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 tale, which follows the Belsey family and how they cope after their academic father Howard gets his "end" away.

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."

Saturday 30 September 2017

A glass of Chardonnay can make everything better

Worst Journeys: The Picador Book Of Travel Worst Journeys contains 55 stories, primarily in prose form, by some of literature’s best travel writers. 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.

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.

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.

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's convicted of fraud.

Rather than prison, Karl signs himself and his wife up for a six-month project called "The Transition", which involves them living with and being mentored by Stu and Jenna, a successful, older couple.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Beach or book? Both

It was an easy choice to make on a sunny Saturday afternoon on the Cote d'Azur. I could have gone to the beach, stretched out in the sun and read the next story in Wayward Girls and Wicked Women. Instead I sat in a cool back room at the Scotch Tea House to listen to a bunch of authors talk about their books. Bliss!

Meet The Authors (3 June 2017) was organized by Margo Lestz as a fringe event during Nice's Festival du Livre. Adrian Leeds directed the afternoon and ensured the seven writers passed the baton smoothly from one to the next. Most of the speakers used their knowledge of the South of France to write a variety of fiction, fact, and memoir.

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.

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.

The Man 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…

Saturday 29 April 2017

The price of a fur coat or thereabouts

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

I'm reading and re-reading, in chronological order, books by Graham Greene, one of my favourite novelists. Stamboul Train is new to me, published in 1932. It focuses on the lives of several travelers on what is more commonly referred to as The Orient Express (Agatha Christie's crime novel came out a couple of years later). Social norms have changed somewhat in the past 80 years and 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 players 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.

Thursday 27 April 2017

No happy endings

Fight Club 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 developed an interest in gothic novels, and several listings include the story 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 I did find positive was the book's Afterward, in which Palahniuk 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.

Tuesday 25 April 2017

Lancashire weather and religious superstition

The Loney Rain, mist and wind are intrinsic to the landscape of Lancashire and to the atmosphere of Andrew Michael Hurley's book The Loney. Described as Gothic fiction, it's not something I would ordinarily read, but I was drawn to the book because it won the 2015 Costa First Novel Award.

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.

Sunday 23 April 2017

No satisfactory ending

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1) "[-] 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. Raffaella Cerullo, aka Lina, aka Lila, has disappered. Her friend Elena says, "It's been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace". 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 this mystery once the end is reached. And it's important, I think, to know this beforehand.

Friday 21 April 2017

Groan-worthy puns

The Diary of a Nobody 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.

Thursday 20 April 2017

Painfully poignant

On Chesil Beach A friend told me that Ian McEwan's 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 is not only a beautifully written book, but it also provides a convincing argument for openness in discussing sex.

Monday 17 April 2017

Phil Mitchell's fidgety sausage

How To Be A Woman 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.

Sunday 16 April 2017

More depth on the page than the TV

A Great Deliverance (Inspector Lynley, #1) 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.

Friday 14 April 2017

The pain of youth

Of Human Bondage 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.

Thursday 13 April 2017

The people, not the scenery

The Road to Wigan Pier "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.

Wednesday 12 April 2017

Marvellous mystery but class-ridden characters

The Nine Tailors (Lord Peter Wimsey, #11) 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.

Tuesday 11 April 2017

New life not all it's cracked up to be

The Expats I found Chris Pavone's The Expats in a list of 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 herself 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.

Monday 10 April 2017

A novel without a hero

Vanity Fair 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.

Sunday 9 April 2017

Loretta's last stand

Full Stop (Loretta Lawson Mystery) 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.

Saturday 8 April 2017

.... and what women don't say

What Men Say 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.

Friday 7 April 2017

An ansaphone, Vivaldi, and the Communards

Don't Leave Me This Way 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.

Thursday 6 April 2017

More 80s sleuthing

Why Aren't They Screaming? (Loretta Lawson, #2) 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, no doubt inspired by Greenham Common.

Wednesday 5 April 2017

Feminist blast from the past

A Masculine Ending (Loretta Lawson) A friend recommended Joan Smith's Loretta Lawson books after I said I was looking for crime books written by British women and which 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. It must have been more of an eye-opener when it was written in the mid-1980s.