So back in August I took on night shifts at work which was fairly disastrous for my health, creativity and so on. I also started college part time in October and now I’m back on days and on my holidays, I finally have time to write on this. Here’s a very quick round-up of the books I read in the last four months of 2014.
I’m a big fan of JK Rowling, and while I found her first non-Harry Potter book The Casual Vacancy disappointing, I thoroughly enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling, written under the pen name Robert Galbraith. Comoran Strike, a one-legged, ex-army private detective, is embroiled in the dark side of London high society when glamorous model Lula Landry dies in an apparent suicide. Engrossing and great fun, it showcases Rowling’s gift for twisting, labyrinthine plots.
Vampires, vampires, vampires. They’re a little overdone and it’s a bit unfair to judge ‘Salem’s Lot on the fact that we’ve seen it all before (especially as it was written in 1975). I didn’t find myself in the creeping horrors after reading this, but it hardly matters. It’s one of Stephen King’s finest novels. Ben Mears, a writer, moves back to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, where he briefly lived as a child. He saw a ghost in the Marsten House, the local abandoned mansion. Now two mysterious men have moved into the house, and strange things are happening to the dead.
King’s amazing characterisation shines through, as well as his gift for depicting small-town life. The novel can be seen as a metaphor for the economic decline of small-town America, and indeed, Jerusalem’s Lot is as much a character as any of the people involved. A must-read.
Another must-read is Terry Pratchett’s Nation. Set not on Discworld, but in a Pacific Ocean just slightly different from our own, the story follows Mau, a boy on the cusp of adulthood. When a tsunami wipes out all the other inhabitants of his island, Mau must learn to survive alone with strangers; people from the other islands and foreigners from the shipwrecked Sweet Judy. Daphne, an English girl from the ship, and Mau become friends.
It’s got all Pratchett’s sparkle, hilarity and wit, but like his best work, it has lots of wise things to say. Pratchett’s philosophy has always been that decency and kindness will solve a lot of the world’s problems, and Nation has some important things to say on family, colonialism, religion and legacy. And the island is one of his most imaginative creations, which is really saying something.
Back to Stephen King again, and the last two years have been a purple patch for this great writer. Joyland is a slight yet moving tale of Devin Jones, a college student who takes a job at a theme park. Now hurtling towards old age, Devin remembers himself in the ’70s; young, unsure, and heartbroken for the first time.
There’s a minor supernatural element, but this is not a horror story. Instead it’s a gorgeously evocative tale of love and memory, and the passage of time.
I read a lot of King when I was on my night shifts; I’ll be forever grateful to him for keeping me awake. His collection of four novellas Four Past Midnight was next up. It’s a little uneven; the opening story ‘The Langoliers’ is a thrillingly claustrophobic tale of a plane which disappears into seemingly thin air. Instead of the usual mystery of where the plane went, we follow it, and its disappeared passengers, into an alternate reality. It also features one of King’s few non-American characters; Nick Hopewell, an ex-British army man who wanders between being Cockney and James Bond.
Also included is ‘Secret Window, Secret Garden’. Although I knew what was coming, having seen the film version with Johnny Depp, it’s still chilling and disturbing. Less impressive, although still enjoyable, were ‘The Library Policeman’ and ‘The Sun Dog’, possibly because libraries and dogs are two of my favourite things.
An absolutely astounding read, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Attwood, follows the elderly Iris as she remembers her sister Laura, who drove off a bridge the day after WWII ended. Long-buried secrets are revealed, and although it’s bleak and often upsetting, the novel ends on a wonderfully hopeful note.
After all that, you might need a laugh. Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm is just the ticket. Written in 1933, it stands the test of time (although some of the phrases might seem a tad un-PC to 21st century eyes). Flora, a London society girl, finds herself inconveniently orphaned and homeless, and ends up moving to darkest Sussex to the eponymous farm. There she finds her decidedly odd relatives, the Starkadders, who seem to positively revel in misery. While many of the pastoral novels Gibbons sends up are long forgotten, it hardly matters when the material is this funny.
Every book David Mitchell writes seems to become a phenomenon, and none more so than his latest, The Bone Clocks. It’s an epic tale, spanning continents and centuries. In essence, it’s the tale of Holly, a teenage runaway in ’80s Kent, who inadvertently stumbles into an epic war between immortals.
It didn’t completely work for me unfortunately; the magic seemed faintly ridiculous, and there was a definite sense of Mitchell being a bit too clever. However some elements were marvellous. Holly is a great character, and Mitchell is a fantastic writer, which goes a long way to cover over the cracks. The book finishes in a post-apocalyptic Cork, which I found somewhat distressing (probably because it’s my home county).
Another Mitchell book I read and adored (which is referenced several times in The Bone Clocks, which kind of spoiled both books for me) was The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. De Zoet, an idealistic young clerk for the Dutch East India Company, arrives at the tiny Japanese island of Dejima in the 1800s. There de Zoet meets with corruption, double-dealing and the exploitation of the local population. He also falls in love with a Japanese midwifery student, Orito, who suddenly disappears.
The real star of the book is undoubtedly Japan. Mitchell lived in Hiroshima for almost a decade and his wife is Japanese, and his love for this beautiful country shines from the page. (They now live in West Cork, and there’s a Cork character called Con Twomey in this novel.)
Finally, I read Daphne du Maurier’s classic psychological chiller Rebecca in December. The unnamed heroine meets wealthy, older widower Maxim de Winter in Monaco and moves to his Cornwall mansion, Manderley, as his second wife.
But the hold that his first wife, the beautiful and self-assured Rebecca, has over Manderley only seems to strengthen as time goes on. Our naive and insecure heroine finds herself increasingly obsessed with her predecessor, and the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers never misses an opportunity to highlight Rebecca’s superiority.
It’s incredibly dark, psychological stuff, and even better, it’s a riveting read. I only can’t believe it took me this long to read it.