So, 20 Books of Summer is over and autumn is well and truly here, well, it is in Northern Ireland anyway!
I had a productive summer of reading – on top of my 20 summer reads, I read another 16 not on my original list.
During August, I did a little more Booker Prize longlist reading, but the publication of the shortlist made it obvious that I read all the wrong books – or the right ones if you are not impressed with the shortlist. Nothing I read made the shortlist, but I am in the middle of Girl, Woman, Other so at least I will have read one of the shortlisted books!
The Wall by John Lanchester
I have read and enjoyed John Lanchester’s work before and The Wall is a solid slice of dystopia set in the near future. Following a climatic event called the “Change”, life has become very different. There is no longer movement between countries and Britain’s coastline is now encircled by the Wall – which must be guarded by Defenders at all times, in case of invasion by ‘Others’. All young people in the country must now serve two years defending the wall and it is a cold, lonely and frightening life.
The novel follows Kavanagh, on his first tour of the Wall as he explores this strange new existence he has ended up in. A successful attack by a group of Others seals his fate and the second half of the novel explores the philosophical implications of the implementation of the Wall.
The Wall is both served well by the believability of the situation it depicts, and also suffers because of it. Written in clear, simple prose, it seems almost matter-of-fact and not quite strange enough. The narrative is structured well looking at the Wall from both sides, but it never fully captures the imagination. Maybe though, that is the point. When faced with a dystopian future, perhaps it will seem this ordinary.
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy
This was really a book of two halves for me, although I imagine that is the way it is intended. The problem for me was that I just did not really enjoy the first half. The book opens in 1980s as Saul Adler is knocked down on the Abbey Road crossing in London. His injuries are non-threatening and after an unsuccessful proposal to his girlfriend, he goes on a planned research trip to East Berlin. Things begin to get strange as Saul appears able to foresee the future and may or may not end up endangering the lives of the very family he is staying with.
In the second half of the book, it is the present day and Saul is once again knocked down on the same crossing. This time he is not so lucky and as he is treated in hospital, his past and present merge together and the narrative becomes cyclical and confusing. Interestingly, it is at this point that the narrative reveals itself and the events of the first half of the book become clearer.
It’s a wonderfully constructed novel that in some ways left me a little cold. Saul is an unpleasant character, most of the people here are, but in the end, I found that I was admiring The Man Who Saw Everything for how it was plotted rather than for how it made me feel.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo is probably the last of the Booker list that I will read, although I also have a copy of Lost Children Archive by Valerie Luisella so that might get squeezed in too.
I was disappointed that Night Boat to Tangier did not make the shortlist as I thought linguistically it was a delight, but I haven’t read enough of the rest of the shortlisted books to make a proper assessment.
I read some other books this month that were not in the 746:
The Spectacular by Keith Ridgway
I am a big fan of Ridgway’s odd tales and really enjoyed this long short story, which acts as a sort of prequel to his best-known work Hawthorn and Child. In The Spectacular, a failing author of literary fiction decides he needs to write a best-selling thriller as he needs the money and becomes fixated on writing a book about a terrorist attack on the London Olympics. As with most of Ridgway’s fiction, the lines between reality and fantasy become blurred with devastating consequences.
Still Lives by Maria Hummel
Spurred on by my enjoyment of Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland, I read another thriller set in the art world featuring a missing female artist. This one was not quite as enjoyable. Visual artist Kim Lord is about to open her biggest ever show – a Cindy Sherman-esque series of paintings where she depicts herself as famous LA murder victims. Only on the eve of the exhibition opening, she goes missing herself, with foul play suspected.
What follows is a pretty solid, but not very exciting mystery which tries to cram in too many characters, making it, at times, difficult to keep track of who is who let along wonder why they are doing what they are doing. I don’t mind a thriller where there is no twist, but the reveal in this one was a little too low-key for my liking.
One thing Still Lives does well is its depiction of the city of LA where fiction and fact blur on a daily basis. It is a love affair to an iconic place, but that doesn’t make up for a lack-lustre plot.
The Body Lies by Jo Baker
The Body Lies is an incredibly well written thriller about a young unnamed female writer who, following a sexual assault and the birth of her first child, takes a job as a Professor of Creative Writing. She and her son relocate to the country, leaving her husband to commute from London at the weekends.
Her problems set in from the start. A lack of staff in the Department means a hectic workload. Isolation and childcare issues become apparent. The separation takes its toll on our narrators’ relationship. Moreover, that is before she deals with her students whose expectations and attitudes bring their own pressures and who have strong opinions on their tutor and on each other’s writing.
The Body Lies is part campus novel, part thrillers and succeeds on both counts. The narrative is fragmentary featuring samples of the student’s work, departmental reports and workplace emails to create a story, which questions the very nature of the stories we tell and the use of violence as a narrative device.
This thriller thrills without relying on one of those ubiquitous twists and asks the reader to question why we read the fictions we read and why they exist in the first place.
Now that 20 Books of Summer is over I am looking forward to getting back in to some settled reading and continuing to get the 746 down as much as I can.
At the start of the year, I set myself the goal of getting into the 400’s by December 31st and I am pretty much on track. I am also planning to take part in the annual RIP challenge, which is always fun and will post a list of potential reads next week.
Are there any interesting reading challenges doing the rounds this autumn? Let me know what you are taking part in!
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!