CategoryRhodes Dan

My favourite books read in 2015

It’s been a year of ups and downs, really: I relaunched the blog with a new focus and name, and later with its own domain; and I feel I’ve got closer to what I wanted to achieve. However, especially in the latter part of this year, I haven’t had as much time as I expected for reading and blogging, so some of my plans are being put back into 2016 instead. I would like to dig more deeply into why I respond to certain books in the way I do (I also have plans for a series of posts going back to books I read in my pre-blogging days, to trace where the reader I am now came from). I’d still like to focus in more on the kinds of books that speak to me most, and explore older works… Well, more on that later.

For now, here are my twelve favourites from all the books I read in 2015. I’m especially struck that I have my most globally diverse list to date: authors from ten different countries; books originally written in six different languages; and, for the first time, translations predominate. More than that, though, I look over this list and think: yes, these books – in all their different ways – are what I like to read. That’s what this is all about.

Enough preamble: on to the books. The countdown is a bit of fun, but the books are all well worth your time.

MJuly12. Miranda July, The First Bad Man (2015)

I started off thinking I knew what sort of novel this was going to be: offbeat tone, middle-aged, middle-class American protagonist… I have the measure of this, I thought. Well, I was wrong. There is a good deal of eccentricity and artifice in July’s tale of a fortysomething woman whose careful household routine is disrupted by the arrival of her employers’ twenty-year-old daughter. But it is shown to be a front and a defence mechanism – and when July breaks through her characters’ façades, her novel cuts sharply.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

11. Ivan Vladislavić, The Folly (1993)

A story of how easy, and dangerous, it can be to fall for someone else’s dream. The husband of a suburban couple is captivated by a stranger who moves on to the neighbouring plot and announces that he’s going to build a new house. Soon the husband is doing all the hard work for the newcomer while the ‘house’ remains little more than an idea – but what a powerful idea. Vladislavić’s first novel is equally delicious and disturbing, reminding one of the darker shadows that lie behind its playful tone.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

10. Sunny Singh, Hotel Arcadia (2015)

A novel about the distance between image and reality, set in the heightened environment of a hotel under attack from terrorists. Singh maintains a tight focus on two characters – a war photographer who roams the corridors, and the hotel employee who uses CCTV to help her evade capture – and never leaves the building, except in flashback. But that very stylised approach helps give Hotel Arcadia its power, as reality becomes concentrated, and a few days can hold a lifetime.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

9. Dan Rhodes, When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow (2014)

Hands down, the funniest book I have read in a very long time. You can sum it up in a single line – Richard Dawkins forced to stay in a village at the vicar’s house – but you can’t capture its essence without reading. The mixture of broad, cartoonish humour and sharp satire (aimed in several directions) lulls you into a false sense of security… Then comes the moment – as in all of Rhodes’ fiction that I’ve read – where you see behind the curtain, and that is really why I love this novel so much.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

Repila

8. Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (2013)
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (2015)

A small, hallucinatory jewel of a book in which two boys are trapped at the bottom of a well and trying to get out. This novel plays out in my mind’s eye as a scratchy animated film, each chapter-scene limned in a slightly different colour. Repila constantly changes the imaginative space of the well through his style and imagery; and, as with The Folly above, there’s a grim reality apparent beneath the surface of metaphor.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

7. Hiromi Kawakami, Manazuru (2006)
Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich (2010)

If you’d told me last year that I would have a Kawakami novel on my favourites list this year, I may well not have believed you. I had read The Briefcase/Strange Weather in Tokyo twice and scarcely felt close to unlocking it. But Manazuru is a different kind of book, one I took to straight away: a combination of hazily blurred realities and pin-sharp emotional detail, as a woman retreats to a seaside town in search of something – possibly her missing husband, possibly herself. A third read of The Briefcase/Strange Weather is clearly in order…

[My review] – [Publisher link]

6. Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (2012)
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (2014)

A worthy winner of what turned out to be the final Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The first page may be the single most potent scene that I’ve read all year. In each of the five main sections, Erpenbeck’s protagonist dies at a different point in time, which changes the meaning of her life and death, and the way she interacts with history. The End of Days sets an individual life against the sweep of the twentieth century, to quite marvellous effect.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

5, Paulette Jonguitud, Mildew (2010)
Translated from the Spanish by the author (2015)

The protagonist of this short novel finds mildew growing over her body, and Jonguitud’s writing creeps through the reader in the same way. The narrator merges together fallible memory, physical space, and possibly faulty perception, to the point that there’s no meaningful boundary between the real and the imaginary to begin.  We are invited into this seamless imaginative space, and can only hold on as the narrator tries to keep control of her own story.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

Enquist4. Per Olov Enquist, The Wandering Pine (2008)
Translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner (2015)

Of all the books on this list, Enquist’s was the one that caught me most unawares, in that I wasn’t prepared for how deeply it would affect me. The Wandering Pine is based on its author’s life, combining closeness to its subject with a distance and mystery that comes from the oblique fictional framing. It’s a novel that explores what explores what it is to engage with the world through writing, not to mention one of the most powerful depictions of childhood that I have read.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

3. Lucy Wood, Weathering (2015)

Three years after the wonderful Diving Belles, Wood goes from strength to strength. In someone else’s hands, this could have been a run-of-the-mill tale of a woman returning to her rural childhood home. In Wood’s work, all lines between metaphor, place and action are erased; here, she situates her characters in a raw, unknowable landscape that haunts them as they haunt it. This author is carving out a path all her own, and I am excited to see where she will go.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

2. Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World (2009)
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (2015)

A woman travels from Mexico to the US with a message for her brother, in this tale where borders of all kinds are crossed or dissolved: borders of geography, language, culture. There’s a fuzzy, mutable quality to both the language and the space of this novel, where a journey to another country reads like a metaphorical (or literal!) descent into the underworld. I’m still astonished at how much ground Herrera covers in so small a space.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

Vegetarianpb

 

1. Han Kang, The Vegetarian (2007)
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2015)

This was the very first book I read in 2015, and nothing since has ever quite supplanted it. Three novellas, linked by the character of a woman who decides to give up eating meat, eventually refusing all food, for reasons we are never fully allowed to comprehend. We only view the main character through the eyes of those around her, as Han explores the ramifications of someone stepping outside social norms, and asks who really makes the self. The Vegetarian is an extraordinary experience.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

And if you want more favourites, here are my previous lists: 20142013; 201220112010; and 2009.

 

 

When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow

Have I mentioned how much I enjoy reading Dan Rhodes? Of course I have: see previous reviews of Gold, Little Hands Clapping, and Marry Me. But there’s enjoying a book, and then there’s this.

Rhodes’s latest novel (new in paperback from Aardvark Bureau), When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow, sees Richard Dawkins and his put-upon assistant Smee, on the way to the village of Upper Bottom, where the Professor is due to address the All Bottoms Women’s Institute. But bad weather sees the pair stranded in Market Horton, where they end up staying with the local vicar and his wife…

First things first: this book is hilarious, the funniest I’ve read in ages. The Dawkins character is splendidly pompous, and Rhodes takes every opportunity to puncture him. To say much more about how he does so would risk taking away from the fun of reading the novel, which I don’t want to do. So here’s a quotation to give you an idea:

[…]’Do you think I am kind, Smee?’ His eyes narrowed. ‘Well, do you?’

Smee was desperate to make up lost ground. ‘You are very kind, Professor.’

‘You are quite right. I have devoted swathes of my life to kindly telling people how ignorant they are, and correcting them, and giving them the opportunity to think as I do. Look at me now, traipsing through the countryside, taking only modest fees, sometimes no fee at all, as I inform the clueless that there is no God, just as there is no goblin with a purple face, and that  there is no consolation, none whatsoever, to be found in religion. If anybody is kind around here, Smee, it is me – and I am unanimous in that.’

The humour isn’t all targeted in one direction, though: Dawkins has to put up with facile questions from the residents of Market Horton, as well as requests for favours such as delivering kittens (the thinking being, he knows about science, so he must be able to do that sort of stuff). The novel reads like a broad, delightful (and sharp) cartoon.

Ah, but wait. Something else that I like about Dan Rhodes’s work is that he’ll create these cartoonish scenarios, and then suddenly show you something real underneath that transforms what you’ve been reading. He does it here, and I’d better not say any more; but if you read the book (which you should), you’ll see what I mean…

Okay, so this has ended up being one of those blog posts where I basically end up saying, “This book is great; please read it,” without going into an awful lot of detail as to why. Well, so be it. I want you to enjoy this book as much as I did, and I think the fewer specifics you know, the better. Just know that it’s Dan Rhodes on superb form.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow (2014) by Dan Rhodes, Aardvark Bureau paperback

Fiction Uncovered Guest Editor

This year, Fiction Uncovered have been inviting various people to act as Guest Editor of the site, each posting four opinion pieces over the course of a month. So far, the Guest Editors have been my fellow book blogger Simon Savidge; my fellow Desmond Elliott shadow juror Kaite Welsh; and the journalist Anita Sethi. I’m excited to announce that this month, it’s my turn.

My brief for the four columns was fairly open, apart from that they should have a British focus (which I’ve mostly stuck to, with a tiny bit of fudging). I won’t reveal exactly what my pieces are about just yet, but I will say that I’ve aimed to cover my main reading interests  in them. I’ve also created a page on the blog where I will linking to the columns as they appear.

The first column is up now. It’s called ‘Uncovering the Reader‘, and is about how we change as readers – how, sometimes, you don’t appreciate a book unless you read it at the right time. I use my own experience as an example, talking about some of the ‘milestone’ books where I think I changed as a reader.

Further reading

If you’re interested, here are some links to where I’ve written more about the books mentioned in the column:

 

 

Sunday Salon: Ten Love Stories

I’ve been reading Marry Me, Dan Rhodes’s new collection of flash fiction on the theme of marriage. This being Rhodes, all is not exactly sweetness and light: in many of these stories, a male narrator is treated shabbily by his female partner – or occasionally he’s the one behaving shabbily himself – in absurd and darkly amusing ways.

‘Is there someone else?’ asks one man as his wife leaves him. ‘No,’ she replies, ‘there isn’t. But I would really, really like there to be’. Another woman informs her husband that he’ll have to leave, then produces a catalogue and sells him pots and pans for his new home (‘I would give you a discount because I know you, but it’s early days and I’m sure you’ll understand that I’ve got to keep a firm grip on my finances now I’m a single gal’). And so on, and so on, with these wonderfully barbed and pithy lines.

But, just occasionally. there are touches of real romance, as with the couple who put the lump of charcoal he gave her in lieu of a diamond under their mattress in the hope that pressure may transform it. The result: ‘it never looks any different. I think we would be a bit disappointed if it ever did.’ Moments like this bring light to the book, which ends up being quite sweet, in its own deliciously sour way.

***

As it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, I decided to go back through my blog archives and see how many love stories I’ve reviewed over the years. My instinct was that it wouldn’t be that many, but (allowing for my subjective interpretation), I’ve come up with a list of nine more books to add to the one above, which is more than I expected. Here they are – but I’m not necessarily promising happy endings…

Viola di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (reviewed Jan 2013)

A girl struggling to move on from her father’s death may have found a way forward when she meets a local boy who teaches her Chinese – if she can let herself move forward, that is. I really enjoyed this book, but it might as much an anti-love story as a love story.

Evan Mandery, Q: a Love Story (reviewed Sept 2012)

This must be a love story, because it says so in the title, right? Well, maybe not, as its protagonist receives repeated visits from his future self, trying to persuade him to call off his relationships. But the ending is actually rather affecting.

Alice Zeniter, Take This Man (reviewed May 2012)

A fine portrait of complex circumstances, as a young French-Algerian woman prepares to marry her Malian childhood friend in a bit to prevent his deportation. Not so much a tale of ‘will they?won’t they?’ as ‘should they? shouldn’t they?’.

Henry Green, Loving (reviewed Jan 2012)

A tale of love and contested space in a wartime country house. It begins and ends with the words of a fairytale, but that kind of happiness is a long way from being guaranteed.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical (reviewed Aug 2011)

An excellent set of stories examining love in its various manifestations.

Alison MacLeod, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (reviewed July 2011)

Another fine set of stories about love.

Daniel Glattauer, Love Virtually (reviewed Feb 2011)

A novel told through two people’s emails; their correspondence becomes a form of courtship dance. Will they or won’t they? I don’t know without reading the sequel.

Priya Basil, The Obscure Logic of the Heart (reviewed June 2010)

A non-religious boy from a wealthy Kenyan Sikh family and a girl from a devout Birmingham Muslim family fall in love – and the complexities of their situation are very nicely delineated in the book.

Ronan O’Brien, Confessions of a Fallen Angel (reviewed Aug 2009)

The story of a young man who has apparently prophetic dreams of people’s deaths. I include it here for its wonderful portrait of falling in love twice, in two different ways – the dizzy rush of first love, and a slower flowering of affection later on in life.

Fiction Uncovered 2012

Fiction Uncovered, the initiative to highlight the work of established UK authors who may have fallen off the radar, is back for another year. The 2012 list was revealed on Wednesday; unlike last year, I wasn’t able to attend the announcement, but I was still keen to see which titles had been selected. Here are this year’s books (quotations taken from the Fiction Uncovered website).

Peter Benson, Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke

What the judges say:  ‘The tease of a title gradually resolves itself as the delightful comedy of drug-running in rural England plays out. The cartel meets Ambridge.’ – John Sutherland, Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL; Chair, 2012 Judging Panel

It’s fair to say that I probably wouldn’t have picked this up if I saw it in a bookshop, though the blurb’s suggestion of a supernatural note is intriguing, and I do like the narrative voice in the extract I’ve read. Looking up Benson’s other books, he seems a wide-ranging author, but with a particular focus on landscape, especially that of Somerset. I think he’s a writer I should investigate further.

Cressida Connolly, My Former Heart

What the judges say: ‘A family saga spanning the second half of the twentieth century, this gentle story of women’s lives in Egypt, Lebanon and the London Blitz is at once tender, comic and wise. Following on from the success of her short stories, My Former Heart marks out Connolly as a novelist to watch.’ – Katy Guest, Literary Editor, Independent on Sunday; 2012 Judging Panel

This is a first novel from Connolly, who has previously published a short story collection and a historical biography. Family sagas aren’t generally my thing, and I don’t feel particularly inclined to try My Former Heart; but I think Fiction Uncovered ought to be broad in scope, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s no problem if not everything on the list appeals to me.

Jill Dawson, Lucky Bunny

What the judges say: ‘With sleight of hand, a little rouge and a mind as sharp as a razor, Queenie Dove does battle with all the Depression, the war and her father have to throw at her. Dawson writes with a pace and humour that is infectious and her cast of characters will stay with you long after finishing the book.’ – Jasper Sutcliffe, Head of Buying, Foyles Group; 2012 Judging Panel

The synopsis makes this sound fun – a tale of wartimeEast Endcrime capers – and the extract suggests a novel with a serious heart; that’s a pretty unbeatable combination when it’s done well, so I think I’ll be taking a look at Lucky Bunny.Dawson’s bibliography suggests she’s another writer whose work covers varied ground, which is always a good thing in my book.

Tibor Fischer, Crushed Mexican Spiders

What the judges say: ‘Small minded readers might object that this is not a novel but two exquisitely packaged short stories. But the stories themselves – sardonic and beautifully chiselled – radiate wonderfully.’ – John Sutherland

Here’s something that wasn’t on last year’s Fiction Uncovered list: a book of short stories. (Admittedly there are only two – printed back-to-back – in this 64-page volume, but still.) Tibor Fischer is one of those writers whose name I know without knowing anything about his work; now I’ve looked it up, his fiction sounds just the sort of quirky stuff I enjoy. This collection could be a good place to start.

Doug Johnstone, Hit & Run

What the judges say: ‘The whole panel were impressed with the non-stop energy of Hit & Run. Just when you think his protagonist has no further left to fall, he makes another crazy decision that amps up the suspense to an even greater level.’ – Matt Thorne, writer and Head of Creative Writing at Brunel University; 2012 Judging Panel

I felt that last year’s Fiction Uncovered list missed a trick by not including any ‘genre fiction’, so it’s nice to see titles like My Former Heart and this thriller being selected now. Hit & Run sounds like a book which delivers the goods as a thriller whilst also offering something more substantial in its characterisation; that would be a good combination of attributes.

Susanna Jones, When Nights Were Cold

What the judges say: ‘A delightful adventure full of feisty women, mountaineering, all kinds of escape and Edwardian derring-do, this is narrated by a classic unreliable narrator who looks back on friendships gone catastrophically wrong among the peaks of theAlps. Jones’s fourth novel deserves to put her on the literary map.’ – Katy Guest

I read one of Susanna Jones’s earlier novels, The Earthquake Bird, a couple of years ago, and rather enjoyed it. The contemporary Japanese setting of that book is quite different from the early twentieth-century British and Alpine background of When Night Were Cold – but, as should be clear by now, I like variety in an author’s oeuvre. And I have a soft spot for books with unreliable narrators, so this could be good.

David Park, The Light of Amsterdam

What the judges say: ‘From the problems between fathers and sons to the perils of going to see Dylan in his dotage, this is a deep and richly pleasurable reading experience.  Park depicts the frustrations and excitements of everyday life with equal clarity.’ – Matt Thorne

I first heard of David Park in an article from last year in which various writing and publishing types were asked to name writers they thought deserved more attention (frustratingly, I can’t find the link) – and now here he is on the Fiction Uncovered list. I’d like to read one of his books, but can’t honestly say that the synopsis of The Light of Amsterdam sounds interesting to me; perhaps I’ll try a different Park title.

Dan Rhodes, This Is Life

What the judges say: ‘Using his trademark dark humour Dan Rhodes draws his protagonist Aurélie Renard, and the reader, deep into the heart of the most romantic city in the world, Paris. Rhodes explores art, politics and modern life, with hilarious and enlightening results.’ – Jasper Sutcliffe

Now here’s a writer who I know deserves a wider audience. I’ve read and greatly enjoyed Rhodes’s previous two novels – Gold is especially good – but have heard mixed things about his Paris-set latest, that it might not have the spark of his others. Still, this is Dan Rhodes we’re talking about, and I’d never dismiss one of his books without reading it. I’ll probably read Timoleon Vieta Come Home first, mind.

You can find the Fiction Uncovered titles on display in a bookshop near you.

Elsewhere
Read Simon’s take on the list over at Savidge Reads.

Dan Rhodes, Little Hands Clapping (2010)

My introduction to Dan Rhodes was his previous novel, 2007’s Gold, which I enjoyed very much; enough that I needed no persuading to seek out a copy of his latest work.  Little Hands Clapping is very different in subject matter, but unmistakably the work of the same author; and, as I read, I began to see deeper similarities. Perhaps more than usual, I find my thoughts about the present book coloured by those I had of the earlier; in that light, I’m a little less satisfied with Little Hands Clapping than with Gold, though the new novel is a very enjoyable read in its own right.

Synopsising Rhodes is awkward, because it doesn’t give a full picture: for one thing, if you take a bald summary of the plot, it seems that nothing much happens – but that’s not how the book reads; for another, Rhodes’s style is integral to the experience of reading him. I’m trying to think how to describe his style – words like ‘fairytale’ and ‘whimsical’ are going through my mind, but none of them seems quite right. The sense is more one of being told a story – of viewing a slightly heightened version of reality.

One of Rhodes’s common techniques is to mask something harsh and real behind that facade of tale-telling, such that you might have to stop and check back that, yes, you did understand that correctly. Take, the beginning, for example, where the author introduces his main setting, a German museum devoted to the subject of suicide. The museum’s caretaker is a grey old man who’d probably feel right at home in a Roald Dahl story; we first see at the end of the opening chapter that he’s not as straightforward as we might have assumed, when he happily munches on a spider which has crawled into his mouth. (The museum gains its own tinge of unreality from the way Rhodes unveils room after room, like a magician producing handkerchiefs from an apparently empty fist.) Whilst lying in bed in his quarters above the museum, the old man hears a noise from below; he thinks nothing of it, and, perhaps, neither do we – but we soon discover that the noise was someone hanging himself (this happens regularly, despite the museum’s having been founded with the aim of deterring people from suicide).

Other harrowing facts are revealed in a similarly deadpan way, not least that the doctor whom the caretaker surreptitiously calls out to deal with all the suicides has his own use for the dead bodies – he eats them. This will become public knowledge by novel’s end, as we learn early on.

Running in parallel are several other storylines, notably that of Mauro and Madalena, the most beautiful boy and girl in their village, who seem destined to be together always – and they are, until they leave and discover that, whilst Mauro is just as handsome in the wider world, Madalena is merely pretty. fate turns against them… With Rhodes’s style, it can be hard to get at the ‘real’ emotions; but this strand of Little Hands Clapping is affecting nonetheless, with some telling observations of love and how it can evolve.

So far, so good; why the unfavourable comparison with Gold, then? Because, as far as I can see, Little Hands Clapping doesn’t have the same subtextual richness. The individual elements of the novel are fine, but I don’t think they tie together in the way that Gold’s did, and that’s why I’m less satisfied. But I’m not dissatisfied, no way; not when Rhodes builds and maintains a momentum that drives his story on to a conclusion that seems inevitable (but is it?), yet remains compulsive reading. And the ending – like the ending of Gold – is a lovely piece of writing.

And so, with regret, I leave the imagination of Dan Rhodes behind once more. There’s no other imagination in literature quite like it – and I look forward to when the time will be right to go back there, to read another of his books.

Link
Dan Rhodes’s website

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