Every year I set myself a reading target – this year I am aiming for 24. In this regularly-updated post I’ll add each book I read as I finish it with a small review for anyone looking for some reading recommendations (or who wants to know what to avoid!).
Click here for reviews of books 1 – 5 this year (Including Killing Commendatore, Slaughterhouse 5, Conversations with Friends, Authority and This is Memorial Device)
Click here for reviews of books 6 – 10 of this year (Including Murphy, The Party, Soviet Milk, Rabbit, Run and The Tango Singer)
Click here for reviews of books 11 – 15 (Including The Haunting of Hill House, Why Woman Have Better Sex Under Socialism, Less, The Falconer and Sleepless Nights)
The Goldfinch seemed to be everyone’s favourite novel in 2014, and now I know why. I plucked Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winner off my shelf (still not sure how or when it got there) while looking for a long-read for my trip to the US and – I’ll admit it – having had my interest piqued by the trailer of the movie adaptation in cinemas now. By coincidence it is largely set in New York and actually explored the city far more than The Falconer and Sleepless Nights combined.
The novel follows the life of Theo Decker, a young teen whose life is thrown into turmoil when the unusual circumstances of a personal tragedy land him in possession of a priceless artwork. This story runs on two tracks – an art-underworld crime thriller on top of a far more prominent coming of age story of the young protagonist, which deals with loss, human fallibility and morality. It’s a brilliant character study that takes its time unpicking Theo and the supporting characters around him (his father, best friend, unrequited love, fiancé, and the surrogate parental figures in his life).
Where Sleepless Nights is “unstructured” and plot-light, the 800+ page Goldfinch is the exact opposite. Literal, detailed and plot driven, this novel spends a lot of time in each scene and place and hands the details to the reader, but sometimes it is nice to read a novel that does the work for you. The pay off from novels of this type is that you spend so much time in their world (for me: six flights, one coach ride, and countless trains) that you become immersed. It’s a beautifully plotted novel, which never slows down or drags and the depth of the characters keep you captivated the whole way through. What moved me most, though, is how Tartt captures what it is to love and feel a deep connection to art.
After reading the brilliant Soviet Milk, I signed up to Peirene Press’ annual subscription, which gets me three contemporary European novels a year. You Would Have Missed Me was the first through my letter box and shares a lot of DNA with Soviet Milk: it is also written from the point of view of a child, focuses on her relationship with her parents, and is set in the oppressive shadow of the USSR. Although, in this case in the USSR’s presence is felt in absentia, as the story focuses on a young family that has fled from East to West Germany as refugees.
Perhaps the best way to describe the novel is as a series of memories from that time in Vanderbeke’s childhood, as her family fled to the West when she was six years old. It’s impressive in how it articulates these memories, not just through great prose but from the convincing point of view of a child. Coming at the story from this innocent perspective, the reader gets a sober look at the flawed adults in the child’s life. It’s an effective way of reminding us that a young girl who just wants a cat for her birthday is far better motivated than any adult, with all of their incomprehensible desires. This is the overarching message of Vanderbeke’s novel, to remind us of the “truths we always knew” when we were young, and she does it with some brilliant methodical language (and hats off to the translator Jamie Bullock as well):
“As soon as you are born you forget it all, even though you do actually know it, but over time you probably forget a lot of the things you did actually know when you have no idea of all the things you knew…and that’s why you need all these books later on. Just to find out what you actually always knew.”
There is a very literal bridge from the child’s to the adult’s voice through a brilliant plot device towards the very end of the novel. However, it has to be said that in the run up to that point the recurrent memories of the protagonist did begin to slow down. Where Soviet Milk was driven by a narrative of increased desperation, YWHMM was more reminiscent of Sleepless Nights’ tone of drifting through memories. Safe to say, Soviet Milk remains secure in the spot of my top read of the year.
The Black Cloud, a science fiction novel by the astronomer Fred Hoyle, is another book whose origin on my bookshelf remains a mystery to me. I picked it up a few times before deciding I was in the mood for some sci-fi escapism and boy did I get it. The novel follows a group of scientists tasked mankind’s survival when a gas cloud descends on the solar system, threatening to block the sun’s light and plunge the earth into darkness.
That’s pretty much all I want to say on the plot, because the discovery of the nature of the cloud, what affect it could have, and twists along the way – including one major plot development that caught me off guard – are what makes the book so gripping. Due to Hoyle being an accomplished scientist this very much falls into the camp of “hard” science fiction. By all accounts, nothing in the book is that far beyond plausible, although it does at one point put forward Hoyle’s controversial rejection of the Big Bang (a term Wikipedia tells me he coined) as the origin of the universe in favour of his own Steady State Theory.
In its tone, it’s quite similar to the film Arrival (2016) – in fact I was surprised to find out that this hasn’t been adapted to the screen itself. More unexpectedly it also had a lot of the Chernobyl (2019) miniseries about it, in the conflict of science against political posturing when it comes to a disaster – in this case a potential extinction event. So much so that at times it feels like an allegory for that disaster, despite the fact that this was published in 1957, almost two decades before Chernobyl. For that matter, it’s also more of than decade before man even walked on the moon, which seems incredible when you consider the detailed astronomy-oriented adventure in this novel. Hoyle balances scientific principles brilliantly with fast-paced plot development, and writes scientists with actual personalities. This all rounds off to make The Black Cloud a compulsive read.
“One afternoon, in 1994, I had an idea.”
It’s a brilliant starting sentence for a book about forming a band. What it doesn’t give away is this initial idea – to take up the bass – was followed by a hundred successive ideas, which would eventually lead to the formation of Belle and Sebastian.
This is one of many presents I have bought for my friend, only to find out he already owns it. Luckily we have similar taste, so this book on one of my favourite bands found its way onto my shelf. Over the last few years I’ve read a few biographical or autobiographical accounts of major bands – Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr; Man on the Run, about Paul McCartney in the ’70s; and Meet Me in the Bathroom, about the indie bands that came out of New York in the ’00s. Of course, I also started the year reading This is Memorial Device, about the formation of a fictional Scottish band. It is only fitting that I should end the year reading about the start of a real one.
From those books I learned that bands’ lifecycles share certain traits: sudden and unexpected fame, the high of the first tours and albums, personality clashes within the band, usually some kind of financial dispute, and finally the dissolution of the band. However, because Stuart David’s book focuses so specifically on the formation period of Belle and Sebastian – with not even the name settled until the final third of the book – this feels like a very different story.
Setting out the combat the myth that Belle and Sebastian formed in one night, in an all-night café, Stuart (who was the bassist in the band until he left to pursue his own projects in 2000) demonstrates that a number of iterations of the band came together before the final group was formed. He takes us through Glasgow music groups, house parties, and pub gigs, introducing us to all the frustrated musicians trying to get their own bands of the ground, who in some way contributed towards the realisation of Belle and Sebastian.
What is most interesting is that, although he is evidently proud of his eventual (and somewhat reluctant) co-founding of the band, the protagonist includes himself in this group of frustrated musicians. Right to the end, he admits he was jealous of the lead singer (also confusingly called Stuart)’s combined achievement of realising his musical vision and bringing a band together to deliver it, and expresses his feeling of having “failed and succeeded all at the same time”. This narrative contributes to a very interesting and honest account of the creation of Belle and Sebastian but also of the formation of a whole new music scene, which is what is what makes it band so compelling in the first place.
The brilliant thing about music biography is that it gives you a new point of view on the songs you already loved. I’ve gone back to listen to Tigermilk – the brilliant first album, with one of the best album covers – now able to appreciate it with the new stories I know about how those songs and their utterly distinctive tone came together.
It took me until November to get to a graphic novel. But I got there, having been gifted Sabrina by my girlfriend for my birthday. Like many people, Sabrina came to my attention when it became the first graphic novel to make the long list for the Booker Prize. I’ve read many graphic novels that are as good as any book – those written by Alan Moore in particular. But I can see why Sabrina broke through to wider critical acclaim because it is so utterly unlike anything I have read before, both in subject matter and form.
The story focuses on the fallout when Sabrina, the titular character, goes missing. It’s an intense and disturbing study of the effects a horrific act of violence, and how much worse it can be made by the realities of the age we are living in. Set very much is the current day (it’s explicit in the book that the setting is 16 years after 9/11) the novel explores how the computer age contributes to human isolation and gives a voice to the worst aspects of human nature. I haven’t read anything that tackles these issues so directly and Drnaso’s choice to address it in the form of a graphic novel is a stroke of genius because the tone of the story can be reflected visually.
The word I keep returning to when I think of this novel is “bleak”. The illustration style itself is simplistic to the point of starkness, presenting the reader with bare rooms and strange, featureless characters. While Drnaso gives the reader exactly enough to create a clear mental picture of the events, the minimalist drawing creates a real sense of unease. This style is perfectly matched with plot that is also bleak, with disturbing events followed by sterile character interactions. The combination of the illustration and writing style is very powerful and dark story. Its uniqueness alone makes Sabrina a must read.
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