Thursday, 27 November 2008

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: November 2008 NOTES: The story of Lev, an eastern European widower, who comes to England to seek a better life. Right from page one we enter into his world as he sits on the coach as it rolls along towards London. He has no definite plans, few skills and very little knowledge about the reality of life in UK. He has budgeted on existing on £20 a week! I had thought this book might follow one of two tracks. The first would have Lev as a downtrodden immigrant who was continually vilified and victimised as he tried to make an honest living. The second would have been Lev turning to criminality to survive – a bit of theft, a bit of drug-dealing and almost certainly cheating the benefit system. However Rose Tremain avoids both these traps and Lev develops as a likeable and hardworking man who is quick to pick up new ideas. However at the same time he is emotionally troubled – both by the loss of his wife and because he is missing his daughter. The reader begins to see England through his eyes – the litter, the obese population, the strange celebrity culture. Fortunately for Lev, most of the people he comes across are pretty benign – his landlord Christy, GK Ashe (his boss at the restaurant) and even Sophie who is attracted to him until she finds someone else. The writing is just lovely and we are drawn into his world. All the descriptions of restaurant life were superb - and those wonderful menus at Ferndale Retirement Home (chef’s fantastic fish gratin with zero bones and non-crap crumb). When Lev comes up with his own plan for returning home and opening a restaurant we will him to succeed. A lovely feel good book with some dark undertones. (One slight problem I had is the swiftness with which the hero becomes proficient in English. From not being able to ask a simple question on arrival he very soon is speaking and understanding in some very complex situations. He is even tackling Hamlet!)

Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

DATE PUBLISHED: 2000 DATE READ: November 2008 NOTES: This is a very ambitious novel which takes a great sweep across three generations of Burmese and Indian characters. It starts in Mandalay and moves on to India and Malaysia. It is a complex story with a myriad of characters who are all related in some way. The book begins in 1905 with Rajkumar, an Indian boy who ends up in Burma. He is hardworking and entrepreneurial (though selfish and often oblivious to the sufferings of others). He becomes entranced by a young servant of the Burmese royal family who are being sent into exile by the British colonial powers. Many years later he eventually seeks her out in India. The story ends in 1996 with Burma in the grip of the army and Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. There are excellent descriptions of life in Mandalay at the beginning of the last century, of the rubber plantations in Malaya and teak forests in Burma. Amitav Ghosh explores the themes of colonialism, imperialism, loyalty and family ties. He really brings home the chaos of the wartime – when people had no idea what was going, communications were non-existent and yet decisions about which side to be on had still to be taken. An impressive novel and a lovely read.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery

DATE PUBLISHED: 1908 DATE READ: November 2008 NOTES: This is one of those classics that passed my by when I was young. But as soon as I began to read it I could understand how countless young (and not so young) girls over the decades have come to love Anne of Green Gables. Anne Shirley is an eleven year old orphan who is mistakenly sent to live with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert after they had requested a boy to help on the farm. Their initial reluctance to keep her soon fades away as they become entranced by the bright but odd little girl. Her imagination continually lets rip and she chatters constantly veering rapidly from one idea to the next. (Today we would say she has verbal diarrhoea!) Her “homely” looks, red hair, freckles and skinny body are a continual worry to her but she nonetheless soon makes lots of friends including her “bosom” friend Diana. The story moves gently through the years as Anne grows up in Avonlea. She is bright and hardworking and eager to please Marilla and Matthew but her imagination and day-dreaming get her into continual scrapes. And lurking in the background is the handsome Gilbert Blythe. He had teased her when she first arrived at school and she refused to have anything else to do with him. But, of course, we know she will relent in the end! It’s a delightful book. I didn’t expect it to be so funny – for example when Anne complains that she is sure the teacher is saying her name without an ‘e’ at the end! And I didn’t expect to be able to say that Anne could be a role model for young girls of today. She is interested in fashion and hairstyles (nothing wrong with that) but she is also ambitious and really keen to work at school and achieve. And in the end she is willing to put the needs of Marilla before her own. It leaves you with a warm glow!

Monday, 10 November 2008

Things can only get better!

So there is going to be a new President of the United States who actually reads real books! Influential writers that he cites include Nietzche, Tillich, Jefferson, Lincoln, Gandhi, Adam Smith, Martin Luther King and James Baldwin and Philip Roth. Other non-fiction writers he has mentioned are Studs Terkel and David Halberstam. Fiction books that he mentioned in a recent article included Moby Dick, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Cancer Ward, Song of Solomon, Gilead (whoops, see my review!), The Golden Notebook, Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, All The King's Men, The Power and the Glory and the Quiet American. For good measure he also had Shakespeare's tragedies on the list. Am I naive in linking a love and knowledge of literature with the quality of a person's character? Perhaps when we find out that he doesn't walk on water my optimism will come back to haunt me!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Revelation by C. J. Sansom

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: November 2008 NOTES: Another Matthew Shardlake novel this time set in 1543. The times are turbulent. Catherine Howard has been executed and Henry VIII is turning away from radical Protestantism but still wants no links with Rome. Different religious factions vie for supremacy and few people can feel completely safe. Although the bible is now translated into English laws are being passed to prevent women and the lower classes from reading it. Into this heady mix comes a serial killer who seems to be selecting his victims among people who have rejected radical Protestantism and killing them in accordance with the atrocities listed in Revelations. Believing there could be a link to Catherine Parr (who Henry is hoping to marry) Archbishop Cranmer enlists Matthew Shardlake to help find the killer without letting the general public (or the king) know what is afoot. This book is the usual great fun read that we have come to expect from the series. The characters from the earlier books (Jack Barak, Guy Malton and Bealnap) continue to be well developed. Matthew is a great central character – thoughtful, wise and kind to others. The religious and political problems of the times are described in a way that doesn’t disrupt the flow of the narrative. Of course, at the end everything is resolved. Catherine Parr marries Henry and seems to have a calming influence on him. Cranmer feels he is once again secure in his situation….but we know what happens to him when Mary comes to the throne.