No Theme, Just Some Excellent Novels You Should Read

Tuesday, April 13

By Ash Haslett Cuff

In many parts of the world (not Toronto, unfortunately, I'm left to tackle my TBR) bookshops are beginning to open for in-store shopping. While I love nothing better than to spend a day wandering bookshops aimlessly I know that some people enjoy having a starting place for something to look out for. I hear you, I sympathise and, most importantly, I see this as an opportunity to inflict my literary taste on you and suggest some novels I think would be a worthy addition to any bookshelf. Also I see some of the books floating around social media and feel it is my duty to stage an intervention and introduce some quality literature to the scene. No theme, no connecting links, just some excellent books.

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

Utopia Avenue follows the titular band, an eclectic and delightful mix of musicians as they navigate love, revolution, madness, and the ever unstable platform of fame. With delicious settings and scenery, engaging and vivid characters it is a sprawling, epic story that takes you from city to city in a dizzying tour against the artistic and cultural backdrop of the late 1960s. Really, what more can you ask for?

This was the kind of novel that, upon completion, I instantly recommended to my nearest and dearest, and, let’s be honest, pretty much everyone within shouting distance. I was completely enamoured with Mitchell’s prose and his characters. His writing alternates between sparse, choppy clauses that leave you breathless with their brevity while still maintaining some level of grace, and slightly off kilter but no less artful descriptions and metaphors that sustain the feeling that once you step into the world of Utopia Avenue nothing is quite as it seems. While it is artful and at times a little bizarre, Mitchell never loses sight of the humanity of his characters and in this way he keeps the novel grounded firmly in reality. 

The characters! For the first time in a long while this novel made me revert, to some degree, to the level of fictional obsessions I weathered in my early adolescence. They were so vivid and authentic I was able to fully sympathise and engage with them throughout the novel. I cried, I laughed, I screamed, much like I was a starstruck fan at a Utopia Avenue gig. Each of the protagonists were so distinct in their own right while also working perfectly to play off each other’s synergy so that they functioned beautifully both as individuals and as part of a group.

 In summary Utopia Avenue is a breathtaking, dizzying, wholly absorbing novel that combines excellent prose, intensely human characters and a sprawling, glittering plot to lose yourself in next time you stop by your local bookshop.

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

Touching, funny and, to many creative types, intensely relatable, The Anthologist follows poet Paul Chowder as he attempts to write the 40 page introduction to a new poetry anthology. This is a novel I felt both in my head and my heart and found an extreme fondness for in both areas. Baker’s penchant for focusing on the specific is perfectly juxtaposed with his knack of capturing wider human experiences and feelings. You get the feeling from this novel that Baker just gets you, reading his prose feels as intimate as speaking to a close friend while being so universal as to appeal to many different types of people. His writing is simple yet hearty, like a homemade bread, and his sincerity is sweet yet not saccharine while retaining some subtlety. Unaffected, he captures the more innocent side of human nature like nobody else I have read. I want to use the word 'fluid' or 'darting' to describe his prose. It's so easy to follow yet he jumps from topic to topic and it perfectly mimics human thought and conversation.

In the novel Paul’s girlfriend, Roz, has just left him. There are no big romantic sappy gestures, just a quiet nostalgia and affection that offer some of the most touching and genuine sentiments about relationships I have ever read. He manages to make the reader fall in love with Roz via Paul’s recollections and the way he speaks about her.

It's impossible to be cynical or unhappy while reading this book. The simple enthusiasm and kick he gets out of the everyday is infectious. So charmingly matter-of-fact like a precocious child with a sense of humour, plus it taught me more about poetry than 2 years of university English has. 

The New Me by Halle Butler

From something touching and sweet we move onto a novel that’s so biting and bitter it leaves a sour taste in your mouth that’s hard to wash out. Needless to say, I loved it.

The New Me follows thirty year old Millie as she stagnates between a series of temp jobs and festers in the wilderness of her own apartment. She flirts with the idea of change, of revitalizing her life, but inevitably just returns to the same cycle of atrophication as she realises her ideal life may in fact, be as hollow and meaningless as everything else she experiences.

Intensely relatable, Butler manages to capture this feeling of hopelessness with enough humour and charm to keep the reader from total desolation. The writing is smart, funny and feels relevant without trying too hard. Millie’s problems may come across as pretentious and privileged to some, but that doesn’t detract from the fact they are relatable and cathartic. You’ll feel like absolute rubbish after reading it, while also feeling strangely cleansed. Like a trainwreck dressed in an expensive sweater, it’s hard to look away. 

Millie represents a kind of female protagonist I am beginning to see more of in contemporary literature; the embittered, often cruel, cynical privileged young woman. To see female cruelty and bitterness displayed so casually feels, to me, like a victory. Her bitterness does not come from a place of romance or jilted love, instead it draws on everything else from the success of those around her to the futility of existence. The things they say may not be nice, but often nice is overrated and what you need is a healthy dose of misanthropy to carry on your day. 

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue 

Based on real people and events, Frog Music follows Burlesque dancer Blanche in the heat soaked, smallpox ridden streets of San Francisco in 1876 as she tracks down the man who shot her friend, the spirited Jenny, through the windows of a saloon. 

Frog Music reads with the taut pace of a good thriller and Donoghue’s brilliant prose renders the setting and characters with incredible authenticity. She plays with the timing of the plot in such a way that reveals details in a strategic way and pace to keep the reader fully engrossed through the novel. The level of research and detail included just works to bring the novel to life and exemplify Donoghue as a first rate historical novelist. 

There are gritty and often graphic scenes of violence and sex included within the novel but they do not feel as if they are present for shock factor. Instead they are there to exemplify some of the problems faced by working women in the 19th century and all the dangers and challenges of sex work present at the time. Donoghue manges to present these issues in a way that is non-provocative and quite blunt to illustrate the life of the characters and their experiences. Indirect discussion of a woman’s role and perception in society is present, and creates a fascinating world of working class femininity and the consequences of that in 19th century urban America. For those already enamoured by the historical fiction genre, those looking to explore it further, and really anyone looking for a cracking read, I don’t think you can go wrong with Frog Music.

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