Ark Baby by Liz Jensen

51+FkldghhLI did this book as part of an off the wall university module called ‘Animal Writes’. The course was led by one of the more zany professors, known simply as Bob. I liked Bob. Firstly for his ability to come up with excellent puns (Animal Writes?! SNARF SNARF SNARF). Secondly because he sounded like Billy Connolly. And thirdly because he was barmy about animals.

We did a few slightly uncomfortable books (My Dog Tulip was the notable weird one), and then all the expected stuff (Jack London and Virginia Woolf’s Flush). And then we did Liz Jensen’s Ark Baby.

Ark Baby is absolutely nuts. A whole new take on Darwinism, told with a distinct twinkle in the eye.

Like many of my favourite books, the story is told over a three generations where the characters all inter-link so there’s lots of piecing together and ‘Aha!’ moments. I’ll sum it up for you:

We open on a scene akin to Noah’s Ark on crack, which is all written in broken English by some poor lass who is trapped on a boat with a bunch of animals – who are all being rounded up for the Queen’s ambitious taxidermy collection, by the evil Horace Trapp.

Next we are propelled forward to 2005, where the UK is in the midst of the Fertility Crisis. Desperate young women have started keeping monkeys as their surrogate children, and veterinary medicine is cashing in. However, when vet Bobby Sullivan is persuaded by a man to put down his wife’s monkey (who goes by the name of Giselle) – he has to go on the run to escape an impending law suit.

Rewind back to the Victorian era and we are introduced to taxidermist Dr. Scrapie, who is working on the Royal Collection for the Queen after Horace Trapp’s ark returns.

Skip a generation, and Dr Scrapie and his laudanum addicted wife have a daughter named Violet. A compulsive eater, Violet befriends an obsessive chef who served aboard Horace Trapp’s Ark, and is now in Dr. Scrapie’s employment, turning all the exotic meats from the Ark into experimental dishes.

And finally, a contemporary of the Scrapie family, we meet Victorian freak Tobias Phelps. Raised in a fiercely religious environment, where the very name ‘Darwin’ is a dirty word – he is the most important character in this bizarre tale.

All of these generations are eventually weaved together, in a dark and equally funny history. The characters are awesome, and the pace is excellent.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

tartt_200-75cfc9baf7da62131e30892e8c9abee477458c43-s6-c30Because I thought The Goldfinch was so wicked I went headlong into Donna Tartt’s previous book The Secret History, practically slathering with anticipation. Of course, as is usually the case when you have such high expectations, it definitely wasn’t as good. So if you’re new to Donna Tartt like I am, then I’d totally read The Secret History first, because it will only get better from there. If someone had never eaten a steak before I’d advise them not to go and use up all their joy at The Hawksmoor. Baby steps and all that.

This book reminded me a lot of that early Peter Jackson film where a 16 year old Kate Winslet makes friends with some stalker-ish chubby kid and things get out of hand and they end up murdering someone with a brick. Even more disturbingly, I think that film was based on a true story. Pretty chilling stuff. So what I’m trying to say is that The Secret History is all about ‘weird group of kids gone and done a murder’.

In the first chapter we learn that a young college student Bunny, met his maker following a fatal ‘hiking accident’, which clearly translates as ‘someone pushed him’ since the narrator is racked with guilt. Eventually the plot unfolds around a bunch of quirky school friends who all meet on a secretive Ancient Greek course.

I love the weirdness of it all. The characters are great. Apparently Tartt came up with the story during her relationship with the author of one of my most hated books of all time (American Psycho), Brett Easton Ellis. So when it comes to freaky characters she clearly had a very well informed companion to bounce ideas off.

 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

web-the-goldfinch-book-cover

This book was recommended to me by my good pal and fellow advertising chum Katie Harland. Amongst other delightful quirks, (like the fact the people in her local chicken shop know her by name – a girl after my own heart), I can also conclude that she has a darn good taste in books. I knew we must have a similar taste in books as Katie has already suggested at least two books I’ve already blogged about, so when she told me this one was a goodie I happily abandoned Julian Barnes’ Sense Of An Ending, (does anyone else get that book? I don’t…), and finished The Goldfinch within a week.

It seems like the author has gone through a checklist of things that classically make a great story, and has weaved them into the plot of this brilliant book:

Treasure: The theft of Carel Fabritius’ priceless painting The Goldfinch, and the maddening task of concealing it.

Love: The unrequited obsession of our young narrator Theo Decker, and a red-head he first encounters in an art gallery during his childhood.

Tragedy: It would give way to much away if I went into all the tragedy. More tragedy than you could shake a stick at. Death, drugs, violence, terrorism, trauma…It’s brutal. But equally gripping.

Friendship: The ‘best friend’ figure in this book is a funny Russian boy affably named Boris. If there’s ever a film adaptation made of this, I just know Boris is going to be played by some nice guy nobody actor who will be everyone’s favourite and go on to star in the Twilight saga or whatever takes off next. Oh and then there’s the other friend Andy who’s also very sweet, kind of the ‘Piggy-character’ of the piece.

Life: We witness the passage of time, and Theo’s ‘coming of age’ – which made me feel very attached to him by the end of a book.

This is another novel that becomes all the more poignant in the light of 9/11, but has taken this group of literature into a whole new space. I don’t even know if it was inspired by any real life events. Apparently Donna Tartt only writes a book every ten years or something, so I don’t know when she started this one. I’ve googled her. She looks like a total badass hipster, who I would love to be in 20 years.

But if I assume it emerged along with other 9/11 inspired novels, I have to say it is so creative it completely stands apart and straddles a whole group of categories. It’s one of those books that leaves you rushing through the pages, trying to get to the end and find out what happens next. It’s obvious why this was a prize winning international best seller. MUST READ.

 

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

life-of-piSometimes I read a book and think, crikey, there’s a lot going on here (and yes my inner thinking voice definitely uses words like ‘crikey’). Usually when I feel like there is a lot of talking in metaphors, or some sort of attempt to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes, or (God forbid) a meditation on religion; then in the words of Duncan Bannatyne “I’m out”.  But despite the fact there are clearly many layers of meaning that are shooting right over the top of my head, Life of Pi is a cool little book.

For starters it’s got a lot of animals in it which, for me, is a bonus in any story (I’ll do my George Orwell bit in another post, although the animals in that were damn creepy).

When I was skinny little squab starting out in secondary school, I had all sorts of animals in my back garden which would royally piss the neighbours off. Rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, ducks, chickens, parrots, quail, lovebirds, partridge, pigeons, doves, canaries, budgies, finches and the occasional wild hawk that would drop in from time to time and try and eat my beloved pets. Now the menagerie has shrunk to just a few moth-eaten hens, the odd bird and a little Jack Russell, which are all perfectly befitting of a family home in a sleepy cul-de-sac.

I’d like to think there are a few tenuous links that could be made between myself and Pi in the novel, although not really since Pi lives in a zoo and has tigers in his back garden. If I’d read this book aged 11 when it was first published, I’d have probably burned green with envy and insisted on putting together a PowerPoint on ‘Reasons Why I Should Be Allowed To Get A Tiger’. Pi’s childhood would have been my absolute dream. That is, it would have been my absolute dream until the bit in the book where Pi’s father decides to re-locate the family (and the zoo) to Canada and things go a bit pear-shaped to say the least.

So, after a jolly old time being brought up in a zoo in India, Pi, his family and all the animals board a boat bound to Canada. It’s a regular old Noah’s Ark situation until a ferocious storm sinks the ship and leaves Pi stranded on a lifeboat with an orang-utan, a zebra and a hyena. Oh yeah, and a big ass Bengalese tiger called Richard Parker.

Is that not the best possible premise on which to begin writing a novel? It gets very clever towards the end, and makes you question the reliability of the narrator – and yeah, there’s a lot of that religion stuff thrown in there too. But not in a pretentious way. And it’s probably one of my favourite books that I have read in the past five years, and one that I will read again.

P.S. Forget watching the film. It’s totally pants.

P.P.S I’m totally lacking in some suggestions about what to read next. Post me some titles in the comments below or ping me an email and I’ll do you a Radio 1 style shout out if I blog about them later.

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

wild_swansI knew absolutely nothing about Chairman Mao before reading Wild Swans, other than that Nandos thought he was enough of a bastard to include him alongside the likes of Mugabe, Gaddafi and P.W Botha in their Last Dictator Standing Ad (very funny, and also very banned). From what I could glean from his Wikipedia page he was proper gross, as in didn’t brush his teeth for thirty years gross, and his mouth was covered in a green film when he died. Delightful. The rest of his Wiki-bio was pretty dry and political sounding, so I returned to the book to learn some more about Algae Germ Chops himself.

The book is split into three sections, two bios and one autobiography, about three women who lived through China’s civil wars, and Mao’s rise to power. Jung Chang writes first about her grandmother, whose feet were bound and crushed beneath a rock so she could appear feminine enough to become the concubine of a Chinese warlord. Next she writes about her mother, an official in the Communist Party who struggles through the political hypocrisy and political blindness of the people. For Jung Chang’s mother it is very much a battle between political and moral beliefs. Finally Jung Chang tells her own story, as the daughter of two Communist officials in an unstable economy ridden by famine and double standards.

From Jung Chang’s account, people under Mao were subjected to a reign of psychological torment. Neighbours would spy on neighbours; children would inform on their own parents – people were constantly covering themselves even if it was at the expense of someone they knew was innocent. Although Mao isn’t described by Chang as a bloodthirsty gun-wielding dictator, it’s clear that his regime drove people to the point of insanity, and in a lot of cases, suicide.

If you know loads about old Mao I probably wouldn’t bother reading, as it isn’t a hugely gripping personal account and I’m sure Chang doesn’t disclose anything a Mao expert wouldn’t already have heard a million times before. However, if like me you are completely new to mid-1900’s China, it’s a really good read. All the cool history stuff, but told in an engaging way. Now to find a book that’s a bit more cheerful…