Reading recommendations – spring 2014

It’s been a while since I posted about recent reading – but I’ve finally got round to some recommendations from the first half of this year.

NW – Zadie Smith

Taking the Willesden area of London as its epicentre, NW follows the intersecting lives of a group of Londoners, at the centre of which is the intriguing relationship between once-and-ostensibly-still best friends Leah and Natalie. Each section is stylistically, experimentally different, but I particularly enjoyed Natalie’s narrative. Despite Natalie’s struggle to reconcile the shift in her lifestyle and identity, and a voice that seems designed to distance the reader, Natalie somehow ended up being the most relatable of all the characters. I loved the sense of London, and the cultural references which are cleverly embedded, if at times a little too oblique. On a related note, I was excited to read that Smith is reputedly planning to write science-fiction. Her short story Meet The President! in the New Yorker may be a taste of things to come – something to look forward to.

God’s War – Kameron Hurley

It felt like I’d read a lot about God’s War a long time before I got round to actually reading it, despite a general tendency to avoid reviews as much as I can until after I’ve finished a book. Originally billed as bug-punk, I just wasn’t expecting God’s War to be my kind of thing, and was therefore pleasantly surprised when I found myself hugely enjoying the book. It’s a fast-paced narrative (the much-quoted first line grabs you by the teeth and it doesn’t let go from there on), but character always trumps plot for me, and much of my enjoyment was in the superbly-rendered character of bounty hunter Nyx, and the shifting dynamics between her motley, multinational crew. For a far more eloquent review take a look at Nina Allan’s thoughts over at the Arc blog, but in brief – if, like me, this isn’t the kind of thing you’d usually pick up – do give it a go. You may be surprised…

The Violent Century – Lavie Tidhar

I’ve been a big fan of Tidhar’s work since reading the superb Osama, and despite not being especially well-versed in the superhero genre, I had no doubt that I would enjoy The Violent Century. And I did, very much so. It took me a while to settle into the short sections and clipped prose, but the style comes into its own as the narrative moves back and forth through past and present, and conflict echoes after conflict. Tidhar is by now a dab hand at integrating pulp culture, historical figures and events, and in this The Violent Century is no different, by turns irreverent and deeply haunting.

The Adjacent – Christopher Priest

There’s a wonderful analysis of The Adjacent in Adam Roberts’ 2014 Clarke Award round-up over at Strange Horizons, but suffice to say this has all the classic trademarks of a Priest novel – multiple selves, magicians, counterfeits, creepy and inexplicable happenings, world wars and intricate plot devices. The narrative moves between various settings, visiting WWI, WWII, a near-future Islamic Republic of Great Britain which is blighted by climate change (the description that stayed with me is of a building that appears “clamped” to the ground to withstand the storms), and at one point hopping across to the Dream Archipelago of previous works. As always, the complexities of the plot are belied by the clear and eloquent prose. One of my favourite passages was towards the end, as the protagonist is watching a series of Lancaster planes take-off from an aircraft hangar, which was so beautifully rendered you can practically hear the engines and smell the gasoline.

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

There’s so much to say about 2666 it’s difficult to know where to begin. For a start, it’s over a 1000 pages long, an epic undertaking that’s taken me three months to read – but it has been worth the investment. There are five parts to the novel, which was published posthumously and may or may not have originally been intended by the author to be published as five separate novels: The Part About the Critics, The Part About Amalfitano, The Part About Fate, The Part About the Crimes, and The Part About Archimboldi. Despite its length, the prose tends towards sparse rather than bolstered with description. It’s a maze of a novel, packed with narratives embedded within narratives, stories leading off at random tangents, down levels upon levels of digression, but somehow always leading back to the original pathway or protagonist/s.

Bolaño’s classic themes of writing/the writer and violence are ever-present. Over the course of 2666 he takes us from the landscape of literary criticism in Europe to the scene of serial killings in Mexico and back in time to the German writer Archimboldi’s experience of World War II. I struggled immensely with The Part About the Crimes. This section forms a centre piece which all of the other narratives reflect back on. It takes the form (in as much as Bolano adheres to form) of a police procedural: a fictional account of a real-life proliferation of unsolved serial rapes and murders of women, which occurred in Mexico in the 1990s. Bolaño’s fictional Santa Teresa is a stand-in for the border town Ciudad Juarez. The 300-page section is utterly relentless as a read, not because the violence is gratuitous (indeed, much of Bolaño’s power lies in what is not said – for example, the detective reflecting on a woman who suffered five heart attacks before she died – we are left to imagine exactly what manner of torture brought on those heart attacks) but in the sheer volume of deaths, the often clinical style in which this section is narrated, and the brutal reality of the lack of justice for these women, which we are never allowed to forget.

It’s an extraordinary work and I’m glad to have read it; equally I’m glad to have finished it. I will definitely be reading more of Bolaño’s work, but not just yet.

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

After an epic 3-month read I raced through Americanah in a week. I’d been looking forward to Adichie’s latest since it came out in hardback last year, and the novel proved a delight. The back cover blurb describes it as a love story, but although the relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze forms an underpinning narrative, Americanah is primarily about identity, belonging and growing comfortable with the person you are. Ifemelu is a forthright, complex character; the social observations on race and culture are cleverly drawn and at times very funny. With a writer’s (and SF) hat on, I was very interested to see how Adichie portrayed the experience of adjusting to a different culture. Ifemelu’s childhood and adolescence in Nigeria feel familiar, even though – as a British reader – her experience is not familiar; whilst when she reaches the USA, the American experience feels strange and disorientating. It is only once Ifemelu reaches America that comparisons are made with back home, and when she returns to Nigeria there is a shift again, and her perceptions change as she readjusts once more. Overall, this is a thoughtful and highly enjoyable read.

Just started reading: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara.

Advertisements