Tag Archives: Ned Beauman

My top 5 reads of 2017

10 Jan

It feels like 2017 was a strange year of reading for me. Having set out at the start with the intention of reading more I ended up reading fewer books than I did in 2016. I gave up on more books this year too and I wonder whether this was as a result of an awareness of reading time being more precious. That said, there were still books aplenty to enjoy, and a clutch I got really excited about. There were a couple of real standout titles in 2017 that I knew would be in my top five the moment I’d read them but, as ever, whittling the favourites down to five is not easy. Ned Beauman’s Madness Is Better Than Defeat almost made it (I still can’t see an octopus without remembering…), and Jess Richards’ wonderfully lyrical City of Circles whose opening chapter is like a breath you can’t release. Sarah Day’s Mussolini’s Island was a pleasure, sensitive and melancholy, and opening up a chapter of history that is little known. And then there was The Trouble With Goats And Sheep by Joanna Cannon, which Mrs Van loved as much as I did. I defy anyone not to fall for Tilly!

 

But down to business: March, the promise of spring and the first of my top five, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. One of Mrs Van’s favourites too, you really can’t beat a book that can make you laugh out loud, and Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows will do it over and over. Add to that excellent characters and a storyline that will make you look, and then look again at life and you’ve got a real winner on your hands.

 

The next of my top five came to me in June. A book that had been on my radar for a while, though I knew little about it beyond the title and the lovely cover, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun was an unexpected pleasure. Unexpected because I didn’t know before reading that it was a memoir, and also that it was so uplifting, its lyrical beauty a welcome counterpoint to that febrile sense that necessitated the writing of the book in the first place. Little wonder it won the Wainwright Prize in 2016.

 

From the Orkney Islands in June to South Africa in July and Kopano Matlwa’s Evening Primrose blew me away. It’s not a big book – just 150 pages – but its punch is mighty! It’s interesting for me to realise that I read this the month following The Outrun too as these books feel similar in some ways, visceral and honest, spare and lyrical. There has to be a sense of truth in any book for it to really work but some books bear more truth than others. The truth in Evening Primrose is almost too much to bear. A stunning piece of work.

 

The international flavour continues in September, and it’s Japan this time for Alison Jean Lester’s Yuki Means Happiness. I can’t help but smile, remembering this book and the extraordinarily vivid rendering of little Yuki. It’s like going back to the adorable photos of the little ones in your own life. It’s that characterisation that really makes this book, connecting like a mainline straight to the heart so you feel everything that happens. This was another one that Mrs Van loved too, our favourites coinciding a lot more than in previous years.

 

Finally, November brought Laura Carlin’s The Wicked Cometh. I think I would’ve known this would be in my top five even if I’d read it back in January. A lush and pretty proof with its purple velvet and gold lettering, it’s a treat and no mistake. Hands down, this is up there as Mrs Van’s favourite of the year – I started reading this one to Mrs Van and didn’t get a chance to finish it first. We raced through it in a single weekend. It’s absolutely gripping, an assault on the senses that I’d urge you to get your hands on, and you’ve not got long to wait now!

 

As for 2018, well things are looking pretty good already. After all, you’ve got the absolute delight that is The Wicked Cometh on its way, and there are second books from Fran Cooper (a review of which will follow shortly) and Anthony Trevelyan, both of whom produced stunning debuts (Fran’s excellent These Dividing Walls and Anthony’s sublime The Weightless World, both of which deserve to be very widely read). So here’s wishing you all health and happiness in 2018, and as much joy, heartbreak, adventure, fantasy and truth as you can find between the covers of the books you read.

 

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Van has finished reading… Madness Is Better Than Defeat by Ned Beauman

15 May

I sat down to explain the story to Mrs Van. So there’s this guy… no, wait let me start with the temple, or… okay, so there’s this American magnate, and he… or, there’s a Hollywood film producer… no, no, go back to the guy – did I mention he’s in the CIA… maybe I should start with the octopus wrestling.

Ned Beauman’s Madness Is Better Than Defeat is… well let’s go with this: it’s intricate, it’s funny, it’s sprawling in a very controlled sort of way, it’s inventive, it’s thoroughly gripping and it’s completely unbelievable, except that it’s also very clever. Simply explaining the premise of the story might be enough to raise the potential pothole in the plot:

In 1938 two rival expeditions set off for a lost Mayan temple in the jungle of Honduras, one intending to shoot a screw ball comedy on location there, the other to disassemble the temple and ship it back to New York.

A seemingly endless stalemate ensues, and twenty years later a rogue CIA agent embarks on a mission to exploit it as a geopolitical pawn – unaware that the temple is the locus of grander conspiracies than anyone could have imagined.

Why didn’t they just leave? Ah, but Ned Beauman, like Harvey, has overcome not only time and space but any objections too.

There’s quite a cast involved in this epic so the characterisation is necessarily on point, even down to the small appearances (I particularly liked Atwater’s wife for that mix of humour, desperation and vitriol). But really this book is all about the journey – the narrator, Zonulet’s journey mostly, but by association everyone connected with the temple too. And once you’ve read it that also means you. I suppose at some level we all want to feel like we’re the protagonist in our own lives and whenever a writer comes to put down their ‘is he mad or not’ story (as we all eventually do – mine was short and quite bad) the success or failure therein is in realising that it’s a moot point. It’s simply a question of perspective. In Madness Is Better Than Defeat, Ned Beauman does a first class job of weighting both sides of that coin.

Structurally I suspect the book itself conforms – if such a word can be permitted in regard to such a book – to ‘the rule’, or ‘the diagram’ as well (so there’s a level of meta going on beyond the layering of Vansaska’s opinions about the narrator’s literary ability) so that as a reader we find that we too have fallen under the temple’s power, and come those telling last lines we’re left not with madness but a kind of infuriated satisfaction.

 

I enjoyed Madness Is Better Than Defeat a lot. The humour, the pace and the mystery of it all kept me turning page after page. It’s a story to get lost in, to give yourself up to and simply enjoy the journey. If you’re in a book group it’s one to put on your future reading list, as I suspect it will prove to be one of those books that generates a lot of discussion.

 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat is published by Sceptre on 24th August 2017 ISBN: 9781473613584

You can find Ned on Twitter @NedBeauman or on his website nedbeauman.co.uk.

My thanks in particular to Veronique Norton at Sceptre for allowing me to review this book.