I know, I know, — holding a paperback is lovely. It’s full of nostalgia for your lost childhood, it seems more authentic, somehow, than reading from a screen, there’s the weight of it in your hand that tells you how bloody big the book is and you know when you’re nearing the end. You can flick back to the name of the bloke you’ve forgotten which was on the top left a few pages back and balance it on it’s spine to see if it falls open at the saucy bits (everyone does that, right?)
It’s pretty bold, calling your book Love. You’ve got to be confident to think anyone will find you on google with that title. So this is a destination book, for those of us who already love Roddy Doyle (me). And the cover is unbelievably gorgeous.
This is a modern day love story, where loves are described by two increasingly drunk old friends across a collection of Dublin’s pubs. The love is off the page, we don’t meet any of the beloved. It’s one guy talking most of the time — that’s Joe gabbing about meeting up again with a girl the men both fancied way back and leaving his wife for her (don’t get him wrong, he loves his wife but this is different); and our man listening — that’s Davie, frustrated by Joe’s circuitous story, thinking of his wife at home in England, how they met, why he loves her.
A girl looked up from a manger one day T’was round about Christmas, the sky fully grey She thought about elves, far, far away Who’d spend lives making presents on minimum pay
It goes downhill from there. If you like your nativity straight, best not click on the link to our Subversive Christmas Nativity featuring Cinderella, elves, Santa, Jesus. If you have extra guests you could throw in an ass or two. Have Yourselves a Merry Little Christmas Here’s our Yuletide Play.
Not a light-hearted book, this one. It’s a long, slow burn, perhaps a bit over-written, a 300 page story stuffed into a 400 page one. I did get into it, but at the start the writing felt contrived — quirkiness which missed authenticity by a beat.
At heart it’s the story of women coming of age through the 1900s and the long slow finding of their seat at the table. This much I loved. The men are kindly old academics but blind to their blindness and the women have an unspoken hunch that equality would be nice. They work as hard as the men with the brains of the men but get no credit for any of it and pretty much everyone accepts that. Rebellion is very much on the fringe which is spot on.
The Bright Side of My Condition, by Charlotte Randall
I’ve just spent a year writing a book about castaways on a remote, southern New Zealand island in the early 1860s and sent it off for consideration, when a friend told me about Charlotte Randall’s The Bright Side of My Condition, set about 50 years earlier on the Snares, with seals and storms and miserable conditions. I almost died. She’s already written my story – I wailed.
But of course, she hadn’t. There is more than one story set in the frozen southern oceans and many ways to tell ’em.
Randall’s is based on a true story of four convict men who have escaped Norfolk penal colony, without much planning or foresight, stowing away on a sealing ship. The captain drops them on a desolate island with a trypot and some basic necessities and tells them to collect a payment of seal skins. He’ll pick them up in a year. The felons are so pleased to be free of the jail that this seems a reasonable exchange. A decade passes.
Each story in this collection is a piece of sea glass: a tiny part of a much bigger story, hard edges worn away, polished and immediately recognisable as precious.
There are fourteen stories, mostly about family relationships and all very kiwi in place and culture, related by someone in their later years. In every story life has thrown up a glitch: dementia of a loved one, death of a child, a son travelling in a danger zone and out of touch, observations in a supermarket queue. I met Karen Phillips last night and asked her about her characters, who often seem to be peripheral to the main story going past at a faster clip and she agreed that she sees and wonders about the people on the edges.
Here’s one I strongly recommend as a Christmas present. It’s got a very wide appeal, it’s a mixed genre—mystery-ish, crime-y, survival, literary fiction—whatever category it falls into, it’s a gripping read, the sort of book you take on holiday to justify staying all day in the hammock.
The story starts horrifically with a car coming off the road and plunging through the trees into a river below. It has a real “there but the grace of God” feeling to it—who hasn’t taken a corner too fast on some remote bush road and put a hand to their heart when the tires held? John Chamberlain’s last hope, as they leave the road and he reaches for his wife and baby in the passenger seat beside him, is that his children in the back are still asleep.
The poor wean. There’s love, but it’s inconsistent and unreliable, a selfish love given up in tiny doses. There’s food, occasionally, perhaps a tin of custard. I’m thinking of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and realise Shuggie doesn’t even get off the ground floor. He can’t tick off a thing.
This is not so much a novel as a commitment. There are a lot of lives here and they all ask you to take the time to read, to listen, to understand. Don’t skimp on this book. Don’t try to squeeze it in with quick gulps when your mind is elsewhere.
I found the level of intimacy from strangers a bit overwhelming to begin with. These are straight talking and honest women sharing their experiences from a cross-section of black Britain. They take you right into the living room and sit you down. There are twelve main characters who tell their stories in separate chapters, up and down the generations and all loosely linked. The bunch is tied together at the end in a party.
Is there a genre called Atmospheric Historic? If so, Pure, by Andrew Miller must be near the top. Set in an overflowing Parisian necropolis in 1785 this novel is so packed with creepy images and smells and sounds you need to hold your nose as you submerge.
This is the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer given a government contract during an impersonal meeting at Versailles. He is tasked with clearing out the cemetery and church of Les Innocents, which is so ancient and in such bad repair it taints the air in Les Halles. A subterranean wall has collapsed and the stinking effluent of centuries of rotten things is leaking onto the streets, a metaphor if ever there was. They will clear the city of the stench of the past and pave the way for a grand new future. Jean-Baptiste takes a room adjoining the cemetery, where the breath of his hosts carry the smell of the dead.