Wednesday, 17 September 2014

J - Howard Jacobson

J by Howard Jacobson
Review by M
J has been shortlisted for the Man Booker 2014.

(Please note: The title of this novel is not J. It is a struck out J but I don’t know how to type that!)

I’ve never finished The Finkler Question, the only Jacobson I’ve ever started to read, and the curious thing about this was that there ‘was’ something that I liked about his writing just as there ‘was’ something I did not like. Precise, aren’t I?

When J came up for review (prior to its Booker listing), both this niggle about Jacobson’s writing and the premise for J grabbed my current attention. Going by the blurb, J is both a dystopian novel and a love story, so pretty much right up my street.

Set in the future, a not-spoken -about past frames the novel, and the narrator hovers it over the characters like a thick mist: What Happened, If It Happened. Most of the novel is spent providing clues and red herrings as to What happened, if It happened (my early hunch was that something almost apocalyptic had happened due to social media – but I was wrong and anyone who understands the significance of the struck out J will have a good idea from the offing What has happened).

The narrator expounds philosophically about the pre- and post- treatment of It (for me, this went on a bit too much and was not sufficiently convincing). Post-It, public mood is presided over by an agency known as Ofnow (hmm, Atwoodian handmaids anyone?). Unfortunately, this ‘new’ world that J creates, is not fully explored and just doesn’t feel quite right.

J turns, however (and ultimately,thankfully), around two central characters, Ailinn and Kevern, and their new love affair, the future of which hangs in the balance due to a pair of ugly feet and a murder mystery. Jacobson crafts a believably poignant relationship, and these two characters, for me, are what carry the novel.

As the novel unfolds, the significance of the struck out J and What Happened, If It Happened is deadly serious. It is unnerving and unsettling, and on one count is not something unfamiliar from real life and on another count is not unfamiliar from the worlds of big brother.  

Jacobson puts much detail but also not enough into the plotlines so that some elements seemed superfluous while others were lacking. I found the ending very unsatisfying, partly because some things felt as if they were left hanging, but also because some things just didn’t feel like they fit well. I struggled to identify the ‘tone’ of the novel – there was always a lighthearted humour mingling with something much, much darker. It just didn’t feel plausible enough (though perhaps this is ‘the point’). I think I'd recommend this as a library read to some people.


Publication details: 14 August 2014, Jonathan Cape, London, hardback
This copy: digital review copy from the publisher



Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
 Adult fiction review by M


Station Eleven was pitched as being for Margaret Atwood or Hugh Howey fans.  I’m an Atwood fan but had never heard of Howey. This novel has had a huge (social media) presence, and from what I can gather, many people adore it. I didn’t.
Station Eleven is an apocalyptic novel. A virus, details unknown, kills almost everybody. There are a few survivors who have to start all over again and they’re afraid (typical apocalyptic scenario). A group of them form the Travelling Symphony, which tends to perform Shakespeare. Rather than simply exploring the now, the novel focuses on a few characters and their past, which helps to provide clues as to why survivors choose to protect and sustain certain ‘artefacts’. This held much promise for me but then the novel introduced a very coincidental ‘bad guy’ plot that I did not find very believable nor interesting.

I felt like I was reading something that wanted to be profound. But there was a disconnection for me: too many characters, none of whom were especially endearing to me; a plot that was built upon many coincidences (potentially very plausible but always unexplained, and therefore too convenient).

I couldn’t sense the ‘Atwood’ beyond post-apocalyptic similarities with the MaddAddam world (and on my current re-read of Cat’s Eye, some similar objects turn up: comics, glass ornaments etc ). As an Atwood fan, I was disappointed. The Travelling Symphony doesn’t hold the same place in my heart as God’s Gardeners. I can’t comment from the Howey camp.

Publication details: September 2014, Picador, London, hardback
This copy: review copy from the publisher





Monday, 11 August 2014

Emily Climbs - LM Montgomery

Emily Climbs by LM Montgomery

Guest review by Alice (14)

This is a beautifully written follow up to Emily of New Moon but you have to read Emily of New Moon first as I did because it would get a bit confusing as to who's who as there are quite a few characters from the first book in this book. I for one can't wait to read the last book in the Emily series (Emily's Quest) to find out what happens next.

(Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read Emily of New Moon, go away and do that first if you're afraid of spoilers for Emily Climbs!)

Emily Climbs by LM Montgomery

Emily Climbs is the second book in the Emily series. In the first book, the 12 year old Emily moves to New Moon, her aunt's house after her father’s death leaves her an orphan. Now 14 in the second book, Emily goes to Shrewsbury high school with her friends, Ilse, Teddy and Perry, but going to Shrewsbury means going to stay with aunt Ruth and to stay with aunt Ruth means to give up her beloved writing. Emily now torn from her dreams faces many dilemmas throughout the story.

My favourite character is Cousin Jimmy who although he is not the main character is always willing to listen to Emily and he will always side with her, always thinking her right.

This thought provoking book will make all teenagers and adults sympathise with the woes and dilemmas of young Emily from the start of the book when she is 14 to the end where she is 17. Some of the language on this book may be a bit tricky for younger readers to understand (even I had a bit of trouble with some words!) and this book gets ten out of ten for a deeply satisfying read.

Publication details: November 2013, Virago Modern Classic, London, paperback (first published 1925)
This copy: review copy from the publisher

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Booker and Me

Prepare yourself for my longest post ever. Watch, if you care, as I descend into the darkest depths of memory, and watch it all fade…..

The Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist was announced yesterday. We’ve shadowed what I regard as the UK’s children’s literary equivalent, the CILIP Carnegie Medal, for two years, so I thought it’s about time I start to note my Booker reading commentary.

Unlike the Carnegie, I’ve usually never read any of the novels on the Booker longlists when they are announced (with a few coincidental exceptions). To be honest, before this blog, I don’t think I even knew when the longlists (or even shortlists) were announced. I’d certainly never become excitedly embroiled in critical shadowing nor joyful predicting.

This year, however, I’m aware that there has been a Booker rule change. Previously, the award was open to UK and Commonwealth writers. Eligibility was opened up to make this a global prize. Of course, an American onslaught was feared. From the 13 slots available on this year’s longlist, 4 Commonwealth writers have been moved out to make room for 4 Americans. And, expect unfortunate punning on ‘Man’ Booker as there are only 3 women writers on the list (cough: I think 2 of them are from the American contingent).

Whether any of these facts are significant to readers (or publishing today), I don’t know because I’ve not read any of the novels on this year’s longlist. I have read some novels in the past year that may have been eligible. These novels included writers who were men, women, UK, US and commonwealth writers. I loved many of them but I didn’t expect any of them would turn up on the Booker (and they didn’t). I don’t even attempt to ‘judge’ what will make it or not because my breadth of reading and understanding of literature just doesn’t come close to matching that of the judging panel. Unlike the Carnegie, the Booker doesn’t publish detailed judging criteria. It’s a very, very subjective process contained within a set of industry rules (and probably agendas).

As a reader, I’m okay with this. I never read a book and think, ‘o, this one for the Booker’ (that’s probably because I’m mostly reading backlist recommendations). However, my shelves and reading habits are adorned with Booker listed and winning novels (along with a whole host of other sorts of fiction too).

My first thoughts on this year’s longlist are:
In comparison to 2013, it doesn’t ‘look’ as ‘exciting’, but only the reading will tell. I will buy The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell just because it’s Mitchell (I’ll have to wait a long time though: it’s not published until September and then only in hardback and my Mitchell editions are paperback!). Also, I have a review copy of J by Howard Jacobson because I like his writing and the sound of this one is a bit more sci-fiey, so I’m good to try this. Ali Smith is on the list too – and I like her writing, so that’s an obvious read for me. David Nicholls appears but I was not a fan of One Day (it’s on my shelf of kept-because-someone-else-might-like-it books). As for the other 9, I don’t’ really know anything about them but have heard that one of them was a crowdfunded book, which apparently is a first for the Booker (so that might be worth a nosy). I have, however, started off with Richard Flanagan’s novel simply because I have a review copy…..and the writing on the first few pages just glides……

Note how my familiarity with the names of titles and authors on this year’s longlist is very shaky. For self-indulgent (or illuminating reasons) rather than lazy ones, I haven’t used the internet to provide the details.

Now for the fun bit!

My quick thoughts on an adulthood of  ‘Booker’ reading:

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (2013 winner)
It’s a big one. Am halfway through the e-book and wish I’d bought the paperback. Quite like it but won’t be sure until the end. The gold dust magic hasn’t quite done it for me yet.

A Tale For the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki (2013 shortlist)
I loved everything about this novel and highly recommend it to many people. Right up my street.

We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo (2013 shortlist)
Pageturning and wonderful, it’s a favourite of mine. Highly recommended, though I didn’t expect it to on the shortlist, probably because I don’t expect to see pageturners on the Booker. Curiously, read this on a e-reader!

The Testament of Mary – Colm Toibin (2013 shortlist)
Compelling writing, interesting and controversial tale. Very short, and I liked that. Pleased I read it. Would never have selected to read this without some form of recommendation, which the Booker gave it.

The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri (2013 shortlist)
Thoroughly enjoyed this one, though perhaps it’s not going to be one of my favourites. Borrowed it from the library but not sure I’d buy it.

 Almost English – Charlotte Mendelson (2013 longlist)
Bought an e-copy, which may have been a mistake and puts it in the company of The Luminaries. Have only read a few chapters and I haven’t got into it, so can’t comment until (if) I ever finish it.

The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng (2012 shortlist)
Very atmospheric writing and an interesting and disturbing tale. But, I haven’t finished it yet. Don’t know why because I love reading it. It still lingers in my head so this is very curious!

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes (2011 winner)
A short book that I enjoyed. Easy writing, cleverish and intriguing story. Generally, I enjoy reading Barnes even if it’s to see what he’s come up with this time. Not sure this was his best but perhaps it was his most accessible.
Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman (2011 shortlist)
This was subsequently published as a Young Adult novel, and I read it in that context. It is excellent, highly recommended, accessible and very moving.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb – Jane Rogers (2011 shortlist)
I loved this novel. Curiously, like Pigeon English, this would suit a YA audience too, primarily because of the main character’s age. It’s also the novel that caught Little M’s eye and made us realise that she had probably outgrown Enid Blyton even if she wasn’t quite ready for Jessie Lamb!

The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson (2010 winner)
Enjoy the writing but haven’t finished this one yet. Not sure if I ever will so only time will tell.

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas (2010 longlist)
I read this on a beach holiday and while everyone else went out to discover the nightlife, I stayed in to finish it. Enough said! Loved it.

The Children’s Book – AS Byatt (2009 shortlist)
It’s been a few years but I’m still just under halfway through. I just can’t connect with  it.

2008 – completely passed me by

The Gathering – Anne Enright (2007 winner)
Wonderful book. Interestingly, I think I bought this not in connection with the Booker but because I saw her alongside Maggie O’Farrell at a literature festival reading.

Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones (2007 shortlist)
Enjoyed this hugely. Reminded me of the atmosphere of Wide Sargasso Sea but the Dickens element grated on me a little.

On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan (2007 shortlist)
A very short book, and though I love McEwan, I think I remember being very underwhelmed by this one.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Moisin Hamid (2007 shortlist)
Loved this book. Quite pageturning too with bits of mystery.

Get a Life – Nadime Gordimer (2006 longlist)
It’s Gordimer, so I’d have got it anyway.  I remember reading it quickly, and perhaps being slightly on the fence about it when I’d finished. Hazy memory though.

The Accidental – Ali Smith (2005 shortlist)
Can’t remember much about this other than lots of intimate intrigue and that I was mesmerised.

On Beauty – Zadie Smith (2005 shortlist)
I think this is my favourite Zadie Smith novel.

The Line of Beauty – Alan Hollinghurst (2004 winner)
I read the whole thing. I think the writing carried it because I didn’t like the characters. It’s on the same shelf as David Nicholl’s One Day.

Bitter Fruit – Achmat Dangor (2004 shortlist)
Loved it.

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (2004 shortlist)
This is why I buy so many David Mitchell novels. Took me a chapter or two to get into it and then the magic unwound. Sonmi 451 is one of my favourite literary characters. A friend thought it wasn’t as clever as people were raving about because so many authors had done similar stuff before (and arguably better). She’s read more than me!

Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2004 longlist)
Fell totally in love with this novel. Have her next novel on this back of this, but not read it yet (it’s probably an e-book!). Couldn’t get on with the main character in her latest, Americanah.

Vernon God Little – DBC Pierre (2003 winner)
Someone bought me this. Oh dear. I started reading it but the plot was way out of my comfort zone. It’s unread on a shelf that I can’t see. One day, I may venture into the dark.

Brick Lane – Monica Ali (2003 shortlist)
Loved, loved, loved. Now, I always get the names of Monica Ali, Ali Smith and Zadie Smith mixed up. I just buy all three.

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood (2003 shortlist)
Curiously, 2003 must have passed me by too, despite the fact I’ve read novels off the list. Here’s why: I’ve read Oryx and Crake but only after I’d read The Year of the Flood, during which I realised that this was some sort of sequel and I’d started in the wrong place. So Oryx and Crake became the second, rather than the first, in my MaddAddam trilogy reading. I just love the whole trilogy immensely for everything it does, mostly storytelling and humour. Shelved on my Atwood shelf. Read years after its shortlisting.

Frankie and Stankie – Barbara Trapido (2003 longlist)
My favourite Trapido novel, but this might be for nostalgic reasons more than anything else. That’s just a disclaimer because I think it’s funny, insightfully and warmly told.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon (2003 longlist)
I only read this in the last few years. It’s good and I like the writing, and I do recommend it. I didn’t like the dad character and I didn’t like the dead dog. I’m unmoveable on some things, so it seems.

Life of Pi – Yann Martel (2002 winner)
Took this as a lazy beach read. Wrong move. Gave up for years. Gave it another go recently, alongside Little M and the film adaptation. So glad I did because I loved it. The thing that stands out for me most is the ending, and pissing (haha, I’m so childish!).

Atonement – Ian McEwan (2001 winner)
One of my all-time favourites.

Looks like 2001 was the first year for a Longlist.

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood (2000 winner)
Read this very recently. It’s superb.

Disgrace – JM Coetzee (1999 winner)
Intrigued and shocked me simultaneously. Perhaps one of the first novels to really do this for me successfully (that’s probably about me, not the novel).

Amsterdam – Ian McEwan (1998 winner)
The start of my McEwan love affair

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy (1997 winner)
Remember enjoying this a lot and think it was my mother who recommended it (could be wrong about this though).

Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood (1996 shortlist)
This is why I need reading notes. It’s either The Robber Bride or Alias Grace that I didn’t finish. Will have to give this one another go (or is that  a reread?).

Time’s Arrow – Martin Amis (1991 shortlist)
“It goes backwards,” someone enthused to me. A big hit with me and I recommended it to everyone.

Possession – AS Byatt (1990 winner)
Sits among my most favourite novels ever. Completely captivating.

Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood (1989 shortlist)
Loved it then. Currently re-reading it now. There’s a boy-man in a tree. Knock, knock MaddAddam.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (1986 shortlist)
Forever kind of love!

Flaubert’s Parrot – Julian Barnes (1984 shortlist)
My introduction to Barnes. I was young: found it experimental but tedious. I kept on buying and reading him though!

Life and Times of Michael K – JM Coetzee (1983 winner)
I remember a long pub conversation about Coetzee and this being recommended. I think I read it and loved it – but I could be wrong. Another one for the reread (or is read?)
So that's me and the Booker. We've had some memorable times.