Friday, 27 November 2015

My Top 10 Books of 2015

2015 is not yet over, but there are people out there desperate for good Christmas reading material!  This list comes early to serve that good cause.

I read very widely in 2015, trying out some new authors and genres, as well as getting excited to read new books by some of my favourite writers.  This list reflects those pleasant surprises I found along the way, and the omissions from it either reflect disappointments, lapses in memory or a busy schedule that hasn't allowed me to read as many books as I would have liked!

Please note that it's too hard to rank these as they're quite different and I love them all for different reasons.  So in no particular order:

1. The Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante

Picking a four book series is not cheating, okay??

2. In the Quiet by Eliza Henry Jones

3. The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

4. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

5. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

6. The Lake House by Kate Morton

7. Laurinda by Alice Pung

8. The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour

9. Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill

10. The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

What were your favourite books in 2015?
Did you read any of these?  What did you think?

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Book Review: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

Gold Fame Citrus
Claire Vaye Watkins
Quercus 2015 (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)

I have to admit, the first thing that drew me to this book is the amazing cover.  I am such a sucker for a beautiful book.

The second thing that drew me in was hearing that the writer is the child of two members of the Manson family.  I don't know why that was enticing though, so don't ask...

Claire Vaye Watkins is the award winning writer of short story collection Battleborn, which aside from sharing its name with an album by The Killers I know nothing about... but now that I have read Gold Fame Citrus I will definitely be checking it out.  Gold Fame Citrus is the story of Luz (pronounced Looz as far as I can tell) and Ray, who have stayed behind in California after most of the residents of that state have been evacuated due to vast environmental disaster.  There is a shortage of water, one which has caused a massive 'dune sea' to form, and those who survive out there do so on very little water (although who provides these rations I am not entirely sure.  I assume the Red Cross.  They are mentioned.)  Luz and Ray are in love, and living in the abandoned mansion of a Hollywood starlet.  They are just trying to keep busy.  Ray prescribes projects to keep their minds straight, so Luz spends her days reading obscure books by explorers from the starlet's library and trying on her fancy clothes, none of which have any uses any more.  Ray's jobs are more practical, such as digging latrines, and looking after Luz.  Ray needs to be needed by her.  It is how they function.

One day, they find someone else to need them.  A child, possibly around two years old, and in the company of a rag tag and scary bunch of teenagers.  Her name is Ig, and she latches onto Luz like she's met her somewhere before.  Perhaps it is maternal instinct and perhaps it is boredom, but Luz is convinced that Ig belongs with them.  So they take her and they take off.  Their only chance of a good life is to join the rest of the nation.

Although... there are rumours that somewhere out in the dune sea there is a dowser, a man who can find water, and can keep his people free from needing the handouts provided by the government.

It's very hard to explain this novel but the closest thing I can liken it to is a cross between Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and Cormac McCarthy's The Road.  It's easy to tell that Watkins has honed her craft on short stories.  Her language is playful but precise and her experimentation with different forms reflects the chaos of the situation faced by the characters.  At times, I felt a few of the shifts of point of view disorienting, particularly when more than 90% of the book is told in third person and limited to Luz's point of view.  There are sections of the book which don't feel like they belong to the book at all, such as the chapter set in the town above the mine, where a 'mole man' joins their midst.  The significance of this scene can only be guessed at, and while I have my explanation, I feel the book would sit just as well without it there at all, as it raises more questions than it satisfies.

The emotional range of this book is very complex, and the character Luz undergoes a journey of self realisation before the eyes of the reader, refreshing given the proliferation of books written today where the characters neither grow nor change over the course of their stories.  I find Watkins' creation of Ig, the toddler found by Luz and Ray to be the most interesting, as she seems to possess mystical significance that is never grasped by any of the people she comes into contact with, and one can never be sure if she is really an omen in human form, or just a slightly messed up child.

It was immensely satisfying to be reading this book last weekend, when temperatures soared in Perth, leading into a harsh summer.  I felt the character's situation on my skin, and while it was uncomfortable, it was real and I enjoyed being immersed in their story.

I gave this book four stars.

Monday, 2 November 2015

October Reading Round-Up

I read six books during October, and for once I have no excuse for not reaching ten, although the first three books were rather large as you will see in a moment.  After a month of rather dark reading material in September, I decided to start with something light, so I went to my favourite cheer-up author, Marian Keyes.  This month I also got to read a new book from one of my all time favourite writers (Kate Morton), and I read my very first Sarah Waters book.  It won't be my last.

Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married by Marian Keyes

Funny, cheeky and peopled with interesting sorts, Marian Keyes was the perfect remedy to my dark month of reading in September.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

In the years between the wars, Frances and her mother are forced to take in paying guests in order to keep their family home.  The couple who move in are from a different class, and their presence introduces a new chaos to Frances's life.

Sarah Waters was longlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for this book, and it's no surprise.  While some of the reviews for this book online would lead you to believe that the novel is only interesting for its salacious sexual intrigue, it is a clever, well-researched and well-plotted book and I enjoyed it very much.

The Lake House by Kate Morton

I love Kate Morton novels and this was a great new addition to her repertoire.  You can read my review here.

Asking for It by Louise O'Neill

This book comes with a serious trigger warning.  Louise O'Neill's writing is sharp and visceral but her subject matter in this book is darker even than in her dystopian debut, Only Ever Yours, which I read a while back.  It is the story of Emma, a thoroughly unsympathetic (and yet sometimes likeable) 'mean girl' type character, who we see judging people, being horrible to her friends and family, being vain and greedy and a little promiscuous for the first part of the novel.  One night, at a party, Emma has way too much to drink and the next morning she discovers that she has been assaulted while she was in no position to consent and the images of it are all over the internet.  She becomes 'that girl', and has to decide whether to press charges against the young men who did these things to her even though they are the town football heroes.  This is a realistic and confronting book about the mixed messages young girls get in society and a startling picture of what life is like for sexual assault and rape victims.  I think it adds an important voice to the discussion currently going on, but as I said, it comes with a giant trigger warning and it made me feel quite on edge and angry for a day or two after I read it.

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigahara

Yanigahara's second book A Little Life was shortlisted for this year's Man Booker and was hotly tipped as the favourite to win.  After seeing many mixed reviews online, I wasn't sure if I wanted to attempt the 800 + page housebrick of doom and despair in late 80s New York.  While out and about, I discovered this earlier novel, the story of a young doctor who goes on an anthropological expedition to a Micronesian island and discovers what may be the key to immortality.  His discovery has terrible consequences.  This novel is beautifully written and the voice is compelling, but the novel strays into some serious moral grey area, and the narrator's attempts to mitigate the impact of this definitely messes with the flow of the end of the novel.  I still have mixed feelings about whether or not I liked this book and I am inclined to say I did not, if only because the final revelation made me feel betrayed.

Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

I just reviewed this one yesterday, so you can read that here, but suffice to say I very much enjoyed ending the month with this novel.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Book Review: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Pretty Is
Maggie Mitchell
Orion 2015 (I own a copy courtesy of my mother's TBR pile... thanks Mummy!)

I picked out Pretty Is as a gift for my mother, who is a voracious reader of crime and mystery novels, and has impeccable taste in these types of things... so it can be hard to find new authors for her to enjoy!  Pretty Is has been billeted as perfect for readers who enjoyed The Girl on the Train (which in turn was deemed perfect for fans of Gone Girl) but I think to compare this novel to either of those books, and in fact to compare them to each other is a mistake.  First of all, doing so ignores the fact that all three books are challenging the very genre of the crime/ thriller by questioning the very assumptions that it is built on.  Pretty Is does this, first of all, by making the action take place more than 15 years after the crime is committed.  The story begins when Lois and Carly May, once victims of a bizarre kidnapping, are brought back together by their involvement in a film based on their experiences.  The film is based on a book that Lois wrote under a pseudonym, and Carly May (now known as Chloe Savage) has been cast to play the policewoman who solves the case and rescues the girls-- a character who did not really exist.

But their involvement with the film opens up old cans of worms for both girls, and the most disturbing of these is their lingering feelings of love for their kidnapper.  While he held them captive for six weeks, the girls were never harmed or interfered with, and until this point in their lives, the girls have never spent any time thinking about why.

The book is told in several parts.  The first is set in the present, and flicks back and forth in short segments between Lois's and Chloe's perspectives.  I was struck by how skilfully Maggie Mitchell was able to create these two characters, who were so similar and yet so very different.  Chloe/ Carly May is now an actress living in LA, harbouring resentment not towards the man who took her but towards the stepmother who seemed perfect to everyone but her and has profited from her relationship to Carly in the most heinous way-- with a tell-all book.  Chloe is a B grade actress, famous mostly for how often she has been killed off in her film and TV roles; the movie adaptation of Lois's book will be her big break and while she's tempted not to get involved because of how close it might take her to revealing who she really is, she's also sure that this role is going to be something special.  Carly/ Chloe is angry and untrusting and she also may or may not have a drinking problem (although she doesn't think so, and refreshingly, the author does not view this as some character flaw which must magically be solved when she works through her issues-- realistic and uncommon in this kind of book.)  As for Lois, she at first seems like the shy loner of the pair, and she is quick to tell the reader often that Carly May was the first, always and in everything.  She seems to harbour deep insecurities, seeing herself as the less pretty, the less interesting and the less central to attention.  As a child, she prides herself on being the smarter one, until she discovers that Carly May is intelligent too, and isn't just the air-headed beauty pageant queen to Lois's spelling bee champion.  But Lois has a tendency to position herself as the outsider, and uses her role as a writer to step back and observe people.  She seeks out darkness and trouble the way a moth seeks out a flame, as evidenced by her unwillingness to speak up when one of her students begins to hang around, claiming to know things about her past.  At first, one would be forgiven for thinking that Lois was plain looking, but this isn't the case even in Lois's mind.  In fact, both women know how attractive they are, and at times use this to their advantage.  They are both in control of what happens to them, most of the time, even when what they are controlling is possibly unsafe.

The second section of the book is a short story version of Deep in the Woods, Lois's book about 'Hannah' and 'Callie'-- Hannah being the Lois character, and Callie being Carly May.  Chloe is at first annoyed that her character's name has changed so little when Lois's character's name has changed so much, but later realises that Lois is trying to distance herself from her child self in order to try and write as honestly as she can, something she does not need to do with the Callie character.  But even this version has alterations in it, most notably an omission of a crucial event, and the addition of an escape attempt which perhaps is meant to disguise the unpalatable attachment the girls feel to their kidnapper.

In part three the book is back to switching points of view, as the action begins to ramp up.  Lois's faculty friend Brad, also an English professor, begins to feel like he will turn into a cheesy love interest but thankfully Lois puts an end to that... (and why she and Carly May are unable to form lasting relationships is never hypothesised fully, both characters displaying a disdain for psychoanalysing themselves, though Lois enjoys telling stories to psychologists.)  Lois is writing a sequel to her book, one which hints that something bad may happen to Hannah and Callie as adults, but it seems increasingly likely that the truth is imitating fiction.  As the tension ramps up, both girls escape to Canada, to the set for the film, running away into their pasts as a way to escape their present.  This is part four and I won't say any more about the plot because the book really does need to be read.

I was very impressed by the writing style of the book.  Maggie Mitchell manages to write a crime novel which leans towards a more literary style, and there is hardly a stereotype in sight, though her minor characters pale in comparison to her two leads.  Perhaps Mitchell's background as a short story writer is at play here; the careful reader might notice a reverence for specific details and slow pacing that is usually forgotten in a thriller, and perhaps the crime reader might be infuriated by the lack of answers the story's conclusion provides.  But I enjoyed this book, and I think I have learnt a lot from Maggie Mitchell's style, so I have given this book four stars out of five.