October’s Reading Group: Victory by Joseph Conrad


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Over the coming month, we’ll be poring over the great modernist’s challenging yet compelling novel – 100 years after it was first published; and we have five copies to give away … so get posting in the comments below

This month on the Reading Group, we’re looking at Joseph Conrad’s Victory, 100 years after the great modernist’s novel was first published.

The final word of the book, Conrad said in an author’s note that appeared with the first edition, was written on 29 May 1914. “And that last word was the single word of the title.” By the time the book came to be published, that word had taken on an unexpected resonance. “Those were the times of peace,” wrote Conrad of the period when he was finishing the book. By the time it was published in 1915, Europe was at war. Conrad said that he agonised over his ...

A Moment More Sublime by Stephen Grant – the fury of a lecturer scorned


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Inspired by an experience as a trade-union representative, this campus novel might have cost the author his job in academia, but it marks a promising debut in fiction

Those immersed in Not the Booker law and who have closely followed the early stages of this competition will know that the late arrival on our shortlist of Stephen Grant’s A Moment More Sublime was something of a fudge and bodge. While there may have been a few doubts about its strict eligibility, I am at least certain that Grant deserves a break. This novel cost him his job, after all.

A Moment More Sublime was “partly inspired” by Grant’s experiences as a trade-union representative during an industrial dispute at Richmond upon Thames College. As Grant explains it, he was “asked to stop publication” of the novel and was then investigated under the college’s disciplinary procedure. Shortly afterwards, he resigned “due to ...

Do EL Doctorow’s novels tinker too much with the truth?


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The Book of Daniel has drawn criticism for playing fast and loose with history. But should fiction remain rule-free, or does its power entail a responsibility to be accurate?

El Doctorow had a rule for writing. “I have to feel that I’m transgressing,” he told numerous interviewers. “The only time it’s good is when I’m breaking some rule.” He consistently pushed against the boundaries, experimenting in form and voice, challenging prevailing orthodoxies and pushing moral boundaries. He also, often, made his readers feel distinctly uncomfortable. The Waterworks presses hard questions about medical ethics, madness and science. The Book of Daniel confronts us with the death of Daniel’s parents, based on Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed for treason by the US government in 1953, and details their last minutes in vivid detail.

This latter scene especially has caused controversy here on the reading group. Last week, I suggested ...

The Good Son by Paul McVeigh – close, but no Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha


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Mickey Donnelly, a 10-year-old narrator coming of age during the Troubles, has earned McVeigh’s debut comparisons with Roddy Doyle that are hard to shake

Just over a decade ago, Roddy Doyle made the headlines by suggesting that “Ulysses could have done with a good editor” and complaining, “If you’re a writer in Dublin and you write a snatch of dialogue, everyone thinks you lifted it from Joyce.”

It’s with a certain relish, therefore, that I’m now going to compare Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son to Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. The shadow of Paddy Clarke grows longer as the years go by. It looms over anyone going for a vivid, heart-wrenching description of Irish boyhood, whether in the Republic or the North. It clouds, in other words, any reading of The Good Son.

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The Book of Daniel: a triumph of execution


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Inspired by the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, EL Doctorow’s 1971 novel would prove uncannily perceptive

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

So begins Sylvia Plath’s novel 1963 novel, The Bell Jar. A great opening. Attention-grabbing and wrong-footing in equal measure, it immediately situates the story in the middle of one of the cold war’s most hysterical moments, in the summer of 1953.

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Dark Star by Oliver Langmead – taking noir too far


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A science fiction detective story in iambic pentameter transports the reader to an analogue world plunged into darkness – but more illumination is needed

Dark Star is an SF epic poem heavily influenced by noir detective stories, written in four-line-long stanzas of iambic pentameter, and set on a world called Vox whose sun doesn’t give out light.

Let’s have that again.

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The Waterworks by EL Doctorow – a macabre masterpiece


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It received mediocre reviews and is now out of print, but this 19th century yarn rivals Poe and Wilkie Collins in its flirtation with the supernatural and its creepy, troubled narrator

“People didn’t take what Martin Pemberton said as literal truth, he was much too melodramatic or too tormented to speak plainly. Women were attracted to him for this - they imagined him as some sort of poet, though he was if anything a critic, a critic of his life and times. So when he went around muttering that his father was still alive, those of us who heard him, and remembered his father, felt he was speaking of the persistence of evil in general.”

That’s the first paragraph of EL Doctorow’s Waterworks. And don’t you just want to read on? Already we have two intriguing characters deftly sketched in just a handful of words. The difficult, romantic, incisive ...

Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh – the scorch of being 16


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First-person narrative that poignantly captures the loneliness of an unlovable teenager who makes even her own mother feel uncomfortable

Here’s a new tip for budding novelists. Spend hours on eBay, until you enter a “perfect state of catatonia”. Until you are – in the words of Tasha Kavanagh – dumbed down, “till you’re just this kind of drone”. At this point Kavanagh explains, “the work would come out of me”. Things went so well that her first draft of Things We Have in Common turned out to be the only one she needed, and got her a publishing deal with Canongate.

Most importantly, this unorthodox way of working helped her to capture the strange, unsettling voice of her 16-year-old first-person narrator Yasmin. A voice that can be flat and almost monosyllabic: “I went up to my room when we got home. I wanted to be on my own. I sat ...

September’s Reading group: The Book of Daniel by EL Doctorow


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The most popular choice for this month is – shockingly – tough to find, but we can still focus on a great book

The Waterworks was the popular choice for this month’s Reading group commemorating the writer EL Doctorow. It came top by a considerable margin. This is both good and bad news.

It’s good news because The Waterworks is an underrated classic. It’s complicated, fascinating, surprising, unsettling, mesmerising … I could throw “ings” at it all day. I love it more every time I read it and I want to press it into as many hands as I possibly can. In that sense, it’s the ideal choice.

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Fishnet by Kirstin Innis – complicating the story of sex work


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The tale of a woman whose moral certainties about prostitution are challenged by her experience is warm and engaging, if at times a little hectoring

“Everybody thinks they understand what the word prostitute means. It’s this idea of victimhood, of badness and helplessness,” Kirstin Innis told the Herald Scotland.

“Laws are made without even talking to the people whose lives they are going to affect. We assume that these people are victims and it’s a kindness to speak for them. That comes with pity. And if you’re pitying somebody you can’t really empathise with them.”

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Terry Pratchett’s books are the opposite of ‘ordinary potboilers’


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The moral weight that Jonathan Jones says is missing from the Discworld novels is very much there – but to know this, you do actually have to read them

Like many people on Twitter, I felt the red mist descend as I read Guardian art columnist Jonathan Jones’s newly published article saying that life is too short to read a Terry Pratchett novel. I’ve loved the Discworld books since I was nine and also spent some of my professional life carefully reading and commenting on them. But a raised eyebrow and a shoulder shrug are probably the most dignified response to Jones’s declaration that while he doesn’t intend to read a single one of Pratchett’s books, he is nonetheless sure that they’re not “actual literature” and that the late author was a “mediocrity” churning out “ordinary potboilers”.

When he turned his attention to “the true delights of ambitious fiction”, though, ...

The Artificial Anatomy of Parks by Kat Gordon – Malory Towers gets drunk


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The story of a poor little rich girl who loses her way when daddy gets sick, this might be hard to take seriously but it’s done with conviction and charm

It would be easy to be cynical about The Artificial Anatomy of Parks. It might also be fun. So I’ll have a go.

This is a novel about a poor little rich girl with serious daddy issues. One strand of a dual narrative tells how Tallulah (yes, Tallulah) had quite a few problems in her family, but lack of money wasn’t one of them, so they packed her off to boarding school where she fell in love with a very handsome boy with a good chin who grew up to be a lawyer. She also demonstrated her rebellious nature by smoking cigarettes and sometimes drinking vodka until, for reasons that only emerge late on in the narrative, she dropped out ...

How I became a convert to Haruki Murakami


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Searching for the heart of Kafka on the Shore, I see now, was missing the point. Instead I’ve fallen head over heels for his book on running

I was wrong about Murakami. I underestimated him, misunderstood him and failed to do him justice. I went into the maze of Kafka on the Shore expecting to find something hidden in the centre – and then grew annoyed when there was no real middle, just a winding path to a different exit. And because I was so intent on looking for something that wasn’t there, I couldn’t properly appreciate the beautiful topiary, the cleverness of the paths and the various acts of misdirection.

I know that now. A week or so after my initial reading, and after a series of fascinating threads here on the Reading group, I realise that even if I couldn’t find that dense centre of the novel, there ...

Shame by Melanie Finn – intense, impressive misery


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The first Not the Booker prize shortlistee for consideration this year piles on the agony for the reader with impressive force

Flies. War. Pollution. Sewage. Divorce. Adultery. Alcoholics. Mercenaries. Puppy torture. Haemorrhage. Stillbirths. Dead mothers. Cancer. Assault. Rape. Murder. Switzerland. The miseries come fast, and thick, in Melanie Finn’s Shame. It’s relentless, hard to take and all the better for it.

At first it isn’t clear what has driven Pilgrim Jones (that’s right, Pilgrim: we’re told her parents were hippies) to Tanzania. We know there’s something wrong – more wrong than just a failed marriage and unfaithful husband, but Melanie Finn does a fine job of holding off the details until we have spent a little time with her shattered narrator, watching her as she tries to come to terms with her new reality and new surroundings. She has left an organised safari to stay first of all in Magulu, ...

Kafka on the Shore, readers at sea


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Reaching the end of Murakami’s novel has done little to explain its mysteries, but has brought some appreciation of his ability to blend the fantastic and the prosaic

I’ve now finished Kafka On The Shore - but I don’t feel as if I’ve got much closer to getting to grips with it than last week. The nearer I got to the end, the further I felt from grasping anything of any real weight. There were, as David Mitchell elegantly summarises, a lot of unanswered questions:

The wartime X-File is revisited only once, the UFO is never explained, and the spectral village between the worlds serves little discernible function, beyond being a place for Kafka to escape to and then a place to escape from. The mythic motifs also remain frustratingly shady. Is Mrs Saeki really Kafka’s mother? (The answer, given to Kafka, is “you know the answer”.) Is ...

The mystery of Haruki Murakami’s whimsy


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Kafka on the Shore is the work of an acknowledged master. So why does this book seem so full of pointless – and pedantic – fancy?

One of the pleasures of writing for the Reading group is that it’s a place I can safely get things wrong. Generally, when you write a review, your opinion is pretty final and you don’t get much chance to recant later. I’ve recently been doing some research about HG Wells and there are a good handful of critics whose sole remaining claim on immortality is having written completely wrong-headed reviews about the appeal and longevity of The War of the Worlds.

“What a splendid opportunity is lost in the description of the exodus from London!” wrote the otherwise forgotten Basil Williams. “One thinks what a writer with a great eye for poetical effect like Mr Meredith would have made of such an idea; ...

Make literary history by helping us to judge the 2015 Not the Booker prize


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With the contestants for the UK’s not-quite-premier prize gathered on the starting line, the hunt is on for volunteers to pick a winner

Back in 2012, the Not the Booker prize almost fell of a cliff. The Lord Of Chaos, who has always stalked us, who has always longed to trip us up and laugh as we fall, he took his chance. He swooped down and did us over, cackled loud and pushed us right to the edge of the precipice. Our public voting system all but collapsed in a tide of acrimony and anger.

It wasn’t pretty. But actually a lot of good came out of it. Thanks to some excellent suggestions for improvements, we were able to continue stronger than ever before, and to maintain our open democratic ethos.

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Six of the best: Not the Booker prize shortlist revealed


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The votes have all been counted … and my head hurts. Now I hope you’ll join me in reading your chosen six – and perhaps become one of our chosen three (judges)

There were just under 1,000 votes for this year’s Not the Booker prize shortlist.

On the one hand, that’s astonishing, amazing, huge. Thank you. Such enthusiasm for literature is affirming and overwhelming.

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Journeys in literature: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – a trip into inner space


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Only 40,000 words long, this story of colonial brutality is a mesmerisingly ambiguous voyage into the darkest parts of the soul

Conrad’s famous novella is based on a real journey the author took up the Congo in 1890, during King Leopold II of Belgium’s horrific rule. It is a fantastic, imaginative journey to find a man named Kurtz who has lost his mind in the African jungle. It is a journey into inner space; a metaphorical investigation into the turbid waters of the human soul. It is a political journey into the dark heart of European colonialism. It is a nightmare journey, into horror. It is a journey to nowhere, set on a boat lying motionless and at anchor on the river Thames, which also “has been one of the dark places on the earth”.

There’s no shortage of journeys to talk about in relation to Heart of Darkness – ...