Monday, 20 August 2018

My Year in Books 2018: July

And so... I've stuck to my New Year's resolution for another month! This is definitely the best I've ever managed! (And I managed to read more than last month too, so I'm doing okay at this.)

So here are the books I read for pleasure in July...

(Here are my lists for the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June)

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)

This one was a recommendation (of sorts). I have a bit on my radio show (Hannah’s Bookshelf) called Apocalypse Books, where I ask my guests: in the event of the apocalypse, which three books would you save? A Visit from the Goon Squad was one of the books Emma Jane Unsworth saved when she was a guest back in 2016, and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. Egan’s novel is actually a series of interrelated stories – when I started reading Chapter 2 I thought for a moment it was a short story collection – about a series of people connected to New York record producer Bennie Salazar and his assistant Sasha. The stories move about in time, and the book begins in the middle of Sasha’s story, and the characters move in and out of each other’s lives. It’s an interesting structure, but it’s definitely not a gimmick. The book’s title refers to time – ‘Time’s a goon, right?’ says one character – and the back-and-forth nature adds pathos to time’s cruelty. We often see what characters will become, before moving back to how they once were (and what they dreamed of being one day). Despite the fact (or maybe because of it) that most of the characters are kind of unlikeable, I found it a really compelling read (to be honest, I was really taken with Egan’s writing from the first chapter, so would have been happy if it had turned out to be a short story collection after all!).

The Missing Girl by Jenny Quintana (2017)

So, I managed to get a bit hooked on domestic noir this month. Last month I read a couple of crime/psychological thriller novels, and I think they were my gateway drug. I’m using the term ‘domestic noir’ for this thriller subgenre – though it goes under other names – as I think it best captures what links these books. The best known examples are probably Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and domestic noirs tend to have troubled female protagonists dealing with some sort of secret (often something from her past) and with people who are not who they pretend to be. They’re also often advertised as having a ‘mind-blowing twist’. Quintana’s novel is about Anna Flores, whose teenage sister disappeared thirty years earlier. Now, Anna’s mother has died, and Anna has to return to the village where she grew up to clear the family home – and to finally face up to what happened to Gabriella. The Missing Girl is certainly well-written and engaging, and I did get quite immersed in Anna’s story. But I’m not sure it’s really a thriller, and it certainly doesn’t have a twist (the truth about Gabriella is pretty obvious about halfway through the book). Overall, it’s a bit too pedestrian for a thriller, and the mystery doesn’t quite work. I did enjoy the character of Anna, though, and the descriptions of family life were well-done. I’m not convinced domestic noir is for me, to be honest, but maybe I just need to keep trying…

Friend Request by Laura Marshall (2017)

And now… more domestic noir… Friend Request is probably a bit more typical of the subgenre than The Missing Girl, and it ticks a lot of the generic/cliché boxes as well. I was promised an ‘addictive psychological thriller’ with a ‘genuinely unexpected’ twist. One day, Louise gets a Facebook friend request from a girl she knew at school, Maria Weston. But Maria Weston died over twenty-five years earlier. (Admittedly, that’s a pretty cool premise, and it certainly had me hooked initially.) Louise’s story switches between the present day – as mysterious Facebook messages unsettle and long-denied secrets threaten to surface – and flashbacks to 1989, as Louise remembers what happened in the final year of school. In true domestic noir style, the main story is told from the protagonist’s POV, but there are mysterious other chapters sprinkled throughout (in third-person, with an unclear subject, and presented in italics). Also in true domestic noir style, the protagonist is troubled and is responsible for quite unpleasant actions in the past that may have affected the present. Like The Missing Girl, Friend Request’s heroine was pretty horrible to a more vulnerable kid when she was younger. But outside of these generic conventions, there really is very little to Friend Request. The Facebook mystery and its resolution is disappointing, and there is absolutely no twist (again, the solution is quite obvious early on). Maybe I’m a bit too fussy about what counts as a twist? But this one fell a bit flat for me, I’m afraid.

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (2017)

Without sounding like a bandwagon-jumper, I really did like The Girl on the Train. A good indication of how much I enjoyed the book is that I haven’t wanted to see the film version yet. I encouraged my mum to read it after me, and she also loved it (and hasn’t seen the film). It was my mum who got Into the Water and read it first, and then she lent it to me. In typical style, she was a bit cryptic in her comments before I read it: ‘It’s a bit different to The Girl on the Train,’ was all she’d say. And she was right! Into the Water is the story of a woman – well, several women really – who died after plunging into a ‘Drowning Pool’ in a river. While Girl on the Train had multiple narrators, Into the Water turns this up to 11. Hawkins uses these multiple narrators very well. Each one has a distinct voice and story to tell, and these weave together well to create both a mystery (the deep secrets of the Drowning Pool) and a sad tale of sisterly estrangement (Jules – the closest the book has to a protagonist – has returned to her old family home after her sister’s death). The thing is, though, it’s not The Girl on the Train. The narrators are, on the whole, pretty reliable (I’m so bored of reliable narrators), and there really isn’t a proper twist ending here. But it’s a compelling and creepy tale nonetheless.

The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell (2007)

As I say, I’m not sure domestic noir is really for me. So my next book was a deliberate change of pace. I am a big fan of Ramsey Campbell’s work, but I still have a lot of titles I haven’t read yet. The Grin of the Dark sounded right up my street: Film Studies lecturer Simon Lester is commissioned (in a decidedly suspicious way) to write about forgotten silent comedy star Tubby Thackeray. The problem is, Tubby seems to have been forgotten for a reason, and it proves very difficult to begin tracking down his lost films. Why did Tubby’s career end so abruptly? And why is it being actively forgotten now? In Ancient Images (which I loved), Campbell explores the world of the ‘lost film’ and its potential for horror, but in that book, the object of the search is actually a horror film. Here, it’s comedy all the way – and that makes it even more unsettling. The first description of Tubby on film was gloriously unnerving, despite the feeling of familiarity and similarity to other (‘real’) silent comedies. In many ways, this is a more philosophical (almost academic) book than Ancient Images, as there is a pervasive feeling throughout that there’s something wrong with comedy itself, not simply the creatures that lurk behind it. Added to this, there’s some creepy language games going on that add an uncomfortable absurdist element to the events that unfold. This is a definite recommendation – Tubby Thackeray is a truly disturbing creation!

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