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.