Sorrow and anger: Books I couldn’t finish or wished I hadn’t started

I don’t usually write negative reviews of books, because (1) it’s usually not fair on a writer to pillory them in public, (2) why waste the reader’s time? But sometimes writing a reasoned critical appraisal for the record can be a public service. For those searching online to find out if anyone else hated this book as much as they did, even a negative review can be reassuring, to confirm they they’re not the only ones who gave up. Here are seven of my recent duds that you may wish to avoid.

ingsSimon Ings, Hot Wire (1995, 2014 Gollancz edition) Cyber-punk. I wish I had taken the time to look inside before I wasted £8.99 on this. After a saccharine opening scene set on a beach, this novel moves on to a revolting and lengthy description of how two addicts open up an old man’s skull to extract his hard wiring, while he’s only mildly sedated, and then rape and mutilate his grand-daughter. I can read horror if the story justifies it, but this was gratuitous, and its intention to shock was successful. Also, misogyny seems to be a recurring theme in the novel, since all the women encountered in my half hour of reading were defined as sexualised objects, associated with violence I didn’t want in my head. The cyberpunkishness is wearying, not stimulating. The cover art is gorgeous. I should have known better to judge this book solely by that.

Catherine Carswell, Lying Awake (1950, 1997 Canongate Classics) Memoir of Scottish author known mostly for her championship of D H Lawrence’s writing. I’m not sure that this should ever have been published, since it’s an hommage to a minor literary figure by her uncritical son. It’s in three parts: the first is a patchwork memoir of growing up in Victorian Glasgow, and reads pretty much like all the others I’ve read of that genre. The second part, of scraps and gnomic phrases from Carswell’s papers, carefully assembled by her son after her death, is meaningless without context. The third section, of letters from the author to a friend during the Second World War, has mild interest for ‘women writing in wartime’ historians, but, again, unless you’re interested in Carswell, there is very little here.

Vonda McIntyre, Superluminal (1983). SF space opera. When I realised that I had never actually read Superluminal, McIntyre’s third novel, since I had been confusing its plot with that of her short story ‘Aztecs’, from which she says it was developed, I bought this with huge anticipation for summer reading. I can only think that it might have been a very early novel that she published after the successes of Dreamsnake and The Exile Waiting, which are both superb. There are some very good ideas, but I cannot believe in her star-crossed lovers, nor in her space port or flight protocols, or indeed anything technical and machine-based since this is just dated in a way that her other novels soar past effortlessly. The novel’s plot matches Anne McCaffrey’s The Crystal Singer (1982) too closely, and her intra-dolphinate human subspecies is a great idea abandoned. It is SO disappointing.

woolfVirginia Woolf, The Waves (1931). Major literary landmark. I read this because it’s the second-last Woolf novel I haven’t read, and in my line of work one needs to have read them. I hated it. I could teach it as a text demonstrating significant literary innovation, as a modernist challenge to the realist novel, for close reading of the techniques of the stream of consciousness. But as a novel to enjoy, for pleasure? Nope.

China Miéville, Un Lun Dun (2007). YA fantasy adventure in alternate London. This is advertised as Miéville’s answer to / version of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and it certainly sticks very closely to the basic concept. Miéville’s trademark inventiveness is fully present, but I got annoyed by the derivative plot and decorative details. He reuses very famous bits from Tolkien, Chris Riddell, C S Lewis and J K Rowling, for instance, without much bothering to twist or recolour them, and for a YA readership, that’s lazy. The Marxist politics underlying the plot are blatant and enjoyable, but overall this novel feels predictable and flabby. Miéville can do YA fantastically well: Railsea was as hard and sharp as Perdido Street Station. Un Lun Dun is too long for its inevitable plot, which is worth reading only for the superlative inventions and the quest plot reworked.

priestleyJ B Priestley, Jenny Villiers (1947). Novel of the theatre that would rather be a play. Priestley had become a successful playwright and a radio broadcaster speaking for the common man by the time this work came out (when he was on a bit of treadmill), and this novel is an uncomfortable mash-up. Its woodcut illustrations in this edition are too good for the pedestrian storytelling, and the plot is transparently inevitable, even though it’s a ghost story. The plot is a little too clichéd, and the mechanics of narration are told us, not shown. It reads like a novel written by a tired man with one idea and no interest in letting it develop. If you feel like reading London theatre fiction read Josephine Tey or Ngaio Marsh, or even David Copperfield, because Priestley stole all his characters from there.

Amber Reeves, A Lady and her Husband (1914, 2016 Persephone Books). Feminist Edwardian melodrama. Full credit to Persephone for reprinting this as a historical landmark, and a novel exposing exploitation in tea-shops and the slippery slope to penury for a working-girl who makes one mistake. But it’s boring. Very, very dull. Full credit also for reprinting a novel in which the lead character is an ‘older’ woman (though she’s only about 40), but why couldn’t Reeves have made her interesting? I get that she’s a fragile, dominated creature who is learning how to negotiate the frightening world outside her open cage, but for a novel, more gumption would have made her a character to root for. I just wanted to slap her. The most interesting character is her sharp secretary Miss Percival, who won’t live with her own husband and strains to pull her dim and conventional employer even only a little way towards emancipation and freedom.

First Light for Alan Garner

Garner 1First Light is an Unbound book, initially paid for by its subscribers. Because the book has to sell before it’s published Unbound have to do a great deal of pre-sell publicity, and it certainly helps if the author, or subject, is famous. In this case – First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner, edited by Erica Wagner – the subject is famous (if you’ve read any of his novels: I was stunned to discover that my husband hasn’t, so his pile of books-to-be-read is now substantially larger than it was). The editor is famous if you’ve read any of her novels, or any of the newspapers or magazines that she writes for. But, even if one wanted to buy the book because one liked The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, or Wagner’s book reviews for The New Statesman, outside these two groups there is a gaping hole, and into the hole a host of celebrity contributors have been poured. If writing by a Big Name is printed in a book supporting a Lesser Name, then all the Big Name’s fanbase will flock to buy the book, or at least tweet about their intentions of so doing. This is the third Unbound selling strategy.

Garner 3First Light is an exceedingly handsome book (though, annoyingly, it lacks an index). It’s a deeply absorbing collection of 43 essays and poems, a Robert Macfarlane word-map and Cornelia Funke’s unexpected illustration of Garner as the Horned One. It creates a fractured kaleidoscopic picture of Garner, packed with surprises. He was the teenage sprinter who did his training with Alan Turing on Alderley Edge. He was a promising young classicist who left his hard-won place at university to learn how to write. He is the descendant of generations of stone-workers who have lived in the same place in Cheshire for hundreds of years. He rescued a medieval hall, and moved a Tudor cottage 16 miles to join it. He carried an oak shovel around in his kitbag for four years during his National Service, worried that if he didn’t have it with him it might disappear again, as it had in his infant school, and in the mine down the road where the Victorian miners dug it up. It was later carbon-dated to the Bronze Age and still works perfectly well. Things get dug up in his own garden all the time.

Garner 4He also wrote novels. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath captured me before I was 12, but I never really liked The Owl Service or Red Shift, though we had to read them at school. I inexplicably missed out on Elidor, but devoured The Guizer, The Stone Quartet and A Bag of Moonshine. As an adult I returned to Garner when I found Strandloper and Boneland high and dry on a bookshop shelf (I reviewed them two years ago for Vulpes Libris). I’ve got Thursbitch and The Voice that Thunders on my reading list now (with Elidor). If nothing else, First Light has given me a much better grip on what other Garner works are out there that I should be reading.

The essays that really spoke to me are the ones that told me more about the books I know, or now want to know, by how they worked on other readers. Helen Macdonald and Rowan Williams’ poems do this. Neil Gaiman’s observation about Boneland makes complete sense of the whole Colin and Susan saga for me: that there is a missing third novel that hasn’t (yet) been written, preceding and explaining the terrifying, schizophrenic anguish of Colin’s search for his sister in the Pleiades. I’m so tired of Stephen Fry’s multiple appearances in every medium, but what he says about Garner’s writing rings true: Garner is a writer who trusts his readers. Ali Smith’s recollections of seeing The Owl Service on TV, Philip Pullman’s carefully-chosen words about the moral relationship between craft and writing, and Margaret Atwood’s totally bonkers story about a people-skinning raccoon – these are the Big Name contributions to draw the unGarnered reader in, to find out what their heroes think of him. It’s unclear what the Atwood story says about Garner or his writing, but what anthology editor is going to refuse a short story from Margaret Atwood? Perhaps it was simply a present.

Garner 5Less well-known names (unless you’re into archaeology or professional storytelling, for example) give revealing recollections of how a Garner book did things to their mind, or how he popped up in their professional or private lives one day holding a thing of wonder to show them, and how he has never left. There is pain in some essays, that articulate how Garner’s writing works as healing and therapy. These moved me: seeing behind the public frontages of these Big Name authors lessened my dislike for their writing.

There are also New Big Names included who were presumably asked to write something because they are so hot right now. There are So-So Names who get in because they are part of the London literary scene, on the spot for commissioning because they move in the same circles as the editor, or in Unbound’s orbit. Many of these contributions were uninteresting, being not much more than ‘My favourite Alan Garner book and why’, which we can all write ourselves. At least one was a regrettable froth of self-indulgent twaddle. The most memorable essays are those by specialists pointing out something hitherto unnoticed or remarkable that Garner has said or done, and the people from Garner’s life who have no particular public presence, whose biographical stories prevent the book slopping into woolly mush. It might so easily have gone that way, had it merely been a luvvy-festschrift (which is good, because Garner is absolutely not a luvvy). Despite all the necessary publicity and puffery needed to get this book off the ground, it’s a great addition to biography. I’m glad I subscribed.