The most 'unputdownable' and ultimate page-turner of 2008

2008-09-17 00:00

A FAT pile of eight shiny new novels should be a treat, but as I read my way through this year’s Exclusive Books’ Boeke Prize short list, my heart began to sink. Chosen by booksellers from around the country as likely to be among the year’s top reads and due to be judged for unputdownability, I found them an undistinguished lot with no obvious winner for the title of most compulsive read.

Eventually, I did find two good ones and four that were okay, with only two real horrors — so it could have been a lot worse. Maybe I was just having a grumpy old woman moment but I must admit that I hope there’s some better reading out there on the horizon. The books are listed below in my order of preference. Once all the other judges have given their verdict, their choice and the Fanatics members’ choice will be announced on October 2. I wouldn’t like to stick my neck out and predict which will be the eventual winner — we’ll have to wait and see.

Bright Shiny Morning

James Frey

John Murray

A great sprawling mess of a book — about a great sprawling mess of a city — Los Angeles. James Frey made his name with A Million Little Pieces, and also made enemies when what he was claiming as non-fiction turned out to be heavily fictionalised. But that’s all past.

While this book can be irritating, it is compelling. Frey’s cast of characters encompasses good people, bad people, sad people, fully drawn characters and nameless statistics, all heading for LA and the American dream, which in the 21st century is more likely to be the American nightmare. There are lists of facts, timelines of natural disasters — and then there are characters whom you care about. Two are the delightful, feisty American-born Mexican, Esperanza, and Joe, the alcoholic dropout with good instincts. Others you will loathe, such as, the creepy, plastic Hollywood star Amberton, or ache for — the naive, helpless Dylan and Maddie. It is not an easy book to categorise, but something tells me that among a list of pretty forgettable offerings this will be one to stick in the mind.

The Blood of Flowers

Anita Amirrezvani

Headline Review

It would be a huge pity if this book finds itself classified dismissively as “women’s fiction”. It is extremely readable and an appealing story, and interspersed as it is with ancient Persian myths it takes on the mesmerising quality of oral storytelling.

The nameless heroine, growing up in a village in 17th-century Iran, is left destitute when her father dies, just at the time when he should have been arranging a marriage for her. She and her mother head for Isfahan to the home of an almost unknown uncle. The girl’s one skill is in carpet making, and under her uncle’s tuition, her talents blossom. But she is little more than a disposable chattel, and her rashness repeatedly leads her into trouble.

Independent women were uncommon in the Iran of the time (and probably in the Iran of our time too), and the narrator’s struggle to make her way in the world, and get rid of the shackles of society’s and her own expectations makes a powerful story of considerable charm.

The Behaviour of Moths

Poppy Adams

Virago

This is a weirdly Gothic tale of two sisters. Ginny, the narrator, is an eccentric elderly recluse in the large, collapsing house where she has lived all her life. Vivien, her younger sister, has just returned from London after nearly half a century away. The moths of the title are in the attic, where Ginny and her father put them after they had caught them, killed them and experimented on them. Father was a famous lepidopterist — and maybe Ginny was too. “Maybe”, because as soon becomes clear, Ginny is a far from reliable voice.

The sisters’ story is strange and convoluted. What is the truth behind Vivien’s childhood accident? And what really happened to Maud, their alcoholic mother? Is Ginny like a moth, reactive and programmed to behave in a certain way, or is she responsible for her actions and capable of rational decision making? This is a disturbing bit of Gothic horror, where the reader, like Ginny, slips uneasily in the territory between fantasy and reality.

Lullabies for Little Criminals

Heather O’Neill

Quercus

The heroine and narrator of this disturbing look at the dark side of urban childhood is Baby — the child of teenage parents. She never knew her mother, only her drug addict father Jules with whom she lives — at least sometimes. Baby is on her own, and although Jules loves her in his own, stoned way, she is uncared for. But she has a huge instinct for survival and a lot of love to give, all too often to the wrong people.

From time to time, things look up. There is briefly a loving foster mother, or success and friendship at school. But generally Baby’s progress goes from bad to worse. On her way to the book’s unexpected climax, she slides further into a dark underworld of pimps, prostitution and drugs. But she never loses the feistiness that makes her such an appealing character. The humour is black, O’Neill’s story — which seems to have strong autobiographical elements — is bleak, but it is a book that lingers in the memory.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson

Maclehose Press

This is a thriller, translated from Swedish, which combines skulduggery in the world of finance with the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl, who vanished, seemingly into thin air, 40-odd years before. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist is convicted of libelling a financier and, to save the magazine he co-owns, takes himself off to a remote island to spend a year investigating an ancient mystery at the request of the girl’s wealthy uncle. The more he finds out, the more sinister the story becomes. Mikael’s only source of help is strange, sad Lisbeth Salander — amoral, declared legally incompetent, dysfunctional and a computer hacker without peer. And as the pair uncover evidence pointing to ancient crimes and modern corruption, so they find themselves in more and more danger.

The solution to the mystery is almost too neat, but there are believable characters, plenty of suspense, and for non-Swedes, interesting glimpses into Swedish society.

Night Train to Lisbon

Pascal Mercier

Atlantic Books

This one was originally published in German and celebrated as a serious, cerebral novel, as one might expect from a professor of philosophy. The plot concerns Raimund Gregorius, a fuddy-duddy teacher of “dead languages” in the Swiss city of Bern whose life changes abruptly when he has a strange encounter with a Portuguese woman, and then finds a mysterious, privately published book. He walks out of his old life, takes a train to Lisbon and searches for information about the author, a doctor from an aristocratic family and with a past in his country’s resistance to its fascist dictator Salazar.

The book explores all kinds of ideas — the sense of self, the fear of death, the way in which we live our lives never engaging more than a small part of our being. Gregorius’s quest takes him to people who knew Amadeu Prado, and he comes to understand things about him, and about himself.

It is not an easy read, though it is stimulating. The translation is a trifle leaden and at times the going is heavy. Unlikely to be a bestseller in this country.

Things I Want My Daughters to Know

Elizabeth Noble

Michael Joseph

This novel suffers from a severe case of the warm fuzzies — sufficient to induce nausea. The daughters are Barbara’s, and the book opens with her funeral. She has written private notes to each of them — commitment-phobe Lisa, uptight Jennifer, wild child Amanda and their half-sister Hannah, a budding teen rebel. Their ages range from 38 to 15. She has also left a journal, telling them — and her second husband Mark — things about her life that they didn’t know before.

The daughters have made mistakes — and continue to make them. But their wise mother can see their flaws, and hopes to save them from themselves. And besides her advice from beyond the grave, they are fortunate to meet good, kind people who only want them to be happy. It is nowhere near reality, but if you can buy into that kind of world view, it is probably readable. If not, it is merely irritating.

Shatter

Michael Robotham

Sphere

Here we have a psychological thriller. All the ready-mix ingredients are there — a sadistic, clever killer; the psychologist-cum-detective; a rough-diamond retired cop; vulnerable children; a possibly cheating wife to give the hero some necessary angst; plodding police; a lesbian detective presumably to fill some quota in the manual; a degenerative disease to make us sympathetic; insight into the killer’s mind, written in italics, before he is identified. Put it in a book, stir it up, and then write it by numbers. There’s nothing new.

The novel follows a well-worn path, and although it is done skilfully enough, it doesn’t take a genius to see where we are going from an early stage. It pushes the buttons, ratchets up the tension, offers some pretty nasty ideas and is all very formulaic. I hated it from start to

finish.

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