Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Orchid Blue by Eoin McNamee


DATE READ: March 2011

NOTES: This is a novel based on real life incidents. In 1961 and young girl was savagely murdered in Newry following a dance at the Orange Hall. A local man, Robert McGladdery, is accused but the Detective in charge is concerned that because feelings are running so high he might not get a fair trial. Things are further complicated by the appointment of Lord Justice Curran as the trial judge. Nine years previously his own daughter had been murdered and the accused in that case was deemed of unsound mind and sent to a mental institution. The death sentence still exists and there seems to be a general feeling that the ultimate penalty should be paid for such a dreadful crime.

Eoin McNamee is a very good writer. He creates the atmosphere of the sixties brilliantly and all the characterisations are excellent. McGladdery is shown to be an enigmatic character who is not helped by the sloppy police tactics of the time. There are also the many ambiguities regarding the murder of the Judge’s daughter. Parts of the story do not add up but it is as if he was too important a person to be vigorously questioned.

If this was a complete fiction it would be a brilliant book. But as it is based on real people and real incidents I felt very uncomfortable reading it. 1961 is not so long ago – some of the people involved could still be alive. He also writes in a detailed way as to what people said and what they were thinking. I found myself thinking “How does he know this”.

I didn’t know about this case before reading Orchid Blue so would not have known how McGladdery’s trial ended. However on the inside cover is a spoiler….. black marks to the publisher!

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

One of Dickens’ best loved books – and no wonder. Bleak House is a complex many-threaded tale filled with an astonishing array of characters including gentle Esther, menacing Tulkinghorn, kindly John Jarndyce, ambitious William Guppy and illerate but wily Krook. At the centre of the narrative is the legal case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce. This has been going on for years and concerns some disputed wills (never fully explained) but many of the characters are hoping to gain from the outcome of the court action – or gain along the way from ongoing fees.

Dickens keeps his readers guessing – Who is Nemo? What is his link to Lady Dedlock? Just how hopeless will Richard turn out to be? Some of the characters are essentially “good” such as Esther, Ada and John Jarndyce. Others are much more nuanced although some are real caricatures – such as Mrs Jellyby. And what a wonderful creation is Stimpole – he was so irritating that it is hard to believe he would have survived without someone taking a blunt instrument to him!

I hate to say this but I thought the narrative dragged a bit in the last third…..

David Copperfield remains my favourite Dickens’ novel but Bleak House is not far behind….

The Einstein Girl by Philip Sington


DATE READ: February 2011

NOTES: In pre-war Germany a young girl is found barely alive near Potsdam. She seems to have no memory and the only clue as to her identity is a handbill advertising a lecture by Einstein. Einstein has a summer house in the locality so there is a possibility that she was on her way there. The police are baffled and the press interested and soon she is named in the newspapers as the Einstein Girl.

Martin Kirsch is a sympathetic psychiatrist (who has coincidentally seen her before her accident) and is fascinated by her case and she enters his hospital for treatment. Strong links with Einstein emerge – but as we are in a world of insanity it is hard to know the truth from dreams. Even Martin has problems with reality as his latent syphilis moves into a dangerous stage.

The Einstein Girl is very good on describing the prevailing atmosphere of inter-war Europe. The emergence of the Nazis as a political force is well told – as are the subtle shifts in the requirements of the medical staff to collaborate with the authorities.

This was an intriguing read – quite challenging in parts. It was advertised as a thriller but it was not really part of that genre. It was not a “whodunit” – more of a “what’s going on?”

Classy and intelligent.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Trespass by Rose Tremain


DATE READ: March 2011

NOTES: Set in the Cevennes regions of south-east France Trespass has two separate narratives both based on siblings. Anthony Verey’s antiques business in failing and he seeks solace with his sister Veronica who has moved to France with her partner Kitty. His plan is to buy a house and settle there. Aramon Lunel lives in a large decrepit farmhouse that he has inherited from his father. His sister Audron was only left a small portion of the land on which she has built a small modern (and ugly) bungalow. Aramon, an alcoholic, decides to sell his house as he is led to believe that he will get an enormous price for it but soon realises that his sister’s bungalow is a blot on the landscape. He has no qualms about turning her out of her home.

This is a fascinating story of sibling rivalry, jealousy, greed and inheritance. The “trespass” of the title occurs throughout the narrative. Anthony is trespassing on his sister’s relationship. Kitty hates his presence and is desperate for him to go. In her turn Veronica resents Kitty trying to come between her and her beloved brother. And the memory of their long dead mother continues to trespass into the thoughts of both of them.

Much more sinister “trespasses” have occurred in the past of the Lunel family. But now Aramon views his sister as a block on his future fortunes, while she in turn vows to remain on the family land. Another more subtle trespass is the influx of foreigners buying up French property.

As we have come to expect from Rose Tremain this is a beautifully written and cleverly constructed novel. It begins with a child’s scream but we are not told why until over halfway through the book. The atmosphere of France is brilliantly conveyed and all the characters believable (if not likeable!).

I was not entirely happy about the redemptive ending which I thought was lacking in credibility but this was nonetheless a great read.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Pub Walks in Underhill Country by Nat Segnit


DATE READ: March 2011

NOTES: This book consists of the notes made by the now-departed Graham Underhill. He set out to produce another in his series of walking guides but was unable to resist telling us about his own life and problems. It’s a great device for a comic novel and on the whole works really well.

Graham is a keen walker but is unable to prevent pedantry and pomposity creeping through. While describing the (genuine) walks well he tells us lots of things we really don’t want to know. In relating his refreshments he describes the “two compartment picnic cooler” which holds the “Snap’n,’lock food containers”. He is always keen to let us know about flora and fauna, geology, history, philosophy and poetry. Poor Graham. He is so well-meaning but, let’s face it, he is the person you make sure you are not walking beside if you are on a group ramble!

It is soon made clear that his marriage to the beautiful Sunita has very rocky foundations. We know this but Graham fails to see what is going on under his nose. Many of the incidents recorded are ambivalent and it becomes hard to judge what facts can be relied on.

I was drawn to this book as I like walking. So what about the walks described? I have done some of these in the past but will put some of the others to the test in the coming year. Hopefully I will not succumb to some of Graham’s potential threats: angry farmers, slippery paths, dangerous cliffs – or even aggressive schoolgirls!

Great fun.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Railway Children by E Nesbitt


DATE READ: February 2011

This is the well known classic children’s book that I knew from the film but had never actually read it. Set in 1905 it is the story of a prosperous London family stricken by the tragedy of the father being taken away by the police. The three children are unaware that he has been arrested and sent to prison for espionage. They leave their large London home and travel to a small cottage in the countryside.

Despite missing their father (and at the beginning worrying about him a great deal) they are interested and excited to be living in the country – and are particularly thrilled to be so near to the railway line and the local station.

It is a charming story – no wonder it has been read by generations of British children. The children are great characters and the author also shows real affection for the people living nearby. The appearance of a Russian dissident in the story was probably quite brave for the time – and also a reflection of Nesbitt’s own somewhat Bohemian life.

From an adult point of view the plot doesn’t really hold up – but in the end this really doesn’t matter. And I did wonder why these middle-class children were not at school. Only towards the end does their mother start to give them lessons.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

A Room With A View by E M Forster

A Room with a View is one of Forster’s lighter books – but it is still infused with humour and wit and offers a satirical dissection of the middle class both at home and abroad.

Lucy Honeychurch visits Italy with her uptight Aunt Charlotte as her chaperone. Charlotte is constantly alert to the rules that should be followed – not mixing with “unsuitable” people, being wary of foreigners, not allowing Lucy to go anywhere unaccompanied, etc. But despite her best efforts things go awry.

It is the old story. Girl meets boy but rejects his advances. She meets much more suitable and conventional boy and agrees to marry him. Continues to reject first suitor….but does she protest too much?

Mrs Honeychurch is the archetypal middle class snob. “If books must be written, let them be written by men,” she says. All the characters are well drawn but young George Emerson is beautifully described. Was the author in love with him?

I was intrigued by the quotation painted on Emerson’s wardrobe in the Florence hotel: “Mistrust all enterprises that require new clothes.” How wise….

Swan Peak by James Lee Burke


DATE READ: January 2011

NOTES: Dave Robicheaux and his friend (and ex-colleague) are on vacation in Montana when some murders occur and Dave is assigned temporarily to the local Sheriff’s staff. In the meantime Clete is obsessed with Jamie Sue Wellstone – an ex-Country and Western singer now married to a scarred war veteran. The wealthy Wellstone family have a ranch and some shady connections and are hoping to search for oil on their land.

The plot is fairly convoluted but what makes this book so great is the richness of the characters and the way in which they interact. Sometimes Clete must feel like a weight around Dave’s neck but he is continually loyal to his troubled friend. The bad guys are really bad but in the end no match for Dave and Clete.

Swan Peak has some lovely writing – and is sprinkled ideas: “…we love the earth but we don’t get to stay” or “Never go to bed with a woman who has more problems than you”.

There were a few bits of plotting that bothered me. Firstly, J.D. escaped from gaol and took refuge with Albert Hollister. He was miles from home – so where did he get his guitar from? Also I thought that Troyce Nix talked a bit too readily to Candace about his problems and his past transgressions. Seemed a bit unlikely.

But once again, Dave Robicheaux is the person to have on your side. And he makes great picnics!