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!

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: March 2009 NOTES: A charming novella about the joy of reading and the way in which books can liberate the spirit. One day while walking her dogs the Queen comes upon a mobile library in the palace grounds and out of politeness borrows a book. Soon she is hooked on books and she develops and new attitude to everything around her. The books and Bennett’s/the Queen’s comments on them are constantly entertaining. “Am I alone in wanting to give Henry James a good talking-to?” says the Queen. She is disappointed that her passion for reading is not shared by others in her sphere (except the wonderful Norman). Her interest in books is even seen as dangerous by some of the civil servants. It is Alan Bennett at his best – funny, perceptive and gentle. And there is even a nice twist at the end.

Monday, 16 March 2009

The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru

DATE PUBLISHED: 2002 DATE READ: February 2009 NOTES: This is the rollicking tale of Pran Nath, the spoilt and cruel son of Pandit amar Nas Razdan who is besotted by him – and is especially proud of his son’s pale skin. But Pran is in fact the son of a British officer and this is revealed by an angry servant. Pran is thrown out and is soon destitute but is taken on by a brothel where he is drugged and unaware of what is going on. He is then given into the care of some hirjas who disguise him as a woman and take him to Fatepur to try and put a British officer in a compromising position. This plot fails and following a farcical tiger shoot Pran/Rukhsana walks away and comes to Bombay. Here he lives with a weird missionary couple. But his good looks and sharpness of mind attract him to many and he finds he can often convince colonials that he is English. He eventually arrives in England and assumes life as an aspiring Oxford scholar. In all the roles he plays he lacks any sense of commitment (eg to Indian nationalism, politics, support of friends). His aspiration to assume an identity seems to prevent him from developing as a full human being. His attempts at Englishness appear to succeed – too well in fact when his beloved Star accuses him of being “so English” when he is appalled by her relationship with a Negro in Paris. Pran ends up on an ill-fated anthropological expedition in Africa where he throws off his white identity and just travels (a bit reminiscent of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust). The Impressionist has lots of observations on race, empire and identity. It is very satirical on Anglo-Indians and other castes and classes – no-one escapes! I loved the reference to Major Privett-Clampe’s gin sundowners and how this drink had gradually inched forward in time to nine o’clock in the morning! An excellent read – though I was not really happy about the ending which I thought was a bit vague.

1974 by David Peace

DATE PUBLISHED: 1999 DATE READ: February 2009 NOTES: 1974 is written in a staccato, gritty style – short sentences, phrases and single words (usually profanities). Peace is obviously aiming at “noir” style – but it soon became very wearing for me. The story was confused and garbled after a promising beginning. I am clearly not the target audience – far too many expletives and bodily functions and fluids and gratuitous violence for me….. And am I alone in finding the violent sex scenes somewhat disturbing?

My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey

DATE PUBLISHED: 2003 DATE READ: February 2009 NOTES: Peter Carey uses a somewhat tortuous form of narration. The narrator is a young woman, Sarah, who is telling what Christopher Chubb told her. At times she is telling in great detail what a third person told him. It was all a bit confusing in parts. Carey makes some interesting observations on fakery – many of us are fakes from time to time. Chubb ‘invents’ Bob McCorkle and Weiss (who pretends to be a more knowing publisher than he really is) is taken in. Noussette, a painter, pretends to be a photographer in order to take on another career. John Slater fakes a passport for the ‘madman’ claiming to be McCorkle. Slater (with Sarah’s connivance) fakes a letter to Chubb purporting to be from the Hotel Manager. The whole plot was a bit garbled and I didn’t find this book very enjoyable. The narrator never came to life for me and none of the characters held any attraction. Life in Malaya was well described but the book was disappointing overall.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

DATE PUBLISHED: 2003 DATE READ: February 2009 (audiobook) NOTES: I had resisted reading this book as I dislike the initial premise of a dead rape victim telling her story from heaven. But I decided to listen to it while on holiday. Oh dear, it was all just as bad as I feared. I found the whole thing very twee and unsatisfactory. The idea of examining how a family copes after a tragedy is fine but having them spied on by the girl in heaven was just too ludicrous. I think I missed some bits on the final disc when I fell asleep in the sun but I couldn’t be bothered to go back and listen again. What a load of tosh!

Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke

DATE PUBLISHED: 1990 DATE READ: February 2009 NOTES: Dave Robicheaux, ex cop, recovering alcoholic with lots of demons lurking in his psyche meets up with an old college friend. Dixie Lee Pugh has problems of his own and soon Dave is embroiled in a trail of murders, corruption, and general mayhem. Black Cherry Blues is an excellent example of American crime fiction. The narrative is fast paced but believable while at times the writing is quite lyrical. He conjures up life in the Cajun and Montana countryside so well you feel you are there. Of course, some of the bad guys are oh so bad, while others are bad but have a better side to their character. And Dave Robicheaux is a great character – tender to his adopted daughter, loyal to his friends but ruthless in his treatment of those who threaten the ones he loves. My first James Lee Burke book – but it certainly won’t be my last.