Another month; another wrap up. Throughout August I read 12 books, bringing my total for 2018 thus far up to 84. I review everything I read over on Goodreads, but as always, here are some thoughts on each of them.
Elmet by Fiona Mozley
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] This atmospheric and almost ethereal read immerses us in the lives of a family living in the lawless outskirts of rural England. The influence of classic tales by the Brothers Grimm echoes throughout, as the narrative explores themes such as familial love, the rule of the land, warring factions, violence, and revenge. There’s an interesting look at gender expectations, and a simmering undertone of tension that reaches boiling point in the harrowing climax. My only reservations were an uncertainty regarding the need for a specific unresolved plot point that I won’t spoil; and the lyrical prose which, though great in crafting the book’s setting and tone, lent the teenage protagonists’ dialogue an overly philosophical edge at times.
Irmina by Barbara Yelin
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] This graphic novel explores the effect of Nazi rule on those who existed on the periphery. Irmina is a highly ambitious, outspoken, principled, non-Jewish, German woman. She speaks up in the face of injustice, and has big dreams for her future. As war breaks out, and tension grows, we watch as each of these qualities slowly leave her, and she turns the other cheek. I enjoyed the tonally appropriate moody colour palette. The impact of the book at large is understated (I expected a bigger sense of revelation or development for Irmina in the book’s final third), but it does leave us to ponder its themes of complicity and culpability. As such, it is in many ways a story about what is left unsaid.
Snap by Belinda Bauer
[ ⭐ ⭐ ] This is a pacy and very readable thriller, with a great initial concept: Three children attempting to survive off the grid following their mother’s murder years prior. It is, however, rife with clichés, including eyeroll worthy coincidences, plot points that stretch our suspension of disbelief, and unexplained holes in the narrative. What happened and whodunnit become clear early on, with too much of the book focussing on the unlikable police officers proving what we already know. I can’t deny that the book’s inclusion on the Man Booker longlist raised my expectations, and in turn contributed to my frustrations. Not only is this far from one of the best books of the year; it’s not even a great example of what the crime genre can achieve.
The Finishing School by Muriel Spark
[ ⭐ ⭐ ] There were themes and ideas in this that were really interesting. Namely, professional jealousy, and art feeding from toxic relationships. Sadly, I just found the whole thing a little too jarring. The setting, characterisation, and dialogue felt too much like historical fiction for a modern novel supposedly set in the early 2000s. The strange, slightly hypnotic atmosphere could have been really effective, but by far the most interesting parts of the narrative were glossed over in just a few pages at the very end of the book, meaning its oddness was left feeling somewhat inexplicable. Overall, it’s a book comprised of a great concept that sadly never reached its full potential.
The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Despite purporting to centre around a cat, this is a remarkably human story. Arikawa somehow makes the quirkiness of the narration (with the story told, in part, from the perspective of the eponymous cat) really work, without it feeling overly sentimental. We follow Nana and his owner, Satoru, as they travel to meet various people from Satoru’s past. Through their reminiscences, we piece together Satoru’s life, as old wounds are reopened, and closure is found. It’s a delightfully offbeat, beautiful, and bittersweet book about finding family and making peace with the past, with a tone of nostalgia and pathos throughout. Subtle and surprisingly nuanced, this was a real unexpected gem.
Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck
[ ⭐ ⭐ ] This was one of those frustrating reading experiences where I liked the book a lot more in intent than I did in actual execution. Erpenbeck captures Germany throughout a period of great change and unrest by focussing on a single property, and giving us snapshots of the various people who come and go from it over the years; exploring the idea that we never truly ‘own’ the land. Our time with each character is so fleeting, however, that I never felt emotionally invested in their fate. Much of the book is given over to documenting the mundane, cyclical aspects of day-to-day-life, which, though deliberate, failed to keep me engaged. It’s a shame, as I really wanted to love this one, and could appreciate nonetheless what Erpenbeck was saying.
The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] There’s something about Ogawa’s work that I find effortlessly unsettling. The three novellas that comprise this book all explore suppressed emotion, with her heroines’ slightly off kilter view of the world and inner frustrations manifesting in a sense of detachment, and casual everyday cruelty. In this way, she exposes the dark side of human nature that is never far from civilised society, using elegantly simple prose that is punctuated by imagery that tips the balance between beauty and revulsion. She doesn’t hand us all the answers, nor does she want us to feel comfortable, and yet somehow, she hooks you in for the ride.
Thin Air by Michelle Paver
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] This book follows a group of mountaineers in the 1930s attempting to conquer a notoriously deadly summit, on a mountain plagued by ill omen and rumours of a haunting. It had some decently creepy moments, and Paver painted the intense, sinister nature of the setting very well. The climax felt a little rushed to me, however, and so wasn’t hugely satisfying. That said, the mood was pitched well overall, being the kind of ghost story that plays with ambiguity; meaning that we’re left pondering what was down to the supernatural, and what was caused by a combination of paranoia and altitude sickness. I also liked the theme of haunting in general, with the characters each ‘haunted’ in different ways; some by war, some by stories of the past; and some, perhaps, by ghosts.
Our Numbered Days by Neil Hilborn
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] I discovered Hilborn through his viral poem, OCD, and as someone with the condition myself, I knew I wanted to check out more of his work. There were some poems in here that really spoke to me, and others that didn’t, but that’s always the way with a collection as personal as this. There’s a bold and immediate feel to Hilborn’s poetic voice. He’s a writer of obvious talent, with rage, passion, and humour charging every word.
The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] A lesser-known but equally enjoyable novel from Wells. As always, I admired how much he based the fantastical elements of his stories in genuinely interesting and (for its time) plausible speculative science. There’s a great sense of wonder and adventure in this one, as well as some delightfully vivid prose that shows off the power of Wells’ lightyears-ahead-of-its-time imagination. In another trademark of his work, however, there is also some very interesting social commentary and discussion of morality at play.
Everything Under by Daisy Johnson
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] This wonderful novel takes classic myths and fairy tales, and spins them anew, exploring a myriad of fascinating themes and ideas; from fate vs. free will, to identity and gender fluidity; from acceptance of the truth, to the duty of a child to honour their parents, even if they haven’t earned it. Above all else, I adored its musings on the power and importance of language, and the preservation of memory. It’s a beautifully written, highly immersive tapestry of storytelling.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] The commentary on psychology and gender relations was really interesting in this, and of course, it’s a characteristically tragic and intricate story. I’m very much enjoying my foray into reading Shakespeare for pleasure.
There we have it. My favourite read of the month was definitely Everything Under; what was yours?