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.

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.

Mini Review: ‘The Fault in Our Stars’, by John Green

TheFaultInOurStars

 I lost two grandparents, neither of whom were particularly old, to cancer in the last 18 months and, like everyone, I’m pretty scared of the disease. I thought this book would aggravate my problematically frequent and fearful musings on the topic, but it didn’t. There was a sense of normalisation, inevitability, randomness… I can’t explain it fully without having to abandon the ‘mini’ in my review, but basically I felt less scared of cancer after reading this. If it happens, it happens, and I’ll worry about it then, because what else can you do, actually? You can eat right, try to be healthy, but ultimately you can’t absolutely rule out the possibility of it happening to you or someone you love, even if they’re young. I guess that’s what I got out of reading this; some reinforcement for my more logical cancer thoughts. I mostly enjoyed the book, but it didn’t (couldn’t) live up to the expectations brewed by the hype and it didn’t make me cry, even though many books do and, given the subject matter, I assumed this would be one of them.

Verdict: Worth reading, not for the snarky (and sometimes unconvincing) teenage banter, but for the way that the themes of dying and death are handled. It’s modern, it’s interesting and it’s bittersweet. No, I have not seen the movie.