Monday, 31 December 2007

Books of the Year - last batch!

I’m going to get this post up relatively early today as we’ve got stuff to do before fun and games this evening. We’re having a few friends round to eat, drink and play silly games to see in the New Year. Charades anyone?

So, here’s the last lot of my best reads of 2007.

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier. I have been a Tracy Chevalier fan since reading The Virgin Blue, so I got in there before she became really famous when she published Girl with a Pearl Earring. I wonder if it was to do with book jackets? Virgin Blue’s jacket wasn’t the most inspiring ever whereas anybody interested in historical fiction is going to be immediately grabbed by the jacket of GWAPE with its Vermeer portrait and the Dutch townscape. I enjoyed Virgin Blue more but maybe that’s because I’m into split time narratives…
Anyway, The Lady and the Unicorn. Tracy Chevalier is clearly inspired by art a lot as this is a tapestry-inspired story. It’s deceptively simple, almost like a fairy story, and I’ll let TC fill you in on the bare bones with her own words, as she does so much better than I would:

Nicolas des Innocents, a handsome, lascivious artist, is summoned to the Paris home of Jean Le Viste, a nobleman who wants Nicolas to design a series of battle tapestries for his house. Jean’s wife, Geneviève, persuades Nicolas to talk her husband into a softer subject: the taming of a unicorn by a noblewoman. Nicolas shapes the tapestries with his own vision, dedicating five of the six to the senses and using the images of Geneviève and her daughter, Claude, with whom Nicolas is smitten, for two of the ladies in the tapestries.Nicolas takes the finished designs to Brussels, where master weaver Georges de la Chapelle will make them. At first Nicolas is scornful of Georges, but gradually comes to respect him and his wife Christine, and to take an interest in his daughter Aliénor. Nicolas models two more of the ladies in the tapestries after Christine and Aliénor, but his heart lies with the unattainable Claude.

There are layers and layers of symbolic meaning in The Lady and the Unicorn which resonate (can a layer resonate? You know what I mean, anyway) throughout the book. Jean le Viste, like all card-carrying, fairy-story rich men, is unreasonable and wants the hanging presented to him in an unfeasibly short space of time. Because he knows it will make his name and bring in other commissions, the weaver accepts the terms. And still the time is shortened as the story goes on until completing the tapestry begins to take on the aura of a supernatural task.
And against this backdrop the lives and loves of the weaver’s family and those around them are played out with all the historical detail which I have come to love Tracy Chevalier for. Nowhere is a detail put in gratuitously, it is always necessary to the story and I admire that in a historical novelist. We learn huge amounts about late medieval weaving techniques and the symbolism of the unicorn story but nowhere is the knowledge gratuitous, in every detail it moves the story forward or casts a new light on a character. It’s beautifully done and I was so sad when I finished this book.
Read it as a fable or as a historical novel, either will delight you.

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant begins dramatically:

My lady, Fiammetta Bianchini, was plucking her eyebrows and biting color into her lips when the unthinkable happened and the Holy Roman Emperor’s army blew a hole in the wall of God’s eternal city, letting in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops bent on pillage and punishment.

We escape from Rome to Venice with Fiammetta in the company of her dwarf, Bucino, through whose narrative voice the story is told. He’s an engaging character, Bucino, and seeing things through his eyes (and from his height, a life-imperilling shortness on occasion) is fascinating. Obviously, I’m not a man, so I don’t know just how convincing a job Sarah Dunant has made of Bucino but I was convinced by him – by the story of his happy childhood and an adult life lived at the whim of others due to his ‘deformity’ (which is how he refers to his own lack of stature).
I seem to have read so many novels recently where women have no choice but to sell their bodies in order to stay alive – whether they marry or ply the oldest trade – that it seems that women’s lives have been little but the trading of sex for security throughout history. Is that what our life, as a gender, has been? And is that why we seem so lost at the moment as we fight amongst ourselves about whether it’s morally or politically better to be a working mother or a homemaker and carer? Why so many of the young women I know show a frightening crisis of self-confidence?
Fiammetta Bianchini does not lack self-confidence, despite the fact that her mother began pimping her out when she was no more than thirteen. What would be seen as rank child-abuse now was, then, a matter of survival. And she does not seem damaged by it. Is this just Sarah Dunant’s take on things, or do our expectations of life colour how we react to the circumstances we are forced to live with and whether we are damaged or not by them?
It was as much this kind of question-raising which made the book enjoyable as the story itself; not to mention the brilliant evocation of the gilded rottenness of Renaissance Italy which makes you glad to live in tawdry old twenty-first century Britain.

The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower. As I’ve blogged about this here, I shan’t say any more, except to add that the book continued to intrigue, thrill and satisfy right to the end. I can hardly wait for Sarah Bower’s next book.

The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris. I’ve raved about this here, so no more.

The Observations by Jane Harris which was nominated for the Orange Prize this year. The Prize website summarised the story:

Scotland,1863. In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh, working for the beautiful Arabella.
Bessy is intrigued by her new employer, but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her most intimate thoughts.
And it seems that Arabella has secrets of her own – including her near-obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances.
Then a childish prank has drastic consequences, which throw into jeopardy all that Bessy has come to hold dear. Caught up in a tangle of madness, ghosts, sex and lies, she remains devoted to Arabella.
But who is really responsible for what happened to her predecessor Nora? As her past threatens to catch up with her and complicate matters even further, Bessy begins to realize that she has not quite landed on her feet …

What this summary doesn’t begin to tell you is what a wonderful narrator Bessy Buckley is. Right from the first page you know you’re in the hands of an energetic, opinionated, though possibly not always reliable, narrator and she whisks you through this pastiche of a victorian servant-voiced novel wonderfully. Yes, it’s a pastiche. According to a friend of mine who’s just done an English degree the servant narrated novel was a big genre in the nineteenth century (why didn’t I know this?) and Jane Harris gets it all spot on. Though it’s not a gothic novel it does have echoes of the gothic with goings on in the attic and things supernatural being hinted at left right and centre. But, though the story is gripping (and we all know what a sucker I am for a good story) I would have read this book from cover to cover for Bessy’s narrative voice alone. It’s that good.
Though it didn’t win the Orange Prize, losing out to Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, I think Jane Harris is a name to watch for those of us who like our novels to have a good story at their heart and a great narrator taking us through it.

Gosh, just realised, four out of the last five are historical novels. In fact, out of the whole list, only the Lollipop Shoes and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows aren’t historical novels or period pieces; and neither of them is exactly a realistic portrayal of twenty-first century life as we know it. What does that say about my reading preferences? That I’m not into gritty realism? Certainly true. That I’m not interested in the times in which we live? Untrue. Maybe it’s just that people with a real talentfor storytelling (as opposed to social observation and reportage which is what I see in a lot of contemporary novels) are chosing to tell stories set in other, more colourful eras rather than our own politically correct, bureaucratically drab one. Maybe that’s why I write split time books, because it gives me the chance to compare and contrast then and now. Hmmm, that needs some thinking about…

Anyway, as preparations beckon, I’d just like to say thanks to any and all who have read the blog in the last few months, whether regularly or just on a one-off visit – it was good to have you. To those who have commented – thank you so much for taking the time to share your views and to engage with me and everybody who reads this.

Now, imagine the tune of Auld Lang Syne playing in the background as I wish you all a very Happy New Year and all the very best of everything for 2008.

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