They had become hardened to it. Not just the Community members who had perished in grisly or mundane ways. But around them everything died openly. Dying was as common as living. They worried about one another, of course, but when one of them ceased surviving for whatever reason, they closed ranks and put their energy into what remained alive.’

The New Wilderness draws together a lot of elements which interest me in fiction – dystopias, complex relationships, growing up – and Cook handles each so well. I found The New Wilderness to be a compelling and highly readable novel, which holds a few surprises along the way. The plot moves along very well indeed, and the characters and their actions are convincing.


‘The Bone People’ by Keri Hulme ***

Keri Hulme’s only novel, The Bone People, was the winner of the 1985 Booker McConnell Prize.  I have wanted to get my hands on a copy of the book for years, but for one reason or another, have not.  I think I put it off a little as I haven’t had a great deal of luck with enjoying many of the Booker Prize winners which I have read to date.  However, I was still very excited to get to this one, and to be able to read it as part of an online book club which I run.

460635Some of the reviews which I chose to read before immersing myself into the novel piqued my interest further.  The New York Times Book Review comments that the novel, which is ‘set on the harsh South Island beaches of New Zealand, [is] bound in Maori myth and entwined with Christian symbols…  [Hulme] casts her magic on three fiercely unique characters, but reminds us that we, like them, are “nothing more than people”, and that, in a sense, we are all cannibals, compelled to consume the gift of love with demands for perfection.’  The Sunday Times agrees, writing: ‘Seizing on material that might seem outlandish, she transforms it into a fable that’s as persuasive as it’s haunting.  In this novel, New Zealand’s people, its heritage and landscape are conjured up with uncanny poetry and perceptiveness.’

In her short preface to the volume, Hulme writes that the novel ‘began life as a short story called “Simon Peter’s Shell”‘.  She goes on to recount the ‘oddities’ which resound in her novel, with regard to both its editing process and her original choices of vocabulary: ‘… I think the shape of words brings a response from the reader – a tiny, subconscious, unacknowledged but definite response.’  I love it when authors employ wordplay, and particularly enjoyed the way in which Hulme evoked the landscape around her characters.  Her descriptions vividly captured the natural world; for instance, ‘Intermittent wheeping flutes from oystercatchers’, and ‘the gathering boil of the surf below.’

The Bone People begins in a tower by the New Zealand sea, which is inhabited by a part-Maori, part-European woman named Kerewin Holmes.  She is ‘an artist estranged from her art, a woman in exile from her family.’ Hulme writes of Kerewin’s quest to build herself the tower in which she lives: ‘All through the summer sun she laboured, alone with the paid, bemused, professional help.  The dust obscured and flayed, thirst parched, and tempers frayed, but the Tower grew.  A concrete skeleton, wooden ribs and girdle, skin of stone, grey and slateblue and heavy honey-coloured.  Until late one February it stood, gaunt and strange and embattled, built on an almost island in the shallows of an inlet, tall in Taiaroa.’

Kerewin is ‘self-fulfilling’, and invites nobody to visit her, ‘for what would they know of the secrets that crept and chilled and chuckled in the marrow of her bones?’  Although keeping herself to herself, and living a relatively isolated life, at the beginning of the novel she is ‘disrupted by a speechless, mercurial boy named Simon who tries to steal from her and then repays her with his most precious possession.’  Against her will, she ‘succumbs to his feral charm’, along with that of Joe, his Maori foster father.  The novel which Hulme has created, with an ‘unorthodox trinity’ of characters, is described as ‘at once a mystery, a love story, and an ambitious exploration of the zone where Maori and European New Zealand meet.’

When Kerewin first meets Simon, who has broken into her tower, she thinks him ‘Nasty.  Gnomish.’  She goes on to describe him in the following, almost disparaging, manner: ‘There isn’t much above a yard of it standing there, a foot out of range of her furthermost reach.  Small and thin, with an extraordinary face, highboned and hollowcheeked, fleet and pointed chin, and a sharp sharp nose.  Nothing else is visible under an obscuration of silverblond hair, except the mouth, and it’s set in an uncommonly stubborn line.’  The interactions of the two were interesting, as Simon is mute, and alternative methods of communication have to be relied upon.

From the first, I found Hulme’s prose beguiling.  In her deliberately ambiguous prologue, she writes: ‘They were nothing more than people, by themselves.  Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves.  But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great.’  There is a mysterious quality to the book, and this weaves itself through the novel.

Hulme’s writing, and the way she goes about it, is experimental, but not in a way which makes it inaccessible. An omniscient narrative form runs alongside Kerewin’s thoughts, which come across in a stream-of-consciousness style.  This works well on the whole, but it does tend to jump around somewhat, and is a little difficult to get used to at first.  Style-wise, I do not actually believe that I’ve read anything at all similar to The Bone People, and I am a fan of experimental writing.

I did not warm to any of the protagonists.  I do not feel that doing so was at all the point of the novel, however.  Hulme seems to set out to demonstrate how flawed the human race is, and how we can be led so easily by others.  She shows, in a series of highly violent, traumatic, and difficult to read scenes, just how cruel we can be, and how irredeemably we can hurt others.

The Bone People is a novel which feels very contemporary.  I loved the way in which Hulme has used Maori terms throughout; of course, this is fitting to the setting of the story and its characters.  A glossary at the back of the novel gives English translations, although many are self-explanatory given the context in which they are used.  So much attention has been paid to each of the senses throughout the novel, and this added depth to Hulme’s descriptions and depictions.  There is a real shape and movement to Hulme’s prose, and I found the approach which she took in The Bone People a fascinating and admirable one.

Whilst I admired Hulme’s writing style, and found her prose rich and textured, I cannot sadly say that this is a novel which I enjoyed reading.  This is particularly true when the relentless violence begins to saturate everything else.  The Bone People feels like an important book, particularly from a cultural standpoint, but I found it difficult to read on the whole.  Overall, I found the novel unusual, harrowing, strange, and incredibly intense.

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‘Everything Under’ by Daisy Johnson ****

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel, Everything Under, was shortlisted for 2018’s Man Booker Prize.  Of all of the novels on the shortlist, this was the one which appealed to me most, and her short story collection, Fen, has been on my radar for a long time.  There has been, quite rightly, a lot of buzz around the novel, and some of the reviews really caught my eye.  Most interestingly, The Guardian writes of Johnson’s prose style as ‘a mix of Graham Swift and Angela Carter’.

Everything Under is a modernised retelling of the Classical myth Oedipus Rex.  Protagonist Gretel Whiting works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries.  Whilst the prose and Gretel’s thoughts are deeply involved in language and the power of words, much of the story proper revolves around her relationship with her mother, Sarah.  Whilst they were close when Gretel was small, they are now estranged.  Having no knowledge whatsoever of where her mother is, she regularly phones around the local hospitals and morgues to try and locate her.  However, things are turned on their head when she receives information from a hospital which ‘interrupts Gretel’s isolation and throws up questions from long ago.’

When she is introduced into the novel in the present day, Sarah is suffering decline, and a loss of memory.  Johnson relays, in quite stark prose, the effects of this upon both herself and Gretel.  She writes: ‘You shout for me in the middle of the night and when I come running you ask what I’m doing there.  You are not Gretel, you say.  My daughter Gretel was wild and beautiful.  You are not her.’  Despite this sad edge to her condition, there are still moments of lucidity and companionship between mother and daughter, and remembrances of a secret language which they made up when Gretel was small: ‘Occasionally we find those old words sneaking back in and we are undone by them.  It’s as if nothing has ever changed, as if time doesn’t mean a jot.  We have gone back and I am thirteen years old and you are my awful, wonderful, terrifying mother.  We live on a boat on the river and we have words that no one else does.  We have a whole language all our own.’

Gretel and Sarah are both rendered as complex characters, and as the novel continues, their perplexing relationship unfolds.  Johnson deftly writes almost an expose of mother and daughter, exploring whether any former love can be recovered between them in the present day.  Gretel is a very private person, choosing to live almost in secrecy: ‘I was an hour and a half from Oxford, where I worked, on the bus.  No one but the postman knew I was here.  I was protective of my solitude.’  She is insightful about her reasoning for searching for her mother, who abandoned her when she was thirteen: ‘I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to…  The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor.  That was why I looked for you all those years, Sarah.  Not for answers, condolences; not to ply you with guilt or set you up for a fall.  But because – a long time ago – you were my mother and you left.’ As a character study, the novel is a satisfying one.

The plot of Everything Under meanders between Gretel’s present and episodes in her past, with particular focus upon the period in which her mother took in a young runaway named Margot, disguised as a boy named Marcus, and subsequently left her. Of all the characters here, I found Margot by far the most interesting; there was something quite unusual about her, and the way in which she interacted with the world around her.   The narrative is not a linear one, and episodes from Gretel’s past are often a little muddled in the order in which they occurred.  There is an element of magical realism here, in that something which Gretel and Sarah name ‘The Bonak’ lurks in the water of their canal, stealing things away.

I found the opening paragraph of the novel utterly beguiling.  Johnson writes: ‘The places we are born come back.  They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia…  We become strangers to the places we are born.  They would not recognise us but we will always recognise them…  If we were turned inside out there would be maps cut into the wrong side of our skin.  Just so we could find our way back.  Except, cut wrong side into my skin are not canals and train tracks and a boat, but always: you.’  From the start of Everything Under, there is a dark volatility to the prose.  For instance, ‘You are too old to beat anything out of.  The memories flash like broken wine glasses in the dark and then are gone.’

The novel’s prose never sugarcoats anything; rather, the murky aspects of Gretel’s past and present, as well as descriptions of the landscape, come to the fore: ‘She crawled as far as she could into the bush.  There was a slime of leaves, beer cans cut open, a white-filmed balloon that skidded under her bad leg’, for instance.  I did enjoy Johnson’s writing style, but given what I had heard of Fen, I must admit that I was expecting her language to be more poetic, and the sense of place to be rather more present at the story’s outset.  It does strengthen dramatically as the novel goes on, however, and I enjoyed the way in which Oxfordshire and the waterways almost became characters in their own right.  I did feel the structure of the novel was effective, with relatively short chapters collected under titles like ‘The River’ and ‘The Cottage’, which are repeated throughout.

My personal preference was for those passages which related to the rooting of the landscape, and in which I was learning about the Whiting family dynamics, rather than those in which Gretel was discussing herself.  Some paragraphs were particularly trenchant, such as this one: ‘What went missing in the night: themed from the edges of the riverbanks, the rabbits in their cavernous burrows, the moorhens that slept on the low branches, stray dogs wandering where they shouldn’t, the rows of fish from the fishermen’s camp, silver hooks, the neighbourhood cats and everything they had – in their turn – hunted and eaten: mice, blind fumbling moles, broken-winged birds.’

Exploring themes of self and identity, as well as the ways in which we interact with others, there is a lot to admire in Everything Under.  The use of the present tense, and the continual addressing to ‘you’, the protagonist’s mother, gives a sense of urgency to the whole.  There are certainly some interesting and thought-provoking turns of phrase and ideas sprinkled through the novel, and overall, it feels as though Johnson is a shrewd and perceptive author, really getting to the core of her characters. Everything Under is far more involved with character than plot, and the building of these characters has been handled well.  In places, however, the plot feels a little thin on the ground, and the parallels between Everything Under and Oedipus Rex were far too obvious.  There seemed, at points, to be only a single, frayed thread holding everything together.

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‘The Water Cure’ by Sophie Mackintosh **

A lot of reviewers and bloggers have been discussing their interest of late in Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel, The Water Cure, but I have yet to see a dedicated full-length review of the novel.  Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, and with an intriguing plot, I thought that I would create such a review after reading it.  Described as ‘hypnotic and compulsive… a fever dream, a blazing vision of suffering, sisterhood and transformation’, I was keen to get to it.

The dystopian world in which The Water Cure takes place is ‘very close to our own: where women are not safe in their bodies, where desperate measures are required to raise a daughter.’  The focus of the novel is a group of three sisters, Grace, Lia, and Sky, who have been exiled to an isolated island with their father, whom they know as King, and their volatile mother.  They are told that the rest of the world is toxic, and has the power to kill them.  Lia reflects, of this, ‘It was a wonder that there were still safe places, islands like ours where woman can be healthful and whole.’  The girls are forbidden from mixing with men, and their only interaction with those who have experienced the outside world is through a series of troubled women who come to stay for brief periods in their home.9780241334744

The first piece of narrative, which is told from the perspective of all three girls, discusses the death of their father: ‘Once we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing.  It’s wrong to say that we don’t notice.  We are just absorbed in ourselves, that afternoon when he dies.’  At first, they believe that he has just gone to the mainland for a few days, and then realise that he is missing.  At this point, they search the house and grounds, and discover that one of their boats has disappeared too.  The girls consider the following: ‘For a moment we think he has gone for supplies, but then we remember he was not wearing the protective white suit, we did not do the leaving ceremony, and we look towards the rounded glow of the horizon, the air peach-ripe with toxicity.  And Mother falls to her knees.’  Their father’s passing is a somewhat meandering, but central theme.

The crux of the novel comes when a group of three men are washed up on the beach near the girls’ home, ‘their gazes hungry and insistent, trailing desire and destruction in their wake’, and the disappearance of their mother.  A lot of the things which the girls are subjected to, both before and after this point, are cruel and inhumane, and Mackintosh writes of them with a stark frankness.  They are forbidden from showing any emotion: ‘We have never been permitted to cry because it makes our energies suffocating.  Crying lays you low and vulnerable, racks your body.  If water is the cure for what ails us, the water that comes from our own faces and hearts is the wrong sort.’

The girls speak as a collective from time to time, but the whole is largely told from the perspective of Lia, the second sister, and the most sensitive.  She takes older sister, Grace, as her central focus at many points in the novel, and describes the effects which the sisters have upon one another, and the contact which she is so desperate for: ‘Often Grace is repelled by me.  I don’t have the luxury of being repelled by her, even when her breath is sour and a gentle scum of dirt clings to her ankles.  I take whatever contact I can get.  Sometimes I harvest the hair from her brush and hide it under my pillow, when things get very bad.’

As the youngest sister by some margin, Sky’s feelings and thoughts are often hidden.  At no point does she narrate any of the story, save for the collective sections, when it is impossible to separate the voices of the girls.  Later parts of the novel are narrated by Grace, and whilst her outlook on life and love is different to Lia’s, their voices did not feel different enough.  For me, this exacerbated that the characters were not drawn realistically enough for me to invest in, and sympathise with, them.  Another problem which I had was that I believed the sisters to be far younger than they were later revealed to be, due to their naivety and childishness.

In The Water Cure, Mackintosh has looked at structures of power, and patriarchal hierarchies.  Whilst the set-up of the novel intrigued me, and I did find elements of it interesting, the whole felt rather too vague to be believable.  At no point are we made aware of why the outside world is perceived to be so toxic, and I did not feel as though the plot came together quite as well as it could have done.  The ending felt a little rushed, and much of the middle section was a little meandering.  I did not feel as though the blurred ambiguities of the novel suited the plot; I would have far preferred things to be spelled out at some point, to give some explanation for some of the elements which were not fully explored.  The Water Cure has an interesting concept, but a somewhat problematic execution, and at no point did I feel fully immersed in the story.

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‘Elmet’ by Fiona Mozley ***

I was expecting to love Fiona Mozley’s Elmet; it sounded like just my kind of book. I favour quiet novels with brooding settings, and characters who come to life on the page, and expected all of these elements to be present here. As with many readers, I expect, my interest within Elmet was piqued when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017.

9781473660540It is rather a slow novel, and I have no problem at all with that, but Elmet did not sweep me away anywhere near as much as I had hoped it would. I found a few anomalies within the prose, discrepancies with small details which were a little more obvious than they perhaps would have been had the novel been packed with plot points.

I found some of Mozley’s writing, particularly during the passages in italicised text, achingly beautiful, but other sentences were too choppy and matter-of-fact for there to feel as though there is a balance here. An example of the latter is as follows: ‘We left the house soon after. A girl, a boy, two men. Hungover, half-asleep. We stopped for a quick breakfast at a bakery on the High Street. In the mornings it served bacon, sausage and egg sandwiches. I had bacon then asked Daddy if I could have an iced bun like a shy child with a sweet tooth. He paid 50p for three.’ I feel, with such passages, that the reader is party to far too much information; yes, it is admirable that Mozley recognises and writes about the minutiae of life, but the narrative becomes bogged down with trivialities like this, which add nothing whatsoever to the novel. The detailed descriptions of the natural world are often stunning, but I was not so interested in the detailed depictions of what people were wearing in every scene, or of tiny movements which they made. It felt like I was being given an endless commentary, which made the novel something close to dull at times in consequence.

I have mixed feelings about Elmet. Whilst I can understand why other readers love it, it simply did not come together for me in the way which I would have liked. I felt little connection with most of the characters, and whilst the bleakness of the mood which settles onto the novel has been built and handled so well, it was not enough to lift the whole for me.

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Two Reviews: ‘The Year of the Runaways’ and ‘The Paper Menagerie’

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota **** 9781447241652
Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is an urgent, momentous novel about the experience of three young men who immigrate from India to the United Kingdom in hope of finding work. From the very beginning, Sahota’s study of his characters is incredibly detailed. I loved the inclusion of so much cultural minutiae, and found that the use of words in different Indian dialects without their translations being given adds yet another layer to the whole. The story is incredibly evocative of place and space, and every single strand of story has been well pulled together. The way in which the different characters’ stories intertwined was clever.

The Year of the Runaways is a relatively slow novel, in the very best way. The backstories of each of Sahota’s characters are eminently believable, as are their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The novel is so immersive that it becomes difficult to put down. The Year of the Runaways is an eye-opening book, and I felt so empathetic toward all of the protagonists, as well as their wider families. I read this important book with rapt attention, and cannot recommend it enough.


24885533The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu ***
So many reviewers have loved The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, and as I am always keen to discover new short story authors, I borrowed a copy from my local library. I am neither a fan of science fiction nor of fantasy, and so wasn’t sure if I would enjoy these tales as much as a lot of my friends have. I found some of the inclusions to be quirky and inventive, and preferred Liu’s writing when the magical realism was present, and no robots, etc., were. Some of the tales here engaged me far more than others, although I half expected as much when reading the blurb before I began.

The Paper Menagerie is varied in terms of its content, but I found it rather a mixed bag. I adored the rather beautiful title story, but a lot of the others fell short in comparison. However, his voice has a wonderful consistency to it regardless of the perspective used, and each tale is nicely told. Liu clearly has an expansive imagination, and comes up with some fascinating ideas, but a lot of them were too firmly rooted in science fiction for my personal taste. The Asian culture which is dispersed throughout was fascinating, however, and was one of the real strengths of the book for me.


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November Book Haul

The eagle-eyed amongst you might have spotted that I haven’t published any book haul posts since August.  This is because I have been very restrained with adding to my TBR, focusing instead on reading books which I already own, as well as many tomes which are still unread on my Kindle.  I have caved a little in November however, and thus have a few different titles recently added to my shelves, both literal and virtual, to talk about.

9781474604796I shall detail those which I have bought for my Kindle first.  I tend not to buy books from Amazon, whose morals are not up to scratch in a lot of ways, but wanted a few things to read both over Christmas, and on future holidays.  Everything which I purchased was rather cheap (under £2 per book), and they are largely tomes which I have found it difficult to get hold of in physical editions.  I thus chose four titles by the wonderful Celia Fremlin, whose work I have recently discovered: Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories, The Trouble-Makers, Uncle Paul, and The Jealous One, all of which have been recently reissued by Faber Firsts.  I took advantage of two Kindle daily deals to buy a rather lovely-looking novel, The Boy Made of Snow by Chloe Mayer, along with a shortlisted title from this year’s Man Booker Prize, The History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund.

I have been a big fan of Nancy Pearl, librarian extraordinaire, for rather a few years 9781477819456now, and am starting to actively choose and seek out those titles which she has recommended, and which appeal to me (which, to be fair, is most of them).  I saw a copy of Susan Richards Shreve‘s Plum and Jaggers on the Kindle store for just £1, and couldn’t resist purchasing it.  To appease a bout of nostalgia, I also chose to download a copy of Christmas Tales by Enid Blyton, one of my favourite childhood authors.  I’m very much looking forward to snuggling up with it next month!

I saw a wonderful review of Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman, and decided to sneak a secondhand copy into my AbeBooks basket, which I purchased soon afterwards.  It’s a memoir of her experience with breast cancer, and whilst not the most cheerful tome, I’m hoping to read it over the Christmas holidays.  I have also been 9781509813131keen to undertake a year-long reading project for a few years now, and have finally found what I hope is the perfect book with which to do so – Allie Esiri‘s beautiful A Poem for Every Night of the Year.  I am gifting myself a lovely hardback copy for Christmas, and shall be savouring one poem every day (or, rather, night) in 2018.

As some of you may have seen, I am taking part in the Around the World in 80 Books challenge next year, and have been busy preparing lists, and finding tomes on my to-read pile which fit.  There are several countries I wish to read about which were proving difficult to find books from, at least with regard to my existing titles and those which I can find in the library, and I thus bought five from AbeBooks to prepare myself well.  I chose Two Under the 9781870206808Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden, Spanish author Mathias Malzieu‘s The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, Sigrid Rausing‘s memoir of working on an Estonian farm, entitled Everything is Wonderful, Welsh author Eiluned LewisDew on the Grass, and Marguerite Yourcenar‘s Coup de Grace, which is set in Latvia.

Going forward, for ease of admin more than anything else, although with a little sprinkling of hope that I will gain enough willpower not to buy any new books, I will be grouping two or three months into each of these book haul posts.  They will thus be far more infrequent, but rather larger than detailing one or two new books each month.

Which books have you bought this month?  Are there any on my list which pique your interest, or which you would like to see full reviews for?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes ***

The Sense of an Ending is Julian Barnes’ eleventh novel, and the first of his books which I’ve read.  It was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2011.  I did not choose to read it during all of the Man Booker hype – and believe me, there was a lot of it that year – as I did not want popular opinion to impact upon my thoughts of this novel.  Opinion during this period was incredibly divided, and The Sense of an Ending seemed to be a book which critics loved and general readers hated.  I left it two years before purchasing my own copy, and read it soon afterwards.

‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes

Overall, I found the novel rather intelligently written.  My main qualm, however, was the way in which the speech of the characters did not always seem realistic.  I had trouble, for example, imagining that many – if any – teenage boys, despite the period of time or circumstances in which the book is set, would speak in the same way as one of the book’s protagonists, Adrian.  Veronica was the most interesting character construct for me, and I liked not knowing what her next actions would be.  Despite this, I found myself quite unable to warm to any of the characters, and found them all rather pretentious.  They did, however, interest me enough to want to read on.

I seem to fall within the centre of the two very divided camps which existed upon this novel’s publication and subsequent prize win.  The Sense of an Ending is a relatively good novel, interesting enough and rather well plotted.  I must admit though that I did not really ‘get’ the hype which surrounded it for so long.  It is not a book which I couldn’t bear to put down whilst reading; nor is it a book which I contemplated giving up at any point.  It did feel rather stagnant and depressing at times, but the ending pulled it together for me, and I felt that Barnes’ choice of plot was rather clever.  Whilst I am not yet a Barnes convert, I would like to read another of his books in future to see how it compares.

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Book Club (July 2014): ‘The Famished Road’ by Ben Okri **

My choice for our July Book Club read was Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, a novel which won the Booker Prize in 1991.  I had previously heard of it as a revered work, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it when I began to read.  The spirit world, and how spirits interact with humans on earth, is focused upon throughout, and the narrator of the piece is Azaro, a ‘spirit-child’, who lives in a ghetto in an unnamed African city during British colonial rule.

At the beginning of The Famished Road, the story is engaging – provided, of course, that the reader is able to suspend his or her disbelief.  Magical realism abounds from the first page, and a dreamlike haze is woven within Okri’s words, so that one never quite knows what is real and what is imagined.  He blurs the lines between fiction and reality in quite an odd way. However, the story soon leaves this intrigue behind, and becomes almost cyclical in the violent scenes it presents, the harm which befalls Azaro and his parents, and the way in which they use food – which is unfailingly described as ‘delicious’ – to comfort themselves.  There is no real thread of plot leading from beginning to end; rather, days in Azaro’s life are described one after another, so that the whole becomes incredibly repetitive.  Something about this made the entire novel feel rather off-kilter, rendering it both uneven and inconsistent.  Some of the scenes also made me – a self-confessed squeamish reader – feel rather sick.

The first person narrative perspective did work well on the whole, but there were occasions in which it felt a little flat.  Azaro was often void of emotion at what should have been the most challenging episodes in his life, and he felt two-dimensional in consequence.  I did not grow to like him as a character – something which I think is important in such long novels in which you, as a reader, have to invest a lot of your time.  Perhaps if Azaro had been given a realistic range of emotions, and had handled events in different ways occasionally, my opinion of him would be different.  Some of the imagery and descriptions used were nice, but they did lose their power in their constant repetitions.  Okri’s writing style and the way in which he has presented his story felt to me like a culmination of Salman Rushdie’s and A.S. Byatt’s work in places.  Sadly, neither are authors whom I particularly enjoy.

The sense of place is not overly strong, and I do not feel that Okri has made the best use of the social and historical elements which should have surrounded and overpowered his characters.  It was used as an occasional backdrop rather than an all-consuming and oppressive presence.  Whilst the political context can be quite interesting when viewed from a child’s perspective, this element of the novel was overdone, and lost all of its interest quite quickly.

The ending really let the whole down for me.  Whilst the majority of The Famished Road ranged from okay to relatively good, I found the ending staid, trite and unnecessary.  The literary technique which Okri used in the final paragraph (one which I will not mention so that I do not give away any spoilers) is one which I highly dislike, and which I have been told for years at school and University never to use because it really puts off the general reader.

The Famished Road is certainly different, but it is not stunningly so.  I believe, rather cynically, that it is such a hyped novel merely because it has won a prestigious prize.  There are many works which I have read in past years which are under the radar in terms of prizewinning, but which have completely blown me away with their storyline, prose, ideas and characters.  I shall be focusing upon reading more of these such novels in future.  The Famished Road is not an awful book, but I would have no qualm in terming it mediocre, and I doubt that I shall be seeking out any more of Okri’s books in future unless they come with an incredibly high recommendation.

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