Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

DATE READ: December 2009 NOTES: The second part of Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy in which the intriguing story of Lisbeth Salander is continued. An ambitious young journalist approaches Mikael Blomkvist to ask for his help in publishing his revelations into criminal sexual activities that involve “respectable” members of society as well as vicious criminals. It soon becomes clear that too many people have something to lose if this research is published and soon a trail of murder ensues. Lisbeth, an anti-social and asocial young woman seems to be linked to three murders and a nation-wide search for her ensues. In the course of the story her background is revealed – we knew from the first book that something traumatic must have happened to her as a child but in this book it all becomes clear. It all moves along at a rattling pace. Lots of new characters are introduced and I found I had to back track a few times to remind myself who people were – Hedström, Holmberg, Ekström, Svensson and Johansson all took a bit of sorting out! The plotting is intricate and all the pieces seem to fit. I don’t know if Lisbeth’s amazing computer skills are actually possible but I’m prepared to go along with them….. The character of Lisbeth has definitely softened ….. she now shows concern for the feelings of others – I wonder if she will evolve even further in the third book? She is certainly one of the most interesting of modern heroines. This is a crime thriller written with passion and a social conscience. Highly recommended. Does IKEA pay royalties to the publisher for the product placement? I even recognised some furniture that I own!

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

DATE PUBLISHED: 1912 DATE READ: December 2009 NOTES: On the surface nothing much really happens in Death in Venice – man travels to Venice, sees a beautiful boy, pursues him but does not speak to him, then dies. But behind all that is much more. From the start Aschenbach is all too aware of his own mortality. He observes the characters around him and is often very denigrating about them. When he gradually comes to realise there is a cholera outbreak he tries to leave but is willingly drawn back when his travel arrangements go awry. At the beginning of the story from his gondola he sees and older man who has made conscious efforts to try to look more youthful and be part of a group of young men. Aschenbach is disgusted by his behaviour – but later on a visit to the barber he succumbs to being “improved” with cosmetics without being aware of how ridiculous he looks. Within Aschenbach there seems to be a constant struggle between the ascetic and publicly respected artist and the lustful fantasising alter ego. An amazing amount is packed into under 100 pages.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

DATE PUBLISHED: 1932 DATE READ: December 2009 NOTES: A classic science fiction novel recording the events of a utopia/dystopia of the future. Humans are now reproduced in laboratory conditions and carefully developed to produce differing castes which will be suited to specific tasks. “Happiness” is an imperative and everyone is issued with drugs to keep them docile and content. Individualism is frowned on. Lenina is shocked when Bernard said that he would like to be walking somewhere remote and solitary. Religion has been replaced by “Fordism” and industry produces an abundance of consumer goods. Although Bernard Marx belongs to the highest caste something seems to have gone amiss in his production which makes him a little different. He begins to feel dissatisfied and to question the prevailing orthodoxy – but this doesn’t last for the whole book. Instead Huxley turns his attention to John the Savage – a young man brought up in a reservation for native Indians. Brave New World was obviously influenced by other writing of the 1920s and early 1930s such as H G Wells and also by political movements such as communism. Although only short it is packed full of ideas and discussion points. Certainly deserves the label of “classic”.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

DATE PUBLISHED: 2004 DATE READ: December 2009 NOTES: Theo Wyre asks Jackson Brodie to find the man “in a yellow golfing sweater” who murdered his daughter. The Land sisters ask him to find their little sister who disappeared as a toddler from a tent in the garden. Something was found among their father’s effects that troubles them. Binkey Rain says that her cats are being stolen and asks Jackson for help….. From all these loose ends a fascinating story unfolds. As usual Kate Atkinson writes in an easy lighthearted and chatty style – and then suddenly socks the reader with violent acts. A toddler disappears, a young mother wields an axe and a man with a machete invades a solicitor’s office. Two of the cases involve parents who appear to love one child over another. A beggar girl “motif” runs through the story – though anyone who knows Atkinson’s work soon realise that her appearance is by no means accidental. Great fun and a very entertaining read.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Winterland by Alan Glynn

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: December 2009 NOTES: Within a space of twenty-four hours two men die in Dublin. One, a known criminal, is gunned down. The other, a respected building engineer is found dead in his crashed car. They are uncle and nephew and have the same name. The family is overwhelmed with grief and confusion but the youngest sister Gina refuses to believe that the two deaths are just an unhappy coincidence and sets about asking questions and probing into what may have happened. She soon finds herself in a murky world of crooked politics, bribery, corruption and murder. But she is tenacious in her search for the truth and refuses to give in to the threats she receives. Winterland is a splendid piece of crime writing. Glynn give us a great sense of place and the characters are alive on the page. The first part of the book requires a lot of concentration as numerous characters are introduced but their role not entirely explained until later. One character pops us several times and seems to be unrelated to the plot until about page 179. The plotting is logical and gripping – you will find yourself making excuses to neglect other calls on your time in order to reach the last page! And it was great to have a young woman as the lead character!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: November 2009 NOTES: Heard this book referred to as “the best Science Fiction book of the year and worthy of the Booker Prize” – or words to that effect. Although no sci-fi aficionado I was intrigued…. Yellow Blue Tibia only loosely falls into the science fiction genre. It is in essence an alternative history of the Soviet Union. Konstantin Skvorecky and a group of fellow writers are brought together by Stalin and tasked with constructing a convincing alien plot. It had to be a serious threat that could be told to the people. After working cooperatively on this they were then told to forget all they had done there on pain of death and were sent on their different ways. Years later when Skvorecky is working as a translator strange things begin to happen – and it seems that the story concocted by sci-fi writers appears to be coming true. The strength of the book lies in its humour and quirky dialogue while at the same time raising questions of truth, belief and and reality. He raises the need for an enemy or a serious threat in order to galvanise the population – very prescient in a world of dodgy dossiers and alleged weapons of mass destructions. My favourite scene was when Konstantin is confronted in a Moscow street by two KGB men threatening to kill him. Passers-by think that something is about to be sold and begin to form a queue hoping that there may be oranges or vodka on offer!

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Bone Garden by Kate Ellis

DATE PUBLISHED: 2001 DATE READ: November 2009 NOTES: Wesley Peterson is an Afro-Caribbean police detective who also has a first class degree in archaeology – a great combination! He based in Devon and becomes involved in the murder of a young unidentified man in a caravan park. A local solicitor gets in touch with Peterson to say he has something to tell him – but is found dead before the meeting takes place. At the same time excavations are going on in the garden of a nearby manor house. When skeletons are unearthed there the coroner has to be informed and the mystery deepens. A team of archaeologists is based there including Peterson’s old friend Neil and they share information about the history of Earlsacre Hall gardens. All the plotting is well worked out and there are some really interesting parallels between the late 17th century/early 18th century events and the present day crimes. All in all a fun read.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: November 2009 NOTES: This is a wonderful book that in lyrical prose unfolds the story of Roseanne who has been incarcerated in a mental hospital for most of her life. When the book begins she is an old lady of nearly a hundred looking back on her past in a quizzical way as she secretly writes down her memories. At the same time her psychiatrist Dr Grene is making notes of his assessment of her as he tries to decide where she should go when the institution closes. He is intrigued by her calm demeanour and by her apparent lack of interest in communicating with him. Many of her records have disappeared and he is increasingly drawn into trying to find out who she really is and how she came to be in the hospital. Through Rose’s testimony we learn how her own mother was insane, that she adored her father and was later rejected by the family she married into. Her family’s Presbyterianism in a Catholic society is a constant source of trouble. But Rose is never strident or outraged by what has happened to her – all her troubles are seen with a half sad, half amused view. (Her way of speaking reminded me very much of the unfortunate Grace in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace) Rose is very much a commentator and spectator of the world around her. When Dr Grene confronts her with some recorded facts about her past she rejects them – Rose’s writings have become her own truth. Dr Grene is a kindly though far from being faultless. He is slow to respond to obvious abuses and problems within the hospital and is also infuriatingly slow in getting to grips with Rose’s history. But he has no illusions about his own capabilities: “It would be a very good thing if occasionally I thought I knew what I was doing.” A lovely book, well deserving all the critical acclaim. Barry writes of bitterness, memory and loss in an Ireland of sectarianism, hatred and betrayal. But in spite of everything the spirit of Rose survives. My only real problem with The Secret Scripture was the rather clumsy and coincidental plot device at the end – this was a pity and spoiled the end for me. The Secret Scripture is a book that draws you in and you want to race through it to find out what happens. But now I feel I need to go back and read it again in order to savour the wonderful language.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: November 2009 NOTES: This is my third “Londoncentric” novel in as many months – the others being William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms and Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December. Hearts and Minds actually has a similar structure to the Faulks book – a group of disparate characters from different social strata whose lives collide and overlap. The story begins with a murder when a girl’s body is found in the water on Hampstead Heath and from the beginning the reader (well, this one) is hooked. We are soon deep into the contrasting worlds of human traffickers, illegal immigrants, struggling professionals, disappointed lovers and the chattering classes of North London. The plotting is brilliant. I can imagine the writer beginning with a large wall-chart and lots of Post-It notes! As the story unfolds some very pertinent social comments are made – such as Polly suddenly realising how little she actually knew about the young woman who lived in her home and looked after her children. The lives of people living precariously in our society were dealt with poignantly and sympathetically. I have one slight criticism inasmuch as I found some of the characters a bit unsubtle. Job was a bit too angelic and Anna a bit too innocent. But, hey, we can’t have everything. I have been recommending Hearts and Minds to all my friends – a really good read.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: November 2009 NOTES: As a thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has it all. There is an intricate plot based on nefarious financial deals, a big industrial family with secrets to hide, a left-wing magazine with sharks circling around it and sexual politics of power and exploitation. Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative writer, is asked by the head of the Vanger family to try to find out what happened to his grand-daughter some forty years earlier when she disappeared without trace. There follows a long complex and exacting search. In his work he is aided by the eccentric and socially inept Lisbeth Salander, the girl of the title. Lisbeth’s skills in research and computer hacking are a key to the solving of the case but Lisbeth herself remains largely a mystery. We are given only fleeting glimpses of her background and of damage done to her. But the narrative makes quite clear that she is not a girl to be messed with – and punishment will be meted out by her if and when she deems this necessary. It is all brilliantly plotted – especially the way in which the two main characters come to be working together. Yes, it all gets a bit far-fetched in places but it is an exciting and intriguing read from beginning to end. A cracking read. Can’t wait to read more about Lisbeth Salander in the next two of the trilogy.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Testimony by Anita Shreve

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: November 2009 NOTES: Anita Shreve is a consummate story –teller and, once again, she comes up trumps with Testimony. It is a fairly straightforward story of a sex scandal in a private school in Vermont. It is told mainly from the points of view of numerous characters in the process of offering information to a university researcher some time after the event. Needless to say the reader is left uncertain as to which of the testimonies tell the whole truth and who chooses to embellish the facts to make themselves look better. She gets the tone of the differing statements just right. There are no amazing revelations but what we are left with is the disaster caused to so many lives by young people who were foolish rather than wicked. All very believable. A very quick and enjoyable read.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Millennium by Tom Holland

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: November 2009 NOTES: This is a scholarly look at the so-called Dark Ages around the 10th century. As he was covering the known Christian world (from Britain to Palestine) he had quite a task as so many differing events were taking place. But he manages to bring clarity to a complex subject. He gives us a great sweep of history which includes Christians, Vikings, Saxons, Normans, Franks, Jews and Saracens and they manoeuvre for land, money and power. One of the enduring features of the time was the vying for supremacy between Rome and Constantinople and the continual battle between lay rulers and the Pope. He points out the somewhat ignoble beginnings of the concept of knighthood and later how pilgrimages turned into crusades. The rise of the Cluny monastic order is also well covered. Nor does he neglect to mention the very lowliest of society and the woeful lives of the peasant class even though little has been recorded of their lives – “for the silence of the poor is almost total”. Holland has a deft touch with language. In recounting how William Longsword, a Norseman converted to Christianity, had gone to parley with the Count of Flanders “he had done so unarmed, as befitted a Christian lord meeting with a fellow prince; and the Count of Flanders, as befitted a Christian lord meeting with a dangerous pirate, had ordered him hacked to death.” But suffused through these tumultuous times is the widespread belief that the world was about to end and that the Antichrist would arrive and the effect this has on the actions of many. (Spoiler alert – the world doesn’t end!”)

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

the Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

DATE PUBLISHED: 1963 DATE READ: October 2009 NOTES: This is a sympathetic and moving story of a young girl’s disintegration into depression and mental illness. The writing is beautifully precise and lucid as we are taken into the mind of Esther Greenwood as she tentatively tries to move to adulthood. Much of the language is vivid. In referring to a German book she says “…the very sight of those dense, black, barbed-wire letters made my mind shut like a clam.” Although quite believable, it is not especially depressing – much of the writing is quite funny as Esther views the world in a quirky way. She finds many of the customs in New York confusing. For example she always seems to get tipping wrong – and we can all sympathise with her there! In spite of being a straight A student she has continual feelings of inadequacy and lists all the things she can’t do while dismissing her own talents. As her breakdown occurs we are taken into the world of 1960s mental health treatment – a very uncomfortable experience even for a private patient. She perceptively compares her electric shock treatment with the execution of the Rosenbergs. How sad that this is the only novel by Sylvia Plath – what a loss to literature.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The Dig by John Preston

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: October 2009 NOTES: At one level this is a very slight story: Landowner asks archaeologists to investigate the mounds on her land. They dig and find Anglo-Saxon treasure. But in fact The Dig is much more than a deceptively simple story. The book is a fictionalised account of how the Sutton Hoo treasure ship came to be excavated in 1939. The story is told from the point of view of different participants. There is the widowed landowner Edith Pretty, not in the best of health and still mourning the loss of her husband. Basil Brown is the first to start digging the site and is a self-taught archaeologist – an honest and simple soul. Peggy Piggot is the new wife of an archaeologist brought in for his expertise. She is also keenly interested in the excavations while at the same time aware that her marriage is not what she thought it would be. The touching epilogue is by Robert Pretty who eagerly watched the dig as a nine year old. This is a subtle and compelling read. Class conflict and professional jealousies abound in a gentle and understated way. The coming war looms large in the narrative – barrage balloons are sighted overhead and the air-raid shelter is dug. The reader gets the clear impression that the world is about to change…… A tender and entertaining book. Highly recommended.

A Gate At The Stairs by Lorrie Moore

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: October 2009 NOTES: I had read many good reviews of Lorrie Moore’s work so I had very high hopes of A Gate At The Stairs. The story is of a young college student, Tassie, who leaves her family farm in the Midwest to find an exciting new life in the provincial town of Troy. She is bemused and bewildered by many of the people she meets and the new things she encounters. Her very quirky and eccentric use of language suffuses the whole book – much of it very witty. Her college classes merge in her mind as she contemplates Intro to Sufism, Soundtracks to War Movies and Pilates/the Neutral Pelvis. She seems to have a bright enquiring mind – but many of her relationships end disastrously. She manages to get a childcare job helping out a professional couple who are in the process of adopting a little girl of mixed race origin. This leads to some interesting reflections of attitudes to race. We could only cheer on Tassie when approached by a woman requesting a play date so that her toddler could have experience of being with a mixed race child. Her quick response was: “I’m sorry, but Mary-Emma already has a lot of white friends.” But in the course of the narrative some seriously sad things happen…. But Tassie seemed hardly moved at all and her quirky language just carried on relentlessly – almost to the point of being annoying. Although the book had so many funny moments it was also bleak and melancholy. The writing is fine – I understand what reviewers rave about. However Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar gives a better picture of a young girl finding her way at college and Ann Tyler’s Digging to America is more perceptive about adoption.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

The Standing Pool by Adam Thorpe

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: October 2009 NOTES: Dissatisfied academics Nick and Sarah Mallinson decide to take a sabbatical in France and agree to rent the house of Lucy and Alan Sandler. As they set off with their three young daughters they anticipate an exciting time for all the family during which they will both pick up the threads of their academic work. But life in France turns out to be less than idyllic and the house seems to have a dark shadow looming over it. The characterisations of the British folk were all good. The monstrous Sandlers were brilliantly portrayed and the Mallinson family seemed very believable. The appearance of Nick’s feckless son from his first marriage probably struck a chord with many parents! Unfortunately the local French were all portrayed as slightly batty or sinister. The plot was all a bit thin and not very credible and the tone of the writing veered from farce to serious sexual violence. It was as if the writer was unsure of which direction he was headed. Also I do wonder for how much longer novels set in the present can still hark back to wartime. And why would apparently intelligent people rent a house with a swimming pool when they have very young children who can’t swim??? Obviously educated but with no common sense! But nonetheless this was an entertaining read.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Nella Last's Peace by Nella Last

(edited by Patricia & Robert Malcolmson) DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: October 2009 NOTES: This is an edited version of Nella’s diary entries submitted to the Mass Observation organisation from 1945 to 1948. They recount her time spent as a housewife in Barrow. Although some major world or national events are mentioned her writing is more focussed on her family, her neighbours and her friends. She writes honestly and openly and is very critical of lots of people. Her husband was obviously an extremely difficult man to live with and she certainly lets rip about him in her diary (and sometimes in real life). The book is quite repetitive – a reflection of her life which was (to us) rather tedious – a constant round of shopping, cooking and household duties with very little social life. I must take issue with the cover of this book. It shows and street of small terraced houses, a woman scrubbing the pavement and another with a babe in arms. It very much evokes the “grimness” of the lives of the Northern working class. But Nella was in no way “typical”. Her husband ran his own business and she had a small private income from her parents. They had a modern semi-detached house in a good area with a garage and a car. And they even had central heating! She also sent all her washing to the laundry each week and had a woman come in to clean. But she nonetheless gives us a good picture of life at the time – the rationing, the uncertainty about the future and the general greyness that pervaded most people’s lives. Few of us today would choose to swap places!

Saturday, 17 October 2009

The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor

DATE PUBLISHED: 2006 DATE READ: October 2009 NOTES: This is a serious and scholarly piece of work. People of a certain age and political persuasion tend to view the Spanish Civil War as a passionate but doomed attempt by Republicans to maintain their democratically elected government against fascist forces. All that romanticism is ripped away by Beevor’s book. His excellent research reveals all the ambition, violence and thuggery on both sides – as well as the idealism of some of the participants. Few emerge from the story blameless. Franco’s side is shown to be personally ambitious, ruthless and vengeful while the Republicans were too hopelessly divided to take full advantage of the situation and not helped by incompetent and short-sighted leaders who led their men into futile battles. The antipathy of the communists to the anarchists is well-known but Beevor explores this further. The interference and collusion of outside powers is also very well documented here. I hadn’t realised that there were German arms manufacturers selling weapons to both sides! The Battle for Spain does not just concentrate on the progress of the battlefronts. He also discusses frequently how the civilian population was coping and the terrible privations many Spaniards (especially Catalans) were forced to suffer. The beginnings of the conflict and its awful aftermath are particularly well described. This is a brilliant, but ultimately depressing, read.

The Lemur by Benjamin Black

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: October 2009 NOTES: Having read and enjoyed several of John Banville’s novels I was looking forward to reading him in his crime writing persona. But The Lemur was very disappointing. After a good beginning the plot became really flat and there was simply no suspense as the narrative moved to its conclusion. I thought the device of a rich, successful businessman employing his son-in-law to write his biography very odd. Surely most biographies are arranged to be written via a publisher? The character of The Lemur – a young researcher – was interesting and could have been developed further but he was only present for a few pages. I didn’t feel I could care about any of the other characters. Hard to believe this was by the same author as The Untouchable and The Book of

Saturday, 10 October 2009

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

DATE PUBLISHED: 1989 DATE READ: September 2009 NOTES: This is a wonderful book in every way – poignant, funny and thoughtful. Johnny Wheelwright recounts the story of his friendship with Owen – a boy of very small stature (dwarfism is never mentioned) who is highly intelligent and socially manipulative. But as well as being clever Owen is convinced he has been chosen by God for a special purpose. He also claims to know the date of his death – a fact that Johnny treats with great scepticism. There is much sadness in the book – Owen seems to come from such an unloving family, Johnny would love to know who his real father is, people die unexpectedly and tragically. But the friendship and love of Johnny and Owen overcomes all this as they move through childhood to adulthood. The narrative is brilliantly constructed and everything in the story is relevant. Irving explores ideas on organised religion and spiritually and although the story is set in small town New Hampshire the wider political scene is referred to as John links his narrative with facts about the Vietnam War and the Iran-Contra affair. I chose to read this book as it so often appears on those lists of “most favourite books”. I left in on my book shelf for over a year – initially put off by the 640 pages. But now I realise it was a wonderful treat just waiting for me! Owen Meany must be one of the best literary creations of all times…..

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: September 2009 NOTES: This is a really fascinating book. Like other good writers whose first language is not English (eg Nabokov, Conrad) Hemon brings to his work a freshness and vitality. His lead character’s confusion between “sadness” and “sardines” is a particularly nice example. The chapters alternate between the 1900s and present day in Chicago. The earlier part of the book tells the story of a young Jewish (possible) Anarchist (Lazarus Averbuch) and his murder by the Chief of Police. Much of this strikes chords with today’s situation – fear of terrorists, immigrants, police cover-ups, political bias of the press. This is based on actual events – although many of the facts remain uncertain. The other part is the story of a would-be writer Brik who is planning a book on Lazarus and sets off on a journey to Europe to find out about his origins. But he himself has his own memories of the war following the break-up of Yugoslavia so he decides to include a visit to his home country. He is accompanied by a photographer friend whose own actions in the past do not bear too much scrutiny. Sometimes the story of Lazarus leeches into the modern day chapters. When this occurred I took it to mean that these parts were being imagined by Brik whereas the 1908 chapters were what actually happened. The ending was somewhat ambivalent – but then life is often like that and some things do not end neatly. I am not sure about the photographs. The old ones from the Chicago archives were interesting but the modern ones were so poorly reproduced that I didn’t know their purpose.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: September 2009 NOTES: Sebastian Faulks has been very ambitious in writing his latest book. A Week in December may have been intended as a “state of the nation” novel but it is too “Londoncentric” to be that. It is, however, a compelling read. A group of disparate characters are living their lives in late December 2007 – including a conniving hedge fund owner, an embittered literary critic, an ingenuous chutney millionaire, a struggling lawyer, a book-loving Tube driver, a Polish footballer, a young Muslim turning to fundamentalism and a young white guy turning to drugs. In the course of the book the lives of all the characters interact and overlap. Not all characters get equal space in the narrative and some are much more compelling than others. The lawyer Gabriel and the Jenni the Tube drive are an unlikely but likeable couple – and would be worthy of a sequel! I thought that the chutney millionaire Farooq al-Rashid was a bit too unworldly although his attempts to improve his literary knowledge in order to talk to the Queen at his forthcoming investiture were very funny. The literary critic R. Tranter was hilarious – all his sections were written with great verve and confidence. A Week in December is well plotted and complex and Faulks does not fall into any stereotypical ending. The financial transactions are fully explained – although they left me baffled at times (my fault, I feel, rather than the author’s). The hedge fund owner will make enormous profits by using vaguely legal methods. The fact that millions of African farmers will be impoverished as a result does not bother him at all. At the dinner party at the end of the book Roger Malpasse gives an impassioned speech about financial malpractice and the greed of so-called entrepreneurs. Although a bit uneven in parts A Week in December is an entertaining, complex, thoughtful and, above all, passionate work.

The overwhelming "to be read" pile

I have definitely bought fewer books this year but in spite of that my pile of books waiting to be read just grows and grows. Just on the shelves near my computer are the following: A Most Wanted Man – John Le Carre If it Bleeds – Duncan Campbell Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy Brave New World – Aldous Huxley Millennium – Tom Holland A Fraction of the Whole – Steve Toltz Beowulf – Seamus Heaney Little Dorrit – Charles Dickens The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov The Dancer Upstairs – Nicholas Shakespeare The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy U.S.A. – John Dos Passos Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad Surfacing – Margaret Atwood Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood Sacred Games – Vikram Chandra We Are Now Beginning Our Descent – James Meek Hearts and Minds – Amanda Craig 2666 – Robert Bolana The Secret Scripture – Sebastian Barry Master Georgie – Beryl Bainbridge True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford Such a Long Journey – Rohinton Mistry The Collection – James Crumley Falling Angels – Tracy Chevalier And there are even more in the rest of the house! So, no more new purchases before the end of the year. Well, not many anyway!

Friday, 18 September 2009

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: September 2009 NOTES: Adam Kindred, a climatologist who has been working in the United States, arrives in London for a job interview at Imperial College. Within hours a series of events cause him to go into hiding in fear of his life. He then goes from being a respected academic to a hunted man forced to plumb the depths of urban society. In order to remain hidden he becomes a non-person – no phone, no credit cards, no bank account, no identity. As one would expect from William Boyd Ordinary Thunderstorms is beautifully written and all the strata of London are laid out before us. We meet tramps, prostitutes, evangelists, illegal immigrants, drug dealers, shady businessmen and contract killers. The story is adeptly presented – Adam Kindred (despite his loss of identity) adapts himself to his new situation and has many ingenious methods of survival – but along the way the reader shares with him his hunger, despair and isolation. As in some Dickens’ novels the city of London and the Thames are central – almost additional characters. The plot is wonderfully constructed and keeps you gripped to the very end. The characterisations were well observed and believable (although I found the John Christ Church set up a bit far-fetched). A brilliant literary thriller.

Friday, 11 September 2009

The Outcast by Sadie Jones

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: September 2009 NOTES: When I saw the dreaded Richard and Judy logo on the cover of this book I nearly put it on one side. But as I had heard the author speaking on the radio (and she sounded really bright) I decided to put my prejudices on one side. First the good news: Sadie Jones writes in a lucid simple style that conveys the time and place well. At the centre of the novel is Lewis, a troubled and lonely adolescent who is still mourning the loss of his mother in a tragic accident. The stifling atmosphere of post-war village England is very well portrayed as is Lewis’s desperate seeking for love and attention. This is a very well-heeled version of village life – all the characters live in large houses and have servants and chauffeurs. The introduction of domestic violence in this setting was interesting but not entirely convincing. The first two parts of the book are gripping and propel the reader forwards. Unfortunately the story (for me) did not ultimately live up to its early promise and by the end had become overblown and melodramatic. Lewis’s final confrontation with his tormentor is somewhat unbelievable (or did someone have their eye on a film adaptation?) So, a very good beginning but by the end The Outcast was just high class Chick-Lit.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

DATE PUBLISHED: 1912 DATE READ: September 2009 NOTES: Le Grand Meaulnes is a charming coming of age novel set in France in the 1890s and told through the eyes of fifteen year old Francois Seurel. Everyone is enthralled by a newcomer to his father’s school – Augustin Meaulnes. But soon after joining the school Augustin disappears for three days and returns in a somewhat dreamy state telling of a visit to a strange semi-derelict estate in which a wedding was to be celebrated. He recounts his visit in great detail to Francois who in turn tells the reader – a somewhat clumsy device. His adventure seems to have a magical dimension although a rational explanation is given. Following his visit to the lost estate Augustin determines to find the young woman he met there. Although only a short novel – much is packed into its 200 pages and a complex story covering several years is unfolded. The scenes of the school and of country life are beautifully written as are the main characters of Francois and Augustin. But Franzt de Galais was a much less satisfactory creation. This reads very much like a first novel – a bit too serious and sentimental in parts – but it is easy to understand how it has influenced and inspired so many other writers. Catcher in the Rye, The Magus and The Secret History have all been mentioned in this context but I came to Le Grand Meaulnes after reading the wonderful Black Swan Green by David Mitchell.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

A Vicious Circle by Amanda Craig

DATE PUBLISHED: 1996 DATE READ: September 2009 NOTES: Amanda Craig shows and amazing insight into the world of writing and publishing. A Vicious Circle is inhabited with journalists, literary agents, media moguls, editors and publicists. It is written with great verve and skill with well-rounded characters – few of which emerge as unflawed human beings. Many are shown as selfish, egotistical and, let’s face it, vicious. The most sympathetic character is Grace, a single parent living on a run-down estate and eking out a living by babysitting and cleaning. Some characters are depicted as quite monstrous – but at the same time are quite believable. Mary Quinn, an Irish waitress, is introduced to the world of book reviewing by her lover and takes to it like a duck to water. But she soon becomes as cruel and revengeful as many others and uses her reviewing as a weapon of choice rather than as a way of sharing literary insights. At the beginning of the book is the launch party for a travel book written by Max de Monde’s daughter, Amelia. She is a “celebrity” - beautiful, vain and lazy but has still managed to get a book published – just as in real life! Without wishing to give the plot away her character was one of the surprises of the plot…. Some of the writing is very funny. When Mary queries as to whether some reviewers don’t actually read the whole book she is told: “Good heaven, no. Skim, my darling, skim…..reviewers are paid far too little for it to be worth their while.” Craig also has some lovely observations. She refers to infants in their buggies with the rain covers on as “boil-in-the-bag progeny”. A great read made even better by Amanda Craig’s acid wit and sharp observations. And there is even a redemptive ending – how good is that?

Sunday, 30 August 2009

The People's Act of Love by James Meek

DATE PUBLISHED: 2005 DATE READ: August 2009 NOTES: This is a very unusual book. It is set in the early years of the last century and relates events at the end of WW1 and the beginning of the Russian revolution. The writing is curiously old-fashioned – in fact it reads like a novel translated from Russian. (Dostievsky-lite?) A Czech regiment is stranded in a small Siberian town in 1919 and hoping to get home by going east to Vladivostock. They believe their lives will be in danger from the Reds. A stranger arrives claiming that he has escaped from a prison camp in the north and is being pursued by a cannibal. Also in the town is a group of castrati who believe that this is the only way to achieve true goodness. So we have murder, cannibalism and castration in the story – quite a combination! There are some quite chilling episodes and some brilliant descriptions. Some of the story elements are a bit drawn out and overlong – some judicious editing would have helped. But a very intriguing novel and I look forward to reading more of Meek’s work.

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: August 2009 NOTES: Another brilliant offering from Kate Atkinson. The narrative is multi-stranded and numerous characters appear – so the reader certainly has to concentrate. But every page brims with quirky ideas and the whole plot is very entertaining. Some characters such as Jackson Brodie and Louise Monroe are included from previous books but are not at the heart of the narrative. Reggie, a sixteen year old girl, is a great creation. She is quirky and passionate and I couldn’t help but race to the end in the hope that all would be well! Some reviewers have complained that the plot has too many coincidences. But as Jackson says towards the end of the book “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.” But it’s not all fun and games. The crime at the beginning is truly shocking and graphically described as is the violent rescue at the end. But along the way are many funny, sad and heartwarming moments….. A lovely book

Friday, 21 August 2009

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon

DATE PUBLISHED: 1992 DATE READ: August 2009 NOTES: I bought this book months ago and immediately put it on one side because a) I hadn’t realised it was non-fiction and thought it was a novel and b) it was just so enormous – 650 pages! However when I finished the last DVD in The Wire I felt bereft and missing the mean streets of Baltimore. So now was the time to tackle Homicide….. I was not disappointed – in fact it is one of the best pieces of factual reportage that I have ever read. Simon was given access to the Police Department Homicide team for a year during which time he came to know the individual detectives and their strengths and weaknesses, the problems of policing the city, the local politics, the tyranny of the “solved crimes” league tables. He also records the black humour that detectives use as well as the many acts of empathy and kindness. Rarely a day goes by without a murder taking place. Many are easily solved – such as domestics. Murders involving drug dealers and customers are usually met with a wall of silence and often the culprit is never identified. Other murders (such as when the victim is a child) arouse great anger and distress and extra resources are poured into the squad in order to find the guilty person. Although non-fiction the book is constructed like a novel. As the book progresses the reader becomes more and more involved in the life of the homicide department. I found myself willing Pellegrini to somehow find the killer of little Latonya Wallace…… The writing is superb – not a superfluous word – and the book is packed with social issues relating the crime and punishment. Highly recommended for anyone who likes crime fiction or police procedurals.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Turbulence by Giles Foden

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: August 2009 NOTES: A fictionalised version of the attempts to predict the weather in the run-up to the D-Day landings. Henry Meadows is the young maths prodigy who is sent to Scotland to assist in making an accurate forecast and at the same time try to make contact with Wallace Ryman. Ryman has supposedly devised a system that brings together many of the variables of forecasting – the Ryman Number – but as a pacifist he is unwilling to allow his work to be used to advance the war. Meadows recounts his story in 1980 from a “berg ship” carrying ice to Saudi Arabia. Although the story of the D-Day landings has been written about many times not a great amount of attention has been given to the importance of correct weather prediction. Foden also puts forward the reason for joint planning among the allies – that if the weather forecast turned out to be wrong then no one country would be blamed for this. For much of the narrative the action of the weathermen is removed from the servicemen who are doing the actual fighting but these two strands were brought together very satisfactorily at the end. He sensibly doesn’t attempt to do a re-writing of the landings but gives us just enough detail to complete the story. My main problem with the book was my incomprehension of the weather prediction formulae and theories presented. Much of it made no sense at all (to me) and in the end I just had to let the words flow over me…. However I did manage to grasp the concept of the “berg ship” and Pykerite and very much enjoyed all these parts. Meadows comes over as a likeable but gauche and socially inept individual. Ryman is a fascinating and larger than life character and the book came alive when he entered the narrative. And Turbulence ends with a mystery – a rather clever device!

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The Girl of His Dreams by Donna Leon

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: July 2009 (audiobook) NOTES: Another Commisario Brunetti story set in Venice. Donna Leon continues to bring Venice alive to the reader – and shows us not just the parts beloved by visitors but also its dark underbelly. The Brunetti family come over as real characters and play an important part in the story. A young Roma girl is found drowned in the canal and Brunetti is soon convinced that it was no accident. But no-one seems to care about her fate – not even her family. (The lack of concern from her family was the only false note.) But Brunetti refuses to let the case die and is determined to find the truth. There is a certain realism about the way the story unfolds. He faces lots of frustrations in the investigation but no big chases or shoot-outs or violent confrontations. The ending is somewhat low key and I can understand that some readers (but not this one) felt a bit cheated. A good light enjoyable read.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks

DATE PUBLISHED:2007 DATE READ: July 2009 (audiobook) NOTES: The somewhat dysfunctional Wopuld family is planning a get-together at their ancestral home in north-west Scotland to discuss the proposed buyout of their family business based on a board game. Alban (who by now only holds 100 shares in the company) is still haunted by his mother’s suicide at Garbadale when he was a baby. He is also still holding out hopes for a rekindling of his childhood love for his cousin Sophie. They were discovered making love and forcibly kept apart – this tactic was led by the manipulative Grandma Win. Albarn now has a relationship with the enigmatic Veruschka – a university mathematician who loves her own independence. The story comes to a head at Garbisdale. Alban is convinced Grandma Win knows more about his mother’s suicide than she has admitted and he conspires to trick her into revealing what she knows – but is then devastated when he finds out the secrets she has been keeping. He also delivers a stinging attack on the US company wanting to buy out the family and consequently gets a better prices for the family shareholders. A cracking read – lots of funny comments and comic situations as well as some really dark corners.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Children of Men by P.D. James

DATE PUBLISHED: 1992 DATE READ: July 2009 NOTES: In a world where no child has been born for 25 years a small group of five rebels begin to plan to challenge the ruling dictatorship of England. But the five are far from united and seek help from Theo Faron, an academic who is the cousin of Xan the Warden of England. He believes there are many injustices and agrees to help them albeit reluctantly. He is also strongly attracted to Julian, a beautiful member of the group. Soon one of the group is killed and it is revealed that Julian is pregnant – obviously a momentous event. When her husband realises it is not his child he runs away to betray the group, having hoped to use the birth to gain power and prestige for himself. Children of Men is a beautifully written dystopic novel The infertility has caused changes in attitudes and morality as the population becomes distorted. Many social issues are raised: -“voluntary” suicides of the elderly -indulgence of last born Omegas leading to criminality -importation of other races to fill the labour gap but without being given any rights -brutal suppression of criminals The author also explores the way in which the regime in power wants to “do the right thing” but ends up prioritising policies and never quite coming to grips with the most serious problems. A really interesting novel that – and Theo is a great invention as the reluctant hero.

Exit Music by Ian Rankin

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: July 2009 NOTES: A Russian poet is murdered in a quiet Edinburgh street and nearby on the same night a drug dealer is stabbed. Rebus and Clarke begin to see links with the Russian businessmen visiting the town, local politicians and (of course) Cafferty. It is Rebus’ last week in the job and needless to say he continues to break all the rules and upset his superiors. Exit Music is written with great verve. Characters are very well written and the city atmosphere feels authentic - even if some of the plotting is a bit far-fetched. Far too many neat links and coincidences for me…. As in the previous books Rankin cleverly includes real news events in the narrative. Bankers are depicted as evil dark forces – he must have been greatly amused when RBOS went bust! Rebus is a great character and will be missed – perhaps Siobhan will step up to take his place? As this was the last of the series I was hoping for a really great final book but this was on the whole a bit disappointing. Not the final flourish I was hoping for.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Cold Earth by Sarah Moss

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: July 2009 NOTES: A group of six young archaeologists go to the shores of Greenland to investigate the site of a group who seem to have left in a hurry. They have left behind a world through which some sort of epidemic is sweeping – but no-one knows how serious this is. They have only a short time to spend on the dig as winter is on the way and they only have a limited amount of food and fuel. But soon their internet links fail and they seem to be cut off from the outside world. The gathering tension works well and the author conveyed the life they were leading very well. Although there is an underlying seriousness much of the dialogue and observations are witty and sharp. As the food runs out and the plane to relieve them fails to arrive the group begins to disintegrate and friendships splinter apart. Each chapter is told by a different member of the group. This technique works pretty well – though I would have like more differentiation between some of the narrative voices. This is a very accomplished debut novel and I will certainly look out for her future work.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

DATE PUBLISHED: 2006 DATE READ: June 2009 NOTES: Iris is a single woman with her own business living in Edinburgh. She has a lover and also a married step-brother who continually makes a play for her. Iris is shocked to receive information that she has a great-aunt in a mental institution who is about to be released into the community. At first she refuses to have anything to do with her but is soon intrigued and drawn into a relationship with Esme. Esme Lennox was born in India and lived there for her early childhood. She was a rebellious child (though never malicious) and causes despair in her older sister and her strait-laced parents. She continues to defy convention after the family moves back to Scotland – says she has not wish to be married and wants to continue with her education and go to university. Her family is horrified by this – marriage in the 1930s was the only respectable choice for females of her class. After an incident at a dance Esme becomes hysterical and she is put in a mental institution. She is left there with no contact with her family for over sixty years. It is a story of betrayal – Esme is betrayed by her family, especially by her sister Kitty. None of the male characters can be trusted. Kitty’s husband lets her down, James deceives Esme, Alex (though married) lusts after Iris and Luke (Iris’s lover) is clearly never going to leave his wife. The story is told in a mixture of flashbacks and memories of both Kitty and Esme. (This is not altogether a successful technique as it is not always clear who is speaking). The time in India is very well portrayed as is Esme’s unhappy time as a young girl in Edinburgh. Although we know that the cruel incarceration of difficult young women was a reality of the time I would like to have learned more about her time in the institution. Did she have access to books, newspapers or television? Also the ending was somewhat abrupt. But nonetheless an interesting story that keeps you turning the pages.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Celebrity -How entertainers took over the world and why we need an exit strategy by Marina Hyde

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: June 2009 NOTES: Marina Hyde is young, bright and funny. Having read her weekly columns in The Guardian I more or less knew what to expect from this book. She is not “anti-celebrity” as such but has over time become enraged by celebrities stepping out from their own sphere into arenas that they really don’t know much about. It is the celebs who take on the role of spokesperson for the developing world, weird religions or peace initiatives that are recipients of her wrath. And many of the examples quoted are cringingly terrible. Madonna (sponsored by Gucci) taking over the UN gardens to draw attention to her Malawan charity is in receipt of Marina’s opprobrium. And Sharon Stone gets numerous special mentions as she manages to promote both her forthcoming films and peace in the Middle East at the same event! When Angelina Jolie gave Namibia the privilege of being the country in which she gave birth she was actually granted a no-fly zone over the resort she was staying in and was also able to vet the entry visas for visiting journalists! Over and over again she gives examples of how people willingly indulge celebrities – UN officials, politicians, charity organisers, government officials, TV presenters etc etc. Have we, the public, actually reached the stage of only being able to understand poverty/disease/war/ if it is pointed out to us by someone who is actually an actor, singer or model? But apart from the neediness of the so-called celebs Marina Hyde also points out that much of the culture is driven by the tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines. Much of what they print is vicious and cruel – and if no-one bought them a whole industry would die.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

The Outlander by Gil Adamson

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: June 2009 NOTES: In 1903 a young woman, Mary Boulton, makes her way alone through the mountains, forests and valleys of Canada pursued by two men with rifles. As the story unfolds we find out that she has murdered her husband and the men are his brothers desperate for revenge. Rather than refer to her by name the author calls her “the widow” which creates a somewhat mythical status for her. Along the way she meets a strange reclusive man known as the Ridgerunner, and Indian and his wife, Bonnycastle, an eccentric but kindly church minister, and McEchern, the dwarf who runs the trading post. Although she is trying to survive in a harsh environment nearly all the people she comes in contact with are benign. But her brothers-in-law are relentless in their search for her. This is a simple story beautifully told. The description of life in the mountains is vividly described – the hunger, the cold and the despair all seemed so real. The mining town of Frank is graphically portrayed. It would be a cold-hearted reader who didn’t care what happened to Mary – I found I was racing to get to the end!

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Amenable Women by Mavis Cheek

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: May 2009 NOTES: A really delightful book. Recently widowed Flora is trying to pick up the pieces and forge a new life for herself. But she is not helped by everyone else’s memories of her larger than life husband. At his funeral her thoughts wander over their past life together as she realises that she probably won’t miss him all that much and that she is in fact looking forward to being her own boss. Much of the book (especially the early part) is very funny and it would be a hard-hearted reader indeed who failed to root for Flora. Edward, her late husband, had begun a history of their village. Flora had originally suggested that she do this but Edward quickly took over the idea and squeezed her out. So Flora was now free to work on this again and wanted to concentrate on the links that Anna of Cleves had with the village. She soon rejects the epithet of the Flanders Mare and gives us a refreshing reappraisal of Henry VIII’s fourth wife. There are a series of disappointments throughout the narrative. Flora has been disappointed by her husband and is now attracted to Ewan. But Ewan’s wife admits how disappointed she has been by him. And, of course, Anna of Cleves was very disappointed in the husband that awaited her when she arrived in England! It may not sound like the most feminist of messages but Mavis Cheek shows that amenability can lead to a woman getting what she wants! And what a lovely word “amenable” is – I will find ways to include it in future conversations!

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Some thoughts on book signings.....

When you come to think about it, it is a somewhat odd activity. Why do we do it? Is it to spend a few moments with someone you admire? Do we somehow think the signing will "add value" to the book? And how long would you be prepared to wait in a queue just to spend thirty seconds getting that oh so precious signature?
I have only been to a few book signings and somehow I never feel entirely comfortable. Do I look fairly normal and relaxed - or will the author mistake me for that mad woman in Misery and send for security? And what do the writers think of it all - a chore to be got over as quickly as possible or a good opportunity to meet ones readers?
I admit that I joined in a few signings at the Hay Festival. The queue for Tobias Hill was small and select, the one for David Simon was long and very cheerful. Kate Summerscale seemed genuinely pleased to meet us. However I bet they all couldn't wait to escape to the Green Room for a stiff drink!
There was a really massive queue for the children's writer Jeremy Strong and he signed away frantically. But next to him sat another writer with pen poised but no eager signees - how demoralising must that be?

Heartland by Anthony Cartwright

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: May 2009 NOTES: Set in the midlands, this is a story of politics, football, family strife and love. Two football games are described throughout – the 2002 World Cup match between Argentina and England and an important Sunday-league match between a BNP funded team and the local mosque. The council elections loom and Jim worries that he will lose his seat to the BNP. Rob, his nephew, has problems of his own. Glenn, a family friend, is now committed to the BNP thus causing a rift in relationships. Adnan, an old school friend of Rob, has disappeared and rumour says he has gone to Pakistan to join the Mujahadeen. The structure of the book is fairly complex – no separate chapters, just sections of First Half, Half Time, Second Half and Final Score. The accounts of the two football matches flow into each other – so you have to keep alert! I also found it difficult at first to keep track of all the characters and their relationship to one another – solved this by making a list. However this book is well worth sticking with. It gives a good picture of a working class area in the present time. It is especially good on the lost dreams and fading ambitions of the two ex-footballers and on the secrets that are held by so many. And it would have been so easy to turn the whole story into a “racists versus good folk”. He refuses to fall into this trap – the characters are nuanced rather than good and evil. And you don’t need to be a football fan to enjoy this book!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

The Black Monastery by Stav Sherev

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: May 2009 NOTES: (One of my Vine Voice choices) Kitty Carson, best selling crime novelist retreats to the Greek island of Palassos only to find herself embroiled in a real-life mystery. Two young people have been found murdered in a horribly ritualistic manner – closely followed by the murder of a local priest. The local chief of police, Nikos, leads the hunt for the killer but we soon know that he has his own secrets. The formula is as follows: - an exotic location with lots of hidden secrets - a dogged and inquisitive amateur sleuth - a policeman with his own personal problems So the ingredients were all in place for a successful crime thriller. Some of the writing is very good and the sense of place is very well developed. The main characters are well portrayed but some of the lesser characters are only one dimensional. However the main let-down was the plotting. This is overcomplicated with a mish-mash of gory murder, drug dealing, police corruption, paedophilia, and hippy cults. And the centipedes were just plain ridiculous. Lots of things didn’t quite add up so the final solution was somewhat unsatisfactory. And why do culprits explain their crimes so graphically when they are confronted by the authorities? This only happens in books – in real life they would just say “no comment”!

Friday, 15 May 2009

The Hidden by Tobias Hill

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: May 2009 NOTES: After an unsuccessful marriage and an uncompleted university thesis Ben Mercer travels to Greece. He settles in to working in a restaurant where he is very much the outsider – although he does manage to strike up a sort of friendship with another member of staff. Following a chance meeting with an ex-uni colleague he decides to join an archaeological dig at Sparta. Here he still finds himself very much the outsider but gradually inveigles his way into the group – at the same time rejecting the friendship of some local workers. The Hidden is interspersed with sections describing ancient Sparta and its warriors and as the narrative unfolds it becomes clear that there are direct parallels between the elite group of diggers and the Spartans. Just as the Spartans had little time for outsiders this group of five also feel scant regard for anyone else. But Ben is fascinated by them and is slowly accepted into the group. He ignores the hints that darker forces may be at work and when he realises what exactly is going on it is too late. It is an intriguing book which is beautifully written. The narrative moves slowly and is overshadowed by menace. It is very much a slow burning fuse – but the final part moves swiftly and makes compulsive reading. The morally ambiguous Ben is well portrayed. I would have liked more differentiation of the elite group of five – their characters could have been better defined.
A book to be savoured slowly.

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: May 2009 NOTES: Another tremendous piece of storytelling from Ghosh. In Sea of Poppies he brings together a disparate group of characters who all find themselves aboard the Ibis as she sails from the Hoogly River in Calcutta to Mauritius in the 1830s. The Ibis is a “blackbirder” – a ship previously used as part of the slave trade and is now used to transport opium and other supplies to China. But with the Opium Wars looming it is decided to use the ship to take indentured labourers to Mauritius. The opium trade is brilliantly researched and shows us the devastating effect it has on the peasants forced to grow poppies rather than food. Class and caste issues loom large throughout in a society where everyone knows where they stand in the pecking order. Only on the Ibis does this hierarchy break down as the passengers realise that they are (literally) all in the same boat. The narrative moves swiftly and rarely slackens. The story culminates in a real cliffhanger and leaves the reader wanting to know what will happen next. (Sea of Poppies is the first part of a trilogy). The characterisations are strong and vivid although I do feel that some of the things that happen are somewhat far-fetched! Much of the dialogue is bold and bawdy and uses lots of Anglo-Indian and Hindustani terms. This added to the rich brew of this novel although I can understand that others may find it irritating. An energetic, ambitious and immensely moving book.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

A Whistling Woman by A S Byatt

DATE PUBLISHED: 2002 DATE READ: April 2009
The final part of the Frederica Quartet. The title is from the old saying: A Whistling Woman and a Crowing Hen are neither good for God or Man. It sets the tone for much of the book as numerous characters feel unable or unwilling to fulfil their traditional roles expected by society. Frederica shuns domesticity (although she is obviously a very good mother), Daniel is an unconventional priest and Marcus continues to be something of a lost soul. Lots of the earlier characters feature and storylines are referred to and continued. There are even some new people to get to know – including the charismatic Joshua Ramsden who has a major role. Frederica has become a fairly successful (Joan Bakewell-type) television personality. Her parents are in fairly contented retirement but caring for the children of Daniel and Stephanie (Frederica’s dead sister). Daniel still works on his suicide listening service in London but spends more and more time in the north. Marcus works at the university and is a talented mathematician. But this is the late 1960s and new ideas and ideologies abound. A religious community is set up near to the family home which attracts some eccentric folk. As this cult develops it becomes darker and more sinister. (One false note here is the way in which Gideon was prepared to work alongside Joshua – I am sure that in real life someone as egotistical as Gideon would have wanted to be at the head of any community) There are nice parallels here with Babbletower in Babel Tower – both seem to be established with benign motives but disintegrate in something awful. The university is planning a conference on Body and Mind and invites many eminent scholars to give papers. But an Anti-University has been set up which decides to disrupt proceedings. As with the others in the quartet this book contains lots of science (much of it incomprehensible to me) and mythology. But the characterisations and the story both carry the reader along to a satisfying conclusion. (I felt a bit cheated that virtually no mention was made of Nigel, Frederica’s ex-husband. I would have liked something really bad to happen to him!)

So I have, at last, completed the Frederica Quartet - some 2,000 pages brimming with ideas. Do I get a medal?

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: April 2009 NOTES: This could be viewed as two discrete novellas but there are (just) enough references and reflections to make the two parts hang together as a unit. Both stories are also travelogues and full of wry observations about hotels, transport, other tourists and the local people. In Jeff in Venice Jeff is a jaded journalist who views everything with a cynical eye – until he meets the lovely Laura. The art exhibits and his attitude to them are done really well (as is his ongoing angst about which parties he has and hasn’t been invited to). In Death in Varanasi he becomes much more in tune with his surroundings as he sinks into a life of cheap beer, sunshine, cremations and dope - hoping all the time to find spirituality. Both parts have the shadow of Death in Venice looming over them. The writing is superb and both Venice and Varanisa were brought alive for the reader. However I found the device of the two halves a little unsatisfactory – both stories could have been expanded to be novels in their own right. Nonetheless this was an intriguing and enjoyable read.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Babel Tower by A S Byatt

DATE PUBLISHED: 1996 DATE READ: April 2009 NOTES: This is the third novel in the Frederica Quartet. It is now the 1960s and Frederica is married with a child and already missing her world of books, work and intelligent friends. When I wrote about The Virgin In The Garden I referred to Frederica as “obnoxious” and after Still Life I said she was “clever but irritating”. But now she has become a much more attractive character – likeable, questioning, thoughtful and passionately devoted to her son. The violent breakdown of her marriage and the subsequent divorce are both shockingly documented. But Babel Tower is much more than the story of one woman – it is a splendid evocation of the sixties. Byatt draws on things we remember so well – the music, clothes, furnishings, education and food of the time – but it also reminds us of the abusive divorce laws of the time and the ludicrous obscenity trials. There are many layers within the book including another novel Babbletower which is an Orwellian fantasy about a community seeking happiness but instead creating a cruel and wicked dystopia. I don’t usually warm to fantasy but Babbletower was gripping – as was the subsequent trial of its author for obscenity. There are observations on the meaning of words and text, on freedom and liberalism, on love and passion – and so much more….. Although challenging in parts it is a wonderful read. Although (I think) it would be better to read the earlier two books first Babel Tower can be seen as a stand alone novel. I look forward to A Whistling Woman and am already wondering if Agatha’s wonderful children’s story will be continued in it?

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Into the Blue by Robert Goddard

I expected this to be a high-class thriller but was sadly disappointed. It began off well with the disappearance of a woman while on a walk in Rhodes. Harry Barnett, a down-at-heel caretaker on Rhodes doggedly searches for her and in the process uncovers layer after layer of lies and subterfuge. A Government Minister turns out to have been involved in a long term love affair with an IRA activist. A secretary who (appears to) help Harry is threatened with expulsion when her work permit expires. But she says she doesn’t want to leave as her brother is a known Tamil separatist in Sri Lanka. Suicides and accidents from the past are revealed as murder. Several women throw themselves at Harry in a most unlikely and unbelievable way. The characterisations were weak and most of the narrative and explanations were done in a series of long dialogues. I realise that Goddard is a very popular writer – just not my cup of tea.

Friday, 10 April 2009

The Ruby In Her Navel by Barry Unsworth

DATE PUBLISHED: 2006 DATE READ: April 2009 NOTES: This novel is set in twelfth century Sicily which is ruled by a Catholic king but the inhabitants include Muslims, Jews and Byzantine Christians. The kingdom of Sicily is gripped in religious and political intrigue as differing factions vie for supremacy. At the same time King Roger is having problems with the Pope and has worries about possible invasion or treason from within. Thurstan Beauchamp had dreams of becoming a knight but has failed in his ambition as a result of his father giving away all his land and money. So he has ended up as a valued member of the king’s finance office which is run by a Yusuf, a clever and principled Muslim who is well aware that plots and intrigues abound. Thurstan, the narrator, is very much an innocent who tries to distance himself from politics. He has naively absorbed the prevailing propaganda of the glory and brilliance of the king and of the natural superiority of Christianity. He is drawn both to Nesrin, the dancer that he introduces to the court, and to Alicia his childhood sweetheart. He genuinely loves Alicia and believes she can be the key to his eventual knighthood whereby he will regain his rightful place in society. But his innocence is his undoing….. The time and place very much come alive in Unsworth’s book. He manages to put over a fairly complex set-up in a believable and accessible way. As in The Songs of the Kings there are some definite (but not overdone) references to modern day politics such as the introduction of the Office of the King’s Fame – a twelfth century Public Relations department! An excellent historical tale which gets better as the pace picks up in the latter half.

Monday, 6 April 2009

John The Revelator by Peter Murphy

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: March 2009 NOTES: This is a “coming of age” novel set in small town Ireland. John (who has a worm fetish!) lives with his eccentric mother Lily who quotes from the bible and says John is named after the writer of Revelations. He becomes enamoured with Jamey Corboy – a middleclass but rebellious older boy who is sent to a young offenders’ institute following an escapade with John. But John continues to hear from him via his letters, his stories and newspaper reports. The narrative moves quickly and the 250 pages are soon read. Much of the language is quirky and vivid and the characters jump off the page. Mrs Nagle, the gothic greedy neighbour, was brilliant. Unfortunately most of the humour was the sort liked by teenage boys and depended very much on bodily functions. Each chapter is preceded by a reflective prologue – which tend to be either irrelevant or pretentious. The suffocating atmosphere of small town Ireland was well evoked, as was the obvious affection between mother and son. An interesting debut novel but not as good as the rave reviews. Colm Tóibín said: “…it’s an absolutely wonderful book.” No, it’s not - it's good but not great.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: March 2009 NOTES: A massive tome! Over 600 pages covering the reign of Henry VIII from the end of his marriage to Katherine to (almost) the end of his marriage to Ann Boleyn. The novel unfolds with Thomas Cromwell as the central character and reveals his rise from a humble background to a position of power and influence in the Tudor court. He is given a back story and much is made of his domestic arrangements. It is very much the humanisation of Cromwell although Mantel subtly reveals his ambition and his greed. The politics of the time are well used. there is a brilliant speech about monasteries made by Cromwell as he wheedles his way into Hanry's confidence. (page 219) By the end of the book Cromwell’s interest has already moved away from Ann and towards Jane Seymour (whose family lives in Wolf Hall) – he is politically astute and is able to remain as the king’s loyal servant by knowing who to support and when. There is much witty dialogue throughout as well as many interesting observations. When Cromwell is told that Thomas More wears a hair shirt and beats himself with a scourge his response is to wonder who actually makes these instruments of torture. William Tyndale features (as a sort of off-stage character) and is dealt with sympathetically. Thomas More is (rightly) shown to be harsh and unbending despite being sincere in his religious beliefs. So why was I not totally bowled over by this book? Probably because it was just so long and took such an age for the narrative to move on – the marriage to Ann only took place after 400 pages! It was an intelligent read but for anyone with an interest in the history of the time Wolf Hall would not really add to their overall knowledge.

Friday, 27 March 2009

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: March 2009 NOTES: A massive epic focussing on two Americans – Danny Coughlin, a policeman in Boston PD and Luther Laurence who arrives in Boston on the run from gangsters. They are both flawed but decent men living in a turbulent (and often corrupt) society. The story begins at the end of WW1 and ends a short time later on the day that Prohibition starts. The book is superbly researched and brings the history of the time very much to life – politics, corruption, racism, anarchists, Bolsheviks, Spanish flu, poverty, immigration, trade unionism and strikes. And on top of all that he includes believable family relationships and a few love stories. Interspersed throughout are appearances real historical characters - Babe Ruth, Eugene O’Neill, Jack Reed, Calvin Coolidge and John Hoover. The Given Day is a massive book – over 700 pages! But from the first page it flows effortlessly and became hard to put down (so you can combine seriously great reading with weightlifting!). It lives up to its rave reviews and is a joy from beginning to end.

Friday, 20 March 2009

The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri

DATE PUBLISHED: 2001 DATE READ: March 2009 NOTES: The Death of Vishnu is set in an apartment block in Bombay where Vishnu (a general dogsbody who has lived on the landing for years) lies dying. The people living in the block and those who work in the street all become involved in his final days. The Pathaks and the Asranis continue their feud (about sharing a kitchen) and quarrel further about whether Vishnu should be taken away by ambulance. However this suggestion arises more because Mrs Pathak didn’t want her card-playing friends to see his disgusting state rather than from any humanitarian motives. Mr Jalal (a Muslim) seeks spiritual enlightenment and, following a period of fasting and physical deprivation, believes he can find this via the dying Vishnu. Jalal’s son is having an illicit affair with Kavita, daughter of the Hindu Asranis. The Asranis are keen to arrange a marriage for Kavita and she is introduced to a suitable young man but decides instead to elope with Salim. And on the top floor is Vinod who is still mourning the loss of his beloved wife. The book is a mixture of tragedy and comedy and draws heavily on Hindu mythology. As Vishnu lies dying he remembers his mother and the stories she told about the incarnations and avatars of Vishnu. Vishnu also remembers a love affair with a prostitute Padmina but confuses her with Kavita who comes to visit him. Jalal, in his confusion, becomes convinced that Vishnu has become a god and announces this to everyone only to find this is greeted with hostility. The Death of Vishnu paints a vivid picture of life in Bombay. It is in turns touching and “laugh out loud” funny. A superb debut novel and I look forward to reading more from this writer.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Enigma by Robert Harris

DATE PUBLISHED: 1995 DATE READ: March 2009 NOTES: Enigma is a fictionalised thriller based on the Bletchley Park code breaking site. While I confess to not understanding all the technicalities of cryptography this was nonetheless very much a “ripping yarn”. The evocation of wartime Britain is brilliant as is his depiction of the oddball people employed at Bletchley Park. The latter part of the book becomes a bit far-fetched and Buchanesque when Tom Jericho and a co-worker set off round the country trying to find out answers to what is going on. However it is all good fun and a gripping story. I didn’t think Enigma was a good a thriller as Archangel or Fatherland but a good read nonetheless.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

DATE PUBLISHED: 1962 DATE READ: March 2009 NOTES: I was really looking forward to reading The Golden Notebook but it was Oh So Disappointing! It is a very complex book – but although the individual parts are not difficult to comprehend (and some could actually be stand-alone books) they do not add up to a coherent whole. Within the book there are lots of interesting bits. The despair of the members of the Communist Party in the 1950s and the differing ways of coping was certainly worth exploring. Anna also mentions meeting desperate women living in council estates while she is out canvassing for the elections. But then we hear no more of them. The narrative set in Rhodesia had some interesting aspects on colonialism, racism and the relationship of communists with African nationalists. But this episode did not seem to mesh with the rest of the book. And the inclusion of a novel within the novel about a women like Anna was just plain irritating. I read this book while in India. This made it hard to empathise with the problems of the middle-class women in The Golden Notebook when faced with real poverty. The old woman stretching out her bony hand for a few rupees would probably love to change places with the educated moneyed women in the book! Anna wonders if Tommy’s attempted suicide was as a result of reading her notebooks. I know how he felt!