Thursday, 25 March 2010

Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth


DATE READ: March 2010

NOTES: Barry Unsworth never lets me down – Land of Marvels is a lovely read and a cracking good story. Somerville, an English archaeologist, is directing an excavation in Mesopotamia. It is 1914 and hostilities are already looming and encroaching on his work. He has invested him own money in the project and is desperately hoping that something of real value and interest will be found – thus ensuring his acceptance by the academic community. His wife is with him but she has little interest in his work – even though it was his enthusiasm and ambition that first attracted her.

The Germans are financing a railway line which Somerville suspects will be routed right through where he is excavating so he feels he must proceed with all due haste. He is persuaded by a somewhat shady British businessman and the ambassador in Constantinople to take on an American called Elliott. He is asks to pretend that Elliott is a fellow historian when in fact he is a geologist looking for oil deposits. But Elliott’s loyalties do not lie with the British.

Land of Marvels is superbly researched. Knowing very little about Assyrian or Babylonian history I found myself checking to see whether the facts given were correct. (Yes, they were!) The characterisations were all very believable – from the wily Jehar to the practical Patricia. Somerville can be viewed as someone of the “old world” interested in academic pursuit and learning. Elliott is very “new world” – dynamic, ambitious and skilled.

There are some interesting imperialist attitudes. When some interesting things are found in the dig Somerville assumes confidently that they should all be transported to England. The German engineers are granted ownership of the land surrounding the railway. Elliott knows that any oil he finds will profit an American company.

Churchill prophesied: “He who owns the oil will own the world…” How true.

Monday, 22 March 2010

The Children's Book by A S Byatt


DATE READ: February 2010

NOTES: The Children’s Book is a very ambitious work. The story begins in 1895 and the narrative carries us forward to 1919.

It is a vast book in every way – lots of characters are introduced, events twist and turn and many dark secrets are revealed. Olive Wellwood is a writer of children’s stories and she lives in a rambling house with her husband Humphrey (banker turned writer/lecturer) and numerous children. They are a Fabians with many liberal ideas in how society and families should function. But although Olive obviously loves her family her writing comes first and there is a general air of benign neglect. At the V & A Museum she meets Phillip, a young boy who has run away from the Potteries. He “wants to make something” and proves to be artistic and talented. Olive links him up with the Flood family who live some miles away. Benedict Fludd is an eccentric (but brilliant) potter with an alcoholic wife and rather odd children. Other important characters are Humphrey’s brother Basil and his half-German wife Katrina and their children and Major Prosper Cain who runs a department in the V & A.

Although in many ways this is a complex work it is probably one of Byatt’s most accessible novels. There is a weaving of history and fairy stories and she offers us a magical exploration of childhood. But this is far from being picture of idyllic family life – the book is suffused with adultery, child abuse, incest and neglect.

The research has been meticulous and many real people are either referred to or included in the narrative: the Pankhursts, Emily Davis, Marx, Kenneth Grahame, Dreyfus…. The Great War is graphically portrayed – but so depressing when characters you have come to feel affection for are killed.

The Children’s Book is a compelling multi-layered read crammed with incidents and ideas. Would have been a worthy Booker Prize winner!

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer


DATE READ: March 2010

NOTES: Steven is a troubled young boy – he feels unloved, he is bullied by “hoodies” in his community and he is very conscious that his family is still grieving over his uncle (Billy) who disappeared some nineteen years previously. Billy’s body has never been found but it is generally believed that he was murdered by a serial killer now in prison. Steven feels that if only Billy’s body could be found then his grandmother and his mother could turn their attention away from their grief and towards him.

From this beginning Belinda Bauer has produced a cleverly plotted, intense thriller. The story moves at a brisk pace and she keeps the suspense going right to the end. She invokes the sense of place of Exmoor – we can well believe its dark secrets. Steven is a good central character and the reader is drawn to support him in his plan. Arnold Avery, the serial killer, is suitably devious and evil – a psychopath who can only view the world from his own distorted viewpoint.

I like crime thrillers and “police procedurials” but am never really happy with plots involving paedophilia and child murder….and Blacklands was in parts a very uncomfortable and creepy read.

The actual ending (and I don’t want to give anything away) was just a bit too unbelievable – and based on all the information given earlier in the book – physically impossible.

A very good first novel – a name to remember.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry


DATE READ: February 2010

NOTES: Gustad Noble lives a frugal life as a bank worker in Bombay. It is the 1970s and India is ruled by Indira Ghandi and the Congress Party. He has a wife Dilnavaz, sons Sohrab and Darius and daughter Roshan. They are a loving Parsee family but from the outset his precarious life seems to be on the verge of collapse. His young daughter is ill and his son Sohrab is refusing to go to college. They live in a crowded apartment block with fractious neighbours and every day they face powers cuts, food rationing, a shortage of medicines and low level corruption.

Then an old friend begs a favour from him. He claims to be involved in secret government work and claims to want to help the oppressed Bengalis. Gustad (who is naïve and trusting) picks up a parcel with a large amount of money to be deposited in a bank account. This is an illegal act but once Gustad is involved he sees no way out.

The bitter-sweet struggle of life in Bombay is well portrayed and despite all the setbacks and disappointments it is ultimately an uplifting story of good people in a harsh world. Such a Long Journey does not have the great sweep of time and place of A Fine Balance but in its own way is just as good.

A great read from a great writer.

The True History of the Kelly Gang


DATE READ: February 2010

NOTES: Because Peter Carey is such a good writer we approach his work with high expectations. The True History of the Kelly Gang does not disappoint. Carey allows Ned Kelly to tell his own story. The book reads as if it is a direct transcript of handwritten documents with each chapter beginning with a description of the pages.

It is a somewhat depressing tale of the inexorable descent into lawlessness for someone who had all the cards stacked against him. The writing is very atmospheric and shows the harshness of 19th century Australia where the forces of law and order are themselves beyond the law.

I enjoyed this book immensely – but did feel that some of the episodes in the middle of the book were a bit repetitive. However the fine writing and sympathetic portrayal of a folk hero overcame this.

Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child


DATE READ: February 2010

NOTES: Jack Reacher spots a potential suicide bomber in a late night train in New York’s metro. She shows all the right “symptoms” but when he approaches her something completely unexpected happens….. After that a whole train of events unfolds.

Who are the mysterious Ukranians (?), a mother and daughter (or are they?) who have their own security crew. How does senatorial candidate John sansom fit in? He seems to have been involved in secret ops while in the army in 1980s. Why are the Feds bent on silencing Reacher?

Gone Tomorrow gives us lots of action, umpteen fights and Reacher avoids capture over and over. And in the end he wreaks vengeance on all the bad guys. Lots of blood, gore and pain! I liked the way Jack Reacher has no home and no possessions and lives “on the move”. I also liked the fact that he was not au fait with modern technology.

Let’s face it – it does what it says on the label. Gone Tomorrow has no intellectual pretensions but is a good fast (but forgettable) beach read.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson


DATE READ: February 2010

NOTES: Human Croquet offers the reader Atkinson’s usual quirkiness. She is so fond of people “disappearing” – sometimes to pop up again but perhaps they are gone for ever. The happy family remains elusive…. The Fairfax parents disappear and Isabel and Charles are left with acidic Vinny. Next door Audrey is the troubled child of Headmaster Baxter and his abused wife who is always “bumping into doors” or “falling down stairs”.

But the missing father reappears after a long absence with Debbie his new wife. A baby is left on their doorstep….

There are lots of timeshifts so we don’t really know what is really happening. Of course, there is in the end a (more or less) rational explanation for everything. Her omniscient narrator allows us to know the truth in certain circumstances although the characters do not necessarily know.

Kate Atkinson writes with such energy making it hard to resist this funny but dark story.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Snow Hill by Mark Sanderson


DATE READ: March 2010

NOTES: This book had a great opening: “I went to my funeral this morning. I expected more people to be there….”. John Steadman is a London newspaper crime reporter and is drawn into a mystery involving a missing (or dead) policeman, police corruption, male prostitution, pornography and blackmail. London of the 1930s is well portrayed and impressively researched. But after a very promising start Snow Hill soon deteriorated.

Unfortunately much of the dialogue was very clunky and the plot is really creaky in places. The professed love of one policeman for another was, quite frankly, ludicrous. And towards the end the criminals freely admit their guilt and their motives – something that simply does not happen in real life.

The advance publicity for this book compares him to Jake Arnott – a very unjust comparison!

Theo and Matilda by Rachel Billington


DATE READ: January 2010

NOTES: The book is made up of four different Theos and Mathildas across the years. The first part is in the late 8th century – a monk and abbess build a church for a monastery6 in the West Country. But their love is never consummated. Then the Vikings arrive….

Then in the 16th century Matilda is a widow of a brutish nobleman and Theo is a monk. The abbey is taken over by Henry VIII and many of its artefacts and books are destroyed. After the dissolution of the monastery Theo and Matilda marry and live together in the adjoining manor house.

In the same manor house in the late 19th century Theo is a Darwinian keeper of snakes and Matilda a mother of seven. (A not very credible section) As the family fortunes decline the house is handed over to a local doctor to use an as asylum – Abbeyfields. Then later another two patients fall in love in the mental hospital…. No prizes for guessing their names.

The book ends with a young couple moving into a new housing estate built in the hospital grounds. They find some Anglo-Saxon documents thus linking them with the past.

A pleasant enough read but nothing special.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge


DATE READ: February 2010

NOTES: George Hardy, surgeon and photographer, travels from 19th century Liverpool to the Bosphorus at the start of the Crimean War. Chapters are narrated by different characters. These are Myrtle (his adoptive sister taken in as an orphan), Pompey Jones (a former street urchin turned photographer’s assistant and sometime fire-eater) and Doctor Potter (his geologist friend).

Beryl Bainbridge writes superbly and both time and place are brilliantly captured. We are not spared the horrors of war but her approach is subtle. The disastrous charge of the Light Brigade is conveyed by the description of the many riderless horses appearing in their camp.

She cleverly uses the new technology of photography to help with the structure of the book and each chapter title describes a photographic scene – like a series of wonderful tableaux.

I was however less convinced by some of the characterisations. Georgie never really came alive for me and I remained unconvinced as to why Myrtle and Pompey should have been so devoted to him.