Saturday, 30 December 2017

Full of flawed characters and the stupid things they do

On Beauty It can't have been a coincidence that Zadie Smith named one of the main characters of On Beauty, Howard. The book is inspired by the author's love of E.M. Forster, is a hommage to him, and a modern re-writing of his Howard's End. Unfamiliarity with Forster's early 20th century work need not deter someone from reading Zadie Smith's story, which follows the Belsey family and how they cope after their academic father Howard gets his "end" away.

I didn't immediately take to the story. After an opening sentence that clearly declares the link with Forster, we're given a chaotic morning in what feels like an American family sticom. I also found it hard to believe that someone like Howard Belsey would turn up in London unable to make his own way to the home of his nemesis, Monty Kipps. Once these two scenes had passed, the book started to shine, and in the third section there were two outstanding, very moving scenes, first when Howard unexpectedly visits his father, and second a heartfelt monologue by Kiki Belsey after she and husband Howard have shared an intimate moment.

On reflection, there were so many things I enjoyed about On Beauty: the occasional old-fashioned style of narration, questions about intelligence, hypocrisy, education and class, and the vivid descriptions when the setting moved to London. It's full of flawed characters and the stupid things they do. Just like real life.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Neither American nor Russian

The Russian Debutante's Handbook The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart is about Vladimir Girshkin, born in Russia, whose parents emigrated to America when he was seven: They had left their rarefied Petersburg friends, their few relatives, everyone they had ever known, traded it all in for a lifetime of solitary confinement in a Scarsdale mini-mansion. Now aged twenty-five, Vladimir lives in New York, has a boring job, has failed to live up to his mother's expectations, and is going nowhere. He had reached the final destination of every immigrant's journey: a better home in which to be unhappy.

It's a great opening chapter, but I spent the next 25% of the book working hard to remain interested. I just didn't care about any of the characters, and the structure, whereby each chapter was further broken down into sections, seemed to chop up the narrative. In spite of this there were passages that contained wonderful descriptions: the Fan Man in his luxury apartment, and drunk Vladimir's first encounter with his girlfriend Francesca. It's not laugh-out-loud humour, but very entertaining.

Everything changes when Vladimir returns to Eastern Europe. The setting is Prava, Shteyngart's invented name for Prague, and the time is the early 90s, just after the fall of Russian communism. Vladimir attempts to throw off his lack of ambition, taking advantage of the unpolished mass of Westerners on the cultural make, whilst introducing American style and capitalism to the Russian mafia. He's able to insinuate himself into both camps, but at heart he's nether American nor Russian.

Enjoyable as it was, by the time I reached the end, I still didn't really care about the characters. Vladimir in particular, who seems to relish being a victim and believes this is his cultural fate.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

A glass of Chardonnay can make everything better

Worst Journeys: The Picador Book Of Travel Worst Journeys contains 55 stories by some of literature’s best travel writers, primarily in prose form. They relate all sorts of hellish situations, from the banality of dislikable traveling companions, to exceptional, near death experiences. It was a pleasure to discover writers who have had similar experiences to me, and a relief that I have not had the misfortune of some of the more adventurous.

Jan Morris is the optimistic traveler that I should like to be. No matter how grim the experience, she finds no excuse for self-pity, and there is no mishap, however grave, that cannot be accommodated with a glass of Chardonnay.

I've so far been lucky enough not to be robbed while traveling, unlike Stephen Brook. He describes how his ignorance led him to check in to a whorehouse masquerading as a motel, and the consequent theft of all his belongings. It was easy to sympathize with his British sense of outrage in the face of American criminal activity and laid-back policing.

A collection of essays on the effects of war provided the most appalling travel experiences. P.J. O’Rourke visited Northern Ireland in 1988 and witnessed an “acceptable level of violence.” Gavin Young revisited HuĂ© in Vietnam in 1968 and discovered how friends coped with US bombing, day and night over 14 days. Bruce Chatwin got caught up in a coup in Benin, was arrested, accused of being a mercenary and faced execution.

But it’s not all harrowing. Al Purdy’s poem recounting an episode in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago when he had to do in rocky terrain what bears do in the woods, left me yelping with laughter.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

How terribly interesting little things are

Queen Lucia EF Benson's book follows the life of the quiet village of Riseholme, where "nothing ever happens." Mrs Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) is self-appointed queen, ruling the villagers in matters of culture and entertainment.

Lucia is a snob. She professes to speak Italian, although in truth only a few words, her superior knowledge of music is accepted on the basis of her ability to play only the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, and she imposes her taste by disdaining the gramophone and new composers such as Debussy. With her right-hand-man Georgie she ensures that she is the leading light in the cultural and social life of the village. But revolution brews in Riseholme with the arrival of opera singer Olga Bracely.

EF Benson relates the story from no specific character's point of view, which allows the reader to know everyone's thoughts. For me this produced a delicious anticipation as to how each one would handle embarrassing and humiliating situations. The cast are so well written that I couldn't help but care about them in the face of their trifling problems. I felt sad for Georgie and I despaired over Daisy Quantock's unquestioning acceptance of self-improvement fads. There was also a point at which I wanted Lucia to be deposed, such was her nasty interpretation of other characters' actions.

To be sure, nothing much happens in the story, but on reaching the end I realised, "how terribly interesting little things were."

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Don't work too hard

Super-Cannes JG Ballard's Super-Cannes is a crime story set near Cannes in the South of France. Most of the action takes place in and around the Eden-Olympia business park, a closed community where Jane, a paediatrician, has taken a short-term contract. Her husband Paul, who is convalescing after a flying accident, tells the story.

Prior to the couple's arrival the previous paediatrician had run amok and killed 10 people, and as Jane becomes more engrossed in her work, Paul becomes obsessed with finding out what had provoked the bloody massacre.

I liked much of Ballard's style of writing, especially his descriptions, however the dialogue occasionally felt forced. There were a couple of points at which characters seemed to make implausible decisions, briefly rendering the plot far-fetched. In addition, the more I read, the more I felt the book to be male-centric. It seemed that the female characters were there primarily to titillate the reader.

In spite of these niggles, I really enjoyed the story, its premise, and how Paul slowly uncovers the recreational activities of Eden-Olympia's high-flying executives whilst pursuing his amateur investigation.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Magic, dragons and witches

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle #1) A Wizard of Earthsea tells the story of Ged, a boy with a gift for magic. He lives in the fantasy world that Ursula Le Guin has created, with dragons and witches, and where residents rely on local mages to cast spells for mundane situations such as changing the weather or protecting boats.

The tale unfolds in the narrative style of an ancient saga, as Ged learns his craft and becomes a powerful wizard. His youthful arrogance unleashes an evil shadow which must be hunted down and destroyed. It's a quest that takes Ged on a journey of self discovery.

Ursula le Guin tells a great story, but I was perhaps a little too old to really be captivated by it. I wish I'd read it as a teenager, when I was entranced by The Hobbit, and The Once and Future King.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

The future problems of debt

The Transition The Transition is set in Britain of the near future, when buying property has become too expensive for the majority, and rents are so high that even well paid professionals cannot afford them. Nonetheless married couple Karl and Genevieve are happy until Karl's debt spirals out of control and he is convicted of fraud. Rather than prison, he signs the couple up for a six-month project called The Transition.

Karl and Genevieve live with and are mentored by Stu and Jenna, a successful, older couple. There's something comical about their fervent desire to help, but also something vaguely creepy and cultish about the process that purports to turn "failures" into "successes." The story is told from the point of view of Karl, a likeable character who loves his wife and his job, but seems to have little in the way of ambition.

Luke Kennard manages to generate and maintain tension throughout the story. I was rooting for Karl and Genevieve and by the end felt rather sorry for Stu and Jenna. The baddie of the book, I felt, was The Transition's shadowy corporate entity. I wanted a different ending so only awarded it three stars. But it's Kennard's work and not mine and it really deserves four stars.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Midsomer Murders with witches

Witches of Lychford (Lychford, #1) Paul Cornell's Witches of Lychford is a novella set in a village in rural England. Residents are divided over a proposal to build a new supermarket, and one elderly woman called Judith knows that if the development goes ahead, dark forces will be unleashed.

The story's premise is appealing in that it brings fantasy into a modern, stereotypical village setting; a sort of Midsomer Murders with witches. Its three main characters are likeable: Judith the elderly witch, Lizzie the vicar, and her childhood friend Autumn who runs the local witchcraft shop.

Ultimately tho', I found the book disappointing. The story is told in the 3rd person and jumps from character to character to describe the action. I often found this confusing and couldn't work out if the narration was from a specific character's point of view. The writing style also felt uneven. Some sections, more often than not the dialogue, were really enjoyable and fast paced. Others used unnecessarily lengthy constructions, or lacked enough detail to bring a scene to life.

In addition the novella length was unsatisfying. The structure didn't seem tight enough to be short, nor long enough to really develop character and plot.

I had a niggling feeling that it was not really a self-contained story. Yes, it has a beginning, middle and end, and most of the threads are tied up. But it's clearly written as the first of a series, perhaps with a TV adaptation in mind. I know this is how many writers make money, but as a reader I find it unfulfilling.

Nevertheless, by the end I'd got to know the three women and wondered what exactly had happened in their past to make them who they were. Paul Cornell had dropped several hints, but not enough for me to buy the next book in the series.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The new gods of America

American Gods (American Gods, #1) [-] there are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit-card and freeway, of internet and telephone [-]

Neil Gaiman's American Gods imagines what it would mean to be a god in the modern world. Its premise is that the gods brought to America by successive waves of immigrants, are growing old and forgotten through lack of belief. Modern gods have been created out of media and technology; these are the things in which people now put their faith.

It's a great idea and a great story, mostly told from the point of view of Shadow, an ex-con who is employed by the mysterious Mr Wednesday. They drive around the country visiting old gods and supernatural beings, as Wednesday tries to gain support for the coming war with the new deities. Sometimes the action takes place in the spiritual "backstage" and intermittently the narrative is interrupted by folk stories, myths and fables, which give background to the old beliefs.

Unfortunately the book didn't quite grip me. Sometimes the writing was beautiful, other times I found it clunky or rambling. Or perhaps it was just too long for my taste. Nonetheless I enjoyed the plot, loved many of the characters and how Gaiman conjured up their daily lives in the modern world.

One might wonder what the old gods think about Facebook and Instagram. Many social media followers share posts and photos with religious zeal and keep faith with strict dietary commandments. New gods are indeed growing every day.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Hollywood highbrow in 2050?

Childhood's End
... most of [Hollywood] 2050's productions would have seemed incomprehensibly highbrow to 1950.

Oh dear. I can't see this vision of the future becoming reality any time soon.

Childhood's End begins in the aftermath of WW2, when the development of nuclear weapons threatened to annihilate life on earth. Spaceships arrive and hover over the world, and alien Overlords establish order to ensure humans do not destroy themselves.

As a story, I can see why the book is highly rated but it just didn't appeal to me. The writing style felt unemotional and the characters flat, which left me struggling to identify with anyone. There was a distinct lack of decently portrayed women, perhaps because at the time of writing, women's main role in society was to raise children. So perhaps I'm being unfair in judging the book on such quotes as, "it was such a nuisance that men were fundamentally polygamous", or, "Jean ceased to pine for the car, and discovered all the things one could do with one's own kitchen."

It's not a character driven story and neither is the setting important. I didn't get a sense of place, apart from scenes set on the island of Athens. When the book was published in the early 1950s, space travel was what excited people; to imagine what is out there beyond planet earth in terms of other worlds and higher intelligence.

So, does it matter if Clarke's descriptions of life in the 21st century were off target? Probably not.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Pulling the wings off bluebottles

The Wasp Factory At least two men I know admit that as children they pulled the wings off bluebottles. Frank Cauldhame, the teenage protagonist of The Wasp Factory carries out much more cruel deeds, living on an isolated Scottish island with his father.

The book has many of the hallmarks of a gothic novel, and indeed this was what led me to read it. It had been sitting on a shelf for 30 years, a gift from a band who used the title as their name, and I always associated it with young men in their late teens and early twenties. As I started reading I understood why.

Frank is a psychopath and for the first half of the book there were sections that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Then something happened about half way through, when Frank goes into town with his friend Jamie to watch a band and get drunk. The writing seemed to develop a dark humour and I even found myself sniggering at the description of an intricately planned and executed murder.

It won't be to everyone's taste, but the writing is spectacular. Iain Banks maintains the tension throughout the story, and although I wasn't fully satisfied with the ending, I felt genuine relief that my male friends had not progressed any further than torturing insects.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Punctuation? Who cares?

The Road Cormac McCarthy left a lot of questions unanswered in this cold, depressing story. There are really only two characters, both remain nameless. We don't know their exact ages, nor where they came from, only that they are heading south.

The grammatical style matches this lack of detail. If I had handed in English language homework with so little punctuation and such lack of conventional sentence structure, it would have been handed back to me covered in red ink and with zero out of ten.

But none of this matters. It certainly wouldn't matter if the world as we know it had ended. The only thing that matters is how you would act if you were in this man's shoes.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Not my sort of thing

Cat's Cradle Cat's Cradle made it onto the list of books I wanted to read for three reasons: first, it's an apocalyptic story, second, it's humorous, and third, I'd never read anything before by this big-name author.

I liked the story, was engaged by the themes of religion and the misuse of technology, and amused by the humour. Unfortunately it just wasn't my sort of thing. I didn't connect with any of the characters, and the style of writing, although clear, didn't capture my imagination. Fortunately, with a whopping 127 chapters, many only a couple of pages long, it was easy to keep reading.

I'm glad I finished it, but I doubt I'll read anything else by Kurt Vonnegut.

Friday, 9 June 2017

I sought trains; I found passengers

The Great Railway Bazaar

"Why spend so much time traveling by train?" a friend asked when I said I was planning a rail journey through Europe. "What's the point?" One reason, according to Theroux, is that train travel animates the imagination and provides the solitude to order one's thoughts; it can be stimulating, relaxing, and sometimes monotonous.

I picked up The Great Railway Bazaar for inspiration in writing my own travel journal. It provides some excellent descriptions of places: Tehran before the overthrow of the Shah (a place I've never been), Singapore on a return visit (a place I've been to a couple of times), where a report in the Singapore Straits Times foresees the electronic delivery of mail and news to every household.

It also shows how the journey affected the author. The final leg on the Trans-Siberian Express was depressing to read, yet vivid. Theroux had clearly had enough. He was having difficulty communicating with his fellow passengers, couldn't keep his promise to get home in time for Christmas and had unsettling dreams about his family.

But above all, the book is about the people that Paul Theroux met on his epic journey by rail through Asia; a slice of life as seen from a train in the early 1970s. As he says, "I sought trains; I found passengers."

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

What's life about and why does shit happen?

American Pastoral (The American Trilogy, #1)

This is the first Philip Roth book I've read and I'm quite ambivalent about it. There were lots of things I didn't like, including the way the narrative jumped around, the unwieldy length of the sentences, and many of the characters.

For a while I was also quite annoyed at the way the book was constructed as a story within a story. The character Zuckerman imagines the life of his high school hero, Swede Levov based on a few facts he learns at a school reunion. He cannot know the truth of Swede's life, and for a while, I found myself constantly aware that "this is a made-up story". Of course all fiction is "made-up", but I was initially frustrated by this knowledge.

Half way through, I had become intrigued. The book is in three sections, the titles of which - Paradise Remembered, The Fall, Paradise Lost - gave me the impression I was going to read something along the lines of Proust or Milton. There are certainly long, reminiscent passages, and although the book is not about the fall of Adam and Eve, it can certainly be likened to the biblical story of Job.

So by the time I'd reached the end of the book, I realised that much as I'd disliked some of it, I wanted to know how Swede would cope with his demolished dreams, and it had made me think and reflect. What is life all about, and why, if we are good and do the best we can, does shit happen?

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Whatever happened to Depeche Mode?

I'd completely forgotten about Depeche Mode, and I didn't bother to refresh my memory because by the time I made enquiries about the gig at Nice's Stade Ehrmann it had sold out.

Mr Twisse wanted to see them. He said they were one of his favourite bands, and lucky for him, we got two tickets that were going spare because his mates' girlfriends decided they didn't want to go.

I wasn't sure I wanted to go either, so I did a bit of browsing to find out what the Essex band's top hits had been, and what their recent output was like. A YouTube search followed, to see if I recognized anything.

And the memories came flooding back…

New Life (1981) coincided with my first year at university. Dave Gahan looked impossibly young in his New Romantic baggy blouse and black leather trousers. Martin Gore had a ridiculous mop of blonde hair, and Andy Fletcher was, well, overshadowed by Vince Clarke. That year I bought my own ruffle-collared blouse and ra-ra skirt to dance along to Just Can't Get Enough at the Student Union's discos. Hearing those cute, plinkety-plonkety electronic sounds took me right back.

Thirty-six years later and there were plenty of old fogies like me in the audience on Friday night (12 May 2017). The forecasted storm never materialized and the clouds rolled back, allowing the stars to shine out. They couldn't match Dave Gahan's glittery jacket tho', which he discarded after the first couple of songs, revealing an even shinier waistcoat.

It took the first three songs for the band to really warm up and settle in, then Gahan's rich baritone voice rolled over the stadium and we started to enjoy ourselves. The set included tracks from the new album Spirit, the stand-out being Where's The Revolution. There was a great cover version of Bowie's Heroes, as well as some audience favourites: Stripped, a couple of slowies sung by Martin Gore, and the anthemic Personal Jesus that closed the gig.

The earliest track they performed was Everything Counts, which clearly divided the audience into the younger fans of the later, more rocky sound, and those who, like me, had grown up with the synthpop. There was to be no reprise of the early 80s Vince Clarke stuff, but hey, at least I remember Depeche Mode now.

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Saturday, 29 April 2017

The price of a fur coat or thereabouts

Stamboul TrainStamboul Train by Graham Greene
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[-] chastity was worth more than rubies, but the truth was it was priced at a fur coat or thereabouts."

Stamboul Train was written in the early 1930s and social norms have changed somewhat in the past 80 years. Perhaps this explains why I initially found many of the characters in the book unsympathetic; the bullying female journalist, the dancer who felt herself to be under a sexual obligation, the prejudices that were shown by many.

But as the characters interact and the story develops, I started to enjoy it more. About half way through, the Greene that I love came out when the character Dr Czinner reflects on his life and his feelings about duty, religion, revolution and the working class.

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Thursday, 27 April 2017

Fight ClubFight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There are probably more people who have seen the movie of Fight Club than have read the book. I decided to read it because I've recently developed an interest in gothic novels, and the story is included in several listings as an example of urban gothic.

The writing style was initially difficult, but I soon got used to it. Knowing the story, I found myself sympathising with the main character rather than being appalled by his situation and actions. In many ways it was quite a depressing read. There was never going to be a happy ending for any of the characters.

Something that I did find positive was the book's Afterward, in which Plahniuk explains how the novel developed from a short story. This was a brief but illuminating insight into the creative process.

After finishing the book, I watched the film again. It's still a good movie, but the book is much better.

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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Lancashire weather and religious superstition

The LoneyThe Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rain, mist and wind are intrinsic to the landscape of Lancashire and to the atmosphere of Andrew Michael Hurley's book The Loney.

Most of the action takes place in an isolated house, somewhere near the coast around Morecombe, where a group of Catholics are staying whilst on a pilgrimage. Strange things happen during Holy Week which have far reaching consequences for the two youngest travelers.

The story touches on religious devotion, faith and superstition. Descriptions of the desolate landscape and the oppressive weather are vivid and chilling. They were made all the better when reading it on a miserable winter's day with low grey clouds.

Described as Gothic fiction, it's not something I would ordinarily read, but I was drawn to the book because it won the Costa First Novel Award. Hurley says he's been influenced by Stephen King, who has described the novel as "an amazing piece of fiction," and I'd have to agree.

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Sunday, 23 April 2017

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1)My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[-] conceived and written as a single narrative. It's division into four hefty volumes was decided when I realized that the story [-] couldn't easily be contained in one book."

I wish I'd read that quote by author Elena Ferrante before beginning My Brilliant Friend.

It starts, as so many books do now, at some unspecified point in the future. A mystery is posed and the reader is drawn into the story in the hope of finding a resolution at the end of it. Most of my disappointment with My Brilliant Friend stems from the failure to resolve the mystery once the end is reached. And it's important, I think, to know this beforehand.

The story is told from the point of view of Elena, an intelligent girl from a poor family and neighbourhood in Naples. Elena recounts her life and that of her best friend Lila, up to the age of 16. Both girls attend formal elementary education, but their paths diverge; one is able to continue at school, the other not.

I connected with the characters of the two girls immediately and rooted for them throughout the book. The macho posturing of the male characters made me feel angry. The insulated setting aroused my own memories of wanting to escape a life that seemed fenced in by the expectations of society.

So, I was drawn into the story, searching the narrative for clues as to how the mystery posed in the Prologue would resolve. The last page left me hanging, feeling cheated and deflated. I would have to buy a further three volumes to reach a satisfactory ending.

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Friday, 21 April 2017

The Diary of a NobodyThe Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Perhaps this is one of those books that improves with a second reading.

Initially, I just didn't connect with Charles Pooter, the Nobody who records his day-to-day life and thoughts. Intellectually, I can see that Pooter is a funny character, pompous, old-fashioned and overly deferential to those he sees as his superiors. But I never properly laughed at his domestic and social misfortune, his groan-worthy puns and the antics of his small group of friends. The only character I really liked was Lupin, Pooter's modern, individualistic son.

I did enjoy it, but as an amusing and interesting satire of aspirational middle-class society in the late 19th century, not as one of the top ranked humorous books of all time.

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Thursday, 20 April 2017

On Chesil BeachOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A friend told me that On Chesil Beach was one of only two books that made her cry.

It describes the 1962 wedding night of 21 year olds Edward and Florence, both inexperienced sexually and unable to talk about their fears. Childhood and teenage experiences are weaved into the narrative, and their family backgrounds and hopes for the future are explained. However nothing has prepared them for their first sexual encounter.

I found myself sometimes wanting to laugh at the characters' embarrassment and misunderstanding, but overall, my heart ached for them. On Chesil Beach should be required reading for children when they start sex and relationship classes at school. It's not only a beautifully written book, but it also provides a convincing argument for openness.

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Monday, 17 April 2017

How To Be A WomanHow To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can never again look at Eastenders's Phil Mitchell's bald head without thinking about a fidgety sausage.

Caitlin Moran takes us through her personal discovery of what it means to be a woman and a feminist. She traces her development from puberty to motherhood, and comments on how women are still being repressed by society's idealistic views of femininity.

I laughed out loud reading the chapter I Become Furry, but the cultural references (the Mitchell brother as mentioned above) won't be obvious to many outside the UK. The style of writing probably won't be to everyone's taste either; Moran doesn't shy away from graphical descriptions, nor using the sort of vocabulary that would have caused my own mother to put the book aside before the end of the first chapter. Indeed, if you're easily shocked by tales of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, perhaps you should avoid How To Be A Woman.

Although I found the style of writing somewhat excessive, by the time I'd finished, Moran had raised my interest. I'm now reading a more academic book about being a feminist, something I've always professed to be, without really thinking too hard about what it means.

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Sunday, 16 April 2017

A Great Deliverance (Inspector Lynley, #1)A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Barbara Havers is unattractive. The working class Detective Sergeant of Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley series is introduced as an unsympathetic character, prickly and prejudiced, whereas her upper-class boss, Detective Inspector Tommy Lynley has a past that haunts him. I'd only ever seen Havers and Lynley in the television adaptations, and it was a pleasure to discover the fictional police characters have a lot more depth on the page.

I knew Elizabeth George was not British before I started reading A Great Deliverance, and was pleasantly surprised that this made very little difference to the style of writing. I thought the Yorkshire setting was not very finely detailed, but this doesn't matter. The story is clearly about the characters, not the setting.

With that in mind, I found the passages that took Havers's point of view more engaging than those of Lynley, perhaps because the author is female. Indeed, Elizabeth George has expertly painted the many female characters of the story, which moves along at a fast pace.

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Friday, 14 April 2017

Of Human BondageOf Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of Human Bondage is about a boy who discovers that mountains can't be moved. It follows the life of Philip Carey from the age of 9, when he was orphaned, through childhood, adolescence and manhood, up to his early 30s.

There are episodes of Philip's life that I completely connected with; his relationship with his uncle, his experience of religion, his desire to escape small-town life through travel. His adventures in Heidelberg and Paris reminded me of my own youth, trying to discover what to do with the rest of my life.

Philip ends up in London and begins an affair with Mildred, and at this point I became completely frustrated with the character. I wanted to shake him by the shoulders, tell him to pull himself together and sort himself out. Unfortunately Philip believes he deserves the treatment dished out to him, such is his sense self-loathing.

Somerset Maugham wrote Of Human Bondage when he was 23 and he speaks vividly of the confusion and pain of adolescence, but his style is not yet fully developed. I'm glad the first of his novels I read was The Razor's Edge, by which time he'd honed his skills over nearly 40 years.

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Thursday, 13 April 2017

The people, not the scenery

The Road to Wigan PierThe Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Mr Orwell [ - ] liked Wigan very much - the people, not the scenery."

Before I read George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier, I was given the impression that it contained a scathing attack on the working class of the North West of England, but I was completely misled. Orwell wanted to tell people about the terrible conditions of unemployed miners, and to make a case for supporting socialism in order to counter the 1930s rise of fascism.

The first part of the book describes his travels in the North, visiting the unemployed, living with working class families, seeking to understand what it was like to be in the depths of poverty. It's something that today's privileged politicians and self-satisfied upper and middle-classes could learn from.

The second part contains Orwell's thesis that only socialism can save the country from going the way of Italy under Mussolini. This was tough going in parts, but there were some funny, enjoyable descriptions of middle-class vegetarian socialists, whom Orwell accuses of believing in a classless society only theoretically, whilst clinging steadfastly to their own social prestige.

Unfortunately, in terms of the class system in the UK, very little seems to have changed since Orwell set off to discover the mythical Wigan Pier.

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Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The Nine Tailors (Lord Peter Wimsey, #11)The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of my favourite authors, Jim Kelly, was inspired to write after reading Dorothy L Sayers's The Nine Tailors, so I thought I'd give it a go.

The book's detective is Lord Peter Wimsey, amateur sleuth, who finds himself stranded in the Fenlands on New Year's Eve. To be honest, I didn't really warm to Wimsey, and I can't say I liked many of the characters in the book. They all seemed a bit too class conscious, but perhaps this was intentional. The Industrial Revolution ignored the isolated village of Fenchurch St Paul, which seems stuck in the early 18th century. It's a place I would have wanted to escape from. Characters are obsequious or in-bred, and I found Wimsey somewhat patronizing.

However, the real characters of the book are not people, but the bells and the sense of place. Some reviewers have said they couldn't get along with the need for such intricate explanations of bell ringing, but it is an essential part of the tale. And I now see what an influence Sayers's landscape descriptions had on Jim Kelly. The mystery itself was fantastic, and even 93% into the book I was still confused as to who the murderer could be. In the end, I used Sherlock Holmes's logic; when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. And indeed it was.

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Tuesday, 11 April 2017

The ExpatsThe Expats by Chris Pavone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found The Expats in a list of recent thrillers on the Dead Good Books website and bought it because the protagonist, Kate, is an expat mum. Knowing a bit about expat life, I was interested to see how that aspect was portrayed.

Kate experiences the problems of finding oneself in a new place and having to make new friends, few of whom have even remotely similar interests or experiences that she can relate to. The life she now lives is banal, her days are monotonous, and her chief roles of child-carer and home-maker are dull. Her IT security expert husband, Dexter, works late and travels often, and the mysterious, childless couple Julia and Bill are unnerving.

Most of the action takes place in Luxembourg, somewhere I've never been to, and based on the weather described in the book, it's somewhere I can't see myself ever visiting. You get a feel for the stiflingly limited expat social life of the place, and Kate's need to escape from it regularly.

Written from Kate's point of view, the story deals with secrets that people keep from their closest partners, how that can affect relationships, and the difficulty in deciding if and when to open up. It also deals with Kate's loss of self when she gives up her job - her past ruthlessness, composure and attention to detail give way to compassion, anxiety and incompetence.

Before clicking to buy, I read one or two comments about the story's flashbacks. Although it took the first chapter to get used to it, I didn't mind the shifting time. It worked because it gave prominence to the changes in Kate's character by juxtaposing the decisions she made "today" with those of her past life.

It wasn't difficult to guess what was going on in the story, and I don't think the author was necessarily trying to baffle the reader. The enjoyment was in seeing the story unfold.

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Monday, 10 April 2017

A novel without a hero

Vanity FairVanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Vanity Fair is a classic of 19th century British literature. The story follows the fortunes of two women, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, but neither can be considered as a heroine, they are both flawed. I found myself mostly rooting for Becky, but then she would do something despicable and I found myself disliking her again. With Amelia, I wanted to tell her to stop being a victim and pull herself together.

I wasn't keen on Thackeray's regular asides to the reader, commenting in general about the faults of his characters and society in general. In spite of this, it was a throughly enjoyable read.

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Sunday, 9 April 2017

Full Stop (Loretta Lawson Mystery)Full Stop by Joan Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Set around 10 years after the first book of the Loretta Lawson series, the final story finds the English academic staying alone in a friend's apartment in New York.

There's no murder investigation in this book, it's about how Loretta deals with unwanted male attention, harassment and stalking. In spite of this, I enjoyed the story, especially scenes involving a pet dog that Loretta has to look after. As a stand-alone story, it may not be everyone's cup of tea, but having followed the development of Loretta's character over the previous four books in the series, and having got to know her friends, it was a satisfying read in which there were references to the plots of previous stories and the tying up of a loose end.

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What Men SayWhat Men Say by Joan Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What Men Say sees Loretta Lawson involved in a police investigation following the discovery of a body at her best friend's house. The action takes place in Oxford, stamping ground of fictional detective Inspector Morse, who is given a nod in the story.

I thought the book might be subtitled "and what women don't say", since the story revolves around the relationship between Loretta and her friend Bridget. Loretta's loyalty to her friend is evident, but Bridget is clearly keeping secrets. The normally inquisitive Loretta chooses to repress her curiosity and leave the investigation to the police.

I was frustrated by the actions of some characters, but enjoyed the portrayal of the relationship between Loretta and Bridget.

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Why Aren't They Screaming? (Loretta Lawson, #2)Why Aren't They Screaming? by Joan Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The second Loretta Lawson book once again features Joan Smith's inquisitive English professor, still using telephone boxes and listening to cassette tapes. Throughout the story there are references to her previous investigation and love life, but there's no need to have read the first book to enjoy the second.

This time the action takes place shortly after America's air strikes against Libya, in mid-1980s UK. Our feminist investigator is recuperating in the neighbourhood of a women's peace camp on the perimeter of an airforce base.

The theme of impotency in the face of political scheming makes for a darker story than the first, and it also briefly touches on domestic violence and the role of women in marriage.

Even after two books, I haven't quite got a mental image of Loretta, although her hairstyle and fashion sense are described. She seemed less feisty in this story and more nervous. However, I'm bound to read the next in the series, as the story's ending was rather unexpected.

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Don't Leave Me This WayDon't Leave Me This Way by Joan Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Joan Smith's third Loretta Lawson book once again sees the English academic questioning a mysterious death, this time putting herself in danger.

Set in London over Christmas and New Year, the amateur sleuth reluctantly puts up an old acquaintance on her sofa bed. We discover Loretta's conflicting feelings about her friends, lover and ex-husband, which I think make the character more sympathetic and give her more depth.

Most of the action takes place in Loretta's flat in Islington. In the first two books of the series, Loretta's use of telephone boxes and landlines placed the stories firmly in the mid-80s, and now there's a development in telecoms with the ansaphone. I enjoyed how Joan Smith incorporated this "new" technology into the plot.

Poor Loretta is still listening to Vivaldi and the Communards on a cassette player tho'. Let's hope she gets a CD player in the next book.

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A Masculine Ending (Loretta Lawson)A Masculine Ending by Joan Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my friends recommended Joan Smith's Loretta Lawson books after I said I was looking for crime books written by British women, that didn't necessarily involve police detectives.

Loretta Lawson is an English professor at a university in London. She's a feminist in an era when feminism was often equated with lesbianism and radical political views. However, with the benefit of around 30 years' hindsight, Loretta is just a normal woman, living a normal life. I can't help thinking it would have been more of an eye-opener when it was written in the mid-1980s.

The action takes place in Paris, London and Oxford and it captures the era perfectly, in a way that Agatha Christie's books capture the 1920-30s. Loretta listens to tapes of her favourite pop music whilst driving, she has to use a telephone box when her landline develops a fault, and her research is carried out in libraries using newspaper cuttings. It's what we used to do before the digital era and the Internet.

We see events unfolding through Loretta's eyes, and find that her feminism sometimes clouds her judgement about people. I really enjoyed the humour in a very minor sub-plot of attempts to change gender-based French grammar, references to Spare Rib and male-hated women's support groups.

As characters and story developed, I began to make sense of the mystery, but made the mistake of reading a review of a TV adaptation on, which gave the game away. Still, it was an enjoyable, somewhat nostalgic read, and not at all taxing.

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