Sunday, 26 October 2008

The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: October 2008 NOTES: The Northern Clemency takes an ambitious sweep across the decades from the 1970s focussing mainly on two families in Sheffield. At the beginning of the book the Sellers family is newly arrived from London. Bernie works for the Electricity Board while Alice is very much the housewife. Fifteen year old Sandra is a precocious, ill-mannered teenager while her younger brother Francis is quiet and introspective (based on Hensher?) The Glovers are a pretty dysfunctional bunch. Malcolm works for a building society while Katherine stays at home – until she decides to get a part-time job in a newly opened local florists. Their oldest son Daniel is a handsome, sulky boy who spends his free time seducing girls. Jane is comparatively normal while young Timothy is a sad and troubled boy with an obsession with snakes (and a later obsession with Sandra and Marxism). I was soon sucked into the story and the book became quite hard to put down. The writing is particularly good in the way that the social history of the time – clothes, food, entertainment – is portrayed. He documents council house sales, mobile phones, gastropubs and the changing nature of canap├ęs. Less effective for me were Hensher’s characters – only Daniel came really alive, the others were much more two dimensional. And radical Timothy was the least believable character in the book. Some characters were introduced but then dropped so we never met them again (like Andrew hospitalised with a broken leg and Nick the florist cum money launderer). The book refers to political events of the seventies and eighties in a somewhat oblique way. This works well at one level considering that these were middle-class families but it is hard to believe anyone in Sheffield at the time could have been so unconcerned with the miners’ strike or the Falklands War. Nonetheless this is a good read – and don’t be put off by the 700+ pages!

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: October 2008 NOTES: The Yacoubian Building is set in Cairo at the time of the first Gulf War. The building itself is a somewhat ramshackle apartment block which has seen better days. The diverse inhabitants reveal a microcosm of life in this chaotic city. In the apartments are shady businessmen and a corrupt politician (who has lodged his second wife there), a gay newspaper editor and an aging Lothario who keeps an office for the main purpose of seducing women. On the roof more people live in improvised shacks – the doorkeeper’s family (including the son who becomes radicalised), a beautiful young woman who fights constantly with her employers to keep her virginity and a manipulative and scheming shirtmaker. The narrative moves between all these characters (and more) as they all strive to find success and happiness within the corrupt social and political world in which they find themselves. It is written with great verve and imagination and all his characters come alive for the reader. Although much of the book is dark and depressing it is also sympathetic and humane. However, I imagine the Egyptian Tourist Office would not recommend this book!

Sunday, 12 October 2008

TITLE: THE KINGDOM OF ASHES AUTHOR: Robert Edric DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: October 2008 NOTES: This book has a really interesting theme. It is set in Germany in 1946 when the British, American and Russian victors were rounding up war criminals and putting them on trial. Alex Foster is a British interrogator who finds himself in conflict with the interests of the Americans and the local Germans. Unfortunately from a promising beginning the book fails to deliver. The characters are not well developed, the writing is mediocre and the plot is disappointing. The dialogue comes alive during the interrogations with the German prisoners but is not sustained. Also the role of the British contingent is very unclear. As well as interrogating prisoners (which I suspect would be a full-time occupation) Foster investigates bodies found in a cellar from the bombing, helps a pregnant young German girl, visits a local displaced persons camp etc. All a bit implausible. And although he obviously is fluent in German, quite a few of the local people are fluent in English but with no explanation of how they learnt the language.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

TITLE: THE SUSPICIONS OF MR WHICHER AUTHOR: Kate Summerscale DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: October 2008 NOTES: This is a retelling of the Road House murder of 1860. The Kents – an outwardly conventional and respectable middle class family – are horrified to discover that three year old Saville has disappeared from his cot. He is soon found gruesomely murdered and his body dumped in the outside privy. The local police arrive and begin a somewhat haphazard investigation. They decline to ask any questions of the family in the belief that people of their class would be too genteel to be involved in murder. Later Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher arrives from London. He soon suspects one of the Kent daughters but she is released by the court and Whicher generally castigated by all for his error. Kate Summerscale has succeeded in writing a non-fiction book that reads like a modern detective story. Her research is obviously meticulous and she brings to life all the main characters as well as the social history of the time. Her references to Wilkie Collins, Dickens and Henry James all help to place Whicher at the heart of the developing interest in detective fiction. Even those who already know the story of the Road House murder will find this a page-turner. But at the end we are still left with an enigma. Constance Kent – was she mad, bad or abused? We will probably never know the whole truth.