Update: Authors I Would Like To Read This Year – The Bad

During 2021, I decided not to set myself any specific reading challenges, preferring instead to pick up books on a whim. Regardless, I did make a tentative list of authors whose work I had not read before, but wanted to try. You can see the full list here. Of course, I haven’t met all of the challenges; I became a little sceptical as to whether I really wanted to read the only Vikram Seth available to me in my local library, A Suitable Boy, which comes in at well over one thousand pages, and I went off reading Naipaul entirely after reading a slew of sexist comments which he had made over the years.

As you can see, I got off to rather an inauspicious start. The books below – all of which I awarded just two stars to, and could not wait to finish – were the first three which I began with. I must admit that I didn’t actually get much further than this with my challenge. The moral of the story is that I just don’t do that well with structured yearly reads; I am far better with making a weekly TBR to stick to. This is a practice I began during March, and which I have enjoyed putting together every single week. I will be continuing with this, and this alone, during 2022; at least it’s something I have proven I can stick to!

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke **

Attica Locke was the first of these which I picked up, beginning with Bluebird, Bluebird, the first book in her ‘Highway 59’ series. On the face of it, her books really intrigue me; she writes thrillers based in Texas which, alongside quite gruesome murders or crimes, deal with wider issues within the community – inequality, poverty, racism, and injustice. I have heard a great deal about her books – the majority of it incredibly positive – and fancied sinking my teeth into a thriller set somewhere rather different to the UK- and US-based thrillers which I generally gravitate toward.

Whilst I cannot fault the pace or plotting of Bluebird, Bluebird, there was not a great deal about it which personally appealed to me. The prose style is very matter-of-fact, with relatively few descriptions; things within the novel are told, not shown. It was rather too hardboiled in style for my taste. Whilst one does get a good feel for the landscape, the characters are focused upon far more. Sadly, these characters – whom I felt were introduced in far too quick a succession – feel two-dimensional. They are not quite realistic, and have not been fleshed out enough to be believable. In consequence, some of their motives seemed strange and unlikely.

There are rather a few tropes within the novel which I was expecting, and parts of it felt rather predictable. I am pleased that I started my project with such a lauded novel, but I can safely say that I will not be continuing with this series – even the cliffhanger ending did not encourage me to read further – and probably will not pick up anything by Locke again, either.

The Gathering by Anne Enright **

I read Enright’s short story collection, Yesterday’s Weather, at the end of 2020, and must admit that I found it rather underwhelming. I wondered if her style would suit the longer form better, and decided to download the audiobook of The Gathering from my library’s app. I love listening to books with Irish narrators, and whilst the delivery of this one was undoubtedly good – at first, at least – I had a few issues with the text itself.

The story within this novel is a bleak one, but I loved the central idea of the ‘gathering’ of the title, when a family of siblings meet one another en masse, after their brother drowns in the sea off the coast of Brighton. Unfortunately, this gathering took up barely any space in the novel, and seemed rather shoehorned in toward the end. The rest of the book goes off on random tangents about the characters’ difficulties, much of which is centered around abuse. Everything, for this narrator, harks back to sex, and I did not feel that this obsession actually added a great deal to the whole.

As I began to listen to The Gathering, I found it quite engaging. However, after a few chapters had passed, the way in which Enright had crafted the novel began to frustrate me. She can certainly write, but this was rather too rambling for me. There are far too many characters to keep track of in a relatively short book, particularly at the outset. The listening experience quickly became rather chaotic, with rushed sentences, and nothing feeling quite clear enough. Had I not picked up her short stories beforehand, I would probably try and read something else of Enright’s in physical form. However, following The Gathering, I just do not feel that she is an author whose work I could wholeheartedly enjoy.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch **

Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children really appealed to me, drawn as I am to books set within the landscape of Eastern Europe. The novel is shaped around a ‘heart-stopping image’ taken by a photographer, of a young girl running from the explosion which engulfs her home, and kills her family. This photograph has won prizes and a great deal of acclaim, and it soon becomes a ‘subject of obsession’ for the photographer’s best friend.

At first, I must admit that I was enjoying this book. The prose is beautifully rich in the first couple of chapters, and feels almost fairytale-like; it makes much use of colour and space, and focuses on both the known and the unknown. Yuknavitch has an interesting approach to writing, using lots of single, snappy sentences alongside very long and descriptive ones. She flits between perspectives and settings throughout, something which I usually enjoy in fiction. However, the fact that none of the characters whatsoever were named until very late on, and were described only by their professions – ‘The Poet, ‘The Playwright’ – did become a little confusing, as they were not explicitly different from one another on the whole. Sometimes it felt as though their professions were the only things which set them apart, but as these professions were almost entirely creative, I feel as though any distinction was lost.

There are some memorable scenes and images here, but overall, The Backs of Small Children has left me cold. I did like the strange, almost otherworldly feel of the book at first, but this felt almost overwhelming as it went on. The primal, animalistic edge, with its often unnecessary obsession with sex, suffused everything, and I regularly found the novel uncomfortable to read. It did not hold my interest all of the way through, either. Whilst the beginning of The Backs of Small Children felt promising, I found it too muddled a book to really enjoy. I am now conflicted as to whether I would read anything else by Yuknavitch; if it all follows a similar pattern to this novel, then I am happy to move on to other authors.

I am afraid that as I did not get much further than this with my challenge, there will be no further updates.


‘The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City’ by Laura Tillman ****

The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City is journalist Laura Tillman’s first book.  In it, Tillman investigates the aftermath of a terrible crime.  In March 2003, in Brownsville, Texas – one of the poorest cities in the United States, and located just metres from the Mexican border – a young couple named John Allen Rubio (22) and Angela Camacho (23) murdered their three young children; three-year-old Julissa, one-year-old John Stephan, and two-month-old Mary Jane.

9781472152145Tillman writes at the outset that she was sent to report on the state of the building in which Rubio and Camacho lived, five years after the killings.  It was already incredibly run down, with boards over the windows, and poor sanitation.  In the aftermath, ‘a consensus developed in the community that it should be destroyed.’  The case itself was a secondary concern for Tillman, but it was something which inordinately became her focus.  Her subsequent investigation ‘sprawled into a six-year inquiry into the larger significance of such acts, ones so difficult to imagine or explain that their perpetrators are often discussed as monsters alien to humanity.’

The result of Tillman’s investigation is described as ‘a brilliant exploration of some of the age’s most important social issues, from poverty to mental illness to the death penalty, and a profound meditation on the truly human forces that drive them.’ Kirkus describes The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts as ‘a Helter-Skelter for our time – unsettling in the extreme but written with confidence and deep empathy.’

In The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, Tillman speaks to lawyers, relatives, and neighbours within the community, as well as to John Allen Rubio, who has been sentenced to the death penalty.  At first, this correspondence is via letter – she describes him as ‘candid and conversational in a way I found captivating’, and includes segments of what he writes to her – but she later goes to visit him in prison, where he lives largely in isolation.  She notes the importance of the case, and all it brought with it: ‘That the victims were children, that their father was from Brownsville, that an explanation seemed always out of reach, had caused people to question their understanding of their community, their spirituality, the values they held as universal.’ We are never party to the opinions of Angela Camacho, who refuses to respond to Tillman’s interview requests.  She too is serving three concurrent life sentences for the murders, but has not been given the death penalty.

The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts is often incredibly chilling.  Tillman writes about Rubio’s motivation for the murders; he claimed that his children ‘were possessed by demons at the time of their death.  In his narrative, he’s the good guy thrust into a world where evil can inhabit any form, even children.  While his actions seem sinister to us, he knew that he had no choice.’  Tillman then goes on to explain the discomfort which she feels during her investigation, and her feeling of being an imposter: ‘I’d sought it out, I’d crowded close to a story to which I had no innate right.  It was his family, his trial, his town.  It was his life and his death.  But as I began to learn how the crime continued to affect those around me, I realized that this was not an isolated act, but a wave moving out in all directions, pushing on those in its path.’

Tillman examines Rubio’s background, lived in acute poverty, and learns that was abused by his father, who used to give him alcohol from the age of five.  His mother, a prostitute, sold him to older men for sex from the age of twelve.  He has a history of systematic drug abuse, which has drastically reduced his IQ over the years.  She seeks to understand Rubio’s upbringing, and the reverberations which this has had for him.  She does add a more human element to proceedings; rather than seeing Rubio as a total monster, she presents him as a human being, albeit an incredibly and incurably flawed one.  She continually asks herself questions: ‘Is it easier to believe that John is a “bad guy,” and that what he did was “evil,” or is it easier to blame the circumstances of his life?  It’s cognitively overwhelming to combine these factors, to see him both as the catalyst and the entity upon which other catalyzing forces acted.’

Throughout, Tillman discusses the difficulties which she had in engaging with people within the community, but also the eventual willingness of others to speak to her: ‘When I interviewed people about the murders, some cautioned that the crime was a black hole that held nothing within.  Heinous crimes are like that, people said.  They do not teach lessons, they only confirm the worst suspicions about what can happen in our world…  Yet, the same people who compassionately issued this warning also told me, often at length, of all the crime had come to mean in their lives, how it had challenged their beliefs or fortified them.’

A lot of the reviews which I have read about The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts express disappointment.  Many readers have come to this as a piece of true crime reportage; whilst Tillman does write at length about the murders, this comes toward the middle of the book.  She places more attention upon the effects, rather than the crime itself.  Reviewers have also mentioned that they feel Tillman put too much of herself into the book, but to me, the inclusion of her own thoughts and feelings added balance to the whole.  I was interested in her personal story, and her motivations for following the case as a young reporter years after they occurred.  She sums this up by writing: ‘I didn’t pick the story of Julissa and John Stephan and Mary Jane because it was necessarily any worse than the rest, but being in my backyard, it exerted an unusual pull, one that didn’t seem to let go, more than a decade later.’

I am fascinated by books of this type, which examine the wider implications of a crime, and feel that Tillman delivered what she set out to do.  I admire her approach, and particularly liked the way in which she captured the psychology and cultural climate which existed behind the crimes.  Her response is sympathetic to a point, but comes across as incredibly measured.  Nothing here is sensationalised, and it feels like a fitting tribute to Julissa, John Stephan and Mary Jane, whose lives were so cruelly ended at the hands of those who should have loved them most.

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