New year, new start, and I’m back on the books! Here’s a round-up of what I read in January 2019…
1.Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)
Being a self-confessed Greek geek, I do love a modern retelling of ancient mythology. This beautifully written novel gives voice to a ‘cameo’ goddess of Greek myth, she of turning Odysseus’s men to swine fame. The prose is simple but elegant, and the natural descriptions (in particular of the island to which she is exiled) are especially vivid. The level of detail and appropriacy of Miller’s metaphors completely absorbed me in the world she creates.
Circe as a character is complex and fully developed, and not always sympathetic, prone to the same jealousies and moments of pettiness as the other (both divine and mortal) characters. The motherhood section resonated particularly with me (unsurprisingly!) – it felt real and raw, and ever so slightly reassuring to know that even goddesses can have tricky babies!
Despite the harsh, often amoral nature of the Titan/Olympian/Mortal spheres that Circe inhabits, I found this novel oddly soothing.
2.The Needle’s Eye by Margaret Drabble (1972)
I can’t remember how this novel ended up on my reading list for 2019, but I hadn’t read any of Drabble’s work before, so I gave it a go. It is a detailed, intense character study of the two protagonists, Simon and Rose, although occasionally the narrative voice switches to the perspective of other characters.
There is minimal plot – and I have to admit that I found the constant psychological, analytical tone almost exhaustingly introspective. This is a novel of thoughts and emotions, and I did occasionally wish that something would just HAPPEN.
The characters are incredibly detailed in terms of their psyche, and as such highly realistic, although not necessarily sympathetic. Although I found this novel unsatisfying in some ways, as a technical study in character, it is undeniably admirable.
3.See What Can Be Done by Lorrie Moore (2018)
I have to admit, I started this excitedly thinking it was a new collection by one of my favourite short story writers (the dangers of speed-ordering on the Kindle), but luckily my momentary disappointment on discovering that it was (gasp) non-fiction was short-lived. This book of essays and reviews on everything from respected authors to TV shows like True Detective and The Wire is thoughtful, considered and well-researched. Moore reveals a broad range of interests and knowledge, that intense fascination with life that is such an important part of being a writer.
Her humour and generosity shine through here, and she is not afraid to admit to certain ‘low brow’ tastes (Titanic, anyone?). Even when being critical, her words are carefully balanced, and she is never malicious.
There are echoes of what I enjoy so much about her fiction – a piece about getting married is full of a delicious foreboding which reveals that Moore can turn her ironic humour on herself as well as her characters. Her writing is full of insights, unassumingly offered, and I came away with a long list of writers to try, which always pleases me.
4. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (2018)
This novel tells the story of Romy Hall, who is serving two life sentences for murdering her stalker. It explores a darker side of San Francisco to that often depicted, and shows how Romy never really had a chance.
I found Romy’s voice quite detached, and never really felt I was inside her head. Minor characters are given their own chapters, which I found a bit distracting, and some of Romy’s key relationships (with her son and with Jimmy) didn’t seem to be explored fully.
As much as it is certainly shallow to imagine that my beloved ‘Orange is the New Black’ has got the ‘women’s prisons’ thing covered, I have to admit that while Kushner’s portrait of life in detention is grittier and doubtless more realistic, it somehow didn’t feel as ‘full’ to me, in every sense of the word.
5.Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (2018)
One of the delights of my ‘one-click’ approach to stocking up on reading (and a small positive of my lamentable reading hiatus) is that I can start reading a novel with absolutely no knowledge or preconceptions about it. In the case of Adeyemi’s debut novel, the fact that I have evidently been hiding under a rock means that I am probably one of the very few people who didn’t know that this YA fantasy is The Next Big Thing, with film rights snapped up and massive advances paid.
The book does more than just draw on Nigerian folklore for its depiction of the fictional land of Orisha, in which magic has been recently wiped out – it transposes the whole western fantasy genre into an African setting and claims it for its own. Adeyemi creates a series of exciting, fast-paced set pieces that cry out for Parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy and, of course, for the big screen version. The three first-person narrators are all engaging characters, although Inan is arguably the most intriguing in his conflicted state as he wrestles with the question of whether or not magic should indeed be restored.
I read this in big, joyous gulps of childish glee, and will be gobbling up the rest of this franchise unashamedly.
6. Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade (1972)
Another sneaky retro entry in amongst the 2018 books I have mostly been reading, coincidentally written the same year as Drabble’s novel, although that is the ONLY thing the two books have in common.
These powerful short stories offer a view of black life in America, accessed via an idiosyncratic style that at one or two points I found hard to follow, but I enjoyed letting them wash over me nevertheless. The first couple of stories hooked me with the original, engaging voice of Hazel, and I found myself wishing she appeared more.
A particular strength was the opening lines of each story, which took me straight into that world. Cade Bambara does some amazing things with words throughout the stories – some of the language is just utterly gorgeous: “Days other than the here and now, I told myself, will be dry and sane and sticky with the rotten apricots oozing slowly into the sweet time of my betrayed youth.”
I’m thrilled to be back in ‘reading mode’, and always on the look-out for more suggestions. What have you read so far this year? Comment and let me know!