Why I love… Magnus Mills

Not long ago I was browsing in a local bookshop and came across a book by Magnus Mills that I hadn’t realised existed.  Excited (and also a little ashamed that I’d allowed a book by an author I really enjoy to slip under my radar), I decided there and then I needed to write something about him on Girl, Reading since in two years on the blog he’s never featured.

I’ve accumulated many bookseller friends during my years of working in and around bookshops and a pretty high proportion of them have read and admired Magnus Mills.  Outside of that group, though, I’ve not met a single person who’s tried him or, in most cases, even heard of him, and I wonder why that is.  There are definitely some books and authors that have a disproportionately large fan base within the book trade, but the reason is often, to me at least, a mystery.  While I wouldn’t say that Mills could be classified as having mass appeal, I do think he is deserving of a wider readership for his clever plotting, social satire and for the unique tone he brings to his writing; start reading a Mills novel blind and I think you’d soon know exactly who the author was.

So, what kind of novels does he write and just why are they so good?  They’re quirky, offbeat, darkly comic and often slightly sinister, but they’re not easy to categorise – if I had to pin down their overriding theme it would be that they’re strange without the reader being able to fathom quite why.  I’ve read most of them now, and they all feature fairly ordinary characters, but those characters are operating against backdrops that seem slightly out of kilter.  The author possesses an incredible skill: he can make you feel incredibly tense and uneasy but if asked, you’d have a hard time explaining the reason.  There is no hint of anything fantastical or supernatural; these are worlds – often very mundane worlds – that we know… and yet don’t.  To me, the settings often feel somewhat akin to a dream; all the elements of the world with which we’re presented are recognisable, and yet they feel as if they’ve been put together in a way that just isn’t quite right.  Many of the novels also evoke a real feeling of frustration which can on occasion evolve into a sense of mounting panic, since a recurring motif is that of a character who’s trapped in some way by a situation, to the point where you’re willing them to find a way out and for events to conspire in their favour.  And “Explorers of the New Century” (my least favourite as it happens) contains a twist so unexpected that I still remember the effect it had on me as I read it even though it was years ago.

Which one should you start with if you’ve never tried him before?  The two most well-known and also the most acclaimed of his books are “All Quiet on the Orient Express” and “The Restraint of Beasts” but I particularly enjoyed “The Scheme for Full Employment” – if you’ve ever had the feeling you were wasting your life in a dead-end job then just wait until you read this!  I know this little article hasn’t come anywhere near to selling his writing to the extent he deserves, but I think it’s a testament to his ingenuity as an author that he is so difficult to write about.  The only way to really appreciate and understand the books is to read them for yourself, so add him to your list of reading resolutions for 2017!

20170108_104602

 

Advertisements

My favourite books of 2016

As the year draws to a close it’s time for a round-up of my best books of 2016.  In the interests of making sure my favourites get into the list (!) I’m taking the liberty of including books that were new in paperback this year rather than just hardback – I’m sure you’ll forgive me!  Choosing my favourites was one thing; putting them into an order of preference was quite another, but after immense internal struggle I’ve arrived at this, the final countdown.

  1. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

I’m not sure I could describe this as an enjoyable read given the traumatic nature of the subject matter in places, but it’s certainly the book that’s stuck most resolutely in my mind over the past few months.  There are a few passages so grim that once read they can never be erased, but ultimately this is a tale of finding hope after horror.  Not everyone I know was a fan, but the author’s skill is undeniable.

  1. This must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve never yet read a Maggie O’Farrell novel that I didn’t like so this was pretty much a shoe-in for my top 5.  Her characters are so authentic that they almost aren’t even characters; they could be any one of us.  Love, loss, grief, jealousy….she nails every single feeling on the emotional spectrum with this novel, as she does every time.

  1. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

This is hands down the cleverest book I’ve read this year.  It plays around with the concept of the unreliable narrator and takes it to another level, until we start to question not only who is “reliable” and who is not, but whether there is any such thing as absolute truth at all, or only our own perception and experience.  It’s unexpectedly moving too.

  1. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

What I loved most about this book was the way it took me back to my childhood almost as if the author had been there!  The setting of a community where neighbours know each other intimately and children wander around the streets from house to house without anyone batting an eyelid evoked a real feeling of nostalgia for me.  Yet there’s a darker side to this utopia, where people band together to victimise outsiders without bothering – or wanting – to learn their story.  Utterly brilliant.

  1. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

If you know me this number one will come as absolutely no surprise to you!  This is quite simply the book I’ve been banging on about to anyone who’ll listen (and even to people who aren’t particularly listening!) since the moment I read it.  It’s got everything – period setting, touches of gothic horror, love and romance, mystery and real emotional heft.  I loved every sentence and it’s not just in my top five for this year, but quite possible of all time.  That’s saying something.  If you haven’t read it yet there’s still time to rush out and buy yourself a copy so you’ve got something amazing to curl up with this Christmas.

I’d love to know if any of these would be in your top five too, and if not, what have I missed?!

This will be my last post on Girl, Reading until after Christmas now, so enjoy whatever festivities you have in store and I hope to see you back here very soon.

Merry Christmas!

star
XXL image

 

My Top 5 Literary Lives

literary lives

I was scrabbling around trying to come up with a title for today’s blog, and realised I have absolutely no idea if there’s a technical term for a novel based on the life of a real person.  The world of film has biopic, so biofic maybe?  Anyway, whatever we choose to call them, they are the subject of today’s top five.  Truth is stranger than fiction as the saying goes, and certainly some of the extraordinary lives that have made their way into novel form are as dramatic as any character born of imagination alone.  I’m not a huge fan of straightforward biographies, but the artistic licence permitted to the novelist allows their subject to morph from a remote, lifeless figure into a thinking, feeling, tangible being, and that’s why I’m drawn to fiction of this type.  Before I start my list then, a quick explanation of my self-imposed rules as to what was eligible for inclusion!  All the novels here deal with the life story of one specific person; a story set in the Tudor court that happened to feature Henry VIII, for example, wouldn’t count.  Apart from that distinction, anything goes: all human life is here.

  1. “This Thing of Darkness” by Harry Thompson – this is a bit of a tome, but worth every minute that you devote to it. It tells the tale of Darwin’s famous voyage on HMS Beagle; however, the real focus in terms of character isn’t the naturalist himself but Robert FitzRoy, the ship’s captain.  In Darwin he finds a great friend, but ultimately stands to lose much more as his faith begins to be shaken by the revolutionary theories of his travelling companion.  I loved the fact that the author chose to shine the spotlight on a real-life figure who has been somewhat forgotten compared to his much more famous friend.
  2. “The Quickening Maze” by Adam Foulds – the year is 1840, and his precarious mental state sees the poet John Clare incarcerated in an asylum. I knew nothing of Clare’s unfortunate life prior to reading this novel, and although the author freely admits that he took “a number of liberties” with actual events, this is still an incredibly arresting depiction of mental anguish and the way it was dealt with by Victorian society.  Not the most uplifting of books, but undeniably haunting.
  3. “Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier – if you fancy a book about a fiercely intelligent and determined woman fighting against the patriarchal establishment then this is for you! Mary Anning (for those of you who, like me, who haven’t previously heard of her) was a fossil collector whose discoveries rocked the scientific community in the nineteenth century.  Despite the undeniable significance of her work, however, she was constantly opposed and excluded by the ranks of male scientists who refused to be challenged by any evidence that was put forward by a woman.  You’ll find yourself willing her on all the way through.
  4. “Symphony” by Jude Morgan – I’m pretty sure this book has appeared in another of my top five lists, but it’s so good I’m putting it in another one! It charts the relationship between Berlioz and Harriet Smithson and I think it’s possibly one of the most authentic portrayals of love I’ve ever read.  By the time you’ve followed the couple through years of joy, anguish, passion and disappointments, you feel as if you know them intimately.
  5. “The Final Confession of Mabel Stark” by Robert Hough – this is one of my all-time favourite novels, but it wasn’t until I’d got to the end and read the author’s note that I realised Mabel Stark was a real woman. As a performer in a succession of travelling circuses you might expect her lifestyle to be on the eccentric side, but hers was so bizarre it seems as fantastical as the illusion of the circus itself.  There’s an underlying sadness to her story though; she was a woman for whom the steady, intimate relationships that most of us crave simply weren’t possible.  The tigers that she trained remained the true loves of her life until the very end.

As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts – which novels of this sort have you enjoyed?

 

“Belonging” by Umi Sinha – review

If ever there was a time I’ve been glad I judged a book by its cover, this is it.  “Belonging” is even more exquisite on the inside than on the outside, a delicately spun tale with a rich emotional resonance that gets a grip on your heart and won’t let go.  It is the most apparently innocuous of items, an embroidered tablecloth, which precipitates the shocking event that sets this often tragic novel in motion; appropriate, because the book itself is reminiscent of a work of embroidery, with threads moving in, out and around each other, creating a sequence of vivid vignettes that eventually come together to produce one gloriously intricate yet cohesive picture.

The story follows three generations of the same family and revolves around the British presence in India during the days of the Victorian Empire.  Arthur is an officer in the British military and his son Henry a civil servant; but it’s the third and final generation we meet first in the shape of Lila, Henry’s daughter.  At the start of the novel, Lila’s involvement in the cataclysmic event I alluded to earlier results in her leaving India for England where she lives, initially at least, in a state of emotional shock, with a great aunt to whom she cannot and will not relate.  From then on, the book gradually reveals through letters and diaries how the family came to be at the terrible, shattered place it now is.

The idea of belonging can mean so many things, and one of the beauties of this novel is the subtle way it approaches its fundamental theme from so many different angles, from the broad view of colonialism and its implications to the microcosm of a romantic relationship.  It would be very easy to judge the colonial aspect through twenty-first century eyes and conclude that none of the British inhabitants could ever truly “belong” in India since, as we would probably all agree today, they were interlopers who had no right to be there.  Yet for the people who lived through those times it was so much more complicated than that, as the author shows us.  What about the thousands of children who were born in India into a British family and were expected to conduct themselves according to Western values, but who were effectively brought up by Indian nannies, looked after by Indian servants and spent their youth with Indian children among their companions?  Lila is one such child, and only really begins to understand the conflicting nature of her cultural identity once she is forced to spend her teenage years in England, a country whose nationality she holds but that she’s never seen.  In India she’s most certainly not a native and there’s no doubting her position as a white, British young lady; in Britain on the other hand she’s viewed with suspicion and sometimes derision as the “Indian” girl, whose upbringing sets her apart from others her own age.  In her own mind, Lila belongs to a homeland that now the rest of the world is telling her is not really her own.  A confused sense of belonging isn’t limited to the British expatriates: in the politically and socially complex world of empirical India the army is full of Indian nationals fighting, potentially their fellow countrymen, on behalf of their colonial overlords.  A succession of almost unbearably tense, anguished chapters depicting a mutiny and subsequent slaughter at Cawnpore show in bleak and brutal detail how feelings of loyalty and of belonging to a particular ethnic group were so delicately poised at this volatile time.

The act of being in love is another kind of belonging all together, and just as the novel is full of misplaced souls unable to belong to the place in which they find themselves, so it is full to the brim with the pain of unrequited or thwarted love.  The idea of belonging to someone else and the fulfilment to be found from that walks hand in hand with the emotional necessity of having a place to call home.  Lila loses her family, friends and security right at the beginning of the book, and later on looks set to lose someone else that she’s grown to love.  Only then does she realise that since leaving India there’s only been one person “with whom I felt I belonged” as she says.  Without that person to anchor her, she belongs nowhere.

It’s an incredibly sad book in many ways, as successive generations struggle to overcome the dreadful culmination of all the secrets, lies and misfortunes that have gone before them.  Bizarrely though, it doesn’t feel that way as you read – and you certainly don’t come away feeling completely downcast, despite all the horror that’s just unfolded.  Maybe it’s because the story progresses so gradually and you feel as if the author is exploring her characters’ emotions with real care; at every stage she gives the reader time to draw breath and ruminate on everything that’s going on.  For me, this novel exemplifies one of the great things about reading: a book that glides in completely under the radar and then blows your mind with its quality and artistry.  The skill with which the novel switches between eras and narrators and slowly but surely gathers all the threads together is extraordinary.  Often with stories told through multiple voices I find that I’m more interested in some strands than others, but not here.  Come for the cover just as I did by all means – but stay for the content, because it’s truly a work of art.

Past Masters – my favourite historical fiction authors

I adore historical fiction – from the Middle Ages to the Victorians, I’ll read it all.  So to trumpet my passion just that little bit more, I’m launching my Past Masters series of blog posts, the aim being to celebrate some of the amazing historical fiction writers out there and hopefully to inspire you to try someone you haven’t yet read.  Without further ado then, first up this week is…

Suzannah Dunn

Which historical period does she write about?

The Tudors; her books are focussed primarily on the Tudor court.

Why should I read her?

Most of her novels feature real historical figures, so if like me you see historical fiction partly as a springboard into learning some historical facts then you’ll enjoy these.  What Suzannah Dunn does particularly well, though, is to use some less well-known, or almost entirely fictional, characters to provide a unique perspective on what is quite a familiar and frequently explored period in British history.  In “The Queen of Subtleties” for example, she takes a single name and job title from the actual historical records relating to Henry VIII’s court, and from that starting point creates the character of King’s Confectioner, who tells us the famous story of Anne Boleyn’s downfall as seen through the eyes of a servant – a class of people whose experience of their times all too often died with them.  When it comes to finding a convincing narrative voice this author is a real class act; her books are incredibly well written and she clearly has a real love for the period.

Which authors are most similar?

The obvious comparison is Philippa Gregory, but Alison Weir’s fictional books aren’t a million miles away.  I have to say I do prefer Suzannah Dunn to Alison Weir though.

Which book should I start with?

My favourite was the one I mentioned above, “The Queen of Subtleties”, primarily because I loved the idea of exploring the world of the people behind all the Tudor splendour and gastronomic extravagance.

I hope your interest is piqued enough to give this fantastic author a try!  See you soon on the blog for another of my favourite writers.

 

Milestones

I like to think of life as a compilation of tiny moments, an almost infinite multitude of conversations, daydreams, sights, sounds and feelings that combine to make our existence unique.  Every so often, among the mundane and the everyday, something comes along that will stand out in the memory or maybe give us a little nudge onto a slightly different path.  These markers could be anything and everyone has their own; as this is a book blog of course I am going to be talking about the reading experiences that have become my milestones.  There are books that I can still recall clearly years later, purely because they were somehow significant to my life at the time and I remember exactly where I was, literally and metaphorically, when they made their way into my hands.  It would be an exaggeration to say that a book has ever changed my life – I’ve come across a number of people who feel that’s happened for them, but for me it’s always been a subtle influence rather than a revelation.

As a child I was excessively anxious about trying anything new in any area of my life, including books.  I find it strange to think back on that nervousness now when as an adult I’m so keen to discover new things that I barely return to anything – but in my childhood I was (like many children I imagine) incredibly stubborn in my resolve to cling to the familiar.  I stuck to reading series of books by authors that continually re-trod old ground: Enid Blyton’s seemingly never ending body of work was a particular favourite.  Eventually my parents, frustrated by my refusal to venture into new territory, bought me “Mossflower” by Brian Jacques.  I’d never read anything like it before, and I have a very vivid memory of planning to read a couple of chapters before declaring I didn’t like it so I’d be allowed to return to my beloved Famous Five!  As it turned out, no such manipulation of my poor parents was required, as I fell in love with it as I’d almost never fallen in love with anything before.  I still have the large collection of his books that I ended up amassing, and I look on “Mossflower” as the book that switched off my fear of the unknown.  From then on I never looked back, and I think that’s where my desire to be as widely read as possible first started.

Despite being an avid reader by the time I reached secondary school, I remember finding the set texts in the early years pretty uninspiring (I loathed “Flambards” and “Moonfleet” with a passion!) yet I went on to study English literature all the way through university.  The book that I think made me want to do that?  “Middlemarch” – one of my mum’s favourite books and still one of mine today.  I remember sitting in my bedroom squeezed into the space between the bed and the window, sun pouring in, and thinking that I had never come across anything this complex or elegantly written before.  It was the first of many discoveries that led to some amazing years spent studying literature, a choice of subject I loved and have never regretted.

Life, however, is invariably full of ruts and the milestone book that shook me out of another one was “The Secret History”.  I came across it when I first started working in the book trade in my early twenties, and discovered pretty quickly that this was the book my new colleagues raved about with complete unanimity.  Up until that point I’d been primarily a classics sort of girl and contemporary fiction hadn’t held much appeal for me.  Then Donna Tartt’s phenomenal novel blew my mind.  I carried it around with me literally everywhere for two days, reading in the oddest places whenever I got a few minutes, and I will always hold it up as being the book that turned me onto modern fiction writing.

I would love to know if there are any books that you think of as being milestones in your life.  Which book made you fall in love with reading?  Is there a book that completely changed the way you thought about something?  As always I would love you to share your thoughts here on Girl, Reading!

My new obsession: S J Parris

It’s quite rare for me to read books from the same series in quick succession.  Even when a trilogy or longer series is complete and all the books are there ready should I so choose, I hardly ever read them back to back; that’s true even in cases where I’ve been blown away by the first one.  The reason is simply that I find taking a break makes me appreciate the follow-ups even more when I come back to them.  The old cliché that you can have too much of a good thing is definitely true when it comes to books; I find that overindulging in an author, character or even a genre can quickly extinguish any magic you felt at first.  I’m slightly surprised, then, to find myself well and truly ensnared by an obsession that has resulted not only in my reading a whole two books (!) by the same author one after the other, but buying the rest so they’re there the minute I’ve finished part two.  The thing that hasn’t surprised me is that this latest literary crush is historical fiction – if anything’s going to ignite my passion and maintain it, it’ll be that.  The author is S J Parris and the central character is Giordano Bruno, a former monk who ends up in England following his excommunication from the Church of Rome on charges of heresy.  In the first book he meets Sir Philip Sidney and Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, and quickly becomes entangled in a gruesome murder investigation with many potential repercussions for church and state.

If you loved the Shardlake series by C J Sansom then I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy these.  The period is similar (Sansom’s books take place during the reign of Henry VIII, Parris’ books are set in Elizabethan times) and both central characters are intellectuals whose quick brains and lofty social connections lead them to turn detective, albeit with some reluctance.  Bruno is an extremely likeable protagonist, with enough self-doubt to prevent him from appearing arrogant or infallible, but not so much that he becomes a tortured hero whose melancholy introspection detracts from the mystery at hand.  And the mysteries themselves are cracking puzzles.  They take place, of course, in a time when Catholics and Protestants were almost literally at war, with heretics on both sides being hunted down, tortured and murdered all across Europe.  Double dealing and the concealment of religious identity were the order of the day; if we learn anything from Bruno’s struggles to unravel these often religiously motivated crimes, it’s that nobody can be trusted to hold the same beliefs that they choose to show to the world.

I’m particularly looking forward to reading the third instalment as it’s set in the part of England where I’ve lived for most of my life – I can’t wait to see how the author brings my familiar surroundings to life.  If you want to give the series a go then “Heresy” is book one; the stories stand alone for the most part so reading them in order isn’t essential, but to get the full impression of Bruno’s development as a character I think it’s best to start at the beginning of his story.  If you’re a fan of historical fiction I hope you’ll give them a try.  If you’re not then this may just be the series to convert you!