Mini Review: ‘Darkmans’, by Nicola Barker

Darkmans

Nicola Barker herself says that she’s an “acquired taste”, and I can see why after reading Darkmans… It’s weird. And I loved it. Once I managed to click myself into the rhythm of the broken sentences, the excessive parentheses, the interjections and the repetitions, it started to make sense even though it didn’t make any sense. Does that make sense? This story is a sort of rambling slice of life; more than 800 pages that don’t scope over a huge amount of time in the narrative present, but pull in swathes of history — the history of place, the history of language — in a big, bizarre stew that skilfully combines the mundane with the fascinating, utterly creepy and inexplicable. It’s a ghost story, a human story, and a literary high that will enrage you but also grab you (by the feet, specifically) and drag you all the way to the end — which doesn’t feel much like the end at all — and then infect your nightmares (and your daymares) and make you want to start writing something off-the-wall that gives no fucks about literary conventions. Because it can be done to great effect. This has been proven. Well done, Nicola. I’ll be back for another hit soon.

Verdict: Definitely DEFINITELY not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s a cup of tea worth sampling, just in case. I wasn’t sure if it was my cup of tea at first, but then I found myself slurping it up and refilling my mug, despite the freaky flavours.

Mini Review: ‘Wicked’, by Gregory Maguire

Wicked

This is without a doubt one of the weirdest and most unexpected books I’ve ever read. I saw the stage play first, absolutely loved it, and decided to read the source material. It’s definitely a case of ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘based on’. They’re very, very different and I was initially thrown by the dark, adult nature of the book after the child-friendly nature of the play. But enough pointless comparison. What’s the book like? There are some fantastic ideas, sparkling prose, wonderful characterisation and razor-sharp observations about humanity, politics, religion, prejudice, violence, love and hate, good and evil, and everything in between… There is so much going on and it’s so frantic and off-the-wall that the initial weirdness of the pacing and exposition is quickly forgiven and forgotten (or you grow accustomed to it)… at least until the denouement, where it all becomes a bit scrambled. I struggled to retain my empathy for Elphaba when her actions, like the plot, became seemingly random. There are many loose ends and others that were tied into awkward knots. I guess I should read the rest of the series, but I need to take a break first. One could quite easily write a PhD on this novel; however, this is just a mini review, so I’ll sum it up by saying that this book is very good but also very messy.

Verdict: If you’re looking for a neat, coherent story with a clean narrative arc and a consistently relatable protagonist, then this is not the book for you. It’s a mad scramble of characters through a broken timeline in a world that is at once hilarious and absolutely terrifying. It’s an experience and it makes you think and you won’t forget it in a hurry. If that appeals to you, then read it.

Mini Review: ‘Gone Girl’, by Gillian Flynn

GoneGirl

POSSIBLE SPOILERS.

Holy mother of unreliable narrators! This book had me humming along, forming opinions and feeling mildly intrigued and then suddenly it turned around and punched me in the face and I couldn’t put it down after that. The author has crafted the most toxic relationship ever, and I loved to hate these people. It’s a skilful dissection of a marriage that feels plausible in so many ways, making the implausible stuff all the more horrifying. I can’t call it a page-turner only because I read it on my Kindle, but it was a button-clicker of note. Not sure about the ending; a bit of a fizzle rather than a bang, but it was exasperating in its own way, and I guess that’s in line with the rest of it. Gone Girl is slickly written, darkly entertaining and fucked-up on so many levels. It’s so clever that there’s almost a smugness about it and I can see why it was a best seller. I really enjoyed it, even though it made me feel slimy; somehow complicit in all the awfulness.

Verdict: You might run out of fingernails to chew on and hair to pull out, but read it.

Mini Review: ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’, by Rachel Joyce

UnlikelyPilgrimage

This book was twee, a bit repetitive and plodding (har har) at times, but it hasn’t completely wafted out of my head yet, even though I was quite distracted reading it in an airport and on a plane while being deported. You could call it overly sentimental, sure, but I enjoyed it slightly too much to dismiss it in that way. I like literal journeys (couldn’t be too bothered about the metaphorical one here) and I like pretty descriptions of nature and I like fuddy-duddy domestic characters like Harold and Maureen finding their routines and the smallness of their lives opening up against the unexpected. It’s satisfying, somehow.

Verdict: If you’re in the mood for a tear-jerking mixture of terrible tragedy and sweet, floral Britishness, then this is the book for you. It’s well written and compelling enough to pull you through the slow bits.

Life Update List Thing.

Here are some things that have been happening in the regular life of Laurie. (Hi, mom and dad!)

1. As you might have noticed, I’ve been fuelling the blog with mini reviews of books I recently read, but I’ll have to start writing reviews for my not-so-recent reads if I’m going to keep this up. (Spoiler alert: I’m not going to keep this up. Five reviews a week is far beyond my blogging capabilities. I’m trying to write a novel, you know.)

A few of the second-hand books I've rescued from Amazon. Will review them. One day.

A few of the second-hand books I’ve rescued from Amazon. Will review… Once I’ve read them…

2. I’m trying to write a novel, you know. Yep, still that same one. I’ve moved on from draft 1.5 (never completed) to draft 2, which I plan to finish, even if it’s shit, which it will be, before moving on to draft 3. I keep making big, conceptual changes and then scrapping huge swathes of text. It’s painful. I still have a long (loooooong) way to go, but at least I’m feeling fairly confident that the major changes are good ones and I’m better off having made them.

3. I recently finished 3+ months of a temp job at a literary agency, during which time I interacted with several very impressive authors and agents. I learned a lot about how agencies work, and my “career”, my writing and my writerly plans for the future have all been shaped by these experiences. I am now freelancing, which involves far less money, far more need for rigorous self-control and far greater potential for emotional slumpage, but I am determined to keep my chin up. Having developed a troubling case of constant hip pain (x-rays were “not abnormal”, but I’m being referred to a physiotherapist), it’s been convenient not having to sit on an office chair all day, because that’s when it hurts the most. At home, I’m able to get up and move around every few minutes, which helps. Freelancing also provides a great opportunity for novel-writing and wedding-planning, which leads me to my next point…

4. I’m having a wedding! Never mind the fact that I’ve actually been married since March… *ahem* Circumstances at the time didn’t allow for much in the way of celebrations, but we’ll be making up for it in March next year, and then I’ll finally change my Facebook relationship status from “engaged” to “married”. Planning has begun. It’s not going to be traditional or super formal, but I’m really looking forward to it. Having so many friends and family members in one place at one time is guaranteed to cause an explosion of expatriate sentimentality.

5. More good news: I got my residence card! Deportation is now a distant memory for this legal resident. Water under the bridge.

6. Having received my residence card and my passport back from the Home Office, Luc and I were able to travel on a plane together for the first time… and it was a plane with propellors! We went to Guernsey, where we stayed with my uncle and got to see my grandfather, who was visiting him for a few weeks. It was a fantastic long weekend that kind of needs its own post rather than a numbered point in a silly list. Maybe I’ll write one. No promises.

One of many striking views along Guernsey's southern coast.

One of many striking views along Guernsey’s southern coast.

7. I attended a David Mitchell reader event, which included a signed copy of his latest book, ‘The Bone Clocks’, and the privilege of listening to the man himself talk about his work. It was incredibly inspiring. I sat on the tube home feeling both utterly inadequate as a writer and completely in awe of this person whose books I love so much. He was funny and charming and brilliant and yet totally normal and humble and self-effacing at the same time. The book, so far, is wonderful. Mini review to come. 😉

Beautiful, precious... and it was signed!

So pretty!

8. I am unfairly privileged enough to have gained two significant material items that have been pretty life-changing. The first is this little Macbook Air that I’m currently typing on. It has allowed me to take my work out of the house, thereby boosting my productivity and combatting cabin fever and potential depression. I’ve never been a rabid fan of Apple products, but the battery life and the build quality are very impressive indeed. I made sure to get the one with the most limited hard-drive space and not enough power for gaming so that distractions are kept to a minimum by necessity. I’ve set it up with my writing software and my novel lives on here now. I love this gadget.

Shiny!

Shiny! Finished off with the best photo I ever took of a squirrel.

9. The second item, which is really two items, is a pair of quality running shoes. It’s ridiculous that I have these, considering I’m barely a runner, but I’ve decided that they’re not just for running. I’m wearing them right now, even though I’m in the library. They are a lurid shade of pink with garish green accents and they are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. I didn’t even know that my feet could feel this way. Not only have they been motivating me to get off my sad, lazy ass and run a little bit, they have also become my go-to footwear choice for any situation in which I can get away with lurid pink shoes with garish green accents… and, given my lack of opportunity or desire for “dressing up”, this is most of the time.

Awww yeah!

Awww yeah!

10. I have been going to weekly cognitive behavioural group therapy. Yeah… I wasn’t sure if I’d include this because it’s a bit awkward, but it shouldn’t be, as they keep telling us! I know that mental health taboo is bullshit, but it’s so difficult not to feel weird about admitting to these things. Anyway. I’m fine at the moment, but I was feeling quite shitty when I got myself signed up for the programme. I figured I’d see it through even though I feel ok now, because last year was bad and I don’t want to go there again. I’m hoping this will give me the tools I need to get through future crappy patches. I’m just under halfway through the course, and so far, so good. It’s not some big soppy tell-all situation like in the movies; it’s basically a class, with a whiteboard and terminology and hand-outs and homework that you don’t get rated on because nobody else ever sees it. It’s helpful to have stuff rationalised and normalised so that it’s easier to dismantle and beat into submission. Big thanks to the NHS for providing me with this service, free of charge.

11. The main cause of my “crappy patches” is, unsurprisingly, being far away from family and friends. I’m not good at making new friends and I have almost no social life to speak of in London. It gets me down sometimes, especially when compared to the relative liveliness of my family and social life in Cape Town. That said, the brilliant thing about living in a city that everyone wants to see is that the people you miss are quite likely to wind up here on a holiday one day! Two friends recently came to London and it was so nice to see familiar friendly faces I haven’t seen in months.

A visiting Jess, caught in a sudden downpour. London never lets you down!

A visiting Jess, caught in a sudden downpour. London never lets you down!

And that’s my life update list! Of course there are other things, but I’m tired now. All the images are from my instagram, which you should check out, particularly if you enjoy looking at pictures of books and food and attractive trees. Yep. Back to the reviews.

Mini Review: ‘The Inheritance of Loss’, by Kiran Desai

TheInheritanceOfLoss

I mentioned in a previous review that some books make me cry. This was one of them. I was on the tube when I read the last line, felt the heat rushing into my face and had to stare unblinkingly at an advertisement for insurance or toothpaste or a dating website while I silently struggled to compose myself. It’s is a tragic book, bristling with anger and injustice; it’s profound, beautiful, achingly sad, but also very funny, at times. I’ll never forget the line, ‘No fruit dies so vile and offensive a death as the banana.’ Just brilliant. I tend to rate books based on beauty and feelings and I often fail to recognise structural issues or plot holes unless I’m reading with the intention of finding them. Because of this, criticism sometimes makes me think, ‘Well, yes, that wasn’t perfect, I suppose, but does it matter?’ It doesn’t work this way when I have my editor hat on, of course, but I wasn’t wearing that hat when I read this book; I just let myself get lost in it, and I think it’s very, very good — a deserving winner of the Man Booker prize. That’s my humble opinion.

Verdict: Read it, absolutely.

Mini Review: ‘MaddAddam’, by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam
 
It pains me to say it, but I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I enjoyed the other two in the series (‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘The Year of the Flood’). There was plenty of Atwood’s characteristic brilliance, but the book as a whole seemed to depend too much on the other two; it was set on filling in gaps rather than exploring new ground, and many of the characters were little more than names if you didn’t remember them from before. Indeed, part of the problem might have been the time that passed between my readings. I should’ve re-read the first two in anticipation of the third one, but I didn’t. The difficulty with being Margaret Atwood is that your books are always going to be compared to other books by Margaret Atwood, which is an impossible standard to meet over and over again… and criticism might seem unfair when you consider that the book is still better than the majority of books out there. All that aside, Zeb’s tale was highly entertaining and the Crakers were, are and always will be one of my favourite speculative creations. Blackbeard (and his relationship with Toby) holds the book together.
 
Verdict: I’d never advise against reading Atwood! Read the first two, then read this one, then let me know what you think.

 

Mini Review: ‘Vurt’, by Jeff Noon

Vurt

This book is a psychedelic roller coaster of beautiful and hideous magic. Set in a gritty, mad and fucked-up imagining of Manchester, people (which is a complex term, given the presence of humanoid dogs, shadow folk, robots and various hybrids) embark upon shared virtual reality drug trips induced by tickling the back of the throat with colour-coded feathers. These are more than just trips though; people can get lost in the Vurt, and this is what has happened to Scribble’s sister/lover Desdemona. Now he wants to go back into a rare and dangerous Vurt to save her. There’s incest, bestiality, a bit of extremely wild driving under the influence, a couple who are fused to each other by their dreadlocks,  a muttering and tentacled alien blob creature that is practically made out of hallucinogenic drugs… If offered one of the feathers, I’m not sure if I’d flush it immediately down the loo while wearing rubber gloves and a face mask, or if I’d put it directly into my mouth. I guess it would depend on the colour. I’d like to think I’m wise enough to avoid the yellow ones, and yet… I don’t want to know, but I do!

Verdict: Why are you not already reading this?

Mini Review: ‘The Casual Vacancy’, by J.K. Rowling

TheCasualVacancy
 
It took a while for me to get used to the idea of Ms Rowling dropping ‘fucks’ and ‘cunts’ into her writing, but I loved this book. She is so good at plotting and so brilliant with characterisation that I can’t fault her, and it’s not just because I was (and still am) a massive Harry Potter fan. The Casual Vacancy was long and tragic, tackling important social issues like poverty, domestic abuse, rape, drug addiction, self-harm, class prejudice and racism, to name but a few. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, it was infused with plenty of Rowling’s wry observational humour; my favourite. I enjoy comic tragedies, and this is a particularly good one.
 
Verdict: Definitely read it, if you haven’t already. I was slow to pick it up, but I’m glad I got there eventually.

Mini Review: ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’, by Eimear McBride

AGirlIsAHalfFormedThing
 
The fragmented stream-of-consciousness writing was difficult to get used to and difficult to enjoy, but it worked, somehow, with this young woman’s dark and terrible tale. I flipped a few times from thinking that it was the most pretentious thing I’d ever read to being absolutely awed by the raw, emotional battering of it. It was fascinating how the scrambled syntax and gaps and repetitions still managed to place clear scenes into my mind’s eye, but they were experienced so differently. The sickly horror of being tangled up in her thoughts and reactions, of being her, but unable to change anything, was traumatic. By the end, I felt as shattered as the prose.
 
Verdict: I’d say read it because there is nothing else like it, but don’t expect it to be easy and do expect to be deeply upset by it.