Hillary Jordan – Mudbound

One of my resolutions for my reading year is to cut down on the book buying and explore the hidden depths of my TBR stack. Mudbound has been there for a whopping 11 years. Hopefully by 2020 I’ll be able to read the novels that have been on the pile for a long time.

Mudbound is quite an interesting book because it combines two topics which are rarely seen together in literature; racism and PTSD. Also it’s a novel that relies on multi viewpoints, which gives the book more depth.

It’s 1939 and Henry McAllen and his wife, kids and father move to the country. After being swindled, The McAllens end up in a ramshackle farmhouse but they get by. For some historical perspective, the setting is the American South and racism is rampant, Henry himself is a racist but does tolerate Afro-Americans, unlike his father who all out hates different races. Henry also has some hang ups as he was a soldier in World War I and it affected him.

We jump to 1945 and Henry’s brother Jamie decides to pay his brother a visit. The problem is that Jamie saw a lot of horrors as a pilot in World War II and tries to escape his experiences by drinking. Jamie’s case of PTSD is quite severe as he suffers from nightmares and has an aversion to loud noises.

The third major character is Ronsel, who also fought in the Second World War and is returning to the South. Over the war period he got used to the European way of thinking so he’s finding it hard to adapt to the racist attitudes of white America. As with Jamie, he suffers from PTSD, despite the fact that he did have a better time in post war Europe.

The other narrators of the book are Henry’s wife Laura, Ronsel’s mother, Florences and father, Hap. Both who are connected to the McAllens. Together everyone’s lives interact, unveiling secrets and combating their psychological issues, leading up to the epic conclusion.

Mudbound is a solid novel: the plot is tight, the characters are memorable, most of the scenes will stick in your head. The multi-point perspective works well. Jordan is a good writer and the whole book is flows. I’ve found out that the Mudbound has been adapted and I can see that working as well. A good read.

My Top 10 Books of 2019

I must admit I am a huge fan of making lists, but the end of year ones are my absolute favourite ones! I had an excellent reading year and listing just 10 was a chore that took quite a while and some got left out (they will go into the honorable mentions list). Even placing them in numerical order was a task, although I’m sure you can guess which book went to number 1! Anyway, here we go (click on the cover for my review):

10. Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive

Two sound archivists and their children undertake a road trip. Encapsulating a myriad of themes ranging from immigration to social, Lost Children Archive is a mind expanding gem of a book. Oh there’s one sentence that’s 15 pages long. Pay attention you’ll see this quite a few time in this top 10.

9. Jan Carson – The Fire Starters

I love it when a book drops out of nowhere and it is an utter joy to read. It’s not secret that I like magical realism and Irish literature and Fire Starters hit both spots.

There’s two plots. One concerns a father who is worried that his son is an arsonist. The other is about a guy who fathers a mermaid. Both plots are entwined. Weird, wonderful, symbolic and an addictive read, this was definitely a highlight of 2019.

8. Caryl Lewis, Gwen Davies (trans) – The Jeweller

The Jeweller is a quiet book but packs a nose shattering punch when you reach the end. As you can guess the book is about a jeweller called Mari, but one who harbours secrets. The joy unearthing the secrets along with Mari. Also my first taste of Welsh language literature (and hopefully not my last)

7. Toby Litt – Patience

It’s not a secret that I am a huge fan of independent presses, as I believe that they are willing to take risks and publish innovative literature. Patience falls into this category.

The narrator is Elliott, who is recounting an event that happened in his childhood. The thing is Elliott has cerebral palsy and it is 1979, when children with Elliott’s condition lived in institutions. Elliott’s communication system back then only consisted of grunts.

One day Jim, a blind mute enters Elliott’s life and the two form a life changing plan.

Patience is a book about language, faith and also about breaking free in every sense of the word. It also gave me major good feel vibes, and there are many memorable set pieces. Another big surprise of the eyar.

6. Rachel Mann – A Kingdom of Love

Yes for the first time in the Bobsphere’s history a poetry book has made it into the top 10.

A Kingdom of Love examines spirituality in a materialistic world, it’s also about the inner battle of overcoming fear of our society in order to achieve total love. Structured as a three part opus, these poems will strike you even if you are the staunchest of non believers.

5. Daniel James – The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas

Back in 2002 I read John Fowles’ The Magus and I loved the way it played with my brain, blurring the lines between illusion and reality. Many years later The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas did the same thing to me.

Who is Ezra Maas? did he really exist? how come so many people saw him? is he still alive? is he walking amongst us? Author Daniel James tries to uncover the enigma that is Ezra Maas but finds many dead ends, yet there is proof. Don’t forget that once you read it you’ll be part of this world. As the first line states ‘This book is dangerous. You need to know that before you begin’.

4. Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

Some books just sum up the last decade. Girl, Woman, Other does that. 12 interlocking stories about 12 women in 12 one sentence long chapters. This book is about race relations, sexism , gender, nearly everything. I said in my review that this book is life changing and I still hold on to that. This novel will open your eyes. To top it off GWO is beautifully written. All the accolades like must read, must have are deserved.

3. Rónán Hession – Leonard and Hungry Paul

How can I describe Leonard and Hungry Paul? it’s about two guys who are at odds with our society. However that description doesn’t really bring out what this book is about. At times it’s funny, at times it is endearing, at times it’s gently philosophical. Saying that this not a bloke book. Leonard and Hungry Paul does tackle some complex issues in an accessible manner. In it’s subliminal way LAHP will influence your way of thinking be it The Quiet Club or You may wish to note the above. In an era where things must be grandiose, it’s good to have some subtlety now and then.

2. Ali Smith – Spring

I’m not going to say a lot here,mainly because later on next year, there will be a BIG review about the quartet, as it’s nearing the end. All I will say is that the latest volume is just as excellent as the previous two. Probably this is the most political of the lot but it’s quite playful as well.

  1. Lucy Ellmann – Ducks, Newburyport

2019 was the year of the one sentence, no punctuation novel but Ducks, Newburyport is the grand puba of this format.

Do not let the 1000 pages and one sentence (there’s a subplot that is written in a conventional manner) put you off this book. Despite the experimental nature Ducks, Newburyport is one of those novels that will suck you into it’s world once you get used to the style.

I’ve spoken about the. merits of the book many times so the question is why did I place it at number one? The answer is that this novel spoke to me. I could relate to the fears and anxieties of the main character. Trump’s America, the future generation, the influence of the media, all the problems that have occurred in the past 20 years are enmeshed within the narrator’s monologue.

Ultimately though, I saw Ducks, Newburyport as a testament to the strength of motherhood. Who will be there to protect children, how strong is a mother’s love? This is postulated in the book and further exemplified with the intertwining subplot.

Ducks, Newburyport is not only THE book of 2019, it is one of the greatest books of all time. Lucy Ellmann has written a masterpiece, and an unbeatable one at that.

Honourable mentions : Lanny , Frankisstein , The Friend , The Nickel Boys , I am Sovereign , Witches Sail in Eggshells , Plastic Emotions , Bottled Goods , A Devil Comes to Town , Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead

Ian Macpherson – Sloot

Although I do enjoy the odd crime novel, I like it even more when an author takes the genre and subverts it. Martin Amis managed with London Fields, Michael Chabon did as well with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Sloot manages this and chucks in a few laughs along the way.

Hayden is a comedian who has to return to Dublin in order to attend his uncle’s funeral. When he inspects his uncle’s house, he discovers that there are certain details which are odd, which prompts Hayden to investigate.

But that’s not all.

The narrator is also the author of the book. At times he takes a break from the narrative and tries to look for a professor. The fourth wall not broken in Sloot – it is smashed to pieces constantly.

AND Hayden is trying to write a detective novel in the process.

Sloot has been compared to Pynchon and I can see why. There is a meta quality to the book; the narrator is fully aware of what the characters are going to do and sometimes their future movements are documented to us. The reader is equally important to the narrative as well. Then there’s the ending, which encapsulates the meta-ness of Slott.

Other than that, the novel does follow the tropes of crime fiction. There are suspects, clues, plot twists (very good ones!) and the denouement, which is cleverly executed. The big difference being that we readers are reminded that we are reading a thriller.

Sloot is not just technique though, the characters are memorable, the dialogue is great and, unlike the mysteries I’ve read, there’s a zany sense of humor.

Celtic-screwball-noir. Looks like Ian Macpherson has invented a new genre.

Olga Tokarczuk, Jennifer Croft (trans) – Flights

Earlier this year I read Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead and I was blown away. However nothing was going to prepare me for Flights. Well to cut a long story short, I was blown away a second time round.

The main theme of Flights is travel. The book’s narrator has a travel addiction and documents it. Flights, itself consists of 116 short pieces about travel. Sometimes it’s about certain aspects of travel, like the air sickness bag or hotel receptions. In other, longer, sections the narrator focuses on a certain period in history, The first anatomically correct sketches or transporting Chopin’s heart. The title story is an epic tale of a woman who is obsessed with a shrouded woman who says mysterious things.

At first I did thing that the format was fragmentary but the more I read, the more the stories began to gel and clever segues cropped up. One long story may begin in Russia and the the narrator will talk about Russia from a more contemporary perspective.

Flights is a playful read, I personally enjoy it when I have to piece seemingly disparate narratives together and once things begin to click in Flights, I enjoyed the book even more as I was seeing how certain aspects of travel have not changed during the last few centuries.

I can heap praises on Flights, it really is a special book and it deserved every accolade that was bestowed upon it (most notably it won the 2018 International Booker) but it will be more satisfactory if the reader picks it up and discovers why this book casts a spell over it’s readers.

10 Years, 10 Novels : A Decade's Worth of Books (sort of)

Now that 2020 is round the corner (not to mention 20 20 vision puns) Everyone is creating lists of the best albums from the last ten years, best films and, of course, books.

So I guess I decided to try it out.

I do know that every year when I write my top 10 books, there’s a possibility that the number one may not be have been published in that year i.e my number one book of 2016 was a book published in 1987. For accuracy’s sake, the publication year will be in accordance of the year mentioned.

Here we go:

2010 :

Jonathan Franzen – Freedom

Jonathan Franzen post 911 American family saga. Is breathtakingly vast. Stuffed with complex emotions, Franzen depicts the pains of growing up, morals, a changing America and Cerulean Warblers. if you thought The Corrections was his masterpiece, think again.

2011:

Julian Barnes – The Sense of an Ending

How reliable is memory? can someone’s brain play tricks over the years? Julian Barnes answers these questions in the form of a man recalling an incident which happened in his schooldays. A deceptively simple book.

2012

Adam Johnson – The Orphan Master’s Son

The greatest political tale you’ll ever read. Most of the time it is shocking, the rest the time your jaw will drop at Johnson’s clever plot twists. Everything you wanted to know about North Korea and couldn’t ask.

2013

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

This Dickensian tale about a boy hiding a stolen painting for 10 years is the equivalent of a panoramic film. In this thick tome, Tartt takes the reader to a variety of destinations.Needless to say that the writing is beautiful and the characters are memorable. Tartt has always been able to tell a great story but here she surpasses herself.

2014

Ali Smith – How to be Both

Ali Smith is a genius. How someone can create experimental fiction and make it so accessible just boggles my brain. How to be Both consists of two parts. One is about a painter and the other is about a teenage girl. In-between there’s discussions about gender, art, feminism, music, politics and much more. Ali Smith is capable of stuffing dozens of topics in her novels and coming out with something coherent. Probably the first time I’ve read a novel where the book’s cover is referenced and plays a role within the text. Every Ali Smith novel is amazing but How to be Both stands above the rest.

2015

Hanya Yanagihara – A Little Life

A Little Life is a difficult read. Not because of the writing style (although the 60 page exposition dump can grate a tiny bit) but because it depicts the cruelty of our society. In short this is a big ugly book that will drain you emotionally but it is an equally fascinating and horrifying look at how evil people can be. Oh yeah the plot, it follows the lives of four boys but that’s all I’m going to say.

2016

Han Kang, Deborah Smith (trans) – The Vegetarian

You’ll never eat meat again.

2017

Patty Yumi Cottrell Sorry to Disrupt the Peace

A bohemian girl in New York receives a phone call saying that her adopted brother committed suicide. This sparks off a return to her hometown in order to conduct an investigation into why her brother killed himself. This novel about identity is poignant, sometimes gross and very funny.

2018

Richard Powers – The Overstory

Every Richard Powers novel is momentous but The Overstory just floored me. Eight lives and all are connected by trees. This is not some twee appreciation to nature. Powers goes into every aspect of the tree as Melville goes into every aspect of the whale in Moby Dick. Besides the riveting subplots, you’ll unleash your inner Lorax by the end of the book and want to save them too!

2019

You’ll find out next week when I’ll be doing my top 10 books of 2019.

Brenda Lozano, Annie McDermott (trans) – Loop

When you read a book which starts off with a smiling dwarf then with a small explanation about the different types of pencil sharpeners, you know you’re in for an interesting read.

Loop is told in a series of paragraphs, like the title of the book, certain themes are returned to constantly. Like the above dwarf and sharpener, Also swallows make repeated appearances, so do Ideal (it’s a type of brand) notebooks, and the type of lines one finds in them.

The book itself is about an unnamed narrator who has survived a life threatening accident. She is also waiting for her her boyfriend Jonás to return from Spain as he has experienced loss. In between the narrator writes down her thoughts in an Ideal notebook.

There are allusions to certain works of literature. The narrator compares herself to Penelope waiting for Odysseus, there references to Borges , Pessoa Proust, Beckett, Ovid, Kafka. However it is David Bowie’s cover of Wild is the wind which palys an important role as the narrator identifies with that track.

Despite the multitude of themes, the one which I felt stood out was the different variations of love from erotic to filial. This topic is cemented in the poignant ending.

Loop was a book that moved me. I liked the way the narrator did not distinguish between small details and off kilter pondering with subjects such as death and longing. Although I am a huge fan of quirky narrators, I thought that Loop’s main protagonist didn’t revel in her weirdness and I did appreciate it. There is a whimsical feel to the book but it never descends into twee naivety.

I cannot praise Loop enough. Any book that stirs me emotionally and in such an economic manner definitely gets kudos from me. A rich novel which affects both the brain and the heart in equal measures.

Many thanks to Charco Press for providing a requested copy of Loop, in exchange for an honest review.

Dashiell Hammett – The Maltese Falcon

Before I start writing the actual review, I better get the more problematic issues out of the way.

The Maltese Falcon is a sexist book. All the women are busty and sex mad, they are damsels in distress, they are not to bright and if they aren’t good looking, Hammett makes sure to describe that. Now, whether Hammett wanted to display a certain type of mentality or if he really had that view of women, I don’t know. I will also say that The Maltese Falcon is a macho book. Generally I hate that stuff with a passion but there was something that drew me into the novel.

The main protagonist is Sam Spade, who became the prototype hard-boiled crime detective; he’s tough, witty and treats women like crap. He also is clever and has great foresight.

The plot itself focuses on a statuette of a bird, which has to be found. In the process there are three murders and quite a few shady characters involved. Using his quick wits and power of observation, Spade solves the case.

So why did I have so much fun reading this book? For starters it’s totally unpredictable. Hammett throws in many well-timed red herrings, I liked the way the whole book was structured. Clues are dropped but everything makes sense when the. mystery is solved on the last page. Despite the fact that The Maltese Falcon is 90 years old, it still feels contemporary. Hammet also knows how to write snappy one liners and infuse the text with a cinematic quality – hence the reason why the adaptation is considered a. classic; good writing can help a lot.

I can see why The Maltese Falcon is so influential; not only does it lay the formula for crime novelists but also Hammett created a character, who also influenced people from Raymond Chandler to Ian Fleming. Despite that flaw this book still manages to surprise.