Saturday, January 14, 2012

Nicki’s books of the year 2011

Moving into 2012 and all the lovely new books coming in daily that are now toppling my reading pile, it’s always a good moment to look back and think about those books I read in 2011 that I remember most fondly.

Tricky (almost impossible) to pick one book above all others that I enjoyed last year, because you always enjoy books for different reasons and comparing them seems very unfair. But I have done a selection of those which have particularly appealed.

A Vision of Loveliness by Louise Levene (£7.99)
All right, I admit, this is a total guilty pleasure (up there with Kate Atkinson) as an utterly indulgent read, with lines so wonderful I can go to them again and again.

It’s a dark comedy that will transport you to late 1950s London and a grim suburb where dinner was ‘a tinned steak and kidney pie, soggy King Edwards, and Surprise dried peas – the surprise being that anyone bought them’.

If, like me, you adore a wallow in a bit of extremely fine observation, then you will also find plenty to love about this story of a young suburban shopgirl determined to claw her way to a more glamorous life, using men along the way, with little more than a Pan-stick, 21-inch waist and a pair of false eyelashes 'fluffy nylon fringes to create all those killer glances' – (by the end Jane’s eyelashes almost have a life of their own).

Chance brings Jane into contact with Suzy – and Jane is certainly a girl who knows how to make the most of a chance. Soon she is in possession of a modelling assignment, a room in a shared Mayfair flat, a sapphire bracelet, a hermes alligator bag and a collection of dinner dates.

Clothes matter a lot to Jane (now Janey). 'Ballerina length might be all very well Down South but they wouldn't let you through the door without a long frock in Wilmslow, apparently'.

Through clothes she makes instant judgments about people. Clothes are detailed so much they are practically an additional character in the book ‘It was a dogtooth check sort of a day.’

She also acquires a very desirable boyfriend and a worldly-wisdom ‘Crepes suzette 'involved setting fire to pancakes on a trolley in rather a flashy way but they tasted quite nice'.

Enough to steer her through meeting his posh mother and a dinner party in Roehampton with his superior friends ‘she was giving them ‘her’ coq au vin: ‘hers’ in the sense that nobody else’s was made with half a bottle of sweet cider and burned to a crisp’. Janey successfully parries every attempted put down, while at the same time despising their lives (just keesh and Kingsley Amis from now on).

It's the sort of book that really gets other people annoyed when you are reading it as you can't help but keep sniggering.

In fact there is very little that is lovely about Janey’s journey. Even she starts to notice her dead eyes and wonders if there is more to life. But the only serious alternative is marriage to ‘wear a cheap black frock (home made even, People did), or attend poxy ‘mmm-did-you-make-these-yourself?’n coffee mornings.. And Janey reflects that in her life men are expected to pick up the cheque, but at least she isn’t expected to do much in return.

Her triumphant return to Norbury is one of Janey’s high points. In a Bentley and with a mink hat, is pure joy as her friends try to keep discussions to candlewick bedspreads and brushed nylon sheets (they Saved Work). They had to keep talking about themselves in case one of the unasked questions slipped out – Did it hurt? Did they respect you afterwards? Did you have to keep the lights on? How did she stop the eyelashes falling off?

My book group queried the chick litty cover and a quote from Joan Collins. But overlook that and just enjoy what’s between the covers.

It’s a story of a journey that’s pretty grubby underneath – tawdry finery and false hope, learning how to stetch a yawn into a smile. Enough to make you want to bring out the Liquid gumption. But definitely a step-up from Norbuy.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (£20)
Pulitzer-prize winner, Eugenides, has written very few books, but his latest is a timely reflection on the lives of three college students in the1980s – a decade that gave birth to the very modern angst – the quest for meaning in lives where choice is seemingly limitless, and commitment need only be fleeting.

Three college students trying to find their futures in 1980s America. Madeleine with her unfashionable interest in English Victorian literature, when everyone around her is starting to worship Nietzche.

Mitchell, seeking spiritual enlightenment in India. And golden boy Leonard and the damaging secret of his brilliance and already sewing the seeds of his downfall. Eugenides makes us care for them all. But which will ultimately find the satisfaction they seek?

We meet them when they are all enjoying their last years of freedom, while considering their futures. With loving detail, Eugenides creates the period, the uncertainties. Madeleine is delighted when the brilliant Leonard chooses her. Leonard’s ambition is to ‘become an adjective’ – (Faulknerian, Kafkaesque, Checkovian).

He is the one who looks like having a vocation and a scientific career – someone who will discover something and make something of himself. But when Leonard’s secret unfolds and we get a vision of how precarious is his brilliance, his leadership qualities, Madeleine is left with complex decisions.

If this had been a Victorian novel, she would have had to make the best of it, take her damaged husband and try to repair the tatters and secure what future for themselves she can.

But this is the eighties, when you can be madly in love with someone one minute, and the next, see the chance of a rewarding career of your own and a better prospect. Do you still need a mate? And one who will only bring you down at that?

An absorbing tale of how slippery it can be to find a role in life when love, money, success are becoming such throwaway commodities.

Other People's Money by Justin Cartwright (£12.99)
A novel set in the world of ultra-rich bankers fighting to save their skins following the banking crisis sounds like the makings of a grim read peopled with unsympathetic characters.

But Justin Cartwright’s ‘Other People’s Money’ is a stunningly good read. A romp and a comedy, a thriller and a thoughtful piece for our times on the ramifications of the unseemly scrap for easy money.

In the balance are the future and fortunes of a long-standing family-run bank, creaking under the weight of its hedge fund losses. And, at the other end of the world (in Cornwall) are others seizing their last chances for glory.

Julian Trevelyan-Tubal is trying to cover up his bank’s losses. He has to find several hundred million in a hurry. Julian may be aware that he is already morally bankrupt. That it is only by wrestling back the Matisse from a loyal employee, selling the yacht under the nose of his dying father, and using his clients’ money in dubious ways one last time, he may just pull it off.

He is aware that he is becoming as single-minded and unlovable as his father.

And there are other good characters who stand to lose if everything fails. Artair MacCleod, playwright and actor-manager, now mounting productions of Thomas the Tank Engine ‘for the little, obese, pig-faced kiddies of Cornwall’, is the story’s touchstone – the ancient playwright who has never lost sight of the beauty and relevance of art.

And the ancient editor of the Cornish Globe and Mail, his Fleet Street days long behind him, like an old retriever, he sniffs on the air one last chase, even if his facts are faulty and his motivations flawed.

It’s a chase to the finish, will the lovable or the ludicrous get to the finish line first? And will anyone still have their morals intact?

Inheritance by Nicholas Shakespeare (£7.99)
Publishing pen-pusher, Andy Larkham is late for everything. In a life where nothing is going right he even embarrassingly stumbles even into the wrong funeral. But this leads to a reversal of fortune – and enormous and sudden wealth?

To unexpectedly come into another man’s money, someone like Andy Larkham might be expected simply to go with the flow, spend it on a hideous nouveau riche flat, exotic holidays, showering his friends with gifts that only make them feel in adequate.

But the prospect of money (a vast fortune) undeserved sits uneasily with our hero. In particular he worries why his mysterious benefactor who should have had everything, died alone. He is motivated to explore - is the money is tainted? Instead, he discovers not a person who exploited others, but an injustice that Larkham feels compelled to try to put right and a truth and a personal history that couldn’t be more different from what he expected.

A wise, funny and moving tale of an unexplained inheritance and its consequences.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (£12.99)
One of my ‘best reads’ of the year, but not one I find myself recommending very often. Not because it isn’t beautifully written. Not because it isn’t a great story. Not because it doesn’t have the makings of an absolute classic in your hands.

But because everyone I know who has read it has cried bucketloads.

It’s a wonderfully touching story of love and dealing with loss. Conor’s mother has been undergoing treatment for cancer, which has been going on so long 13-year-old Conor is used to putting himself to bed, making his own lunch, taking responsibility for getting all his homework done. But everyone at school knows he is the boy whose mother is going to die. And everyone treats him differently because of it.

Conor has another secret, but this time it’s one that not everyone knows. He has a terrifying monster who visits him regularly. But as Conor tells the monster that a monster that looks like a tree is really the least of his problems.

As his situation becomes increasingly desperate it is to the terrifying monster he turns for answers.

The craftsmanship of the storytelling draws you right up to the edge with Conor, desperately wanting someone to come in and take away his pain. His loneliness. His terror.

Written for children, Patrick Ness completed the story from an original idea from the brilliant writer Siobhan Dowd, who died of breast cancer at the age of 47 before completing her fifth novel. It has deservedly been snowballing prizes and nominations for top children's book awards, including for the illustrations by Jim Kay – a children's illustrator and was previously Assistant Curator for the Illustrations Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

It’s such a beautiful and powerful and poignant story and is really, really worth a read. Just have tissues handy. Have several. This one should come with an emotional health warning.

Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans (£10.99)
There is nothing like a really quirky mystery when you are looking for some fun bedtime reading with your children.

The opening of a mysterious money box and a cache of old threepenny bits is the start of a magical adventure for Stuart Horten (10, but looks younger).

Stuart has just moved to a new town with his crossword-puzzle-compiler father, and busy working mother and longs for his old friends. What he has is next door’s nosy triplet girls (April, May and June – tall with glittery hairclips and a love of investigative journalism), who quiz him about everything and dog his every step.

What Stuart doesn’t know is that he is on the brink of solving a mystery that has been covered up for years. He is soon on the trail of a mysterious ancestor and an even stranger mythical magic workshop and must work through a series of puzzles and clues – to find the truth, and of course, discover the workshop before the baddie gets there first.

Lovely illustrations – great cover. The compact gift format of this book is part of its delight. I could not have been more pleased when this was on the Costa shortlist of the children’s book of the year as I thought something that such good clean, nostalgic fun would surely get overlooked for all the big prizes.

Old fashioned storytelling at its very best.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Review: To A Mountain In Tibet

John Lewis refers to it as 'edited choice': a curated sub-selection of products, presented to customers in a way that delights. There are tens of thousands of books published every month, a figure rising rapidly in the digital arena, and the ability to offer expertise and appropriate recommendations, to attenuate the more 'enthusiastic' blurbs and to momentarily tune out the clamoring of desperate online marketing is becoming ever more critical.
It seems that the independent booksellers who are surviving and even thriving do this better than anyone else - and it's certainly what we aspire to (however, note to self: "must do better in 2012"). Strip out the events, blog posts and tweets, and underneath it all is a passion for "bringing you only the best" (as booksellers Magrudy's would say).

This sets a very high bar. You get close to the nerve-shredding world of the restaurateur, where one duffer meal means you'll never see a customer again. But possibly the worst feeling is that you have 'missed' a book. Suddenly everyone is talking about it, and you didn't see it coming.

Because it's impossible to read everything that is published, you get to rely on your bookselling 'intelligence network'.  We have a superb one, which sits on the shoulders of publishers, reps, reviewers, other booksellers - and ultimately customers. One of the many and best privileges of running a bookshop is the sheer number of people you get to talk to about books and authors. Over time, you begin to develop an intuitive feel of 'the best of the best' - and author Colin Thubron definitely sits in that category.

'To A Mountain In Tibet' came out last year in hardback, and I meant to get around to reading it (along with the hundred or so other books that fit into that category). The intelligence network was giving out plenty of strong signals (not least bookseller Patrick Neale who flagged it as one of his books of the year). I finally read it just before Christmas, and it's a book that has got under my skin in a totally unexpected way.

In one way, this book is easy to describe: one of the great travel writers makes the pilgrimage to Mount Kailas, possibly the most sacred mountains on Earth. But the book is such an intensely personal account of the journey, that at times you feel Colin wrote it with no readership in mind. The elements that he weaves together - the punishing and at times brutal nature of the pilgrimage, the despair and poverty of the people he meets, the legacy of Chinese rule, are grimly painted on with broad brush strokes, and the central story never wavers too far from the author's own experience. This works brilliantly, and places you right there on the scree paths, at times gasping for air as the path climbs ever higher.

Mount Kailas is sacred to one-fifth of the world's population, and is believed to be the residence of Lord Shiva. It has never been climbed. Thousands of people make the pilgrimage every year, circumambulating the mountain clockwise or anti-clockwise depending on thousand year-old traditions of the four religions.

The pilgrimage starts with plenty of descriptions of Nepal, anxiety of crossing into Tibet, the poverty and reality of the people that Colin meets and spends time with. His writing style - familiar to his other books - is one of particular empathy with the people that he meets, and divining the family situations of the houses he stays in allows Colin to give a snapshot of the day-to-day reality of life in both countries.

As the book progresses however, the writing – like the air through which he ascends – becomes more rarified, and themes become much more finely honed. At one point he draws attention to the physical price he’s paying as he ascends into thinner air (Thubron is over 70). Old injuries are remembered, nagging at him like old adveriseries, but we slowly become aware of a more profound incident from his younger days. This personal tragedy - of which we learn only the merest of details - is resolved, in a manner of speaking, a few pages from the end of the book, in just a handful of sentences. It’s possibly one of the most moving things I’ve ever read, and with great skill and absolute respect he manages to weave this into the mythology and significance of where he is and the journey he is taking.

It's tempting to believe Thubron had a profound spiritual experience at the height of the ‘prama’, but if he did, it was a very British one, in keeping with his character, but nonetheless as touching and moving as if he had been prostrating himself at intervals as other pilgrims do.

Colin keeps the writing at a dizzying quality throughout, and the descriptions of landscape, religions, history and individuals demands effort, but conjures up lucidly this moonscape at 18,000ft. The area around Mount Kailas does indeed feel like you are on another planet. Peppered throughout is matter-of-fact descriptions of the consequences of Chinese actions over the 50 years of occupation. The destruction of holy sites during the Cultural Revolution dwarfs anything the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

(Incidentally, this book does not make you want to visit Tibet, but I did guiltily log on to
Google Earth and overfly the mountain (something I heartily recommend doing thanks to the improvements in recent technology). As you zoom in on the grey and brown blasted landscapes you do feel as as if you have walked along the sides of the mountains.)

The book ends abruptly. He turns for home with the other pilgrims, changed. As will you. It's a book that you will read in an afternoon, but if you're receptive, it will stay with you for a long, long time.


('To A Mountain In Tibet' is published by Vintage, out now in paperback, £8.99. To receive a copy of the paperback, together with a copy of Mark's review, please click on the link below)

Buy 'To A Mountain In Tibet' securely from Mostly Books now, post-free in the UK.