Saturday, 12 December 2009

"Imperial", "The Invisble City", "Something's Wrong" and "The Night Following"

In an effort to cut down my TBR pile, I am going to mention briefly some of the books I have read recently but am not for whatever reason intending fully to review.

Imperial by Willim T. Vollmann is a towering piece of non-fiction from an award-winning writer. Dealing with the largely arid area of South-East California it encompasses migrant labour exploitation and the crucial importance of water, among other things. At well over a thousand pages it is of a length that I normally love in a book, but I must confess that I stalled around page 600 and skimmed the rest. It deals with some important issues but, surprisingly for a writer who has won prizes, it reads in a very disjointed style, almost as though he has simply transcribed his notes each day. I am not normally a fan of re-writing, and do as little of it as possible myself, but I think this book could have benefited from a really determined editor.

The Invisible City by Emili Rosales arrived heralded as the next Shadow of the Wind. It isn't. I have to be careful here, because I have not read any of Rosales's previous novels, but this one just did not work for me. He works in publishing (indeed, I think he may have published Zafon - certainly there is a glowing endorsement from him on the cover of this book) and it as though he has decided to write a certain type of novel and evoke a certain type of atmosphere but does not quite know how to pull it off.

The Invisible City ranges across the centuries and there is a denouement of sorts, as far as at least one love story is concerned, but all in a very predictable way. Perhaps unkindly, I thought this book contained a mish-mash of writing styles from the Eco of Foucault's Pendulum, through the Peres-Reverte of The Dumas Club to, of course, Zafon himself, rather than revealing an individual novelist's voice. Maybe I am just being overly subjective and demanding on this one; I would be interested to hear what other readers thought.

Lack of originality is certainly not a criticism one could level at Something's Wrong by Sam Smith. This is one of the most innovative novels I have read for some time. The form is that of a series of transcripts of tape recordings of someone who, as it becomes rapidly clear, has some serious mental health problems. This is a harrowing work, which raises some disturbing issues about mental health care generally, and care homes in particular. You feel yourself literally getting into the mind of the character, and caring about what happens to him - both rare attributes in novels these days. I am sorry that lack of time prevents me from writing a fuller review.

Similarly with The Night Following by Morag Joss, which I also greatly enjoyed. Without giving away too much of the plot, this is a story of sudden death, infidelity, guilt and attempts at increasingly bizarre redemption. I really enjoyed it.

Joss is a fine writer, though her style is taut rather than flowery. Her characters are credible, finely drawn, and elicit our sympathy. More basic requirements that many modern novelists seem to think they can safely ignore as out-moded and therefore end up writing things which it difficult to classify as "novels" at all, at least if you read Forster. Not Joss, however; this is very good stuff. I was reminded while reading it of P.D. James and Donna Tartt, and was therefore interested to read afterwards in the publisher's blurb that the former is an acquaintance, and encouraged Joss to write.

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