Monday, 17 May 2010

The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston


DATE READ: May 2010

NOTES: I read some interesting reviews of Jennifer Johnston’s books and thought I would give her a try. She really is very good! The Illusionist is the tale of the relationship between Stella and Martyn. Even though she knows so little about him, she quickly falls in love with him and agrees to marry him. But as time goes on he reveals no more about himself.

But as the story of the marriage unfolds the book takes an unexpected turn. What it reveals is a bullying and abusive relationship – one in which Martyn’s powerful personality seems to overwhelm Stella. Their daughter Robin is included in the psychological drama – she is very much her father’s daughter and Martyn ensures that he has first place in their child’s affection. The subsequent betrayal of Stella by Robin is very disturbing.

We know that Stella escapes as the book begins with her living alone and looking back on her life. Alternate chapters are in the present and the past – a device that works well. A very touching story written without a surplus word. And it even has a satisfying ending!

Friday, 14 May 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan


DATE READ: May 2010 (audiobook)

NOTES: For this novel about climate change McEwan has opted for a darkly comic format. Nobel prize-winner Michael Beard works in the field of artificial photosynthesis. The aim is to provide the world with a cheap and clean source of fuel – but perhaps the main aim is to make the egotistical Beard rich and famous. Beard is McEwan’s most dislikeable protagonist so far – greedy, sexually predatory, amoral and self-centred.

There are numerous comical set pieces – such as the Arctic trip when Beard tries to answer a call of nature out of doors and the chaotic boot store in the ship in which Beard fails again and again to find his correct clothing. Then there are some very misjudged comments about the abilities of women in science that land our hero in a massive media storm. At one point on a train a young man sitting opposite him begins to take crisps out of Beard’s packet. Beard becomes quietly infuriated and begins to gobble them up himself before the interloper takes them all. But this is an old story, I thought to myself, although I remember it being a Kit Kat bar. But, of course, Ian McEwan is ahead of us and later introduces a University professor who deconstructs this urban myth.

McEwan is obviously serious about how we are causing damage to the environment. However a serious novel about climate change would probably be so depressing and worthy it would alienate many people. Solar makes us laugh – but also makes us think.

Highly recommended.

The Way Home by George Pelecanos


DATE READ: May 2010

NOTES: Chris Flynn is a troubled teenager from a good home. As the book opens he is incarcerated in a facility for young offenders in Maryland. His parents’ disappointment in him is all too apparent and it is uncertain whether Chris will continue with his criminal behaviour or whether he will mature into a reasonable law-abiding adult.

The narrative moves on and Chris is now released and working in his father’s carpet-laying business. His partner is Ben – an old friend from the youth facility – who is also trying to get his life together. While laying a carpet in a house that is being refurbished they find a bag of cash. What to do? Chris persuades Ben to leave the cash where it is and say nothing about it. From this one incident a whole train of events occur…..

The Way Home is a cracking read. Although superficially this is a crime novel it has a very human heart. The characters struggle to do the right thing and it is acknowledged that while Chris has the advantage of caring parents many young men are not so lucky.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford


DATE READ: March 2010

NOTES: I read this book as it is always mentioned in lists of “must reads” and is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

The Good Soldier turned out to be very much a case of style over substance. John Dowell, the narrator (usually referred to as unreliable) sets out to tell the story of his marriage. But as his knowledge of events changes he has to continually revise what he is revealing to us. Dowell’s wife Florence has been involved in a long affair with Edward Ashburnham (the good soldier of the title) and so his attitude to them both changes as the book proceeds. My problem was that all the characters were very unsympathetic and I simply didn’t care what happened to them and whether they were happy or sad (or even alive or dead).

I was puzzled by the opening sentence: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” This implies that the story was related to him when in fact he was personally involved in it from beginning to end. Very confusing.

So now I can tick this off as having been read – but wish I had spent the time elsewhere!