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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