Written by Books

January Books

Here’s a vaguely accurate summary of the books I’ve read this month. An attempt, to some extent, to get me to read more. I can’t tell you how many books I have “backed up”…

A Card From Angela Carter is an unusual thing. For starters, it’s due to be Radio 4’s Book of the Week next week, and because this is a slim volume, I’d anticipate that the book will need barely any abridgement to be read in its entirety across five fifteen minute episodes.
This book began life as a Radio 3 essay, and is based around a series of postcards that Angela Carter sent her friend Susannah Clapp. Clapp has used these brief cards as a jumping off point for a more detailed remembrance of Carter and the different facets of her life and her character.
I’ve always found that admired Angela Carter from afar. Perhaps I wasn’t sure that a man was allowed to read books published by Virago, the publisher created for literature written solely by women? Nonetheless, it was A Company of Wolves that introduced her to me. And of course I came from the film – still one of my favourites.
To be honest, I’ve still not read much of her work, although that means I’ve got it to look forward to. But this is lovely primer on a fascinating woman.
You can also read a fairly chunky extract of the book at The Observer.

Empire State, on the other hand, is something very different. Essentially a steampunk novel, but with a wonderful noir feel, it’s set in two parallel versions of New York. One is an adjunct of sorts to the “real” New York.
But this is a world in which superheroes also exist.
Debut novelist Adam Christopher has a lot to juggle in this book, and to start with, it the reader a while to become comfortable. But they’re interesting characters, and as is the way with these things, nobody is necessarily who you think they are.

Before I Go To Sleep is the book you’re going to see most people reading on the tube over the coming months. Well I say that, but with the growth in Kindles, you won’t necessarily notice that they’re reading it.
But the book has already been number one for four weeks, and it’s included in just about all the popular book clubs currently running – Richard & Judy’s, the TV Book Club and so on. [An aside: publishers, please ensure that those book club stickers can be peeled off easily. The TV Book Club sticker required nail varnish remover to properly remove on my copy.] I suppose what this reminds me in part of is Room, but also the film Memento.
The premise is simple: Christine, the novel’s narrator, has a rare form of amnesia which means that every morning when she wakes up, she can remember nothing from the last twenty or so years. Memories stay with her throughout the day, but once she enters a deep sleep, she forgets it all and she’s back to where she started the previous morning.
That presents some challenges for a novel to say the least. But Christine, who has to be told daily by husband who she actually is, is also keeping a journal. Using this, she’s able to begin to put some of her life back together.
And this is a thriller, so perhaps not everything is what it seems…
I read this cracking book over a couple of days, and enjoyed it tremendously. In some respects, S J Taylor faced an impossible job writing himself out of the difficulty he’d placed his characters. And yet he manages it very neatly.
Thoroughly recommended.

I went along to Foyles for the UK launch of The Boy In The Suitcase a couple of weeks ago, and this is another example of Scandinavian crime fiction. In this case we’re in Denmark, home of The Killing and Borgen of course.
Nina is a nurse with the Red Cross, and when an old colleague of hers gives her a key and asks her to collect something from a locker at the station, she finds a small child – still alive. At this point, the sensible thing might have been to immediately phone the police. But Nina’s knowledge of what life is like for orphan immigrant children, and perhaps a lack of sense, mean that this is not what she does.
And so begins a tale of abducted children and murder, with links to a former Soviet state.
This book, as good crime fiction is able to do, shines a torch on our attitudes that are sometimes at odds with themselves. In particular there’s a general lack of care for immigrants that’s highlighted.
The Boy In The Suitcase is co-written by two Danish authors who’ve published quite successfully separately – Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnette Friis. But this is the first time they’ve turned their hand to crime (although there’ve since been two further books which we can look forward to in due course). Interestingly, and unusually, Kaaberbøl translated the English language version herself! Even though the Scandinavian authors I’ve come across through the Nordic Noir Book Club all speak English remarkably well, this is the first time I’ve heard of anyone taking on translation duties themselves.

The Woman in Black is one of those books that has been around so long now, it’s firmly on the syllabus for GCSEs (I had to do Chaucer and Shakespeare as my set texts). And for nearly as long, it’s been a fixture in the West End. Now it is to be a film, so with a newspaper offer promoting the title, I thought that I should finally get around to it.
I’ve not read an enormous amount of Hill’s work, which varies between crime and ghost stories. But I did read The Man in the Picture a few years ago which I enjoyed.
This is as classic a ghost story as is possible to be. And really I wouldn’t want to spoil it too much by revealing much about the plot. Except to say that it’s set in a remote village and even more remote house somewhere on the coast, and involves a young lawyer who has to deal with the estate of recently deceased women who lives in that house.
How scary or horrific you find the tale depends on how much you invest in it. To an extent, I find ghost stories harder to convey in novel form. Perhaps they really need to be read out loud? How good the film will turn out to be, we’ll just have to wait and see. But a very fine ghost story.

West End Front is absolutely fantastic!
Matthew Sweet, regular presenter on Radio 3’s Nightwaves amongst his many other duties, has done an incredible job in collating these memories and stories of some of London’s “Grand” hotels.
The book examines what it was like in those hotels as war in Europe broke out. They became a curious bubbling cauldron of soldiers, spies, prostitutes, con-men, royalty and politicians. That’s probably a recipe for some fantastic stories, and so it is that Sweet gives us them.
These hotels were there own ecosystems and during the war, various people just moved into them. Even rationing didn’t mean that guests had to wont for much. The Savoy had its own farm!
But there were strikes, plots, illegal abortions and internments.
Sometimes the stories are amusing. Other times they’re utterly harrowing.
Sweet has gone around over a number of years collecting these stories from those still alive who can relate their first-hand memories, and this book is to be cherished for that reason alone.
Somehow today’s hotels seem terribly dull in comparison. I can’t recommend this book enough!

We’ve had a lot of Sherlock Holmes recently, and to an extent, An Uncertain Place is some more. It’s the latest in Fred Vargas Commissaire Adamsberg series, who is certainly a detective who takes at least some inspiration from the great detective.
The action begins in London at a conference Adamsberg is attending. He gets sidetracked by a curious find outside Highgate cemetary – a collection of feet no less. But the story moves back to France pretty swiftly as a dead man is found in the most grissly of circumstances.
Trying to discover a motive is never straightforward in a Vargas story, where history always plays a key part, and the action doesn’t stay in one place for any period of time.
Any novel that starts to examine vampires is going to raise some eyebrows, but as with the previous title dealing with supposed werewolves, things might have a more down to earth answer even if locals of one sort or another believe differently.
Finally, there’s the previously reviewed From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg.