Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Moon and Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham


DATE READ: September 2010 (audiobook)

NOTES: Inspired by Gauguin, this is the fascinating story of Charles Strickland. Strickland has the ambition to paint (but only in his own inconventional and idiosyncratic way) and develops such a passion for this that he is unable to think of anything else. He leaves his family (with no apparent guilt) and lives a life of poverty in Paris, Marseilles and Tahiti. He shows no feelings for anyone around him but at the same times evokes compassion and admiration in others. Strickland is obsessed by his art but not in any resulting commercial value.

The book has an interesting construction. It is narrated by an honest admirer – sometimes describing what he has observed but often via a third person. It is a very compelling story – despite the fact that Maugham ensures that there is little endearing in Strickland’s character. His actions reveal him to be savage, misogynistic and unfeeling. As the narrator says: “Strickland was an odious man – but I still think he was a great one.” The reader is left with some interesting questions. Does a great talent excuse wicked behaviour? Is a genius governed by a different set of morals than us lesser beings?

A compelling story.

No Mean City by A. McArthur and H. Kingsley Long


DATE READ: October 2010

NOTES: I can understand the stir this book made when it was first published in 1935. For many people in Britain the desperate lives lived in the poorest parts of our cities was something best not considered. But No Mean City showed in a powerful and graphic way the violence and poverty that dominated so many lives.

It tells the story of Johnnie Stark - the eldest son of a violent father. He seeks to make his mark in the community by fighting and soon becomes accepted as the Razor King. His younger brother Peter is also ambitious and hopes for a white collar job but quickly realises that he must escape from the Gorbals. Other characters are Bobby Hurley and his girl friend Lily. They are talented ballroom dancers and find that they can earn a decent living through this and soon have moved outside the Gorbals and have their own house complete with bathroom.

No Mean City shows the depressing aspects of the lives of so many of the inhabitants. They have become an underclass with few real ambitions. Johnnie’s sole aim in life is to be admired as a hard man and a hard drinker. In this he is supported by various women who are all happy to subjugate themselves to him and accept the violence shown to them. This casual violence towards women runs through the whole book.

But escape from the slums is no easy matter. Jobs are easily lost and there is a very narrow margin between managing the weekly budget and sinking into debt.

No Mean City is not a great piece of literature but it is a valuable social document.

NB. I remember my father talking of this book. He felt that it exaggerated the picture of life in the Gorbals. (This is where he lived for much of his life before he married in 1939.) His family were the “respectable” poor – they were always in work albeit in lowly paid jobs and certainly never associated with gangs or criminals!

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The News Where You Are by Catherine O'Flynn


DATE READ: October 2010

NOTES: I have always found something a bit ludicrous about local television news. When the main national newsreader announces “And now the news where you are….” you know that the whole tone of broadcasting changes. Out go the challenging questions to people in power and reports on serious world issues and in come the charity events, the sick children seeking funds for treatment abroad and the pensioner robbed by yobs. And local television news is virtually the same throughout the country – just different hairstyles, different puns and different settees.

I don’t think I have read another novel that is based in a local television news room – it’s surprising that no-one thought of the idea before. But O’Flynn doesn’t belittle her subject but instead treats it with good humour and affection. Her main protagonist is Frank – and unambitious journalist with a terrible line in (purchased) jokes who nonetheless has a substantial local fanbase. His co-presenter Julia is bright but cynical and clearly feels she is meant for better things than local news.

The themes running throughout this novel are loss and change. Frank’s father had been the architect of many of Birmingham’s brutally modern sixties civic buildings. But now things are changing and one by one they are being demolished – and Frank feels sad about their loss but comforted by his chirpy and optimistic young daughter Mo. Frank also takes it upon himself to attend the funerals of people who have been reported as dying alone – often as the only mourner. He is hardly able to articulate why he does this but feels it is his responsibility – but we see it as evidence of his “goodness”.

There is a plot – nothing like as complex as What Was Lost – about the unexplained death of his predecessor. But it is not the plotting that is important in this book. It is the vibrant characters, the great dialogue and a superb evocation of a changing city.

I am a huge fan of Catherine O’Flynn’s debut novel What Was Lost so I approached her new book with some trepidation. But I was not disappointed – it really is an excellent novel.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler


DATE READ: October 2010

NOTES: Another little gem from Anne Tyler. Her books never disappoint – she seems to create such lovely quirky characters and some really interesting and original story lines.

Barnaby is nearing his thirtieth birthday and is (let’s face it) a bit of a “slacker”. He has missed out on higher education and has instead moved from a delinquent adolescence to a job working as a helper for old people – moving furniture, carrying heavy loads, clearing attics and basements etc. He is divorced from Natalie and has a cool and rather forced relationship with his daughter. His mother is controlling and demanding – and very disappointed that Barnaby has not turned out better. Although there is much of his life that he finds unsatisfactory he seems to really love his job and is very good at it. His clients all like him because he is so patient and reliable and he gets on well with his colleagues.

He meets Sophia and begins to fall in love with her. She seems to be the ideal partner – so will it be “happy ever after” or will fate step in?

A lovely read.

(I don’t want to be too picky but if this story was set in UK then Barnaby with his police record would never be allowed to work in the homes of the elderly!)

Monday, 4 October 2010

Room by Emma Donoghue


DATE READ: August 2010

NOTES: Emma Donoghue has said that her book was inspired by the events surrounding the Fritzl and Kampusch cases. I was hesitant about reading Room as I thought it could be salacious and exploitative. But it is neither – instead she has produced an uplifting book about the love between a mother and her child and the human instinct for survival.

The whole story is told through the eyes of five year-old Jack. He has been born in the room and knows no other world. He has seen television but has not understanding about life outside. His mother (Ma) has told him stories constantly and taught him how to count and how to read. Their warm relationship is ripped apart whenever “Old Nick” chooses to come into the room. Jack knows that he is a hateful person but at the same time is aware that they depend on him for everything.

By choosing to relate the whole story through Jack the author was setting herself a difficult task but she rises to it magnificently. It could have become very twee or artificial but this is avoided. My only query is Jack’s use of language. He tends not to use the definite article and refers to objects as “room”, “chair” or “bed”. He has a good role model in his mother and also has a television so I thought this struck a wrong note.

Once they are outside Jack becomes embroiled in a whole series of misunderstandings and misperceptions – hardly surprising. I don’t want to quibble (as I thought this a really good book) but felt that Ma and Jack were not as protected from the wider society as they would have been in real life.

As I read Room I wondered how she would write the ending. I was not disappointed – I thought the ending was spot on!

The Great Stink by Clare Clark


DATE READ:  September 2010

NOTES: William May is suffering from post-traumatic stress following the Crimean War. He is working for Bazalgette on the upgrading of London’s sewer system. His mental state deteriorates after he becomes convinced he has witnessed a murder in one of the tunnels. His psychological problems are described in a most distressing way.

Tom is a “tosher” who illegally hunts for things in the sewers – including rats to be used in the dog fights that are put on in some of the public houses. Tom helps to cover up a crime which has been committed and his world and William’s begin to overlap.

Clare Clark has created an amazing a realistic picture of the harsh life lived by many in Victorian London. Her descriptions are vivid enough to make the strongest stomach turn. Definitely not a book to be read while eating you lunch!

The story moves at a swift pace and she introduces some excellent well-rounded characters. My only criticism would be that she creates an atmosphere of almost unremitting gloom – a few less serious touches would have been welcome.

The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indridason


DATE READ: September 2010

NOTES: Icelandic Police Detective Erlendur Sveinsson is sent to investigate a skeleton that has been found in Lake Kleifarvatn. The bones appear to have been there for many years. The skull shows a serious injury and the body has been weighted down with an obsolete Russian listening device.

Assuming that this suspicious death occurred during the Cold War Erlendur seeks out missing persons from the 1950s and 1960s. The action switches back to Leipzig in the fifties when a group of socialist Icelandic students attended university there. Erlendur becomes convinced that a Ford Falcon car abandoned at the time is a key to who the victim is and why he was murdered.

The Draining Lake was a somewhat disappointing read. Erlendur as lead detective was far from original (troubled relationships, difficult children, addictions) and the other characters were little more than ciphers. There was no tension or pace. The fact that the murder took place so long ago in a quite different world did not help. The parts of the story set in East Germany were very hackneyed and unsubtle. The dialogue was clunky and unbelievable.

Very dull.