Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

forest dark nicole kraussForest Dark is a book of two halves. There are alternating narratives that never cross (or do they – the end is ambiguous). Jules Epstein, a wealthy and influential Jewish lawyer who has spent his life acquiring stuff, suddenly decides he wants to give it all away. He takes a trip to Israel with this in mind.

The other narrator is also headed to Tel Aviv. She is an author (who happens to be called Nicole). She is struggling to write and is contemplating the end of her marriage.

The book opens with Epstein and I enjoyed the book at this point. It has a dry humour while also asking some interesting questions. I loved the prose. I don’t normally highlight fiction while I’m reading, but there were sentences that were so beautifully crafted and nuanced that I wanted to return and reflect on them (although I haven’t, yet).

When I got to the author narration I stalled. She just wasn’t very interesting. The realist elements felt too banal and the absurdist elements too ridiculous. It felt like the author (Nicole Krauss, not the ‘fictional’ Nicole) had some issues she wanted to work through (creativity, marriage, kids) and was still too close to them to make them into art. (I understand, her ex, Jonathan Safran Foer, has also written a novel about marital breakdown, Here I Am, so maybe she felt she had to put her side.)

There is an odd Kafka storyline. I’ve noted an apologetic tone in some reviews, words to the effect of, ‘I don’t really like this book but I’m probably just not clever enough.’ Just because a novel references Kafka it does not mean it’s good!

The privilege of the narrator grates. She lives in a world where relatives keep spare apartments in world cities which you can drop into any time, where the Hilton is like a second home and the manager knows your name. She never appears to notice that not everyone lives like this. Given that this world is satirised in the Epstein story, I assume the ‘real’ Nicole has more sensitivity in this than the ‘fictional’ Nicole but I couldn’t find any sense of irony or self-deprecation in the narration which might have made her more bearable.

It’s taken me a few weeks to get through Forest Dark. I kept hoping it would get better (it didn’t). Then I reached that point where I felt I was too far in to stop. I focused on the Epstein bits (there were some nice set pieces, though it didn’t quite hang together for me) and I gritted my teeth and skimmed the author story.

I’ve heard that Nicole Krauss has written some great books and the quality of the prose made me want to try another one, but this was, for me, was something of an ordeal.

I received a copy of Forest Dark from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Forest Dark on Goodreads

Want to know more? This interview with Nicole Krauss from The Guardian is interesting. She talks about the nature of the self and why she included Kafka in Forest Dark.




The Break by Marian Keyes

the break marian keyesI’m not normally interested in mainstream romantic fiction but Marian Keyes is one of those writers who transcend genre. Over the years she has managed to combine some very dark issues (domestic abuse, addiction, bereavement) with sharp humour and zeitgeisty references (though she does write rather more about shoes than I would like).

The Break is about Amy, a woman in her forties with two daughters (and care of her niece) and a loving, responsible husband, Hugh. After a crisis in his life, Hugh suddenly decides he wants to take six months off and backpack round Asia. Amy is left in Dublin to cope with her busy PR career, the three girls, the machinations of her friends and extended family and her own emotional turmoil.

The Break has all the Keyes staples. It’s packed with the usual cultural references. There’s a big, eccentric Irish family (with more than a passing resemblance to the Walshes, who feature in many of Keyes’ other novels) and lots of stuff about clothes, minor celebrities, YouTube vloggers, social media sensations and the ever-shifting norms of middle-class life. Amy is a tougher, more pragmatic heroine than in some of the other novels and so, despite her sadness around Hugh, you feel like nothing too terrible will happen (although conversely there weren’t as many laugh-out-loud moments).

I whizzed through it and mostly enjoyed it but I did feel that it lacked something – and that something was probably a stern editor and another draft. (I’ve felt this a few times with big name authors, presumably the limiting factor is time rather than money.) There’s a lot of repetition. The period between Hugh saying he’ll go and him actually going drags on for far too long. There are plot points that are set up but never paid off and some of the reversals come from nowhere. Amy has a superfluous sibling who adds nothing to the plot and becomes just another name to remember (perhaps not coincidentally, there are also five Walsh siblings and Keyes herself is one of five). Key events lose their impact because they take place off camera.

All in all, The Break has an episodic feel, more like a soap than a novel. Big issues are raised, dealt with and then forgotten, rather than contributing to a building of the narrative.

Despite these reservations, it’s a fun, breezy read, with some good set pieces. Hardcore Keyes fans will love it.

I received a copy of The Break from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Break on Goodreads

Misery by Stephen King

misery by stephen kingI’ve been wanting to read Misery for years but have somehow not got round to it till now (and miraculously have managed to avoid spoilers).

Paul Sheldon is an author who wakes from a car accident to find he has been ‘rescued’ by Annie Wilkes, a self-professed fan. He has horrific injuries to his legs and cannot walk. The good news is she’s a nurse and has taken care of him, up to a point. The bad news is she has told no one he is at her remote farm and she isn’t going to let him go.

Paul needs surgery and hospital treatment. Annie is more concerned with reading his latest paperback. She is devastated when she realises he has killed her favourite character from his historical romance series, Misery Chastain. She insists he has to bring Misery back – and under the circumstances he doesn’t feel he has a choice.

This is a great thriller. The writing is taut – there is none of the verbosity of later Stephen King novels (I’ve always assumed he just got too big to edit). Like a writer’s life, most of the novel takes place in one room but King makes that confinement absolutely gripping.

You can also read this as a book about creativity. It is writing that keeps Paul sane and even leads to an odd alliance with Annie. They discuss deus ex machina and the distinction between realistic and fair plot devices fiction. While writing the next instalment of Misery’s melodrama (the extracts provide some light relief), Paul describes the ‘gotta’ feeling a story can engender and his own inner conflict. Finishing the novel will mean Annie has no further use for him, but still he keeps writing, because he has gotta know how the story ends.

There is also the fraught question of the relationship between author and fan. There is the paradoxical nature of author worship – on the one hand Annie attributes almost magical powers to Paul’s ability to create, on the other she thinks she can coerce him into giving her the story she wants.

King has written about how Annie is a metaphor for his addiction – she is both nurturing and destructive, she takes away his pain, but only on her terms. Paul in turn attributes magical powers to Annie – overawed by her strength, her power over him, her apparent indestructibility.

Misery is unusual for King in that it has no supernatural elements. While Paul’s kidnapping may seem unlikely, there have, shockingly, been comparable crimes which show that such a scenario is possible. The realism means we identify with the full horror of Paul’s situation and wonder how he can possibly get free. Misery is simultaneously a book you can’t put down and a masterclass in how to write a book you can’t put down. The gotta got me.

View Misery on Goodreads

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Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, narrated by Romola Garai

hot milkHot Milk is the story of Sofia and her mother, Rose. Rose has a condition which may or may not be psychosomatic and is unable to walk (except when she isn’t). Sofia, with her hard-to-pronounce Greek name and her absent Greek father, her high level of education and low level of employability, has walked away from her own life to do the co-dependant’s dance around her mother. But her own behaviour is less than predictable.

There are so many things to love about Hot Milk. First, the setting. I spent some time in Almeria and the story perfectly captures the strange, remote quality of the place, the extreme landscape and the unlikeliness of a resort in such a harsh climate, the international cocktail of outsiders who wash up there, who are so different but just in being there, become somehow the same.

Like the shimmering heat of Almeria, there is a languid surface to the story which belies the simmering of ideas and themes. This is a story about individuals, about mother and daughter, about the spiky Sofia who will neither conform nor rebel but is always disrupting her own dreams. It is also about the unravelling of Europe. It deconstructs what we are sure about, shows us that the world we think is fixed is in flux. Spain and Greece, once at the heart of Mediterranean civilisations, are now on the periphery. It poses playful questions about the body politic and the willingness or otherwise to take your medicine.

This is a clever book, cool, ironic, provocative (and the narrator of the audiobook captures this tone perfectly). Whenever I think about it, I see something new.

View Hot Milk on Goodreads

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Morality Play by Barry Unsworth narrated by Michael Maloney

morality play barry unsworthNicholas Barber is a fourteenth-century cleric who has left his position in Lincoln Cathedral through youthful restlessness. He is therefore a fugitive, and a hungry one, when he happens upon a group of players and they allow him to join them. Their journey takes them through a town where a woman is about to be hung for murder. They decide to perform a play about her crime but somehow the story refuses to fit the form.

There is so much packed into this beautifully crafted short novel. It is alive with the sights and sounds and smells (especially the smells) of the period and has all the archetypes of the Medieval hierarchy. However, it is an order under strain, where the conflict between the individual and the role that is assigned to them is about to come to the boil.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the dramatisation of the murder by the players. The writing is impressive because we see everything from Nicholas’ point of view as he performs, but we also get a vivid sense of what the audience sees. This is enhanced in the audiobook by the excellent narrator. He distinguishes not just the individual characters, but between their ‘real’ and their theatrical voices, as they move between artifice and realism.

As the players perform the play their understanding of the murder changes. They are not only learning the truth, they are creating it. In telling a story of their own devising, rather than the officially sanctioned account, they are questioning the very basis of their society, even though they know there will be consequences.

Morality Play is a book that stays with you, with its intricate drawing together of the visceral honesty of theatre and the role-playing that we call real life.

View Morality Play on Goodreads




The Butterfly Effect by Jon Ronson

the butterfly effect jon ronsonThe Butterfly Effect is an original Audible documentary by Jon Ronson. He explores how technology has changed the porn industry and by extension all of us. He begins by interviewing the man who used technology to create what became PornHub, a YouTube-style platform for porn. This discursive approach takes in, among other things, porn stars in the San Fernando Valley, the death of an Italian priest, and a Norwegian stamp collector.

Ronson is a sensitive interviewer, letting people tell their own story. He’s also a great storyteller and each episode has intriguing hooks, twists and a teaser ending so you have to keep listening. I’m almost afraid of giving spoilers, but certain things particularly stayed with me.

In Montreal, the data analysts who worked behind the scenes at PornHub were almost oblivious (or in denial) of what they were working on. They just focused on the task. Meanwhile, a whole generation of women lost work in porn because of the search categories that they created in response to the way people access porn. Women under 20 get work in the ‘babysitter’ and ‘cheerleader’ categories, women over 30 get the ‘milf’ roles, but between those ages they are unemployable. (There’s an interesting analogy here with Amazon’s book categories, where discoverability is increasingly driven by genre.)

In another episode, Ronson is on a porn set during the making of a movie. There is an orgy scene and many of the male performers are watching porn on their phones so they can get an erection. It seems watching someone have sex with a porn star is more arousing than the imminent prospect of actually doing it. The analogy here hardly needs stating.

Ronson doesn’t take a position on porn per se but he considers the way in which people ignore the human consequences of porn and the way in which they simultaneously are excited by it and despise the people who work in it. Porn stars report being spotted in the street and facing hostility from the very people who have recognised them.

At one point Ronson sets up an interview which is somehow both poignant and deeply ironic. An old-school San Fernando porn director whose income has dropped dramatically because of piracy challenges PornHub’s founder. The director expresses exasperation at his lack of empathy as free illegal downloads drain away his livelihood, but he asks no such questions about the effect on people of the films he makes.

This documentary is thought provoking and fascinating and I listened to it in one sitting. The stories it tells are sometimes dark, often strange and occasionally moving.

The Butterfly Effect is available as an audiobook and as a podcast.
View The Butterfly Effect on Goodreads

Conclave by Robert Harris

conclave by robert harrisLast year I went to Rome for the first time. It’s hard to write about the experience – the art, the sights, the culture – without lapsing into cliché, but I became particularly intrigued by the institution of the Vatican.

We spent one wonderful day in the Vatican Museums, gorging on some of the world’s greatest art (and not one work by a woman). As someone who had a notionally Catholic upbringing – I wouldn’t go so far as to say lapsed as I was never convinced to begin with – I felt keenly the contradiction between enjoying all these treasures and thinking that the wealth that purchased them should never have been appropriated from my ancestors in the first place.

On another day we visited Saint Peter’s Basilica and, as we were staying nearby, we often found ourselves wandering round the Piazza and the surrounding streets in the evening. All these experiences, and my reading before we went, left me with a jumble of conflicting images and a fascination with this strange world: the nuns who are excluded from influence but perform so many vital tasks and whose presence is even felt in the galleries (they get to repair Raphael’s tapestries so I guess we did see some women’s art after all); the priests from around the world offering confession in  Italian and English, Polish and Tamil; the hot priests calendar; the shops selling lavish ecclesiastical robes; the high-tech efficiency of the tourist operation.

So I’ve had my eye on Robert Harris’ Conclave for a while, with its promise to delve into the mysteries of this strange world. And I was not disappointed.

The conclave of the title takes place after the death of a fictional Pope, but one with some resemblance to Pope Francis. We don’t learn too much about him at the beginning, except that he is a reformer. The story is narrated by Cardinal Lomeli, one of the Pope’s closest associates, who is tasked with the organisation of the conclave, just as he is struggling with a crisis of faith.

As the cardinals assemble from around the world to choose his successor, we are introduced to the favourites to succeed the Pope and to their supporters and factions. The deceased Pope also plays a significant role, even after death. His influence, his love, and the consequences of his actions are felt acutely by Lomeli and the others who were close to him and they learn that he made some surprising decisions in his final days.

You might question whether there is much drama to be had in the deliberations of a group of men over 60, largely confined in one place. However Harris does it brilliantly. He weaves together all the issues confronting the church, and the contrasts between the cardinals – in matters of faith, temperament, politics and geography. Lomeli’s role means he has to liaise with the outside world during their supposed confinement and his assistants prove to be able co-conspirators (and of course there are nuns again, providing the catering).

There is a lot of detail of the traditions of the conclave, capturing both the splendour and the banality of the life of the Vatican. There are a few Father Ted moments, such as when the cardinals make their way to their accommodation for the conclave, dressed in their full regalia, pulling their wheelie suitcases behind them.

Harris asks interesting questions about the nature of spirituality and its relationship to ritual. There are moments when the cardinals may be moved by the voice of God, or it may just be that they imagine him saying what they want to hear. The reader is left to make up their own mind.

I spent some time thinking about the way the conclave, and the novel, end. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. But then an ending that makes you think, and question, is perhaps the best kind. I found this a fascinating insight into the strange world of Vatican politics and a great political thriller.

View Conclave on Goodreads

Want to know more? I enjoyed this interview with Robert Harris on the Kobo Writing Life podcast