Here are some books that I have recently read and enjoyed to some degree. Others will have loved them. They miss the cut of my recommended books because something is lacking: elegant writing, spirit, a character to love or simply they don’t add up. Or they may be just too weird for your regular group of bookies. If you see a book you love here, please tell me what I missed.
Lost Roses, by Martha Jane Kelly
Once again, I fine myself applauding Martha Jane Kelly for her research and her passion and railing against a poorly edited book (can’t believe I just said that. Who am I to criticise Penguin? And yet, here I go.) This could have been a great read. It has all the elements: a fascinating period in history with the Bolsheviks being bolshy and the White Russians fleeing their palaces. A cliffhanger at every chapter end. There are interesting characters with some power to change their lives and a workable plot line. But there are easily fixed flaws that spoilt the read for me. Just me, perhaps, so don’t worry, Penguin. You’ve got a million other readers for this.
The story is of three young women. Two are friends: a New York socialite, her Russian friend who is a cousin of the Tsar, and her child’s nanny. War comes, the Russians are too slow to leave, there are the inevitable heads on spikes and the nanny steals the Russian’s child. The action moves to Paris where all three women regroup with their various crises, and the resolution ends up back in upstate New York.
So what’s wrong with it? The child is stolen. I’m a mother. They may be in the middle of a revolution but if your child is stolen there is nothing else in your life until you get your child back. But the woman’s not frantic. Her first thought is to pray her captor wont find the rucksack. Hang on (an editor should have said), what about the baby?
And there is this seedy relationship with the Russian nanny and her guardian. It’s sexually threatening and she’s kind of complicit in a detached way but ‘knows’ he can’t go too far. Why not, is he her brother or something? Turns out he is. Sorry, that’s a spoiler, but what difference does it make? Just as creepy either way and withholding this information doesn’t work. The girl is telling the story—we are in her head and hear her thoughts, but she teases us with this information. Nope. Editor, where are you?
Three women tell the story in first person, plus a fourth at the close. Often I returned to the chapter heading to remember who “I” was this time. The three very different characters all had very similar voices. It’s a hard trick to pull off and Kelly doesn’t manage it.
Last grumble, and Penguin I’m talking to you, is the line editing. We have ‘outfitted’ twice in one sentence. Cook sent a glance, and a couple of lines on he sends a glance again. Lots of these repetitions. And plenty of contradictions. ‘The crowd stood stunned, holding gentle conversation.’ Surely one or the other? ‘Though I had seen Merrill about town at social events, it had been twelve years since he and I had briefly seen each other socially.’ A countess ‘makes her way’ across a tiny hut and then ‘forges ahead’ —that’s quite a description for a couple of steps. Hello, editor? It’s enough to put you off the book. Sadly it did. I say sadly because I read the author’s note at the end and I think I really like Matha Hall Kelly. I love her obsession for her characters and the way research is at the heart of what she writes.
In the Clearing by J P Pomare
J P Pomare is a lovely bloke. Call Me Evie was skillful—it had the look of a clichéd vulnerable woman story so I was reluctant to read it. But I met JP (hence I know he’s a lovely bloke) and thought he was too smart to write some cookie-cutter story, and I was right. Evie was uncomfortable, but a very clever psychological thriller. I should have stopped there. In the Clearing has lots of adroit twists, but the emotional tension depends entirely on the horror of child abuse. A clever story finds that intensity of emotion without needing to hit those buttons. Maybe it is loosely based on a true story, but such a terrific author can do better than pedal this stuff for entertainment.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
What right have I ever to criticise Ondaatje? The man who brought us such wonderful and complex stories like The English Patient and (one of my go-to books if ever I am trying to explain atmosphere in writing) The Skin of a Lion, that remarkable telling of immigrants in early Toronto who build the city with their souls.
Warlight is a boy’s coming of age story in post-war Britain except we learn, for some people, the war didn’t end with the armistice and agents mopped up afterwards. They behaved horribly and despicably, though the details are only hinted at with the shadows that come after, the hunting down of the boy and his sister for their mother’s crimes and the generation who followed and claimed revenge. When he starts to realise the patterns on the wallpaper of his childhood the young man goes searching for answers, but in a shadowy way, hoping to fall across some clue, sometimes making huge leaps of assumption.
It’s a really interesting, hidden period of history and a great story, but I wish Ondaatje had written it through a different character, someone with a bit more oomph in the world. It’s a gripping narrative told through the eyes of an uninspiring boy.
This latest John Boyne doesn’t make the cut of wonderful books (though I know many will disagree), because there is no character to like. Not one, in the entire book. It’s kind of clever, the way there are various people telling their stories about the one man to show how his psychopathic behaviour repeats until it forms a improbably nasty pattern. The opening narrator is weak and bleak and takes a whole chapter, with no indication that there is any relief to follow. The twist at the end of this (too long) chapter sets up the book as the opening narrator is cut away and passes on the baton. There follow more characters telling their stories about our man. Some of the other characters are marginally more interesting. Gore Vidal has a role which is plausible. Our man gives his narcissistic point of view.
But the big hiccough with this story is that there is no need for the baddie to be quite so bad. He’s a real cold-hearted monster, one of the worst, but with no real motive. We’re repeatedly reminded of his splendid looks and charm and his undeniable talent. He seems to need a co-worker. Not sure why he doesn’t just ask someone?
Feel a bit bad dissing this book as John Boyne ‘s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a favourite of mine. But not this one. Too clever by half.
Nutshell, Ian McEwan
McEwan must be the most inconsistent writer in the English language. I love him and hate him in different books. Sometimes I love and hate him in the same book. There are breathtakingly wonderful passages in his novels (like the opening scene in Enduring Love with the balloon taking off trailing the boy)—passages that I can read over and over for the feeling they give me—but reading on, find them absolutely unfulfilled. The rest of the book has nothing to match. I keep waiting for him to give me another Atonement. Or On Chesil Beach. Poignant, classy writing, right in the heads of the characters, confused and misunderstood by themselves. Saturday I liked very much and will review later but it was McEwan playing with a narrative device, challenging himself to set an entire book within 24 hours. Like someone made him a bet. The Child in Time was horrible and I so wish I’d never read it (it haunted me every time I took a child to the supermarket), but it was brilliant. The Children Act is another deeply disturbing story where adults struggle with their power over children; again the book is brilliant. Is Nutshell brilliant? Or is it another narrative device gone mad? Hey Ian, bet you can’t do an update on Hamlet with a foetus as the narrator and the womb as a kind of symbolic arras! Turns out he can. But why?