Category Archives: Endless Reads 2012

Endless reads review: Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Nights at the Circus


Suitably grainy I hope, for this book – the story of end-of-the-19th-century aerialiste Sophie Fevvers, the ‘Cockney Venus’ and a woman apparently endowed with six-foot wings. A freak or a con artist – Jack Walser, all-American reporter, is out to uncover the sordid truth. Call it ‘Interview with the Valkyrie’. Nights at the Circus was recently named best ever winner of the James Tait Award – the oldest literary prize in the UK. The book came out in 1984, making it slightly younger than me, but the prose has an exuberant, antique style that will be familiar to you if you’ve ever read The Bloody Chamber (my review on Goodreads here).


It can be a little irritating at first to slip on Carter’s cloak of furs and whalebone – all those adverbs, and exclamation marks, and the word ‘surmise’ every few pages or so. She breaks about every writing rule on any of the fine puritan lists there are out there. She throws big words at you like confetti, allusions to philosophy and politics and feminism and theories of language bubble up through the velvet soup.


So too, do the biases of empire (this is very much a book of old empire, of the magic of acquisition, manor-houses, the dreamy, rotten, lost glamour of pre-revolutionary St Petersburg, the Shamanic Siberian wastes of a richly English imagination. Native Americans are alluded to as scalp-stealing barbarians. People of Mongolian heritage and Chinese-made automata alike are ‘inscrutable’. The Kentucky Colonel ringmaster is straight out a child’s colouring book of stereotypes.


But for all these faults, this is one of those books that attempts to both tell a story and truly bewitch you. Invites you in and will, if you let it, sweep you into a magical world that might just be frayed tapestry and candlelight and incense – but with the curtains shut tight, and your eyes locked in to the rhythm, it seems churlish to reject it altogether. Nights at the Circus is, in this way, a perfect book for Winter, for reading over hot chocolate, as the wind howls or the snow falls, and midnight strikes three times in one night, just for you.



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Endless Reads Review: Another Country by Anjali Joseph


Another Country


When you read, what do you read for? Plot? Action? Erudition? What’s the meaning of reading? I suppose this question depends on your mood when reading. Sometimes you want to sink into a comfy sofa of a book – and sometimes you discover that what you thought would be a comfy sofa is something else. A hardback chair. Or, like this book, a collection of pearled papers, a gathering of bright brittle leaves.


Another Country centres around the centreless, rootless Leela Gosh, a Bombay (now Mumbai) born twenty-something middle class Cambridge graduate who, when the novel opens, is living in Paris as an English teacher and feeling hopelessly, but rather wonderfully, out of place. From the well written sentences and precise evocations you might presume that you are entering a guided space, and that the plot will roll out carefully in front of you. However, this is not that sort of book. And after the bluster of 1Q84, I was certainly glad it wasn’t.


Here is something tender, fragmentary.  In the Paris sections, I was reminded of Jean Rhys – as in her works, human interactions here are like inflictions, bruising.  Leela is aware of herself and her flaws, suspicious of the behaviour of others and of her own performance towards them:


Leela smiled. She pulled her thin jacket around her. They carried on walking, away from the others and into pools of light under streetlamps. And now, nagged a voice inside her, what will you do? She ignored it.

The pavement glittered with moisture.

Simon put a hand on her shoulder; she tried not to jump. He smiled. “What were we talking about, anyway, before we were so rudely thrown out of that bar?” He released her shoulder, but not before his hand had been there long enough to signal deliberateness. It was a charming gesture, and made her nervous.


There is the use of make up to construct an identity, a mask. There is the character’s apparent passivity, but it seems to me different to that of Rhys’ protagonists.  There is more hope here, far less fatalism. Even when in a dismal London, in a stagnant relationship, there is a sense that Leela hopes to startle herself out. Companions, though just as fleeting, are less cruel. In the level of detail used to describe them, it seems as if Joseph is grasping at them, trying to put down in record what she can of them, before they fade from Leela’s view. London was the hardest section for me to read, because of the long dreariness of malcontent coming after the dizzying snippets of Paris.


When Leela returns to Bombay, to construct a life there, the text morphs again, and we are presented with a different sort of culture clash – that of the returned immigrant. Gone are the tube stations and the grey skies, here come the familiar-unfamiliar: the turquoise sea and dirt and the banter of crows and mannered, elegant women and servants in the home.


Any thought of resolution in novels of migration is predicated on the notion that every person who continually crosses borders can solidify themselves, make themselves fit neatly within whatever rules – spoken and unspoken, learned, half-learned or never acquired – that particular country, and the strictures of class and race and gender impose. Leela is witness to this difficulty. Though she may seem listless, she is being daily buffeted by the winds of her own alienation. Another Country and Another Country, and you must keep tabs as well as live your life, make something out of the shifting sands. The protagonist as a leaf, the protagonist as a line that goes on forever, in a light hand.


When reading a book, it’s your attitude that shapes your experience of reading – your willingness to engage with what it presents. If the territory is not familiar, not structured around character development and plot arcs of whatever sort, you have to ask yourself, what am I willing to expose of myself here, do I need certain touchstones, or can I go alone. You must ask yourself, do I trust the author. Sometimes you will go by name recognition – Virginia Woolf, James Joyce. At other times, the book, however slender and unconsoling, might suit you perfectly. Another Country is just that book for me right now. I’m typing, ill in bed with a missing voice. I’ve come through a big read, and I needed a little careful bruising breeze, and this was just it.

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Endless Reads Review: 1Q84


Weight without heft


I have reached the end of nearly a thousand pages of Murakami’s three-volume work and have sat letting my thoughts marinade for a while and finally, finally, I think I’m ready to write about it and move on.


Was it a slog? Was it an intellectually-challenging book which kept me furrowing my brow over the complexities and playfulness of language? No.


Was it a total piece of fluff – I’m inclined to say yes, but others might disagree with me.


I described 1Q84 a few posts ago as a big souffle with jelly beans in it, and I still hold that view. Souffles are notoriously difficult, and Murakami does not quite pull this one off, though it almost looks as if he might. There are little bits of egg in the mix, little doughy bits of flour. So, the plot of the novel is too long for me to delve into here, and further, recounting it would probably just make reading it unnecessary – it’s one of those ‘the story is the story’ pieces. But for me, the twists and turns of plot felt mostly arbitrary – a few threads the author had chosen to weave together, to no discernible purpose.


In the end, most of the main tensions of the novel are not so much not resolved (which can be tantalising, leaving room for the reader to go exploring on their own) as dropped. Main characters wander off, the mystery is explained away as fiction, the ‘Little People’  – the sinister multiverse-shifting baddies of the novel, and the novel within the novel – snuffed out with no satisfying, or even unsatisfying encounter. ‘oh well, it was all an alternative reality’ doesn’t add much. If the language had been exciting, that might have helped paper over the cracks. But it was fairly straightforward, even turgid at times.


Also of note: number of references to the breasts of female characters, either from themselves (worrying about size) or from male observers thinking how perfect they are (uh huh). It started to wash over me after a while, because it happened so frequently. Other motifs: what people are wearing, each step of how they cook their dinners, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cruel cult, the magic of hand-holding, Oedipal fantasy stuff that was poorly developed.


Despite these irritations, 1Q84 is fun and engaging, and mostly hurries on at a good pace. It’s as easy to read as pringles and jaffa cakes are to eat, and about as remarkable, for all its superficial colourfulness and weight. Some of the chapters which follow Tengo (the male lead character) and his strained relationship with the man who may or may not be his father, are quite moving, as are those in which Aomame (the female lead character) meets with a wealthy but lonely and vengeful dowager (another of the bit-players who disappears off the map). I think 1Q84, at its heart, is  an Ideal Romance, and Ideal Romances, as you may know, are inherently static. They merely give the appearance of action – of separation, risk, danger, excitement. At their centre they hold steady around a solid, immutable love. If you know that, going in, perhaps you’ll be happier to excuse all that stuff whizzing round your head.


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Endless Reads Review at PANK: Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Berger

My review is up – and it’s not safe for work. Nor for any of my relatives! But I’d love input on this one from others who have read this book –  the whole review is basically a cry for aid:


I struggled for a long time with this review. Maidenhead has been well-received in reviews across the internet, but my personal response was murky, confused. My copy is dog-eared and when I touch it seems to trigger flashbacks of puzzlement and revulsion and interest and anger. It’s that sort of book, not one that will sit calmly on the shelf, glowing with read-ness.


Read more here


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Book Christmas



I received all these books today (after a few days of missed connections) – all three volumes of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead, Restoration by Rose Tremain, The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright and The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell.  And a little slip that reads ‘Vintage Books – with compliments’. Spectacular. Thanks so much to the lovely people @vintagebooks (who tweet delightfully). Endless Reads 2012 continues finely apace.



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Endless reads review at PANK: The Listeners by Leni Zumas


Some books require you to focus when reading. They jingle with loose connections you are meant to, as an active reader, hold together for the curren to pass through. While reading The Listeners, I flailed at first, wondering at the language, why it didn’t flow as I read it.

Here’s my review!


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Endless Reads Review at PANK: The Birdwisher by Anna Joy Springer

Check out my review of  The Birdwisher over at PANK.


I found this a difficult book to read, though it was short, and beautifully put together and in parts as light as souffle. ‘A murder mystery for very old young adults’, it describes itself within, and this proves to be an accurate way of summing things up…

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Endless Reads Review at PANK: Fast Machine by Elizabeth Ellen

My review is up at PANK!

Some books have a colour palette. Certain colours tinge the prose, or give the impression of appearing in the furniture, scenery, shadow, across the spread of tales. This occupies a bleed zone between poor remembrance of detail and a synesthetic approach to these details.

I know, for example, that not every story in Fast Machine features a rusty, 70s orange colour. And yet, it’s there carpeting my head. And, too, I see pinkish blood stains. I see the particular shade of brown which occupy themselves with breeding in dingy motel rooms.

This feeling, this back-of-the-mind consciousness, in response to Ellen’s work, is I think a tribute to the unity that exists therein.


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Endless Reads Review at PANK: Domestication Handbook by Kristen Stone

My review of this book, a hybrid of poetry and prose, is up at PANK:

Domestication Handbook, not appearing, by its thickness (slender) or its cover (of bloodied and pounded meat arranged in symmetry) to be really a handbook on some aspect of farming, is in fact a book of finest pins. I took my time with it, and still it works into me, and I must pause, look up from the sentences, and pull them back out one by one to examine.


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Endless Reads Review The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, over at Subtle Melodrama

I have written a review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, as part of the Scottish Writers on Scottish Writers series running on Subtle Melodrama – a lovely blog of book reviews, mostly focusing on the generally underrepresented (in the online world at any rate) contemporary Scottish Fiction.

Here’s a snippet:

I wanted to write about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark, for the Scottish Fiction Challenge because it’s a totty wee thin book that slips quietly into your pocket (if your pockets are big enough) but also because I read it recently with a student I’m teaching English as a Second Language, and so had to spend a good long time with the book despite how quick a read it could have been. When you spend a long time with something so good, going line by line, it grants a special sort of love, flavoured by the voice of the uncertain reader for whom the story is gradually unfolding, by the rain pattering on the flat roof next to the school room.

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