Sunday 28 December 2014

My Reading Year 2014

What a great year of reading it's been. A mix of newly published and charity shop discoveries, some of the many classics I hadn't quite got round to before, books studied for my online course The Fiction of Relationship and the odd bit of rereading. Phew! Emerging from that lot, in no particular order, here are some of my 2014 fiction highlights (click on any of the headings to go to the full review*).

Translated Fiction

An impressive debut from the young French author Oscar Coop-Phane. Winner of the Prix de Flore in 2012 and translated from the French by Roz Shwarz, it's the story of one day in the life of a Parisian street-walker. In this short, stark and darkly humorous book, Nanou's words connect a series of vignettes of her clients; 'in the midst of the detritus are precious shards of humanity'.

See You Tomorrow
Also translated into English for the first time is Tore Renberg. Already an established writer and broadcaster in his native Norway, Renberg has penned See You Tomorrow, a fast-paced, gritty and frequently hilarious thriller full of flawed and idiosyncratic characters.

The Master and Margarita
Translated fiction and classic literature all-in-one. I finally got round to reading Bulgakov's surreal examination of life in Stalinist Russia, juxtaposed with Pontius Pilate overseeing the trial of Yeshua. It's philosophical, playful and generally just all-round brilliant; tellingly, the Devil gets the best lines.

2014 Costa First Novel Award

I've read some excellent debut novelists in the English language too, including three of the four shortlisted for the 2014 Costa First Novel award (only Mary Costello's Academy Street to go).

Chop Chop 
Simon Wroe's novel, endearingly narrated by lowest-of-the-low commis chef Monocle, is a bleakly funny, vicious and ultimately poignant dissection of the hell that is a professional kitchen.

Also shortlisted is Carys Bray's heart-rending debut about the devastating affect of the loss of a child. The Bradleys are a Mormon family living in the north-west of England. When their young daughter Issy falls ill with meningitis there are far reaching reverberations; many tears but some unexpected laughter too.

Elizabeth is Missing 
Think of forgetting so much that you might not even recognise your own daughter and you'll begin to identify with the bewildering world of Maud, the elderly narrator of Emma Healey's first novel. Maud is forgetful and easily confused, but one thing she does know is that her friend Elizabeth is missing. And puzzling over her whereabouts awakens a mystery from Maud's past; the unsolved disappearance of her older sister Sukey.


The best of the books I meant to read when they were published in 2013, but only got round to this year.

The Shock of the Fall
A family's loss and the struggle to come to terms with mental illness, told from the inside. Nathan Filer not only won Costa's First Novel Award in 2013, but was also selected as their overall Book of the Year. 

This one is personal (my review tells you why). Incredibly hard to read, but I'm so glad I did.

Rediscovered in 2013, John Williams's story of the life and times of a professor of literature at the University of Columbia was Waterstone's Book of the Year. A slow burn story, but once it takes hold, it doesn't let you go.

The Goldfinch*
I'm shocked to find I haven't reviewed this, probably because I read it over the summer holidays. Donna Tartt's epic has been criticised for being baggy and over-long, but has to be included because I became completely besotted with it. A future classic and my favourite book on the 2014 Baileys Prize shortlist, even though it didn't win.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel about race and identity has at its heart the tender love story of Ifemelu and Obinze (I loved this almost as much as The Goldfinch).

Elif Shafak's mystical writing combines sympathy for the conflict between the traditional and new in her native Turkey, with a wider understanding derived from her own crossing of the cultural divide.

It's a story about twin daughters Esma and Pembe, the divergent roles that fate has decreed for them and a very real tragedy which is not all that it seems.

New Writing

This densely plotted, fiendishly intelligent espionage thriller by Edward Wilson reminds me why I should read more in this genre. If densely plotted, fiendishly intelligent espionage thrillers are a genre, that is. If not, then they should be.

Man at the Helm
The first novel from Nina Stibbe, author of the warm and witty collection of letters, Love, Nina,  is an entertaining tale of divorce and village life in the 1970s, seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Lizzie Vogel. 

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy
If you enjoyed Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, then you'll love this companion novel which tells the story of Harold's journey from Queenie's point of view. Poignant, entertaining and deftly profound.

Amy Mason is a funny and unexpected new voice. I saw her staging of The Islanders last year at Bristol Old Vic, and was looking forward to seeing where she was going next. Now she's won the Dundee International 2014 Book Prize with The Other Ida, the story of one young woman coming to terms with the death of her alcoholic mother.


The scariest category of all. What if a book you've loved doesn't live up to expectations second or third time around? Here are three that did:

I've read this book several times since watching the BBC TV series in the 1970s, but it felt very apt to be rereading it on the centenary of the outbreak of  World War One. A deeply affecting memoir which brings home the personal sacrifice and devastating tragedy suffered by so many at the heart of a lost generation. 

Jane Eyre
I didn't instantly fall in love with Charlotte Bronte's independently spirited orphan when I first read Jane Eyre at school, but have come to love her since. And rereading this novel for my online course only deepened my admiration for a mould-breaking woman ahead of her time.

To The Lighthouse
That this is my favourite Virginia Woolf novel was confirmed by rereading. Woolf's prose is as sublime as ever and (perhaps because of my own advancing years) I found a deeper connection this time to her portrayal of her parents in the form of Mr and Mrs Ramsay.

* The Goldfinch is the only book here that I haven't written a full review for.

Sunday 14 December 2014

Reading the Classics: Light in August by William Faulkner

I know I haven't posted a book review for ages. It's not that I haven't been reading, but I became completely bogged down by the modernist classic Light in August. It's one of the set texts for my online course, The Fiction of Relationship, otherwise I might have been tempted to abandon it.

In the end I'm glad I didn't, even though it was often a struggle; based in the American Deep South of the 1930s, Light in August is deeply imbued with the racism and misogyny of this place in time.

The novel concerns itself with a number of disconnected characters; beginning with Lena Grove, a young, pregnant white woman on the road from Alabama in search of Lucas Burch, father of her unborn child. It's clear he's run out on her, yet she has a simple faith that she'll find him before the baby is born. Burch is confused with a similarly named man, Byron Bunch, by the folks Lena meets on her travels and she heads for the sawmill in Jefferson where Bunch works.

The focus then shifts to Joe Christmas, an ostensibly white man working at the same mill, who doesn't really know who he is. Adopted at birth, he's described as 'parchment' coloured, passes for white but believes himself to have some black heritage. It seems he can't help but confess this to the women he sleeps with and word gets around. In the meantime, he develops a relationship with Joanna Burden, the descendant of Yankee abolitionists. He's living on her property and selling bootleg liquor, along with his business partner Joe Brown, who happens to be Lucas Burch under an assumed name.

When Joanna is horribly murdered, it sets off a train of events which leads to Christmas being hunted down, implicated by Brown but defended by Bunch and the disgraced priest Gail Hightower. Finally, he is condemned in the cruelest way by the townsfolk, for whom his most heinous crime is to be the deceitful possessor of black blood.

According to course tutor Professor Weinstein, Faulkner initially intended Hightower to be the central character and conscience of this novel, but Christmas somehow took over. Faulkner explores Christmas's formative years in detail, delving back into his early days at the orphanage:
Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows believes remembers a corridor in a big long gabled cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassland cinderstrewn-packed compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten foot steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or a zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrow-like childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears. 
For Christmas, the past has an unerasable hold on the present. He is a man out of phase, living in the sewer of his own impulses, sensing
something is going to happen, something is going to happen to me
It seems his body is the site where violence takes place, rather than his mind consciously deciding on it. In his rages he watches himself in slow motion; with the black girl who has been paid to initiate him in sex, we learn
He was moving because his foot touched her. Then it touched her again, because he kicked her.
Christmas has problems with women. He's more at ease with being beaten by his foster father Mr McEachern, than with Mrs McEachern's timid attempts to soothe and care for him. When offered food, he rejects it as 'women's muck' as if also rejecting feminine love and kindness. He cannot bear the pattern of women's lives, reacting so violently to being told about menstruation that he goes out and shoots a sheep like a ritual sacrifice. He runs away when his first lover Bobbie can't sleep with him because she's 'sick', yet ultimately rejects the almost manlike Joanna Burden for being too old to bear children, telling her 'you're not any good any more.'

By contrast with Christmas, Lena Grove is the life force of Light in August. She's unmarred by guilt at her situation and is tranquil and serene. Her thinking is undeveloped, indeed Faulkner has been criticised for 'essentialising' her as a 'breeder'. Her unborn child is the novel's 'ticking bomb', the linear timeline cued to its birth.

Faulkner's work is stamped by trauma and shock, peopled with characters who are outsiders in a small community, nursing psychological and physical wounds. Light in August explores the connections there may be between its disparate central characters and between the forces of life and death. As the novel progresses, new relationships are forged. The birth of Lena's child draws Hightower and Bunch into life, and even though Lena and Christmas haven't met, she contemplates the notion, through encountering his grandparents, that he may be the real father of her child.

Light in August dwells much longer on the forces of death and evil though, than on the redemption of a child's birth. Having lived a violent, displaced life, rejecting love and doling out hatred, Christmas faces an end which many have compared to the crucifixion of Christ.

Professor Weinstein describes this as one of Faulkner's more accessible works, written before he fell under the influence of James Joyce and his stream of consciousness. But I found Light in August to be the very antithesis of its title; dark, full of bleakness and frequently opaque. There may be eloquent writing but there is also a great deal of confusion and ugliness.

At the beginning of his lectures, the good professor suggests there is great value in reading books whose ideology you don't believe in, because you learn a lot. There's also the benefit of reading a book considered a classic and deciding what you think of it yourself. Ultimately, these are the reasons why I'm glad I battled my way to the end of this difficult novel.

Light in August is published in the UK by Vintage Classics.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Theatre Review: Swallows and Amazons - Bristol Old Vic

This review was written for Theatre Bristol Writers

Childhood adventures don’t come any more exciting than those of the four Walker siblings, in Arthur Ransome’s classic tale Swallows and Amazons. Set in the summer holidays of 1929, Bristol Old Vic’s production captures its spirit from the beginning; a telegram arrives from the children’s father, permitting them to sail unaccompanied across the lake with the words ‘better drowned than duffers.’
Who needs CGI? Under Tom Morris’s direction the power of imagination is unleashed as wind is invoked and the Swallow sets sail, a wooden frame and wheeled platform negotiating a waterway of blue ribbons. Distant views through the telescope are reconstructed at the back of the stage in circular frames. As the children land on Wildcat Island, they keep a keen look-out for Barbarians, recreate their heroes from Marco Polo to Robinson Crusoe, and cross swords with real life enemies in the shape of two Amazonian pirates and their dastardly uncle, Captain Flint.

Played by grown up actors, John, Susan, Titty and Roger combine all the energetic, quicksilver emotions of children with the fun of seeing full-sized adults (with facial hair in Roger’s case) dressed in silly shorts and bathing suits. Captain John (Stuart Mcloughlin) and First Mate Susan (Bethan Nash) are the oldest and notionally in charge. But Jennifer Higham is fearless and bold as Titty, leaping with great physicality from the rocks into the water, to be caught in the arms of the ensemble. And Tom Bennett captures the feverish irresponsibility of seven year old Roger, as he capers, sulks and trembles at the turn of events.

The whole cast is outstanding; the two unruly Amazons (Evelyn Miller and Millie Corser) inject a slug of high-octane anarchy and the ensemble of ‘players in blue’ choreographs the action with attitude, sprinkling water in the children’s faces and whipping up the fiercest of storms.

The intrigue of the first act is enhanced by Neil Hannon’s captivatingly original score and some wonderful musicianship. But it’s after the interval that the roof is really raised, showing how ready the audience has become for a bit of full-blooded interaction. The children in the front rows from St Peter’s Primary School in Portishead (who sang their competition -winning song ‘A Drop in the Ocean’ beautifully before the beginning of the show) seized their chance to bombard the on-stage fighters with foam rocks, while yelling for Captain Flint to be made to walk the plank – as if he has any choice in the matter.

Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Swallows and Amazons was first staged at Bristol Old Vic in 2010; this thrilling story of an endlessly idyllic summer holiday makes a welcome return for another Christmas season. It creates a horizon full of possibilities, where children are free to roam and grownups provide a safety net rather than a cage. Arthur Ransome wrote many more books in this series, so maybe there’s room for a second adaptation in the future?

It would be great to think so, because this really is an unmissable family treat, captivating for children and adults alike. If we could, we might wish to inhabit this world forever; at least, with this revival, we can enjoy the sheer, unadulterated bliss of revisiting it for a couple of hours.

Photo by  Simon Annand

Monday 1 December 2014

Theatre Review: Exit the King - Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

King Berenger I has lived for over 400 years, yet still he’s not ready to die. He’s been too busy inventing the tractor, mastering nuclear fusion and attending an endless round of charity balls with his glamorous young second wife, Queen Marie. Now it all boils down to the last hour and a half of his life, which we in the audience are there to witness in real time, whether he likes it or not.
Eugène Ionesco wrote Exit the King in 1962 after a frightening bout of illness, and it shows. Berenger features as an everyman in several of Ionesco’s other Absurdist plays; here he’s the centre of a surreal universe, in the process of collapsing in tandem with his own demise. He’s monarch of a land now rocked by earthquakes, where the sun is late to rise and the wars he worked so hard to win have suddenly all been lost.
Alun Armstrong plays Berenger as a king denying the abyss, ill-prepared for anything except the eternal continuance of his realm. Tottering around his central throne on Anna Fleischle’s cracked and tremor-ridden set, his is a forensic depiction of a verbose and heart-wringing decline. He unpeels the layers of Berenger’s ill-maintained longevity with a staggering, sweating physical deterioration and an increasingly feeble mental resistance, while nevertheless clinging determinedly to the precipice of life.
Armstrong is ably supported by a very strong cast; as Berenger inevitably weakens, it’s down to his imperious and battle-hardened first wife, Queen Marguerite, in a superbly nuanced portrayal by Siobhan Redmond, to help him face reality. Berating him for his lack of preparation, she also dampens down Beth Park’s solipsistic Queen Marie with an ‘Oh, please God, don’t start hoping again!’ She and the Doctor (William Gaunt) chillingly count down the minutes to Berenger’s death, refusing to be distracted by the frequent proclamations of the decrepit Guard (Roy Sampson) and whirlwind interventions of Marty Cruickshank’s much put-upon maid, Juliette.
This new translation from the French by Jeremy Sams has pared Ionesco’s work back to a running time of less than two hours, yet has found room to enhance its feeling of timelessness with references to central heating and pole dancing. And the dialogue still sparkles; as Queen Marguerite accuses Berenger of flirting with death a thousand times, he replies, ‘I only flirted with her, she was never really my type!’
Under Laurence Boswell’s direction, there are no false sympathies for King Berenger. The characters and trappings he has surrounded himself with are gradually stripped away, as he edges towards the central fear that we all must die alone. Veering from the bleakly comedic to highly farcical and ultimately tragic, Ionesco confronts not only his own mortality, but also all of ours. Not always the easiest or most comfortable of plays to watch, Exit the King is a philosophically questioning and fitting finale to a truly outstanding season at the Ustinov.
Runs until 20th December 2014. Photo by Simon Annand. Details and booking here.