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?