So is the most anticipated novel of the year any good? Well, it’s hugely enjoyable. I laughed. I cried. But by the end I felt a bit manipulated. In the end it’s a politically-motivated sledgehammer of a novel with a liberal message which verges on the self-righteous. But until it gets to that bit there’s a lot of fun. Listen to my review for the BBC World Service’s The Strand’s 40 million listeners here. Read the verdict in Red here (also reprinted below). And a rant about all the effing and blinding in the novel in the Mail on Sunday here.
It turns out that JK Rowling is not the greatest writer ever to have lived. But she is possibly one of the greatest storytellers. Which is how she can just about get away with this rather odd – and very British (too British?) – tale seemingly hinged on a parish council election but actually dealing with much deeper and more serious themes.
When the liberal, much-loved Barry Fairbrother collapses with a fatal aneurysm, half the population of the rural village of Pagford appears to be queuing up to take his seat — “The Casual Vacancy” — on the local council. The key contenders? Barry’s rival the porky deli owner Howard, who is lining up his son Miles to take the position. And local nasty-piece-of-work Simon Price also has his eye on the seat.
There are parallels with Harry Potter here when it transpires that although this is an adult novel (with occasionally alarmingly adult themes – and language – it’s already peppered with four-letter words by page 15), it’s really the children who are in charge. Or at least they think they are. Because whilst the grown-ups squabble over who’s going to win the election, a mystery team of teenage hackers is busy tampering with the Pangford Council website and denting all their chances.
The plot seems to hang on the slapstick business of a local election but really this is a socio-political morality tale about hypocrisy, snobbery, class and drug addiction. The locals are all forced to show their true colours when the local centre which hands out methadone is threatened with closure.
It’s a far-reaching and ambitious novel with a cast of characters as rich as any Harry Potter outing but with a gritty realism worthy of Ian Rankin crossed with the ambiguous tone of Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. It’s not exactly subtle with its finger-wagging liberal politics, though. And, whilst the first two thirds are playful and often wonderfully comic, the ending packs an uncomfortably vicious, moral, sideways punch.
As you’d expect, it’s hugely readable and draws you irresistibly in. And it’s a must-read because everyone will be talking about it. But don’t expect this book to change your life in quite the way it has changed the author’s.
Sometimes you just want to read a book you know will be GOOD. These ten books are the best of everything I have reviewed in the past 18 months. Click on the title for full review.
Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann (Independent, 5 Aug 2012) Dark psychological literary thriller set on Martha’s Vineyard. Mad Men on sea.
The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberg (Red, 1 Aug 2012) Witty, modern novel about an internet marriage gone wrong. Brilliant.
Sugar in the Blood by Andrea Stuart (Telegraph, 24 July 2012) Very readable history of sugar and slavery mingled with the author’s family story.
Where D’You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple (Red, 4 July 2012) Surreal, hilarious tale of “the greatest female architect in history” and her disastrous life.
The Land of Decoration by Grace McLeen (Independent, 11 March 2012) Acclaimed first novel about a girl growing up a Jehovah’s Witness. Clever, funny, intimate.
Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville (Telegraph, 14 February 2012) Brilliant historical fiction from one of Australia’s best writers.
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (Independent, 15 May 2011) Madame Bovary set against the backdrop of the Dublin property crash. One of my favourite novels of the past five years.
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe (Telegraph, 13 May 2011) The original Sex and the City set in the 1950s. Don Draper’s read it.
Other People’s Money by Justin Cartwright (Observer, 20 March 2011) Delightful novel which finally explains, painlessly, the why and how of the financial crisis.
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen (Observer, 9 Jan 2011) Fantastic memoir of a woman who finds herself moving back in with her parents when her husband meets a man on gay.com.
The Book of the Month in Red’s October issue is Deborah Copaken Kogan’s The Red Book. With that title it was a bit of a shoo-in. It’s like Sex and the City crossed with Cold Feet. But at Harvard. The Red Book is an actual Harvard thing: an update of everyone in your university year, published every five years. This novel follows four university friends who have taken very different paths in life and usually ones they didn’t exactly intend to follow. The Red Book makes them face the lies they’re telling each other and the lies they’re telling themselves. It’s good.
A reader wrote in recently to ask about a book she had seen featured in Red which was like Sex and the City. It was weird because I knew we were about to feature The Red Book so her question felt clairvoyant. I realised after thinking about it for several days that she was actually thinking about The Group by Mary McCarthy, mentioned in Red on a regular basis by me and also by editor Sam Baker. See review here by Elizabeth Day in the Observer. It’s set in the 1930s and is a favourite novel for a lot of people.
Candace Bushnell once described SATC as “a modern-day version of The Group.” There are parallels too with Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, set in the 1950s, and Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten-Year Nap, set in the early 2000s.
Elsewhere in October issue, I’ve written a piece linked to Red’s latest survey into attitudes towards parenting: Emotional Infertility: What Nobody Tells You About Modern Motherhood. What a bumper bonanza.
In September issue, book of the month is Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds, a very clever, funny story about a mail-order internet bride from Bangladesh. Her geeky husband George, an IT man from Rochester in the state of New York, is pleasingly awful. Also highly recommended: Herman Koch’s The Dinner, which everyone is talking about. And the latest from Nicci French, the husband-and-wife crime writing team, Tuesday’s Gone.
Red’s August reads include Wife 22, a funny and clever novel about a bored maternal type whose life is transformed when she volunteers for an anonymous email survey about her sex life, and two of my favourite reads this year, Where D’You Go Bernadette and Tigers in Red Weather (also one of my favourite covers of the year). Plus I reviewed Tigers in greater depth for The Independent: “A stay in Martha’s Vineyard you won’t forget in a hurry.”
So I said I would report back on my half-term reading. Nancy Huston is amazing. Can’t recommend Fault Lines highly enough. Brilliant accumulative narrative told across four generations where each relative gives you just an extra piece of puzzle until it suddenly all fits. One of the best attempts to tackle the aftermath of the Holocaust I’ve ever seen in fiction. Brilliant.
Less exciting was Kate Kerrigan’s The Miracle of Grace, a mother-daughter cancer story (sorry to put it like that but that’s what it is). I enjoyed it and it made me want to read more of her stuff. But it didn’t blow me away.
Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Cage of Stars? Very readable Jodi Picoult-style nonsense. Loved it at the time. Afterwards “meh” always sets in.
And Anne Fine’s Fly in the Ointment: witty, tight, misanthropic tale of a woman who tries to make her life come good after messing up too many times. There was something exciting going on here but it never quite came to life and I got quite annoyed by the end of it. Huston beats everyone hands down, slam dunk. Can’t wait for her new novel, Infrared, out end July.
I am not talking about whether it’s OK to read Anna Karenina (pictured – the Greta Garbo version), Madame Bovary or even, if you must, the Bible. It’s always OK to read those books. Although the Bible is a choice you may have to defend. (Not to me. I am a very broad church. And very broad generally.)
No. I am talking about whether it’s OK to read books published a year or two ago which you have never got round to reading and which have been sitting on your shelf looking unloved. Like, in my case, books by Nancy Huston.
If they are so great then why haven’t you already made time to read them? This sounds like a crazy question but it’s not. I devote a lot of time — the time it takes to read about 100+ books a year for review — to reading new books, just-published books or books not out for another six months. For an already-published book to get added to that schedule, it has to be good.
It takes a lot for me to return to something which has come out a couple of years ago and no-one is talking about anymore. I’m fastidious about throwing out (a) books I’ve already read and (b) books I would really like to read but know that I will never actually get round to reading. Most recently Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens fell into this category. Yes, I really want to read it. Yes, I hung onto it for six months and didn’t read it. And, yes, it is in the window of my local charity shop. Life is short and you have to be realistic.
So what are the titles I did hang on to, knowing I would read them one day and two or three years later, that day has finally come? Kate Kerrigan’s The Miracle of Grace, a mother-daughter love story. Nancy Huston’s Fault Lines, a psychological thriller spanning four generations. Anne Fine’s Fly in the Ointment, a novel about a determined mother or something like that. (I’m not actually sure why I hung onto this one. Someone whose opinion I respect must have told me that Anne Fine is good.) And Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Cage of Stars which does not look like my kind of thing at all and has a Jodi Picoult recommendation on the front. But I am trying to be more open in my reading choices at the moment. I will report back. I left Jonathan Franzen’s new collection of non-fiction at home in favour of these four novels, so at least one of them had better be good.
Spouse has accused me of being “demented” about the Orange prize. Couldn’t sleep after it was announced. Not because I didn’t like the book that won, The Song of Achilles by new, uber-talented author, 33 year-old Madeline Miller. No, I did like it. In fact I gave a glowing review of it in the Independent on Sunday which was quoted all over the post-prize coverage as proof of what a great book it is. But as much as I had enjoyed the book I had mixed feelings about it winning the prize.
The problem with this year’s Orange list is a problem any prize would envy: it was a very strong shortlist. Plus, two of the biggest contenders – the strongest contenders in my view – had previously won the Orange (Ann Patchett for Bel Canto) and the Booker (Anne Enright for The Gathering). Personally, I would have given the prize to Anne Enright for The Forgotten Waltz, pictured. (Spouse points out: “Yes, but no-one is asking you, are they?” Fair point.) This is a heart-stoppingly brilliant novel about fidelity, lust and self-delusion, a modern re-write of Madame Bovary for the tracker mortgage generation. It’s a book that rewrites the rules of fiction and reminds you how special reading is.
I can understand why the judges voted for The Song of Achilles. And in any case they made it known that the decision was not unanimous. Madeline Miller is a great writer and it’s a great book. There were other, more experienced writers on the list who have had their time in the sun. Why not reward a new talent? Which is great for Orange anyway, as prize committees like to look as if they’ve discovered a new voice.
But… But.. This is why I couldn’t sleep. It just wasn’t the best book on the list. And, worse, I don’t think it’s the best book Madeline Miller will write. Nor it is even her Bel Canto. Achilles is a miracle of a first novel, a stunningly original debut which is cleverly marketed towards people who know nothing about Greek mythology and think that by reading it they will feel much more clever. (And I know what I’m talking about because this is exactly how I felt when I read it.) But it’s not a Great Book. And Orange should only reward Great Books. Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz is that book. I’ll shut up now because my husband has had enough.
Hooray! It’s Red Book Club! Top five choices for July issue… The New Republic by Lionel Shriver, a quirky witty novel about terrorism and the life of the foreign correspondent. I felt a bit bad choosing this as Shriver wrote it over a decade ago and is only now getting it published because… Well, basically, she can get anything she wants published now. But I’m the biggest fan of her writing and will lap up anything she does. Even her mad tennis novel, Double Fault, which everyone else hated. I have only ever met one other person who liked it. It was like meeting my long-lost twin.
Other choices for July: The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace, an atmospheric Victorian story about a woman in a mental asylum which reminded me of Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing of Esme Lennox.
Catching the Sun by Tony Parsons, about a much-misunderstood taxi driver who moves his family to Thailand when he becomes disillusioned with life in Britain. I review a Parsons book with slightly gritted teeth as, God knows, he doesn’t need the publicity. But this is a good read and he is a writer who really knows what he’s doing…
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus (pictured above), which is the weirdest, freakiest, most brilliant idea, a futuristic novel about what happens when parents start to be poisoned by the words and speech of their children. I said it was freaky. I was amazed Red were happy for me to put this in, but quirky, difficult novels are having a bit of a moment and it’s good to have something a bit different in the mix.
And finally… in the book of the month slot is Park Lane by Frances Osborne. I put this in against my better judgement because (a) it’s a decent read and (b) I knew everyone would be talking about it and a lot of Red readers would want to know about it. It seems unfair to hold the author’s husband, George, against her… Or does it?
Novelist Jenny Colgan tweets that someone once put up their hand at a Q&A she was doing at a book festival to ask this immortal question. “Excuse me, but who are you?” I’ve heard this repeatedly from authors. It happens a lot. Even very well-known authors suffer from it, as Colgan proves.
As a reader, though, it’s easy to understand. There are so many authors, so many books, lots of them have similar names… It’s hard to keep up. It’s happened to me with Tim Parks, Kate Grenville, Alexander McCall Smith…
They’ve all been somewhere off my radar until suddenly I have “discovered” them only to find that millions of others “discovered” them before me and they are massively famous and I’m just the last one to turn up at the party wearing the wrong dress and feeling like an idiot.
In some ways, though, I love the idea behind “Excuse me, but who are you?” Why should readers know who someone is just because they’ve written a successful book? We can’t all know about everything.
One of the reasons I got so into Tim Parks – and bought up his entire back catalogue in one mammoth Amazon session – was because I met him at a books event, had no idea who he was, got talking to him and he told me all about his latest book, Teach Us to Sit Still, without expecting me to know anything about what he had done previously. Imagine my embarrassment when I got home, Googled him and realised he had written fourteen successful novels. What a class act not to mention that small detail. Humiliated. Mortified. Fan for life.