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A Ridiculously Wordy Review of my Winter Reads

Margaret Atwood, William Boyd, Rosamond Lehmann, Ray Mouton, Julia Heaberlin, Elizabeth George, Michael Connolly, Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin, J. K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, Anna Perera, David Nicholls, Elena Ferrante. Fun for All…

It’s been a bumper Margaret Atwood season for me. She is a writer I can return to again and again, and each time get something new from her novels. I love her stories, her visions, the debates she sets up, and her writing is exquisite. She is a poet by trade too and this comes through in her prose: every word matters. Mix beautiful words with wit and incredible sharpness and you get Atwood. I have read nearly all her novels at least twice over the years and taught “The Handmaid’s Tale” to A Level students.

Her 2015 novel – “The Heart Goes Last” - isn’t her best; it felt slighter than her previous dystopian novels (or as she calls it ‘speculative fiction’). I enjoyed it, I laughed and I thought quite hard about the issues, but set against her other novels it hasn’t stayed with me in the same way. If you are already an Atwood aficionado then definitely read it, but see it as a light read. Set in the US, in the near future where civil order has collapsed, a couple are seduced into a closed society which promises a better life if they agree to partake in a social experiment. Inevitably malign forces are at work and the couple become involved in a conspiracy about which they have no idea. There are hugely funny moments, particularly the section set in Las Vegas and peopled apparently by Elvis and Marilyn impersonators.

Inspired by my memory of her earlier dystopian novels I decided to conclude my reading of the MaddAddam Trilogy which she began some time ago with “Oryx and Crake”. I have a terrible memory so although I have actually read “Oryx and Crake” several times already, I set about re-reading it and loving it just as before. In this world, capitalism has nudged its way forward so that our society is now ruled by corporations rather than politicians. The elite – scientists producing miracle cures for aging faces and slightly flabby flesh – are protected in compounds and observe the Pleeblands where normal people live with disgust, horror and some envy. But the story begins with Snowman, a pitiful figure who seems to be the last human on an earth where mutant animals pursue him. His only company are the Crakers, an apparently genetically modified type of human, who worship Snowman and seek to know the truth of their creation. The novel moves between now and then, shifting beautifully between the different stories. What is so scary is that glimmers of the society are completely recognisable: Atwood has simply nudged forward the implications of current scientific experimentation and human greed.

The story goes sideways in her next novel, “The Year of the Flood”, during which a different perspective of the same time period is described. It shouldn’t really work, but it does and is – as always – beautifully written. The final novel, written in 2013, is called “MaddAddam”, and is one of the funniest novels she has ever composed. I loved it. And for those who think her writing is always pessimistic, this one isn’t. I enjoyed the irreverence of this novel enormously.

William Boyd’s latest novel “Sweet Caress” has had surprisingly mixed reviews. I thought it was great. It is the kind of novel Boyd writes best: memoir in style using fictional characters; he has done it before with “Any Human Heart” and “True Confessions”, both of which are outstanding novels. This time the story is told from the perspective of a photographer and covers defining cultural periods in the twentieth century from 1920s Berlin to the Vietnam War. He manages a female first person narrative convincingly and I was lost in the story. I listened to the audiobook version but the printed version includes 75 photographs, all uncredited and collected by Boyd over the years. Some of them, apparently, nudged the author in certain ways but others just slotted ‘naturally’ into the story. Reading reviews it seems that some readers found the photographs a distraction or a gimmick. It is hard for me to comment on this but I doubt I would have done: I often use photographs as stimuli for creative writing exercises for both my students and myself and they can take us to very unexpected places. I highly recommend this novel: for one thing, Vietnam may be an area much explored in celluloid but I haven’t read many British writers’ versions of the war and it was very interesting.

I re-read an old favourite this November: “Invitation to the Waltz” by Rosamond Lehmann. It is an exquisitely simple rites-of-passage novel, written in 1932, about a young girl going to her first ball. Agonisingly similar to my experiences of parties in the 1980s. (The terror!) This is a novel I have read many times, and taught both at school and at university.

I read a very disturbing novel called “In God’s House” by Ray Mouton. It was written by the defence lawyer who represented the first Catholic priest to be put on trial for child abuse in Louisiana and who went on to write a report for the Vatican about the scale of the cover-up of abuse in the Catholic Church. He has fictionalised his experience, but comparing the novel to accounts of what actually happened it seems like he has kept broadly within the realms of fact with a few tweaks here and there. Mouton is a gifted plotter and I was absorbed from the beginning, reading it as I would a good novel by John Grisham. Sometimes his characterisation is a little weak and occasionally it felt a little long, but I read it fast, and with a sense of increasing horror. Every so often I would google events to see if he had exaggerated only to find that actually on many occasions he had understated the awfulness. You need a reasonably strong stomach to process all that went on but I think it is an important novel to read and to understand. Things have begun to change and it is in part to do with Ray Mouton.

Crime Fiction

My favourite crime novel this autumn was what I suppose could be described as a ‘psychological thriller’ – crimes have happened but the novel is more interested in the way it has affected victims or witnesses. “Black-Eyed Susans” by Julia Heaberlin was absolutely brilliant: I couldn’t put it down; I didn’t guess the end although it made sense once I had got there; and it was completely convincing. It is also an original idea, using amnesia as a central focus but in a way that is really striking. Highly recommended.

This autumn has been rather pleasant for me as several of my favourite crime writers had new novels published: Ian Rankin, Elizabeth George, Michael Connelly and the late Ruth Rendell. I am afraid I can’t recommend Rendell’s last novel because I didn’t finish it. I may come back to it at a later point but I didn’t want the last thing I read by her to be one which wasn’t her best; and alas it isn’t. But she had quite an act to follow with her many previous books. The novels by the other three are all excellent, however, and curiously all of them are better than the immediately previous novels. For those of you who have never read any of these authors, I personally think it is better to start at the beginning of the relevant series when a character is introduced; but I came to all of them accidentally and then started at the beginning knowing I had lots of books to read in sequence. You have 25 other Michael Connellys to read, for instance, and I don’t know how many Ian Rankins. Rankin’s novels are about a – now-retired – Edinburgh CID officer with the usual set of problems detectives in fiction normally have. I love Rebus though, his gritty cynicism, his existential debates and his good heart. Connelly has a similar hero who works in LA; both writers deal with their respective heroes in convincing and compelling ways. George’s novel centres on Inspector Linley and DS Barbara Havers. I am much more interested in the latter character who slips into cliché a little but is generally someone I care about. George often takes on quite big issues in her writing, not always successfully, and occasionally you wish the editor had cut a bit more. I enjoyed this novel enormously though.

J. K. Rowling’s latest novel as Robert Galbraith is out too. I have read them all; in fact, I pre-ordered this one. I did the same with Harry Potter. She is good at what she does, if one enjoys a decent plot. Her writing is clichéd and formulaic but with both wizard stories and detective novels cliché and formula can work and work well. Barry Maitland is a crime writer I have recently discovered and I enjoyed reading his new police procedural novel “Crucifixion Creek” which has a rather problematic hero called Harry Belltree. It’s fantastically written and completely gripping, but it becomes pretty graphic and violent in places which I hadn’t been prepared for. Just to warn you.

I read a few novels which didn’t do much for me. I finally got round to reading “One Day” by David Nicholls. I finished it, which says something, but it irritated me all the way through. I am not sure why I did finish it. I suppose I wanted to see if there was something redeeming about it. He is a good scriptwriter and has had incredible success with this novel. But not my cup of tea. I suppose I am not a fan of contemporary romance novels, especially when such stereotypes are used. I have also just finished a children’s novel called “Guantanamo Boy” by Anna Perera. It won awards and is being taught at schools (which is why I read it). It is a worthy book with a message and for me it didn’t work; but I can see why so many people think it is good. An ordinary 15-year-old boy from Rochdale visits his family in Pakistan and gets arrested by a counter-terrorist unit and sent to Guantanamo Bay. Parts of the novel were brilliantly written, particularly when the torture and deprivation begin to break Khalid down. But I found that the novel was driven by its message rather than the writing itself and sometimes I felt as if the issues were being thrown in my face. I am also not sure that such graphic description of torture is necessary in a novel aimed at 12-14 year olds; it’s upsetting my Year 8 student who is studying it at school and it certainly upset me. I also had a go at Elena Ferrante’s novel “My Brilliant Friend” after being told to read it by so many friends. I got half-way through but it just didn’t engage me. I suspect I will try it another time and utterly love it. Just not now.

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