Am I bit early? Never! Always been a bit of a Christmas groupie, me, so only too happy to get in the festive spirit early. Not that there is much in the way from publishing houses in December; all their work is pretty much wrapped up by this time and, instead, bookstores are heaving with titles that have already been published and promoted.
So, this month, my tinyletter is all about reviews on books I’ve read this past month. And I’ve read quite a range from Booker Prize big guns to poetry, and recently published titles to absolute classics. So much joy and variety to be found in reading, I tell you.
And clearly for you all too as this tinyletter has taken off in a way I never would have imagined (I can only thank you for your interest and support; if I could buy you all a cup of tea, I would). So, in addition to these monthly updates, next year I will also be reviving the #TwoMinuteBookReview videos on my Twitter account and uploading these to my currently-dormant YouTube book account.
So, as always, stay posted!
Love to you all,
The Big Gun
So, finally, I’ve been able to sit down and read the much-heralded, much-anticipated The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (Penguin), £20. The big question is, does it live up to its massive hype for, even taking into account that it won the Booker Prize this year (jointly with Bernardine Evaristo), there’s no doubting that this book has been EVERYWHERE this season. At times, the build up to the Booker Prize winner announcement felt like a coronation. Can this book – can any book – deliver under this amount of attention?Well… Bloody hell, yes it can as this book is ASTONISHING.
It was unquestionably brave for Margaret to return to Gilead given the acclaim for her dystopian masterpiece, The Handmaids’ Tale, the legacy that book has, and the fresh extended life that world has been given from its successful TV adaptation. The risk was always that she could only, surely, under-deliver.
And yet… And yet…
What we have in The Testaments is a complete pivot. Whereas The Handmaids’ Tale examined the political through the very small story of Offred’s experience and suffering as a Handmaiden in the frighteningly totalitarian misogynistic creation of Gilead, where women are stripped of all their rights and become little more than slaves to male desire and control, The Testaments sees Margaret pull apart Gilead from the inside. This is a far more explicitly political book that examines the machinations of totalitarian societies, the amorality/immorality of collusion and how power structures can form even amongst the powerless.
Here, we are in the hands of three protagonists: Aunt Lydia, the most senior female collaborator in Gilead and a woman responsible for the control and selection of women in the society and their positions. She is a woman of great secrets – and uses these to control both the men and women around her. (I understand she’s a character in the TV show but I haven’t watched that.)
The other two central characters are teenage girls – one living inside Gilead, who is on the threshold of becoming a child bride, and another on the outside but wrapped up in the resistance efforts to bring Gilead down.
These three characters have never met but, as plots to destroy Gilead develop momentum, their paths come ever closer and eventually collide.
More than any other book I can remember from Margaret, The Testaments is a thriller. It is pacey with a powerful narrative drive that hooks you. There are twists and turns and more than a few surprises. But these are, obviously, tinged with moments of real pain and horror. There are scenes Margaret has constructed in this book so astonishing and agonising that I feel they have seared themselves onto the back of my eyeballs; I won’t ever be able to forget them. But the finale hit me deep. Emotional and affecting.
A masterpiece. I am, and remain, in awe.
It’s always embarrassing when I have to admit to not having yet read a literary classic (we’ve all been there, right?) but it’s ALWAYS a pleasure when you finally read such a novel to discover it’s more fantastic than you had expected.Enter The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Penguin Classics), £14.99, which I finally decided to read over Halloween to, you know, get into the spirit of things. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of my favourite books but, though this one from Shirley also has themes of darkness in it, it is quite different. It is more horror than gothic beauty, and a more specific, tougher study of madness.
The Haunting of Hill House follows Eleanor, a fragile loner who is requested to participate in a group study of the occult. A Dr Montague wants to bring together those who have claimed some experience of the supernatural in a supposedly haunted house to study the effects and see if anything concrete can be ascertained. The location he decides upon is Hill House, a derelict mansion on the edges of a small town in the United States which has a history of tragedy and ill-fortune.
But what seems, at first, a superficial and inane project starts to manifest itself more profoundly for Eleanor who feels a creeping terror in her bones and increasingly becomes obsessed – and possessed – by the trauma of the house and the strange phenomena that work within it.
Stephen King has called this book the greatest study of the haunted house trope ever written. And who am I to argue? Here, the horror is not in ghostly apparitions or poltergeist; rather, Shirley investigates what a haunted house would feel like, how this horror would come across to those who could sense it – and those that could not.
And this is where we enter the realm of madness for Shirley Jackson is no ordinary writer and so the reader is left to weigh up whether Eleanor’s trauma and fate was decided by the haunted house or by troubles in her own mind.
The Dollmaker by Nina Allan, (Quercus), £14.99, is the oddest book I have read this year and, quite probably, of any year. Yet, because of this, it is unforgettable. This curious but fiercely original novel will stay with me for some time.In it we follow Andrew and Bramber, two lonely individuals living in contemporary England who have never met, but who quickly develop a love affair via letters as they become penpals following Bramber’s advert in a doll collectors’ magazine. Only it’s not just distance that make the burgeoning relationship of these two doll obsessives complicated – Bramber is institutionalised and hasn’t told Andrew, and, similarly, Andrew has not informed his new ‘queen’ that he was born with proportionate dwarfism.
How will they feel when their secrets are revealed? Will the fantasy they have created in their minds be instantly destroyed? That is what is at stake when Andrew suddenly undertakes a trip across England to surprise his queen with an unannounced visit.
Yet, if you think this is all that this story has at stake, well, you are in for a hell of a surprise. With a spirit that blends Angela Carter with Margaret Atwood at her darkest, Nina Allan sets this story off kilter, feeding in fables of murderous dwarfs, time manipulators, fairies and changelings. This she does by cutting in supposed short stories from Andrew and Bramber’s favourite writer – Ewa Chaplin, a supposed esteemed dollmaker who also wrote the darkest fantasy stories with powerful themes of love, obsession, disfigurement and revenge.
The question then becomes, how are these two streams in the book tied? To what extent will the themes in Ewa Chaplin’s books shape our unusual protagonists?
I could write pages about this novel – the way Nina has crafted the language so that, even though the novel is rooted in contemporary England, this feels like a Grimm Brothers fairy-tale, a little unworldly; the sense of porous walls between the central love affair and the stories written by their shared favourite author – how these dark tales seem to merge with reality until you wonder whether this is coincidence or forewarning. And just that darkness and the strange blend of the gothic and the contemporary. Brilliant and unforgettable.
As you all know, I often look to the many prize shortlists for ideas and suggestions for books to read that may have passed me by, and that is most definitely true of the Booker International Prize that focuses on translated fiction which can platform some absolute beauties (previous winners include Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (which is a masterpiece) and David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into the Bar (which is a gem)
.Compass by Mathias Énard, translated by Charlotte Mandell, (Fitzcarraldo Editions), £14.99, was shortlisted for the award in 2017 and yet I only got around to reading it this month. But I’m so glad I did as this is a phenomenally clever and engaging book about a dying man – a musicologist in Vienna called Franz – who spends one lonely night reminiscing about the unrequited love of his life, Sarah. Yet, blended into this sorrow is the yearning he also had for the Middle East and memories of the shared adventures he had in Turkey, Syria and Iran with Sarah.
Written as a stream of Franz’s consciousness, we dive headlong into a world of mesmerising ancient history and dynasties, drugs and thieves, and a fascination that has consumed Europe for centuries. As students of that dangerous term, ‘Orientalism’, together Sarah and Franz explore what this exoticism means, what Europeans have been fascinated by, and what they have dangerously tried to colonise and exploit.
This is a powerful piece of academia wrapped up in a beguiling novel. The travel journal elements are, of course, curious and addictive – I read this when I was in Afghanistan actually so it was doubly fascinating! – yet it brilliantly brings in evidence of famous figures from history – adventurers and musicians, lords and ladies – and it really needles in on the impact such distortion such imagery has on the Middle East.
Edward Said’s work on Orientalism is, of course, a key influence here but it never overtakes or suffocates the story. A book that a reader can undeniably luxuriate in – but one that eventually forces the reader to confront what exactly they have been blind to whist luxuriating in bias and exaggerated stereotypes.
The New Title
There’s been a lot of love for Expectation by Anna Hope, (Doubleday / Penguin), £12.99, since it was published this summer. A lighter read, it is an affecting, truthful and humane examination of the bonds and complexities of female friendship.
It’s slightly alarming reading about a friendship that starts at Owens Park in Manchester Uni in 1995 as that’s exactly where I was that year but, rather than an account of my life(!), thankfully this gem spans the decades as we follow Lissa, Cate and Hannah from their first encounters to their lives in present-day London.
This is no saccharine account of besties and how friendship with girls will always outlast relationships with boys; rather, this takes the good but also considers the bad as petty jealousies, complex connections and broken dreams become formidable hurdles.
Anna’s writing seems effortless and is so deft at bringing the nuances of her characters to life, from Hannah’s micro-aggressions and control-thorough-organisation to Lissa’s complex relationship with a mother who refused to half-live her life to raise a child. For such a simple set up, there’s a lot here. But what I loved most is that sense of the endless motion of time. Dramas come and go, arguments pass from present anger to past memories but no matter what consumes us day to day, that march of time never ends. And in that we must find peace.
The Cult Poetry
Now, I don’t read anywhere near enough poetry but Inua Ellams has been making waves in the theatre-world recently, most notably with his astonishing play, Barber Shop Chronicles, so I wanted to get to know more about the writer, hence me landing upon The Half-God of Rainfall by Inua Ellams (Harper Collins), £10, an adaptation of which has also recently finished on the London stage.
This is a wonderful piece of epic poetry that blends the Greek legends and myths of Zeus, Hercules and the gods with a contemporary story of a young black boy wanting to fulfil his potential as a breath-taking basketball player. Only his talents come from the gods – his beautiful mother having been raped by Zeus – and so the gods have forbidden him to use his celestial talents against humans. But he rebels and the gods seek to take vengeance against both him and his mother.
What I would have given for this work to be longer. It’s so short, takes less than thirty minutes to read, yet Inua has weaved so much into this – racism, misogyny, vengeance and justice. I adored it. I just wish I had seen the stage adaptation now!