Mike McCormack || Solar Bones


Spoiler Alert

In Solar Bones Marcus Conway looks at his life: present and past are linked to each other in one long sentence lasting over 250 pages. Somewhere around page 40 I started wondering whether this long sentence really did add something to the novel. I found reading without visual breaks rather tiresome.

In this single sentence we jump from topic to topic, it is clear that McCormack has gone for stream of consciousness – but in a rather structured way. Whilst the novel starts with short phrases shooting from topic to topic, gradually the paragraphs get longer and longer. The fragments of Conways memory turn from shards to entire passages.

In those passages Conways mind does not somersault, he – a civil engineer – turns out to be a rather linear thinker. Those paragraphs in which he describes his own work working for the county or of the opening of his daughter’s exposition he narrates in a straight way from start to finish. I wonder whether McCormack thought to emphasise Conways civil engineer character in this way (sorry, I know, slight prejudice).

The effect of the more linear thinking is that one is not sucked into the novel, as for instance did happen with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride. McCormack keeps his readers at a distance, making me wonder whilst reading whether this one sentence was absolutely necessary? A more classical structure especially in combination with McCormack’s beautiful phrasing and contemplating might have worked as well.

I started doubting in the final pages, when McCormack has Conway die of a heart attack during some six pages. Then I figured that the one sentence could be the equivalent of having one’s life pass in one’s mind before dying. The more chaotic way of writing at the start could be because the novel starts with Conway just having died, which could be a valid reason for having one sentence lasting an entire novel.

Did McCormack do his readers a pleasure by writing one sentence? Not me personally. I felt that the lack of white, the linearity of Conway and the longer more descriptive paragraphs did not add up together. They diminished the required effect of stream of consciousness. I am afraid McCormack would have made me happy with a more extreme version of his long sentence or by sticking to a more traditional structure. A slightly more chaotic main character might have helped.


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2017 in books: The ones that impressed me

In 2017 I could not escape from one novel: its advertisements were everywhere. There was a huge queue at the library, the long wait turned out to be justified: this novels was rightfully hyped. Two other novels were delivered sooner but did not fail to impress. Though BooksandLiliane centres on recent novels in 2017 I did fall for a trilogy that had escaped my attention at the start of the century.

Jane Gardam wrote the Old Filth Trilogy some 15 years ago. I missed her novels then, I was glad I decided to give them a shot years later. I was most impressed with the novels centring on Edward and Betty Feathers: upper stiff lip British and repressed emotions everywhere.

OF trilogie
Amor Towles surprised me with a charming novel about a charming man. A Gentleman in Moscow kept me captivated from start to finish. Towles avoided an overload of historical fact whilst still setting the stage in which to place his main character: a man who was forced to live a small life and managed to make it grand in a different way.

Sebastian Barry made it to the Man Booker Shortlist in 2017. He turned out to have written a novel about war and violence in which the human aspect dominated. The right dosage of cruelties made that I could remain captivated by the two main characters: two soldiers who had to hide their love and who remained loyal to each other, themselves and their country till the end. The exquisite writing of Barry completed it.

Nathan Hill hyped in 2017 (at least in my country). His novel The Nix could not be overlooked, and rightly so.  Hill promises to be one in a long list of master storytellers like Dickens, Irving or Wolfe. The Nix had me captivated from start to finish, its intricate plot convinced and did not go wrong anywhere.

2017 has been another year of joy in reading. I hope my blogs have contributed slightly to the joy in reading of others, I look forward to another year with beautiful, precious novels to blog on.

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2017: the ones that let me down

Disappointing novels came in several shapes in 2017. The ones I just did not like, but also the ones I could not fathom why they were being hyped. Or the ones of authors I love that just did not live up to my high expectations.

Jami Attenberg, Tracy Chevalier, Charlotte Wood, Gwendoline Riley and Maria Sempre belong to the first category. I felt that their novels were badly written, with rickety plots or those very American extremely self-conscious main characters. All Grown Up and Today It Will Be Different annoyed me with their main characters who only cared about their personal well-being and who were not given an awful lot of insight by Attenberg or Sempre. Chevalier retold Othello in a plot that was far from realistic and therefore failed to convince me. Riley’s First Love, though I could appreciate it being written well, sported main characters that were so mean they made me feel unwell. Wood for her part wrote a novel I frankly do not grasp. It was either meant to be ironic (in which it failed) or very serious in describing a group of young women being punished for female crimes. I really do hope it was meant to be ironic, if not Wood’s world view is rather nasty.

Over to the next category: the hypes. Fine novels every single one of them but not the toppers they were made out to be. I am convinced that Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad became a hype through topic not through its literary qualities: the novel was one-dimensional, its main characters rather flat. The Book Mirrors by Cirovici was a decent enough crime novel, I failed to see why it hyped. Conversation With Friends by Sally Rooney was a hit in the UK. My lack of enthousiasm for passive heroines, even if they are typically 21st century into social media, made me not enjoy an entire novel on a young girl who just had no clue.

And finally the ones I had high expectations of but that did not deliver entirely. I struggled with Paul Austers 4321 which took me along in a young boy’s life four times offering small deviations and lots of history. Not my cup of tea. Ali Smith though she delivered a novel that offered lots of beauty things, the highly imaginative dream sequences for instance, kind of forced Brexit into her Autumn, thereby jarring the novel.

Tomorrow: my favourites in 2017.


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2017 in Books – the ones that surprised me

One thing is clear: 2017 was not the year of the novels dealing with violence, which I can only applaude. Neither was 2017 the year of this one mind-blowing novel. Though I read a fair amount of novels I really liked, not one of them came first.

At the end of another BooksandLiliane year I look back on the novels that surprised me, the ones that impressed me and the ones that failed to live up on their promise. 2017 was a good year for books, first the ones that surprised me. The ones that disappointed me I’ll discuss tomorrow and the ones that lived up to expectations will conclude the year.

Four writers surprised me, all for different reasons. I was expecting a novel on horse racing, I was treated to an outstanding novel on racism, animal cruelty, bigotry and loneliness. C.E. Morgan did not treat her readers to an easy novel, The Sport of Kings was at times difficult to read. C.E. Morgan did deliver a novel that surprised me from start to finish.

Ayòbámi Adébáyò struck me with her beautiful novel on grief, on relationships falling apart from not being able to cope with the death of children. Stay With Me stayed with me.

Eowyn Ivey took me along to Alaska in a novel that evoked its beautiful landscape and its rituals. The Bright Edge of the World might not have been the best novel I read in 2017, I did like it very much.

Karl Geary is the final author to pleasantly surprise me, in his case with one of the saddest novels I’ve read in a long time. I felt so sorry for main character Sonny who really did not stand a single chance in this very realistic novel. Montpelier Road had me in tears.


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Karl Geary || Monpelier Parade

A sort of spoiler

What a sad story. Not for one the main character’s fatal disease but for the fact that adolescent Sonny does not stand a chance of ever making it in this world.

Sonny grows up in a working class, poor family. The money dad earns goes straight to horse racing, his mother cannot act to change things and merely complains or bitches. Sonny’s older brothers have gone to work at a young age. His parents do realise Sonny is different and have him go to a decent – upper-class secondary – school where he is not accepted. He has hardly any friends, is the odd one out in his family and does not have any idea about how to change his life for the better. On the contrary: not sensing the proper way to behave he gets himself into more and more trouble.

Whilst helping his father on a job Sonny meets Vera. She is an older woman, which does not prevent him from falling for her. Her beauty and her nice manners attract him. He realises she is terminally ill, he does not overlook the consequences of her dying, When school and family become more and more difficult to handle, when an apprenticeship at the local butcher appears to be the highest to aim for, Sonny runs to Vera. The outcome is disaster.

Geary has managed to make me accept the relationship between Sonny and Vera. The fact of her being terminally ill makes sleeping with Sonny an act of desperation not of temptation. She probably is too far gone to acknowledge her effect on a lonely, desperate young boy. She is far too preoccupied with her own suffering, her own forthcoming death. An unexpected twist at the end makes everything even more bittersweet.

Geary paints a realistic picture of Sonny’s world: his dysfunctional family with its quarrels and non-communication, dreams not coming true, low expectations for career and life. Geary also shows us the small window of opportunity Sonny might grasp, and it closing definitely.

Geary furthermore writes beautifully, sometimes raw-edged sometimes almost poetically. This intensifies being able to see the potential of Sonny. His desire for Vera’s world is acceptable and realistic because of the descriptions he gives of his world, because of his contemplating what is happening around and to him.

Monpelier Parade ends in minor. Vera dies, Sonny is desperate. The open ending prepares you for the worst but offers one small shred of hope. Monpelier Hope is a beautiful novel, deeply sad on several levels. Geary had me horrified and thoroughly enjoying his novel at the same time.


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Rhidian Brook || The Aftermath

The Aftermath is reluctant to start. At first it felt as if Brook could not manage her own novel well. Too fragmented, too many apparently unrelated characters. At about 1/3rd of The Aftermath she gets a grip and starts delivering a novel that has my attention, only to have me lose it again towards the end.

In The Aftermath we are taken along to post-war Hamburg. The British army is aiding Germany and the allies in their efforts to get the country back on its feet. Corporal Lewis Morgan is part of the army, he is one of the few to firmly believe in living and working together, in making a joint effort. His wife Rachel does not share his generous take on post-war Germany. She does not understand why her husband has allowed the German owners, the Luberts to continue living in the villa that has been confiscated by the army, She is still too much in the prongs of sorrow over the death of her eldest son.

Brook describes the chaos and hunger, the families being kept apart, the lack of understanding from both parts. The Germans see British people living an easy live whilst they are suffering; the British for their part see money being transferred to their enemy whilst having to live on rations themselves. Hitler loyals, high on amfetimines, still strive for the Third Reich goals and ambush British soldiers. Lewis is an exception, he is one of the few understanding that things have to be dealt with differently. Personal loss comes second to the big plan. It takes an ambush on himself for him to finally admit to his feelings of pain and sorrow.

Stefan Lubert serves two purposes: he is the decent German who has never supported The Fuhrer and he has stayed clear of Nazi’s and the SS. He is also the person who makes Rachel realise she must not let sorrow control her life. It will not come as a surprise that they will start a relationship, and it end in order for the two of them to give their marriages a second chance. At that point The Aftermath became slightly too feel good for my taste. Brook could not resist a bitter-sweet ending to the novel that had been scraping at the edges delightfully. I do love my share of feel good novels, I just wished this one had steered clear from it.


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Penelope Lively || Family Album

At first sight everything is well in the large family that has lived in Victorian Allersmead for ever. One might be slightly surprised at the reluctance of elders daughter Gina to visit her parents in order to introduce her new boyfriend or at her drive to leave as soon as she can. Slowly but certainly Lively introduces us to her parents and siblings. A family pattern becomes apparent: to the astonishment of their loving clinging mother most children hardly ever visit home

Lively switches between siblings fluently. She has them look back at the past and reveal the family history. What in the eyes of Alison is a close-knit family is a fairly disconnected one in reality. The children live or work abroad, they rarely visit their parents. Only the eldest son, because of his many addictions, does not manage to leave home.

The relationship between parents Alison and Charles is hardly perfect. One might justified wonder whether the latter has been tricked into marriage by pregnancy. Despite their large number of children Alison and Charles are far from a match in heaven. He is a would-be scientist who writes popular novels on scientific topics, she an earth-mother who is love with the idea of having children. Actually loving them might be a step too far.

The image of their Victorian home, Allersmead, which easily houses parents, children and au-pair is symbolic of the family. The villa gets more and more dilapidated over the years, the children pursue their own careers whilst their father’s ends due to a lack of demand for his work. Mother Allison on the other hand becomes a professional kitchen goddess giving highly succesful classes to those who never learnt to cook.

Parents nor children ever talk about their feelings, they share those with great reluctance with their loved ones. A stuff-upperlip is highly valued. The family secret remains the elephant in the room for a very long time. The reader by then has already figured why the au-pair is still living at Allersmead.

Lively does not paint a happy family life, on the contrary. Slowly but surely she reveals the family’s dis-functionality. She shows us where the parents have failed, where the children did or did not find comfort in each other’s presence. Alison is the only one who sticks to her believe in the happy family nucleus. Only at the end do the children find each other, through emails, and come clear. The elephant is finally named. The siblings do keep their distance. Lively does not have her slightly cynical novel end in a pinkish, feel good mood.


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Megan Hunter || The End We Start From


Hunter has written a very short novel: a mere 127 pages with short paragraphs dividend by lots of white. Those 127 pages do convince from start to finish. They take us to a Great Britain in which climate change has led to major floods. A nucleus family is used to show its effects.

R, I and their newborn son Z have to run from the flood. At first they go to R’s parents, soon they have to flee again. What follows is a world of being on the run, refugee camps, separation, escape and hope.

I is the personification of motherhood. The well-being of Z is her major concern, her relationship with R is secondary to her son. It is quite apparent however that a world without R is not what she desires. I loves her husband, in the dire circumstances her child takes priority.

Though The End We Start From is dystopian the future is the mere occasion of a novel about the power of relationships, the unbreakable bond between people. I joins a group of mothers, she collaborates in order to survive in the dire circumstances. The End also shows that in such circumstances people can trust each other, they can work together to make ends meet. The End also shows the other side: riots, cruelty, distrust. Hunter does not mask the frailty of men.

Hunter uses few words to paint a world filled with fear and chaos as well as the intense love between mother and child. She convinces through the limitation the scarcity of pages and paragraphs poses. No single word is superfluous, every single word matters. Hunter has delivered a masterpiece in which love and hope are what really matter.

the end

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Sally Rooney || Conversations with Friends

Apparantely Conversations with Friends was rather a hype in Great Britain. I must confess that I do not know why. I was not really impressed by this novel about two friends and their complicated relationship with a married couple.

The fact that one of the friends is a rather passive heroine might be of influence. I just do not like to read about passive heroines, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina never could count on my sympathy. I’d go for Elizabeth Bennett any day. Friend Bobby is feistier and more determined, she however is not given the opportunity to shine since the novel has been written from the I-perspective of Frances. And she turns out to be rather blind to the true personality of her best friend.

Things just happen to Frances. She is furthermore constantly in denial of her talent to write. She acts as if she is just doodling along whereas her poetry and her first short story are received well and published. Ambition to her is a dirty word, she finds it an act of defiance not to be interested in her future.

Frances finds herself in a relationship with Billy, in a relationship with Nick – Bobby in the meantime hitting on Melissa. A complicated love-triangle. Fortunately Rooney provides sufficient background information on her characters to make them more lifelike. Bobby’s parents have been fighting for Agnes, Frances’ dad is drinking himself to death, Nick has failed in the eyes of his ambitious parents and Melissa is troubled by her husband’s depressions.

Apart from Frances being quite the passive person, she also trends to idealize the people she loves. Bobby to her is more unique and stronger than she is in reality, Nick has been turned into the romantic hero whilst struggling with his career and depression in reality.

Sufficient stuff to make for a great novel, Rooney however failed to impress me. At first I wondered whether the youth of Bobby and Frances might be to blame, it could be I can no longer align with 20-year olds. I do suspect that my lifelong aversion of the passive heroine is the one to blame. I fear her lack of determinedness has nothing to do with age and everything with character.

To conclude: did you enjoy Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, did you love these women? In which case you might be enchanted by Frances and fully understand why this novel has become a hype. Do you share my personal affinity for a less passive female main character this might not be the novel to read.


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Amor Towles || A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman isn´t about action, it´s about human relationships, human response to dire circumstances. In this case the (lack of) action of count Alexander Ilyich Rostov.

This count returns to Moscow during the Russian Revolution. He forsakes the safety of Paris in order to save his grandmother from the communists. Why he does not leave the country with her remains a question for the reader for a long time. He allows himself to be grounded for life in the hotel he has taken lodging in. Only well into the novel the personal reasons for doing so are revealed.

The count is grounded for life for state-subversive activities. In the luxurious hotel he has to remain in for the rest of his life he observes as the revolution proceeds. From his position he sees opposition tackled or ambitious party members succeed. He recognizes how to use his own talents and becomes host of the famous hotel restaurant. He sees good friends going down in the harsh regime of communism, he finds new lifelong friends at the hotel itself. One of those friendships will determine his life in an unexpected way.

Whilst reading I kept asking myself ‘why does he not try and escape?’. One incident after twenty years of being kept a prisoner makes clear that he is still being watched, still considered an enemy (though on very friendly terms with his most important guard).

Some people might find A Gentleman lacking in historical fact. I found the amount of historical fact just to my taste. Towles provides his reader with sufficient input about context and history, fact never takes over. Context mainly serves as the background for the count’s life. He is an extremely charming and pleasant person capable of having friendships in dire times. Though more negative aspects about him are revealed they do not diminish him, they make him lifelike.

A Gentleman is like its main character: charming and pleasant with darker layers lurking underneath the veneer. The subtilty of the count is reflected in the subtlety of the novel. Towles shows that someone can remain true to himself and his ideals despite lifelong imprisonment. And can be surprised by his own reactions and behaviour from time to time. The count who has always seen himself as flexible and adaptable finds himself liking routines. A charming fact in a charming novel. I loved it.


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