On top of her favourite reads, Kerry keeps a Big Fat Geek Spreadsheet of all the books she reads each month, complete with a 5 star system (5 being best, 0 being pants). She thought she’d share it with you because you can never have too many lists. Warning: there might be a few spoilers here.
1. Number 11, Jonathan Coe
What A Carve Up! and Like a Fiery Elephant, the biography of B.S. Johnson, two books that I love Coe for. This, on the other hand, is a bit more lightweight. Its theme is the Number 11, whether that’s the number of a bus, a house number, the number of a storage container. He tries to tell the story of our times, and to some extent he does. For example, he describes what actually happens on a reality TV show in the supposed outback of Australia, which happens to be only a couple of miles from the actual hotel where the film crew are based. And then he skilfully tells us the edited version that the TV show screens, so the duped public learn to loathe a character who is actually an innocent amongst the z-list celebs. Coe is clearly writing for the underdog or the ordinary or the disaffected, and wants to highlight the shameful behaviour of the rich. But the ending where they are swallowed up by an oversized, vengeful spider is frankly absurd. Okay, so it might have been a metaphor for Livia, the Romanian dog-walker, but seriously, it descends into farce lower than the 11th level of the rich folks’ house.
1. The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
I was briefly part of a writing group at work. For Halloween we all brought in a book that spooked us and that we would swap with group members. I brought in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and other short stories. Coincidentally, someone brought in The Haunting of Hill House. I was just about to get my greedy mitts on it when someone else got in there first and claimed it for their own. I resolved to get a copy one day, and finally I did from my local Camden Locks bookstore. It starts off so well. The two female characters, so different in nature, bond as they pitch up at Hill House to take part in a Professor’s supernatural experiment. Jackson is in her element describing the house. In fact, it is the strongest character in the story and – much like the Blair Witch Project – I want it to be morning very soon as I can’t bear the suspense of what might happen as night falls. Towards the end of the book, the Professor’s wife is brought in to add a bit of light relief. Some critics think this a failing on Jackson’s part. The wife is utterly ridiculous, and it seems, not attuned to the house’s evil nature. Whatever happens at night only happens to those sensitive to supernatural phenomenon. A woman as thick-skinned as the Prof’s wife hasn’t a hope in hell. She’d survive a nuclear blast, I suspect. The ending is ambiguous. Is it due to paranormal activity or has the protagonist simply lost her mind? Jackson claimed this was a story of the supernatural and not a psychological thriller, so there’s your answer.
1. My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout is the author of the excellent Olive Kitteridge. If you’ve not read this book, I urge you to do so. I gave it 5 stars. My Name is Lucy Barton doesn’t quite pack the same punch. It shares the same quiet prose and is deeply introspective. A woman with a husband and two young daughters is admitted to hospital for an undiagnosed illness. She stays there for almost 9 weeks and in that time is visited by her long-estranged mother. Theirs is a fraught relationship. Her mother is only capable of saying, “I love you” to her daughter when Lucy has her eyes closed. Their relationship unravels over the space of this extended hospital visit, but don’t expect reunions and a warm embrace at the end. Oh no, the family is far too dysfunctional for a Disneyfied finale. But still, there are touching moments, narrated by a now much older Lucy Barton as she reflects on all her family relationships: husband, children, mother and father.
1. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
It’s rare that I re-read books. I might do it a handful of times in my life. The few I have re-read, I remember clearly, loving them all over again. They include: A Prayer for Owen Meany, Midnight’s Children and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, all books in my top ten. Pride and Prejudice is no doubt in there too, if I go back far enough. I probably wouldn’t have re-read The White Tiger, but my lovely sister-in-law bought me a copy for World Book Day this year, not realising that I’d read it before. I’m so glad she did because it was an utter pleasure. Back in 2009 I gave it 4 stars. This year I’m giving it 5. It was fantastic from end to end. This takes the form of a series of letters written to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao from Balram Halwai, a villager from “The Darkness” who comes to the city to make a living and a name for himself. It’s about the (corrupt) class system in India, how the rich abuse the poor, and how the poor get stuck in the Rooster Coop. Only our hero doesn’t. Admittedly he has to slit his boss’ throat to get ahead but that is only part of the picture. The fact that he escapes his lot in life feels like a triumph. It may come at a cost, but I felt like punching the air in triumph when he gets his revenge. Read it. Or re-read it. You won’t regret it.
February 2017- April 2017
1. Best of The Short Story: Volume 2, edited by Kerry Barner
It would be vain of me to give myself 5 stars, so I’m leaving it blank for the moment. You, readers, can decide. It is due to be published in 2017 but that is how I spent my evenings between February and April 2017. It was a very enjoyable exercise revisiting those stories again, and reconnecting with the authors.
1. Giving up the Ghost: A memoir, Hilary Mantel
For those of you that follow my Books Read page, you will know how much I love Hilary Mantel’s writing. ‘Ilary, as her family called her, is an odd fish and this is no ordinary memoir. True, she does cover her life, but not in strict linear form. Her early life was far from usual though. Her mother lived in a menage a trois with husband and lover Jack until the husband, ‘Ilary’s father, melts out of the picture and we are left with Jack, her stepfather, as head of the household. They move 8 miles away into Cheshire to escape the scandal but gossip soon follows them. Mantel marries young, divorces and then remarries the same man some years later. Having lived in Africa and the Middle East, she is far more widely travelled than I expected. She goes into length about her illness, not in a self-pitying way but she is highly critical of the doctors and psychiatrists who continued to misdiagnose her symptoms for many years. She talks, among other things, of her childlessness, her fluctuating weight due to the pills she’s given, and at the end of the book I feel I have come face to face with a remarkably smart woman. I doubt she’d be instantly likeable but with a brain like hers I would love to get to know her more.