2014 in Books – Review of my Reading Year: Part 2

Recently Read 31: ‘Wrecked’, Charlotte Roche, Fourth Estate, 9780007478774.

The opening scene is a very explicit account of sexual activity between a wife and her husband. The wife describes her actions in forensic detail. She then does the same for culinary activity. In each case what matters is getting everything just right, creating the perfect experience for her husband. It is scary and unnerving, obsessive, perhaps, certainly she thinks and behaves as a woman holding insanity in check through routine and the safety of the known. But then, as you follow her through three days of her life, which includes three sessions of her ongoing therapy, you begin to understand what devastating event has brought her to this point and you see that without such control her ability to survive would crack completely. There are those who have described this book as erotic. It is not. The sexual content is certainly explicit, but so are all the thoughts that the protagonist lays bare before the reader. There is nothing titillating about the content, yet there is much that is thrilling in the clarity of the writing and the fearsomeness of the wife’s mind, her perception of herself, her potentiality and the family she is tied to in life and death.

Recently Read 32: ‘The Prodigal’, Brennan Manning and G Garrett, Zondervan, 9780310339007.

Let’s get the hobby horse out of the way first. Then I can climb off it, put it away and get on with the review. Once again the writing in this novel proves my grump that Christian fiction, like Christian popular music, is never as good as the real thing. Despite attempting to convey eternal truths both Christian fiction and music always strike me as flabby, derivative, needlessly emotional and clumsy. Within these parameters this novel contains much which is good, some clear insights and a dangerously compulsive outbreak of grace. Written as a way of illuminating Manning’s influential ‘Ragamuffin Gospel’ it uses the tale of disgraced pastor Jack Chisholm, his estranged father and his return to the small town of his upbringing to wring out a story of redemption. Beneath the implausibilities of the plot resided just enough spiritual gold to keep me reading. I know most of us preachers are a little limited in our content, but Jack seems only to ever have preached one sermon over and over right through his life – and he tells it bluntly and plainly that no one is good enough, everyone is a miserable sinner and we must try harder. Yet from this eternally damning message he has built a multi-million dollar ministry and has a congregation of thousands. When he proves himself to be as leaden in the footwear department as the rest of his congregation then the stage is set for lessons to be learnt and the love, not the wrath, of God to break through.

Recently Read 33: ‘Stone Gods’, Jeanette Winterson, Penguin, 9780141032603.
Channelling ‘Planet of the Apes’ and ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, this sci-fi novel about the first Robo sapiens, is circular, prescient, knowing and prophetic. As usual with Winterson the quality of writing is high, literary allusions are ingrained in the text and she is as playfully serious as ever. Good but not memorable.

Recently Read 34: ‘Women’, Charles Bukowski, Virgin, 9780753518144.
After Winterson something completely different. Hmmm, not sure what to make of this. Is the writing raw, honest, revealing – or is it simply fiction? Does the author really treat women as both a mystery and a curse? Is he a convincing anti-literary writer, or is it all elaborate poetry – a hymn to the redneck mindset? Unsettling, and not necessarily in a good way.

Recently Read 35: ‘The Sea’, John Banville, Picador, 9780330483292.
Old man returns to live in the boarding house he spent time visiting as a child. He relives his last year with his cancer cursed wife and his childhood in this place – a crush, a romance, a tragedy. He gets drunk. His daughter takes him away. Words are used with a poet’s eye, carefully positioned, each one weighed and examined from all sides before putting in place and so the book is imbued with a melancholy beauty. A great exercise in writing, coolly disturbing and yet vaguely unsatisfying.

Recently Read 36: ‘Art in Cornwall’, Michael Bird, Alison Hodge, 9780906720752.
Neatly packaged overview of art – painting, sculpture, collage, et al – in Cornwall, basically since Turner’s tour of 1811. Which means it is very light on anything that went before – especially local church sculpture and wall paintings from the medieval period. However, it is a small, square format book with much to pack in to its 112 pages and so it concentrates on the artists surrounding the St Ives and Newlyn schools. Beautifully illustrated it takes a geographical canter through the regions of the county discussing the artists associated with each place and showing how the region has influenced them. An excellent, and cheap, introduction to a still developing relationship between artists and this very distinct limb of the country.

Recently Read 37: ‘The Liar’s Gospel’, Naomi Alderman, 9780670919918.

Sometimes you wonder, as with Murakami, whether you are reading sci-fi or have entered into an alternative reality which has just tweaked this one a little and set it on its side. So it was here with this strange and uneven reimagining of the relationship between Jerusalem and Rome in the years around the time of Jesus – there were moments when this novel felt like a profound immersion into first century Palestine and times when it seemed to be describing a sister planet glimpsed through battered and tarnished silver. There were also moments – for example a fleeting reference to cooking with tomatoes some centuries before they were brought to the Middle East – which jarred me into wondering if this wasn’t some clever sci-fi allegory.

But it is not, and that instance with the tomatoes has been graciously admitted by the author to be an unfortunate error which slipped through the checking process. Instead we have four viewpoints – four un-Gospels – of first century Palestinian life around the time of Jesus. Full review here: https://unsubtlereviewer.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/would-i-lie-to-you/

Recently Read 38: ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, Raymond Carver, Vintage, 9780099530329.

Tiny vignettes, snapshots of lives swiftly drawn, as with charcoal, so that the merest switch of lines pulls a face into focus and gives reason for the frown. Sad tales of broken relationships, friendships soured, chance meetings gone bad. Powerfully economic writing, and a disconcerting trick with last lines that open up whole new vistas of possibility or despair.

Recently Read 39: ‘The Magic Toyshop’, Angela Carter, Virago, 9780860681908.

I can’t believe I haven’t read this before, I love Angela Carter’s writing (‘Wise Children’ is possibly my favourite) and was really surprised that this wasn’t a re-read. M-J doesn’t like AC and kept asking me ‘has it turned weird yet?’ But it didn’t turn weird, it was a believable tale about a strange, cartoon like family and a girl’s coming of age that fizzed with sharp phrases, a subtle palette and myriad tiny quotes and links. There was a hint of the magical, a sly bending of reality and a glorious, riotous love of language. Cracking.

Recently Read 40: ‘In the Time of the Butterflies’, Julia Alvarez, Alonquin Books, 9781565129764.

One of those books where you know the ending from the beginning (and in this case it was based on a true story), so a certain amount of tension is lost from the start. Four sisters living through the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic, three of them eventually martyred by the authorities right before the dictatorship fell. Each sister has her own voice and character, each lives and grows in the stifling physical and political heat of the land and each chooses her own way to fight, subvert or exist in Trujillo’s world. There is some lovely evocative writing but I got a bit bored, felt it went on for too long and by the time the murders occurred I was only half engaged.

Recently Read 41: ‘Sizzling Sixteen’, Janet Evanovich, Headline, 9780755352814.

I’m not reading these in order, just when the fancy takes me and I feel a need for the comfort of a bit of trash crime. Stephanie Plum is no V.I. Warshawski, but these tales of an inept bounty hunter fizz and crackle with wit, menace, crazy plot twists and sharply drawn caricature characters who sneakily slip a hold on my affections. This one is as good as the rest.

Recently Read 42: ‘Skin Game’, Jim Butcher, Orbit, 9780356500904.

One thing about Jim Butcher’s ‘Dresden Files’ series: they never fail to make me smile, turn pages at paper tearing speed, fail to keep up with the plot, draw a sharp intake of breathe and race towards the end my mind running ahead, falling back, shaking its little furry fist with pleasure and savouring every tumbling line. You know the drill, I’ve mentioned it a few times before, wizard PI Harry Dresden, doing his best to act like Spenser (or Marlowe, if you go back that far), attempts to save everyone’s proverbial ham slice while the bad dudes from this side of the grave as well as that charge on with their cackling and crackling ambitions to make megalomania synonymous with supernature which may, or may not, include slicing and dicing our Harry in a thousand freakish ways. No point in telling you the plot – it is complicated and you either know the series or you don’t but suffice to say this is glorious, hair-bending fun. Parkour!

Recently Read 43: ‘Strange Meeting’, Susan Hill, Penguin, 9780140036954.

I was attempting to ‘get into the zone’ by reading a novel about the First World War and randomly chose this one for two simple reasons – it was there in the library and it was slim. Sometimes randomness can come up trumps. This is such a good novel, frighteningly good because the writing is so thoughtful, so closely-wrought, so tightly structured and so moving yet Hill was only in her late twenties when she wrote it. She focussed in on the entwined lives of two officers billeted together and in doing so she starkly, horrifically and humanly fiercely evoked all the terror and waste and casual destruction of conflict. This is a novel of desolation and tenderness, brutality and bonding. Some have said it is a love story between these two men. There is love there, but this is deeper, a documentation of a relationship – the sort of relationship that perhaps only comes once in a lifetime – when each person begins to truly know their own self through the heartbeat of the other. A true classic and some of the best writing I have ever read.

Recently Read 44: ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, Ernest Hemingway, Vintage, 9780099273967.

I’ve long avoided Hemingway. Always thought he was too full of macho braggadocio for my palate. But this is exquisite. Short, spare writing, elemental tussle between old man, sea, sea creatures, cleanly described action and finely honed intimations of the interior life. Old man, a fisherman, puts out to sea after months without a catch. Old man hooks and holds a huge marlin. Old man turns his boat to bring his catch home. Straight forward story yet packed with incident, action, reflection and reverie. Simply and surprisingly stunning.
Recently Read 45: ‘A Sting in the Tale’, Dave Goulson, Vintage, 978099575122.

I love bumblebees. Not very good at identifying them, but try my best, with the aid of a pocket guide. This book has had some great reviews and I was really looking forward to reading it. So I did. And it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for. Lots of fascinating information, some good stories but not the best writing and the author did have a predilection for describing his post grad students – almost all of them women – in terms that were at best clumsy. It is readable, and the material about the bees makes it more than worthwhile, but the anecdotes and the humour are not quite in place. However, overall there is plenty that is good, interesting and challenging about this book. Goulson is passionate about bees and has set up the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, http://bumblebeeconservation.org/ to support these amazing and threatened creatures without which many of our flowers, crops, fruit and veg would never get pollinated.

Recently Read 46: ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’, Hiromi Kawakami, Portobello Books, 9781846275081.

Does every Japanese writer have to play with reality like Murakami? Is it just the way it is with this culture, or is this strangeness, this almost sci-fi otherworldliness what Western audiences expect of Japanese writers? In one sense it doesn’t matter if the result is creations so paper delicate, almond scented and sweetly enigmatic as this. Youngish woman meets her old Japanese teacher at a bar. They meet, and meet again each slowly opening up to the other through food and drink and haiku until they are officially in a relationship. Each enters the same dream space, each blossoms, each finds a porcelain precious love. Gorgeous.

Recently Read 47: ‘In a Country of Mothers’, A.M. Homes, Granta, 9781847087270.

I’ve never been a fan of the talking therapies, seeing them as subjective and prone to quackdom. ‘In a Country of Mothers’ does not give me cause to change my mind. On the surface this seems to be a straightforwardly told account of a relationship between therapist and patient. Underneath something unnervingly disturbing is happening. This is scary stuff. The reader thinks they are in possession of the wider picture, the bits the other two are not aware of, but actually the author is holding very tightly onto their vision and it is not pretty. Then the book ends, quite suddenly, with much of the tension unresolved and giving us very few answers. Of course real life doesn’t always wrap up into a neat package but there is something ever so disappointing about the way the story peters out as if the authorial batteries were drained.

Recently Read 48: ‘Healing Dreams’, Russ Parker, SPCK, 97870281070237.

Sensible, thoughtful, tried and tested classic text on dreams from a specifically Christian context. Dreams are vital tools in God’s revelation – tools for revealing the Divine plan and for helping us understand ourselves, our deepest needs, fears and issues. Attention to our dreams is as important to our well-being as exercise – even the ones where a hand comes out from under the bed and grabs you by the leg. Parker offers a lucid and practical guide to listening to the messages in our dreams and giving them the chance to reveal and aid the repair of buried hurts.

Recently Read 49: ‘Headlong’, Michael Frayn, Faber, 9780571201474.

A novel about paintings by Bruegel, Giordano and others, about discovery and deception, theory and reason, symbolism and speculation. Should be great, just my sort of thing. But no. Excruciating. Almost impossible for me to get to the end – the only way was to attack it at pace and ignore the details. Maybe it is just that I hate the comedy of embarrassment and am turned off by plots where you know from the off that everything will go wrong, but this was a very hard book for me to get through. It was one of those novels where none of the characters mattered to me and the twisting, splintering, crashing of their lives left me squirming with dull unease and tedium.

Recently Read 50: ‘Mission Action Planning’, Mike Chew and Mark Ireland, SPCK, 9780281061228.

Now what was this about? It sort of drifted by me in a dream of figures and diagrams of the impossibly possible. Really not sure what I made of this book about producing a well-grounded plan for the ongoing growth and development of a church community. It was good in theory but not specific enough about the practicalities and always dealing with bigger numbers of people than is my situation. Got me thinking and reading other material. And I will revisit it.

Recently Read 51: ‘Portmeirion Pottery’, Will Farmer and Rob Higgins, Shire, 9780747810551.

It might now be a global brand with an aga-loving clientele, but there was an amazing amount of vision, inventiveness, artistry and business acumen in Susan William-Ellis’s transformation of the world of pottery from the 1960s onwards. This little book is a swift canter through the designs and acquisitions but it reminded me that even the ubiquitous can have radical origins.

Recently Read 52: ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’, Brennan Manning, Multnomah, 9781590525029.

Manning’s message, that we don’t have to do anything to earn salvation, God offers it freely, is mind-blowing for many. Especially for many churchgoers. You could criticise Manning for repeating this message over and over and over, but it is so radical that he almost needs a sledge hammer to crack it into our consciousness. Our reading group thought we would have finished discussing the book in five sessions, however on week five we have only reached chapter five, with six more to go. Not the best written but possibly the most challenging book I’ve read all year.

Recently Read 53: ‘Call the Chaplain’, Kate McClelland, Canterbury Press, 9781848256361.

Being a chaplain in palliative care can be a very tough job – many highly intense but very brief relationships with patients, relatives and sometimes staff. So here is a resource book produced with great discipline in format – each chapter begins with an overview and ends with both a conclusion and a list of key points. However, it also contains many anecdotes form the author about her work and her she comes across as, well, not especially humble and at times quite ruthless. The ruthless part is with the regard to the way she seems to be able to compartmentalise her work from the rest of her life. Probably necessary, but the way she writes about it seems cold and unnerving.

Recently Read 54: ‘Being a Chaplain’, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes and Mark Newitt, SPCK, 9780281063857.

Twenty-six short, informative chapters about the diversity of chaplaincy – from Afghanistan to Luton airport via schools, hospices, prisons and Manchester United football club. Plenty of fascinating testimonies from chaplains working in all these areas plus theological reflection about life on the borderlands.

Recently Read 55: ‘Faith on the Streets’, Les Isaacs and Rosalind Davies, Hodder, 9781444750096.

Stirring stuff about the genesis of the Street Pastor movement. It begins with Les Isaacs testimony and moves on to describe the rise of this initiative to walk city centre streets at night to provide support and help and a listening ear to all those for whom the struggle to make merry brings its own perils and darkness. There is much more to it than that – it is a worthwhile read for anyone who wants to think about the liminal apsects of ministry and how all communities can learn from engaging with life on the margins.

Recently Read 56: ‘Last Christmas’, Julia Williams, Avon, 9781847560865.

Welcome to Tweesville. This tacky, sentimental, lazy, pale apology for a novel has slipped into the top 5 worst written books I have ever read. There is a story, and it could be mildly interesting if it wasn’t so sketchily drawn in, if the characters weren’t so missing in flesh, if the end didn’t spiral in on itself with such speed that all the neatly tied up plot lines seem to glug straight down the plughole of memory, instantly forgotten. There is a village – Hope Christmas – there are characters with Christmas themed names – Gabriel (a shepherd), Stephen, Noel, Angela, Ralph Nicholas (who may be more than he seems, in a clunky, let’s chuck in an angel sort of way), Eve, there is an eco-town being built on a flood plain and there is a blog about the perfect family homemaker. Oh, and Milton gets a look-in. That’s Milton the Protestant poet, whose partisan verse stands a million miles below the sublimity of Dante. Much as this novel dredges such depths of banality it makes it seem as if Dan Brown is only paddling in the shallows.

Recently Read 57: ‘Meeting God in Mark’, Rowan Williams, SPCK, 9780281072507.

A cracker – short, lucid and luminous, so rich in thought that it repays long meditation yet eminently understandable on a first read. Folk of a certain age and persuasion will remember Morna Hooker’s almost as brief a study ‘The Message of Mark’ – Williams’ book packs as much of a punch as Hooker’s, giving breadth and depth to the shortest Gospel and pushing you back to read the core text from a fresh perspective. If you know your Fenton, Tuckett, Hooker and Myers much of what Williams says won’t come as a surprise, but the way he tells it – passionately, meditatively, penetratingly, will invigorate you. If anyone tells you that Mark is the weakest, least well-constructed of the Gospels or that Williams prose is too dense and elliptical then get them to read this cogent, elegant, effective and energetic little gem.

Recently Read 58: ‘Strandloper’, Alan Garner, Panther, 9781860461611.

I started the year reading Garner and so it ends. Dense, tense and not always comprehensible due to the subject matter but delicately written, absorbing and flicking fire into so many connected strands that it is quite dizzying. Cheshire bricklayer William Buckley was transported to Australia in 1801, escaped and lived as an Aborigine for 31 years before returning home. Garner melds the ancient rites of the English, which had, by the early nineteenth century, become reduced to folk magic and cultural oddities, with the oneness of the Aboriginal people with their land. His theme is both a common humanity and our total reliance on the earth. There is also the undercurrent of the Enlightenment actually being a dark age where we lose our deepest connections with nature and so release ourselves to destroy all for our own gratification. As every powerfully, evocatively, sparely and frighteningly well written.

Recently Read 59: ‘Walking Backwards to Christmas’, Stephen Cottrell, SPCK, 9780281071470.

Tales of characters from Anna to Moses whose lives are broken open by the influx of the Divine. Sort of midrash type stories that illuminate the impact, both human and cosmic of the birth of Christ. When Cottrell writes well he is filled with insight and imagination, deeply imbued with Scripture, and there is much to ponder on in this little set of mediations. There is the occasionally clunky line, some sentimentality, and the odd slightly squirmy notion, but on the whole this is a perceptive, thoughtful, Christ-filled and hopeful book.

Recently Read 60: ‘Gilead’, Marilynne Robinson, Virago, 9781844081486.

Last read of 2014 and an absolute stunner. A first person narrative that has you, in a few pages, thinking, speaking, dreaming like elderly minister John Ames. It is just after WWII, in the small town of Gilead outside of Kansas and Reverend Ames is writing a letter to his young son by his young second wife, a letter for the boy to read later after his father has died. It mixes reminiscences with theology with current happenings in the town to build up a fully realised sculpture of a life and a place. All the way through there is such calmness and lucidity in the Reverends writing, even when he is sorting out his muddled thoughts, that you can’t help but admire his well-lived, well-reflected life. This is Pulitzer Prize winning literature that shows those authors pigeonholed as ‘Christian fiction’ how a beautiful, classic novel of faith can be written.

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