I read three very good novels in April: The Luminaries, Old Filth and The Adjacent. I’ve also read some mediocre stuff too. These days when I read a bad or middling book I either stop reading or, if I carry on to the end, almost instantly forget about it. However joining Netgalley (and writing this blog) means I’m kind of committed to writing about the bad stuff too and to finish the odd book I normally wouldn’t bother with. Here I would guess that my tolerance for slightly less than exceptional ‘literary’ fiction and speculative fiction is slightly higher than for other genres but not by much. I also appreciate that we all draw our own lines, often based on education, opportunity, stress and tiredness and, that many people read to relax, ‘escape’ etc. I haven’t read to escape since I was a teenager so I tend to be a little (too) severe sometimes on those that do and on novels that are ordinary or worse.
It’s difficult because I don’t want to belittle people’s hard work, their achievement in getting published and living their dream. Commenting on the banality of a novel seems harsher somehow than lambasting the latest blockbuster or wishing that aliens would kidnap J J Abrams.
Secondly I became a school librarian because I wanted to share my love of books (and films, etc), not because I particularly enjoy reading YA novels – many are commonplace or desultory (just as most ‘adult’ novels are), the marketplace is saturated with series and often follows current fashion too – thus dark romance and dytopias. That doesn’t mean I discourage our students from reading anything – on the contrary, I encourage them to read anything and everything. But even reading the Carnegie shortlist is onerous and unsatisfying for me - though the payoff is in the discussions you can have with the kids.
The bottom line of this boring, liberal apologia is this – severe though it may be. Unless a novel has invention, accomplished writing, interesting structure and something interesting to say – with some metaphorical reach and vibrancy, I think it needs to be consigned to the YA section of the library. Nor do I have sympathy with adults who want to read masses of YA fiction - unless it’s their job. I do understand the occasional draw of nostalgia – I can still just about watch Stars Wars and inhabit my 6-year-old self to feel safe and full of wonder. I even reread the Dragonlance novels once to feel that same feeling. I also understand the need to escape – wine, singing and the pleasures of Strictly Come Dancing I understand (all too) well, so I don’t disapprove of a bit of mindless entertainment. BUT, on the whole, there are SO many books and films out there that are entertaining AND stimulating that it hurts a bit somehow, when they don’t get sought out. I appreciate this will offend those who think escapism is a perfectly legitimate pursuit and cause some to proclaim me a culture fascist. I’m not – on the whole I keep any grumpiness that surfaces to myself but I’m giving fair warning that from time to time I will get disappointed when I see mediocrity getting too much praise.
And so, onwards.
I loved reading The Luminaries. I haven’t read all of last year’s Booker shortlist yet but it’s hard for me to imagine that there was a better book than this. I’m not sure if I have a review in me, I’ll see. For now the best review is by Julian Novitz in the Sydney Review of Books. I like David Hebblethwaite’s insights and you can read some useful articles in the Guardian though I think Kirsty Gunn’s review is wrong-headed. This short piece by Robert MacFarlane, the Booker chair (and one of the most gifted writers in Britain today), is also very useful for gaining a better understanding of the novel, as is this piece by his fellow Booker judge Stuart Kelly. I’m glad I choose to read it during my Easter break. I need to read books, especially lengthy books, in a relatively short period of time so I can stay immersed and feel that I’m making connections and reading critically. I read it over four days, culminating in an exhilarating 300-page mad dash to the finish. The novel gets easier to read as it progresses – the first section (360 pages) has a density that requires focus, especially as it is in a style to which you may not be used to - unless you regularly return to 19th century classics. There are lots of things to love about it - I love frontier tales that get to grips with the greed and lies, the prostitution and the racism, the hypocrisy and the corruption regarding ‘birth of nation’ myths. The Luminaries does so magnificently and I loved the way that Anna’a character is the mysterious centre of the first half of the novel but increasingly comes into focus during the second half. I loved the quality and the intricacy of the writing and Catton’s intelligence and sagacity. I loved the mystery and the romance.
I’d never read any of Jane Gardam’s work before but when Last Friends made the Folio Prize shortlist I remembered I’d meant to read Old Filth years ago. The novel is very much about the end of Empire, about memory and growing old and about how the experiences of childhood shape and constrict our character and behaviour. It does so by asking us to empathise with people of the upper middle class – people I’d normally find it impossible to empathise with – but Gardam also exposes their privilege and absurdity with great subtlety, humour and irony. Gardam is wise and clever whilst the tone and structure of the novel are sometimes troubling and disorientating but also deeply pleasurable. I’ve gone straight into The Man in the Wooden Hat (rather than getting cracking on the Bailey’s shortlist - aaahhh!!) and will write more when I’ve finished all three.
The Clarke Award
I also finished the Clarke shortlist, though in truth I didn’t finish two of the novels. As I’ve already written, I don’t think those two novels are up to ‘shortlist quality’ – whatever that means, but I do appreciate what a difficult job it must be to read over 110 novels in short space of time. I couldn’t do it. Adam Roberts’ comprehensive 2-part review of the shortlist is now up at Strange Horizons. It’s as brilliant, as funny and as provocative as ever and congratulations to Ann Leckie on her win.
I was sad to hear about the death of Sue Townsend so one night I just curled up and read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. It made me laugh out loud and brought back memories of reading it as a teenager, and being a teenager. She is such a clever writer: I shall read more soon.
Fantasy or ‘how to win friends and influence people’
Netgalley gave me the opportunity to read Trudi Canavan’s Thief’s Magic. We have copies of some of her other novels in the school library but I’d never read one myself and it’s hard not to notice her books in the SF and Fantasy section of Waterstones. I can only describe it as generic; you can see the experience and solidity that has gone into the writing and thus the novel has an effectiveness that can’t be denied: it’s easy to read and it takes its subjects - imperialism, the environment and gender, seriously. Unfortunately it’s not exceptional in any way and is rather transparent.Next on my list was Emma Newman’s Between Two Thorns. I’d been put off by Gabriel Murray’s scathing review at Strange Horizons but I like her Tea and Jeopardy podcast so I thought I’d give it a go. I read it straight after the two Clarke failures and after Thief’s Magic so I was desperate for something good. Though I agree with quite a bit of what Murray writes I found Newman’s novel a little more interesting and the writing considerably better, than the three I’d just attempted to read and so I allowed myself to be charmed. I don’t think her novel has much depth or resonance but I’d happily recommend it to a teenager.
Damning with faint praise? Patronising? Possibly, but I did warn you.