Sometimes I put a book down and am left a tad envious. These are books that, although I finished them several months ago, still make my green eyes … greener.
Night Work by Thomas Glavinic, translated by John Brownjohn
Jonas wakes up one morning to find he is the last person left alive. There are no bodies. No animals or birdsong. He is completely alone. He searches the city, leaves messages everywhere, dials stored numbers in the phones of offices and shops, gets drunk a lot, develops forms of madness and strategies to stop himself feeling so alone.
A lot of people on Goodreads didn’t like it, and I can appreciate their reasons. Basically it’s a book where hardly anything happens. I usually don’t like that either, but this kept me intrigued. I wanted to see what the author would do with the idea, so perhaps my curiosity was metafictional. I found it to be like a dream, an unravelling of everyday life and what could happen if the world breaks. And this is where I think it really works – not as a story, more as an environment to run in your mind. Next time you’re pleasantly alone in a wood, imagine there is only you. Anyway, my review is here.
The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard
The portrait of a marriage in five sections. I was drawn to it by when Hilary Mantel said Elizabeth Jane Howard was the novelist she recommends most frequently. I found Howard’s style too muddled for my tastes, especially in the early sections. Infuriatingly so. But there were two things I liked it for very much.
First, the structure. The five eras of the marriage are not presented chronologically, but backwards. I’ve long been a fan of backwards narratives (Ray In Reverse by Daniel Wallace, The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer ) ever since I read about Peter Ustinov’s play The Banbury Nose, which is the story of an English upper-class family written backwards in time. I’m intrigued by the poignant possibilities of characters growing younger, and perhaps more or less themselves.
In The Long View, Elizabeth Jane Howard uses the backwards narrative to increase the story pressure. Her characters become more accepting with age, but if you wind them backwards they are more raw.
The second reason I’ll forgive her is her central male characters – two immaculately selfish cads who are explored in fine detail and have left many reviewers hopping with indignation. I galloped through the final part, mesmerised by them. My review is here.
Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (not THAT Elizabeth Taylor)
The story of a romantic novelist who is wildly successful but a horror in person (long before Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil. I was drawn to it by a poor film adaptation that made me suspect the original might have a lot more nuance. I was not disappointed. Not only is there nuance, but Elizabeth Taylor is a complete master of pace and tone – able to be humorous, tragic, tender and keep you riveted to the page. It’s also a fun look at the publishing industry (which is why Peter Snell and I devoted one of our radio shows to it ). Here’s my review.
Round The Bend by Nevil Shute
Read the intro on Goodreads and you have a good example of a blurb that smothers the book at birth:
Okay, here’s what it really is. A beguiling story of love, faith, loss and missed opportunities, told in exquisitely controlled prose. The narration is cool, but somehow agitates you to turbulent emotion. The main setting suits the subject matter like a stage backdrop. It is an airstrip in Bahrain – a stripped-down place of sand, hangars and engines. The main characters hop between the continents, delivering goods, setting up more export bases, leaving behind personnel who spread the influence of their engineer friend Connie Shaklin, who has become a religious guru. Shute would never be so clumsy as to make the comparison with angels, these people who spend so much time in the sky in their machines, but you are drawn to entertain the idea. My review is here.
MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker
You think you know MASH from the film and the movie? Join me in a chorus of ‘the book is better’. Read it for the tone. Richard Hooker has created a style that allows his world to be both hilarious and haunted – the characters are raising hell, but also repairing the sad ravages of it.
My review is here.
Over to you. What books (fiction or non-fiction) have you recently read that challenge you to do better?
#1 by rosie on February 28, 2016 - 2:09 pm
“Rooftoppers” by Katherine Rundell took my breath away. (It’s been a long time since that’s happened.) It was stunning, with just the right amount of description, elegant pacing, believable characters and the theme of music woven through it.
It’s a children’s book though, but that’s the kind of thing I’d like to write. It was Katherine Rundell’s second novel, and she’s only in her twenties! That’s what made me just think, ‘wow.’
#2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 28, 2016 - 7:06 pm
Rosie, I like that book too! I’ve been trying to persuade Katherine Rundell to guest on The Undercover Soundtrack. We’ve exchanged several emails but she keeps taking PhDs. Wish hard and we might get her between doctorates.
#3 by Eric Klingenberg on February 28, 2016 - 2:12 pm
Thanks that was really interesting, I might check out some of those books.
#4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 28, 2016 - 7:06 pm
#5 by evie gaughan on February 28, 2016 - 3:48 pm
Great list – very intrigued by The Long View. I like the idea of looking at the progression of a couple in reverse, as it were!
#6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 28, 2016 - 7:07 pm
Hi Evie! I’ve seen many uses of the backwards narrative, and I think it works particularly well here.
#7 by rajatnarula on February 28, 2016 - 4:15 pm
Thanks for a very interesting post.
#8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 28, 2016 - 7:07 pm
Thanks for stopping by!
#9 by Deborah Swift on February 28, 2016 - 4:29 pm
Thank you for these suggestions. It is great to have recommendations and I’m ashamed to say haven’t read any of these. Off to look them up.
#10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 28, 2016 - 7:10 pm
Let me know what you think of them, Deborah.
#11 by acflory on February 28, 2016 - 11:43 pm
As an Aussie, I’ve loved Nevil Shute for decades. Some of the others I’ll have to explore. My most recent writing goad is Peter Watts, writer of Firefall. It’s actually two books, both sci-fi, that turned my poor brain inside out. Not easy reading, and maybe not commercial for that reason but…if sci-fi doesn’t make you think, what the hell can?
#12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 29, 2016 - 8:05 am
Hi Andrea! I’ve got other Nevil Shute in the queue as well. I love what he does.
I just looked up Peter Watts. Wow, you like your science fiction scientific! Was that why you said it’s not commercial? Mind you, The Martian has a lot of science and everyone coped with that. I shall see how much I continue to wonder about it as the day goes on.
#13 by acflory on February 29, 2016 - 10:14 am
The Martian is great, but it’s kind of practical science, even if we don’t have a clue what most of it means..or even if it means anything at all. Firefall though….philosophy+psychology+hard science=very tired brain. But I read both books one after the other because they also made my brain feel wide awake. -shrug- I may be a masochist. 🙂
#14 by Anne-Maree on February 29, 2016 - 4:04 am
I picked up The Long View recently… I need to push it towards the top of my to-read list
#15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 29, 2016 - 8:00 am
Aha, great minds think alike.
#16 by Don Massenzio on February 29, 2016 - 2:05 pm
Wonderful list. Thanks for sharing this.
#17 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 29, 2016 - 3:56 pm
Nice to know you enjoyed it, Don. Thanks for commenting.
#18 by Don Massenzio on February 29, 2016 - 3:59 pm
You’re welcome. For me I would have added To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men to the list…pretty lofty goals.
#19 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 29, 2016 - 4:26 pm
Now you’re talking! East of Eden.
#20 by thelonelyauthorblog on February 29, 2016 - 10:20 pm
Interesting list. Thanks for sharing.
#21 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 29, 2016 - 11:18 pm
Thanks for dropping in.
#22 by thelonelyauthorblog on March 1, 2016 - 12:05 am
#23 by Leila on March 9, 2016 - 6:25 am
Different genre bent, but Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, Scott Westerfeld’s Zeroes, and the recent discovery of Nnedi Okorafor’s work have all given me “oooooh, that’s what I’m aiming for” moments.
#24 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 9, 2016 - 8:19 pm
Leila, I love that phrase – ‘that’s what I’m aiming for!’ Says it all.
#25 by Alexander M Zoltai on August 6, 2016 - 1:00 pm
Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
Today’s re-blog has the amazing writer, Roz Morris, telling us about books that nudge her to write even better 🙂