Monday, 30 December 2019

I loathed Mexico

The Lawless Roads Graham Greene "was commissioned to write a book on the religious situation" in Mexico in 1938, which resulted in The Lawless Roads travel memoir, as well as inspiring his novel The Power and the Glory.

"I loathed Mexico" admits Greene, and after reading of his experiences it's no surprise. He travels by bus, train, boat and plane, but most memorably over the mountains by mule. He stays on the border, visits Mexico City, and promised himself to spend Holy Week "in Catholic Las Casas, to see how it was observed in a city where the churches were open - so I was told - but the priests not allowed inside." His travels are filled with mosquitos, black beetles, discomfort and dysentery, and yet on his return home Greene tried to remember his hatred. Like many travellers he finds "a bad time over is always tinged with regret."

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Why Bournemouth?

The Fog There's no hanging around waiting for things to happen in The Fog. James Herbert has disaster strike at the end of the first chapter and follows up with scenes of violence and madness that tumble one after the other. It's as if he's imagined as many unconnected examples of people and animals behaving in a deranged, uncontrolled way as possible, then makes up the "fog" as a spurious device to link them. About half way through, after the Bournemouth episode, the plot eventually kicks in and the authorities, aided by the hero Holman, must work out how to stop the horror.

The horror is of course the point of the book. Other reviewers have pointed out some of the very graphic scenes, but what Herbert really does well in The Fog is to induce tension through anticipation. The reader imagines what is going to happen: What will that man do with that axe and those nails? What will he do with those gardening shears? You don't need to read on to picture the horror, but to confront your own worst nightmare.

There's an anti-establishment theme running through the book. Some of the people affected by the fog feel they've been treated badly by those in authority; the poacher had "been dragged along by his collar as though he were riff-raff"; the office security man earning a "pittance of a salary and the privilege of having snot-nosed execs bidding him 'Good morning' or 'Good night' when they felt like it." The protagonist Holman carries out undercover investigations for the Department of Environment, but his reports rarely lead to action because "when politics - business or governmental - became involved, he knew the chances of prosecution against the offenders were slim." He wonders cynically "how you qualify to be a "special" person" to gain access to the underground bunkers, and asks if there are other shelters "for the ordinary people."

Unexpectedly there's also a bit of black humour in the horror. I chuckled at the vicar and sniggered at the homing pigeons. Then, remembering a holiday in Bournemouth, I tittered at the seaside resort's tragic fate. Had James Herbert himself spent a week's vacation there?

Saturday, 14 December 2019

Grey Goose vodka, Louboutins, and Miu Miu

Codename Villanelle (Killing Eve, #1) It's difficult to read Luke Jennings's Codename Villanelle without imagining the Killing Eve TV series (see trailer below), but here goes.

The book opens in an Italian lakeside villa where a group of twelve men are meeting to discuss their European business interests, which are being threatened by a Sicilian mafia boss. The men unanimously decide he must be killed. We then meet the assassin Villanelle and her handler Konstantin.

The story follows Villanelle as she carries out assassinations on behalf of the shady group of twelve, taking in Paris, London, Beijing, Russia and elsewhere. Villanelle is a psychopathic killer who enjoys a "Grey Goose vodka Martini," "her feet in her strappy satin Louboutins," and wearing a "Miu-miu sweater". There's a lot of named merchandise in the story. By contrast, Eve the British agent on Villanelle's trail, is a more nuanced character who becomes obsessed with finding the female assassin, to the point of harming her marriage.

It's a fast-paced plot, written primarily in the present tense, which gives the impression that one's reading a screenplay. Some may find that this places them within the action, but it can also promote a sense of detachment, which is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it's used to reflect Villanelle's thoughts and actions. It also serves to focus Eve's tension in a particularly enjoyable scene where she and her colleague have broken into a house.

There's no resolution at the end of the book. Some may find this a clever way to encourage readers to buy the next instalment. Others such as myself consider it an annoying ploy.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Delighted to be British

Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past John Higgs calls Britain a "divided island [which] has lost a workable sense of identity". He journeys along Watling Street in an attempt to understand that division and because, "when you lose something, you retrace your steps until you find it again."

In "Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past" Higgs explores some of the quintessential myths and histories that feed into a sense of British nationality: the White Cliffs, Thomas Becket, Dick Turpin, bawdy humour, the sport of rugby, Merlin, Boudica. By the end of the book, we realise that some ideas of identity are shared by some British citizens, others by others, but not all by everyone, whether they live in the UK or not.

Whichever stories give you a sense of national identity, Higgs warns against the idea of national pride which tends towards nationalism. A sense of national identity, "should not make anyone proud to be British; it should make them delighted to be British."

Friday, 29 November 2019

All the freedom that loneliness brings

Quartet in Autumn (Plume) Quartet in Autumn traces the lives and thoughts of four office workers in London over the course of about a year, as they approach retirement. Written in 1977, Barbara Pym had herself reached the age of her protagonists and she paints a bleak picture of how the over 60s are viewed by those who are younger.

Marcia was "ageing, slightly mad and on the threshold of retirement." Her colleagues "shied away from her or made only the most perfunctory remarks." Janice, her social worker was patronising, and her neighbour Priscilla sanctimoniously believed "the poor souls just long for somebody to talk to."

However, one can't help but feel that Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman must take some responsibility for their own loneliness, which seems to be the result of a genteel English middle-class politeness and aversion to prying. There are plenty of opportunities for each of the characters to get to know each other better and yet they choose to remain aloof.

Pym's Excellent Women is funnier, although there are moments of humour, for instance in Letty's interaction with David the country cleric. The Sweet Dove Died is more acerbic in its treatment of an aging woman, but Quartet in Autumn most deftly captures the reality of pensioners' expectations of life in old age, with "all the freedom that loneliness brings," especially for those like Letty, who owned "no photographs, not even of her friend Marjorie or of her old home, her parents, a cat or a dog."

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

They won't be so stupid as to fall for that clown

The Past is Myself & The Road Ahead Omnibus: When I Was a German, 1934-1945
'You may think that Germans are political idiots [-] and you may be right, but of one thing I can assure you, they won't be so stupid as to fall for that clown.'

Such was the opinion of many in Germany in the early 1930s, including Peter Bielenberg, the lawyer husband of Christabel, an English woman who took German citizenship following her marriage. The Past Is My Life is based on diaries she kept while living in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, through to the end of WW2.

In January 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor, with "only two other National Socialists with him in his Cabinet," there was a belief "that he was well hemmed-in" by the respectable, old-school elite politicians of the Weimar Republic. However, "the whole process of what was called 'co-ordination' was over and done with" within five months. Hitler became Germany's dictator.

How could the political situation change so fast? Bielenberg's memoir is not a historian's analysis, but shows how a shared feeling of being betrayed at the end of WW1 fed into the propaganda that was used to justify military aggression. Her viewpoint is privileged, not that of the working-class, yet it provides plenty of insight into living in the Third Reich as an opponent of the regime. What particularly comes across is how exhausting it was to be constantly on guard against making a thoughtless comment, and the need to be wary of every new acquaintance.

Peter Bielenberg's description of Hitler as a clown should sound a warning bell in 2019. One should be wary of buffoonery and deceit, neither of which are impediments to reaching the highest position of Government.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Good story, disappointing book

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story What makes a good book? There are as many answers to this question as there are readers. And this reader's requirements weren't met by Hyeonseo Lee's The Girl With Seven Names.

That's not to say it isn't a good story. It's an autobiography/memoir of a North Korean woman who defected "by mistake" aged 17. She lived and worked as an illegal immigrant in China for several years before making her way to South Korea, where she was automatically entitled to citizenship. Then she executed a plan to help her mother and brother to defect and join her. They now all live happily ever with her American husband in the USA.

Most of what I didn't like was the writing style. The first section contains a description of childhood events as she "was told about them", perhaps by her mother. The language is stilted and cliched, as one might expect from an inexperienced writer. Most annoying was the overuse of anticipation: many chapters ended with a phrase, sometimes a paragraph, that served as a harbinger of some terrible event. This device, perhaps intended to keep us reading merely reduced the impact of future episode. By the third section, the writing style had improved somewhat.

Finally, the book is overly trite. In the prologue the author says she came to understand "that we can do without almost anything - our home, even our country. But we will never do without other people, and we will never do without family." Does Hyeonseo Lee really believe this? By the end of the book what comes across is that those who are seperated from family and birthplace when they are young are able build a life elsewhere. "Home" moves with you. It was clear that over time, distance and lack of contact, the writer was unable to see things from the same point of view as the family she left behind.

An alternative history of World War II

The Man in the High Castle The Man in the High Castle poses an alternative history in which Japan and Germany were the victors of WW2, but don't be fooled by the book's blurb: "Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. [-] All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war - and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan." This is misleading. Sure, slavery is mentioned once, but it has no bearing on the story. There is one Jewish character, but to promote this as a key theme is also deceptive. So, forget about slavery and the Jews.

The story is set mostly in San Francisco, in the Pacific States which are governed by the Japanese. It opens with Mr. Tagomi visiting Robert Childan's American heritage store to collect a poster he has ordered as a gift.

Philip K. Dick describes the lives of people who depend on the I Ching to make decisions, forecast outcomes and to understand life. America functions according to the mores of the Japanese, who are strict, but at least fairer than the Germans. However, this is of little comfort to those like Robert Childan, who as an American will never attain "high-place" no matter how much of the conqueror's culture he has assimilated.

From a British point of view the book raises the question of what "winning" the war meant, especially if you take into account the strong economic growth of both Germany and Japan, the "losers", compared to the post-war struggles of Britain.

A dislikable protagonist is no barrier to a good book

I would never be gratuitously mean or violent, [-] but then nor would I ever put up with anybody or any situation that made life unbearable [-]. I would be honest and reasonable, generous where generosity was due, and I would always always choose the road that led to a happy, healthy, normal life.

So says George Crawley, whose missionary father had been murdered for his faith. In Tim Parks's Goodness, George and his sister Peggy return home with their mother, whose "one thing I regret in my life is the words they made me speak" before they killed her husband.

George narrates his story in two parts: Before Hilary, and Hilary. In the first half he looks back on his childhood and early married life, when he firmly stuck to his own moral code. He is quite a dislikable character, self-centred and unable to empathise with others, convinced he knows best, and blaming his own problems on the faith-based ethics of others.

He's disappointed that his mother "could never marry a man who had broken a solemn vow to someone else," thus depriving her son of a new father. He believes his sister Peggy, unmarried and pregnant, was "erring in sentimentality and romanticism," and "refusing to look long and hard at future reality, future practicality," in happily refusing an abortion. He never quite understands his wife Shirley, never asks the right questions because they might elicit the wrong answers for him and his chosen way of life.

In the second half of the book we see George in a different light, his life turned on its head with the birth of his severely disabled daughter Hilary. He struggles against the hand that life has dealt him, whereas his mother, wife and sister just "get on with things, that's life."

A dislikable protagonist is not a barrier to a good book, and just as Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal by Zoƫ Heller was fascinating in her dislikability, so is George Crawley. The ending didn't suit me, but that's a personal preference and won't stop me reading more of Tim Parks's stories.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

To do evil that good might come

The Confidential Agent A ferry makes a foggy approach to the Port of Dover in the atmospheric opening of The Confidential Agent. Graham Greene's descriptions are no less brilliant when the action moves to London and to a mining village. Unfortunately I didn't much care for the characters.

D., the eponymous protagonist, has come to England on a mission to buy coal. An ex-academic, he has been widowed by the civil war that continues to be waged in his country. He is also something of a pacifist with principles, as he says, "You've got to choose some line of action and live by it. Otherwise nothing matters at all." Unfortunately the rebels and their representative agent L. are also after the coal. Greene used capital letters for his characters in order to avoid giving them a specific nationality, nonetheless, with the hindsight of 70 years, it's hard not to imagine that they are Spanish.

The book is one of Greene's "entertainments" and it touches on the theme of the immorality that war imposes on people: "you couldn't count strangers' lives in the balance against your own people's. When war started the absolute moral code was abolished: you were allowed to do evil that good might come." This theme was very prescient at the time of publication, considering that within six years London experienced the Blitz and Germany the bombing of Dresden.

Half way through the book the pace picks up, when The Hunted of Part 1 becomes The Hunter of Part 2, but it's probably my least favourite Graham Greene so far. He wrote it in six weeks in 1939 and the narrative sometimes feels agitated, occasionally almost manic. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he was fuelled by Benzedrine at the time.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Be true to yourself

Their Eyes Were Watching God Their Eyes Were Watching God is set in the southern USA when ex-slaves were still alive, and it's about the tribulations of a black woman as she searches for self-fulfilment and love.

On reaching puberty, the story's protagonist Janie Crawford is persuaded to marry an older man by her grandmother, who had been a slave. It's not the man "Ah wants you to have, baby," says the old woman, "it's protection." Janie quickly realizes that this is not what she expects of love or life and sets out to find her own way in the world. As she says, "Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves."

There are plenty of people along the way who, for various reasons, try to persuade Janie to conform to their own expectations. Some are jealous, others proud or just mean-spirited, "there with their tongues cocked and loaded, the only real weapon left to weak folks." Janie tho' is strong and an inspiration to her best friend Pheoby, who admits, "Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus' listenin' tuh you, Janie. Ah ain't satisfied wid mahself no mo'." In the end, Zora Neale Hurston's book speaks to all women of the world and urges them be true to themselves.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Coming of age at the end of the world

The Wall By the end of the first page of John Lanchester's book, you know that the eponymous Wall is cold. So one could be forgiven for finding it a bit tedious to continue reading about the cold, the concrete, the sea and sky well into chapter two.

The story is narrated by Kavanagh, a new Defender on a two-year posting at the Wall. His mission is to keep the Others from climbing over it. If his unit fails to keep them out, then Kavanagh himself may be banished and cast adrift into the ocean.

Kavanagh is the only character that we really get to know, although we meet several of his co-Defenders: Hifa, Shoona, Hughes, and the ex-Other Captain. None of these really have any depth, but that's probably a fault of Kavanagh, who seems like a teen who has little insight or interest in the Change that brought the world into its apocalyptic state. He has no thoughts for his future either, other than "to get as much education as I could, to get a job where I made lots of money, and to become a member of the elite." Kavanagh admits this was "too vague to count as a plan."

As a post-apocalyptic story The Wall is less satisfying than books such as The Death of Grass by John Christopher, The Road by Cormac McCarthy and On the Beach by Nevil Shute. It feels cliched and says nothing new. But perhaps Kavanagh and his rather emotionless narrative is in fact the book's saving grace? Perhaps this is a "coming of age" tale, a story of how a bunch of privileged 18-19 year olds discover comradeship and trust, find out how to take responsibility and realise what they must do to survive?

Friday, 4 October 2019

It's not about the mystery

Reservoir 13 What happened to Rebecca Shaw? At the opening of Reservoir 13, a group is waiting to set out in search of the missing teenage girl, and we're led to believe this is a mystery story.

It's divided into thirteen chapters, each of which covers a year in the life of the Derbyshire village and surrounding countryside from which Rebecca disappeared. Jon McGregor's writing style is concise yet evocative. The narrative spies on family life, describes annual traditions like Mischief Night and Well Dressing, and reflects the beauty and savagery of nature; foxes, birds and sheep.

Rebecca's disappearance does affect the villagers, but Reservoir 13 is not about the mystery. It's about the rhythms of life and death in a small community where it's impossible to escape gossip.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

A detective in Nazi Germany

March Violets (Bernie Gunther, #1) It was the setting of Philip Kerr's March Violets that appealed to me: 1936, Berlin, Germany. Bernhard "Bernie" Gunther narrates the tale, a private investigator who specialises in finding missing persons. He's employed by the industrialist Hermann Six to recover some diamonds that were taken from the safe in his daughter Greta's home. The thieves set fire to the house and Greta and her husband Paul Pfarr die.

Bernie is a wisecracking cynic and something of a lech when it comes to certain types of women. He's witnessed the rise of the Nazis and like many people takes little interest in politics because it doesn't directly affect him. For most of the story, he uses banter and jokes to belittle those in authority and to make light of the growing tyranny being exercised over Germany.

Kerr's writing style was not to my taste and I tired quite quickly of Bernie's facetious descriptions: "He edged towards me like a crab with a bad case of corns," "Fatso pulled the huge brown-and-black moustache that clung to his curling lip like a bat on a crypt wall." However, there is a point in the narrative where Bernie drops his facetiousness and the story becomes quite dark. He realises at last "the true strength of the grip that National Socialism had on Germany." It's this transformation that gives March Violets its punch.

Friday, 30 August 2019

A wicked bestiary

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Wicked Bestiary Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is both the title of David Sedaris's book and one of its animal tales. Few humans appear in the stories, and when they do, it's usually as a harbinger of pain or death for the creature concerned. Many of the tales are humorous, even more are dark, but then the habits of birds, animals, reptiles and amphibians can be pretty disgusting when judged against those of humans.

For humour, I enjoyed The Cat and the Baboon. The Toad, The Turtle, and the Duck made me feel uncomfortable, and The Crow and the Lamb was pure horror. The Vigilant Rabbit got what he deserved, but for sheer ridiculous entertainment, The Grieving Owl topped them all.

The book's subtitle, A Wicked Bestiary, indicates that the stories are fables, but they're more like fairy tales. Do we still need lessons in morality as adults? People follow the rules and yet horrible things happen. Humans do nasty things for the sake of survival. As the Crow says, "I have to do what I have to do."

Monday, 26 August 2019

Double standards and the end of the world

On the Beach We're all going to die but most of us don't know when, unlike the characters in Nevil Shute's book On the Beach.

The story takes place in 1963, around five years after the book was written. A nuclear war that started by mistake and lasted thirty seven days has wiped out all human life in the Northern Hemisphere. As the world tilts on its axis, the deadly fallout is slowly carried into the Southern Hemisphere, and in Melbourne, the scientists calculate that there is up to 9 months left before residents of the city will start to die from radiation sickness. The story describes how some residents prepare for death.

By far the best character is Moira, a young woman who, at the beginning of the book is biding her time drinking double brandies and partying. She meets the rather dull and upstanding American submarine commander, Dwight Towers, and as their platonic relationship develops, she follows his example and prepares for the end of days by doing something useful. The men find dignity through their work, and get to go on dangerous submarine scouting missions. In their spare time they drive fast cars. Moira however goes in for mending Dwight's clothes and learning shorthand and typing. Well, the book was written in the 1950s, and the author was rather middle-class.

The minor character Douglas Froude also deserves a mention. He's great-uncle to John Osborne, the scientific officer. As a member of the Pastoral Club Froude discovers "over three thousand bottles of vintage port still left in the cellars," and when asked what he's going to do about it, he says there's only one thing to do, "Drink it, my boy, drink it - every drop." Here again, it's perfectly acceptable for the old goat to drink himself into a stupor, whereas Moira "drinks too much. Still, she does it on brandy they tell me, so that makes a difference."

On the Beach very much reflects the decade in which it was written. If you can get over that, it's a great premise. Initially one might find it ridiculous to imagine that in the face of certain death most people would just continue to go about their daily lives, but by the end, one wonders if that might actually be the best thing to do.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Growing wealth, endless greed

The Privileges Jonathan Dee's The Privileges is less a story, more a character study of a family. It's divided into four parts. In part one, we join Adam Morey and his fiancee Cynthia on their wedding day. Six years later, in part two, the couple have two small children, April and Jonas. By part three, the children are teenagers, and in the fourth section April and Jonas are in their early twenties.

The narrative explores Adam and Cynthia's growing wealth and endless greed. Even when "there was enough for them to live on for the rest of their lives," Adam still thought of money only in terms "of how it might be used to make more money." Adam has no qualms about boosting his funds by insider trading, and Cynthia is often contemptuous of anyone outside her close family, such as "those moms she despised, the ones you made small talk with while you waited for your kid." The fortune they amassed didn't make their children happy. April was "scared of poor people" and had no idea how to fill her days other than by getting wasted on drugs and alcohol. Jonas, whose "first minute of brain activity after waking generated so much anxiety" found some meaning in music and in studying art, but is unable to renounce his privilege, agreeing to let his mother "send the jet for him so he could at least spend a week at home."

The Morey family is overwhelmingly isolated and self-absorbed. They may be involved in charitable giving, but their relentless pursuit of wealth, their sense of privilege and how they treat others make them morally corrupt. It reminded me of Thackeray's Vanity Fair with its subtitle "A Novel without a Hero. There are no heroes in Jonathan Dee's book either.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

A man who had given his best years to puddings

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin David Nobbs's Reggie Perrin is "a man who had given his best years to puddings," and wonders in his mid-forties what the point of it all has been. His relationship with his wife has become stale and he has no enthusiasm for his job. What is he to do?

Having watched The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin on TV in the 1970s and in 2009, I knew exactly what Reggie would do, but I wanted to see if there were differences between the book and the adaptation.

The story is the same, but the book is darker without the canned laughter track, and its sex scenes are more explicit, tho' not gratuitous. Its style of writing is straight-forward, with plenty of dialogue, as if it was written with the intention of adapting it. David Nobbs's descriptions are imaginative, such as a motorcycle's "tactless virility", a sunset "to set shepherds dancing in ecstasy", waiters with "sound-proof shoes and double-glazed eyes", and "good grey nonconformist Sunday rain". I remember the TV series to be mostly about Reggie's mid-life crisis and how he questioned his success and happiness, but the book raises issues about how isolated we can become in our own lives and communities, and what little we know about the people we are closest to.

Overall it's a good story peopled with funny characters, plenty of humour and memories of 1970s Britain.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

What it meant to be a girl

The Seraphim Room The Seraphim Room by Edith Olivier is a story driven by the character of Mr Chilvester, twice widowed, and living with his two daughters: the invalid Lilian, and the teenage Emily. The lease on their home passes through the male line, and Mr Chilvester, knowing that "the name of the family would die with him," transfers all his passion into his house.

The story is set shortly after 1928 and the passing of the "Flappers' Vote." It relates what happens when the intransigence of Mr Chilvester comes up against Emily's romantic aspirations and the youthful exuberance of the young architect, Christopher Honeythorne. Chilvester is an old-fashioned Victorian patriarch, whereas Honeythorne shows all the spirit and modernism of the Roaring Twenties. Initially Chilvester appears quite comical, but when his authority is threatened the darkness of his character is revealed.

Edith Olivier's writing style is rather old-fashioned and reflects the class and period of the subject matter. The characters' actions may seem far-fetched, but there are still plenty of parents alive today whose religion or upbringing have taught them, like Chilvester, to think that "Lillian, being only a girl, meant nothing."

Sunday, 28 July 2019

David or Donny?

Kill the Boy Band First there was "Sinatramania", then there was Elvis, and in the 60s it was The Beatles. When I was ten years old, I passionately defended David Cassidy and vilified Donny Osmond. The Bay City Rollers, Bros, Take That; Goldy Moldavsky's book, Kill the Boy Band, will speak to anyone who has had a teenage crush on an inaccessible, world-famous popstar.

The story begins in a hotel suite, where Rupert P., member of The Ruperts, is tied to a chair with a pair of tights. Four Strepurs, as fans of the band call themselves, are discussing what to do, and one of them, a self-confessed liar who is in therapy, narrates the story.

Labeled as a YA book, it's a very easy read, written in a casual and chatty style, with a lot of humour. There's a dark side too, raising questions about obsession, friendship and mental health. I found myself, early on, thinking if I would be chuckling quite so much if it were a bunch of teenage lads who had captured a female pop star.

You have to suspend disbelief at a couple of plot points, but overall it's a fast-moving, entertaining who-dunnit mystery.

As for David or Donny, you be the judge:

Friday, 26 July 2019

My return caused only confusion and uneasiness

Travels with Charley: In Search of America Towards the end of his life, John Steinbeck took a road trip across America, "determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land." He converts a truck into a mobile home he calls Rocinante, and sets off with only his aged French poodle, Charley, for company.

Steinbeck's relationship with Charley forms the major part of the book's charm. The author's love for his dog shines through, and Charley's scenes are written with a great deal of humour.

What Steinbeck finds along the way are "the mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use," and he muses on "the wild and reckless exuberance of our production." He asserts that "a beard is the one thing a woman cannot do better than a man, or if she can her success is assured only in a circus," and questions what drives "millions of armed American males to forests and hills every autumn,", thinking that "somehow the hunting process has to do with masculinity, but I don't quite know how."

The later parts of the book were the most engaging. Steinbeck visits his native Salinas, California, where his emigrant status has made him a stranger:
the "town had grown and changed and my friend along with it. Now returning, as changed to my friend as my town was to me, I distorted his picture, muddied his memory. When I went away I had died, and so became fixed and unchangeable. My return caused only confusion and uneasiness. Although they could not say it, my old friends wanted me gone so that I could take my proper place in the pattern of remembrance -- and I wanted to go for the same reason."

Steinbeck's road then leads through Texas, his wife's state, and New Orleans, where Ruby Bridges was making history as the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school. After this, he made his way back to New York, tired of traveling, glad to return home.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Nothing to lose, everything to walk for

The Salt Path What would you do if you lost your home and your source of income, then your partner of 30 years was diagnosed with an incurable, degenerative disease? In Raynor Winn's case, she decided to walk the South West Coast Path to give her and husband Moth a couple of months to consider their options.

The couple survived on benefits income of 48 GBP a week, living in a tent, eating packet-noodles. In spite of the hardship, "a wet sleeping bag in a wet tent on a windy headland," Winn says "I was grateful that I wasn't on a piece of cardboard behind the bins in a back alley."

The Salt Path shows how Raynor and Moth, both in their 50s, survive the complete breakdown of the life they had built for themselves. But it is more than that. It holds a mirror to how society treats homeless people: the unwarranted fear and vindictiveness of some and the unstinting generosity of others.

Ray Winn talks frankly about what the knowledge of being homeless does to a person, and how it can affect relationships with friends and family. The couple were "intensely grateful" to one friend who offered them free accommodation in a shed in return for converting it into a holiday rental. However the arrangement leaves Winn "hollow inside," where "days had no meaning, just a repetition of toil with no purpose for us, other than to keep warm and dry. I was alone among friends. Homelessness had taught me that however much people think they want to help you, when you enter their home, you quickly become a cuckoo in their nest, a guest that outstays their welcome. Or their usefulness."

It was interesting to have read this journey immediately after finishing Josie Dew's Slow Coast Home. Josie, a successful writer with her own business, chooses to cycle around England, wild camping when necessary, and occasionally making free use of camp sites when the pitch fees are over-priced. Ray and Moth do exactly the same. Does one have the same opinion of Josie and Ray? They both pitch their tents "illegally", but are we more accepting of one than the other? This was what I really liked about the book, that it challenges one's own assumptions about those who are on the street: they might be homeless, might be refugees from poverty or conflict, down on their luck, travellers searching for a better life.

In conclusion, The Salt Path is an uplifting book about self-determination, fortitude, hope and love. Here's how Ray describes it:
"We could have stopped, but we had nothing to lose and everything to walk for. We were free here, battered by the elements, hungry, tired, cold, but free. Free to walk on or not, to stop or not. Not camping out with friends or family, being a burden, becoming an irritation, wearing friendship away to just tolerance. Here we were still in control of our life, of our own outcomes, our own destiny. The water ran from our rucksacks as we put them on our back. We chose to walk and seized the freedom that came with that choice."

Sunday, 7 July 2019

The perfect date to start a bike ride

Slow Coast Home Reading Josie Dew's Slow Coast Home is very much like cycling: plenty of ups and downs, and a few diversions.

Josie says she "never planned to cycle around the coast of the British Isles. It just happened that way," which is a very pithy description of the book. I didn't really believe she had done no planning, but when 40% of the way in she had only got as far as Plymouth, a mere 185 miles from home, it seemed more likely that she had been telling the truth.

Some of the experiences were uplifting, such as a ride over Exmoor when the weather was "cruel and painful and penetratingly cold, but it all combined to add to the acute intensity and elation of the ride." Others were appalling, as when she relates that one of four lads in a car "leant out of a back window and gobbed me full in the face." Josie's humour is sometimes ponderous, and sometimes wonderfully mischievous with puns: after being forced to perform certain functions SAS-style in her tent, she professed herself, "light in spirit, and even lighter in buttock, with that rewarding feeling of a job well done." My favourite bit was Chapter 16, in which she discusses the problems of travelling with a bike on a train, something which I used to do a lot around about when Josie's first book, The Wind in My Wheels, was published.

Much as I admire Josie, I found the book a frustrating read. Up to half way through there had been so many detours that I really didn't think it was going anywhere. She went out of her way to holiday with friends, was called back home to publicise her books and cater for parties, and was twice forced to abandon the adventure due to health problems. That's not counting the number of stops to buy bananas and eat bananas. I just wanted her to get on with the journey.

One final note: I must call Josie out on her claim that "there was nothing special" about the day she sets out from home, Wednesday, 25th April. To give her the benefit of the doubt, I have never read anything that mentions what her favourite movies are, so she's probably not aware that April 25th, according to Miss Rhode Island, is the perfect date.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Expertise with agricultural implements

Mort (Discworld, #4, Death, #1) I really wanted to like Terry Pratchett's Discworld fantasy series, which many friends have raved about. A brief survey identified Mort as "the best", and since it's only the fourth in the series, I didn't think it would be difficult to get to grips with the peculiarities of Pratchett's imaginary world.

When we first meet the eponymous character, he's "tall, red-haired and freckled with the sort of body that seems to be only marginally under its owner's control; it appeared to have been built out of knees." Nonetheless, the lad is taken on as an apprentice by Death. It's a sort coming-of-age story for Mort, but the book's star character is really Death.

The premise was interesting: what happens if someone interferes with fate in a world where the moment and method of one's death is fixed. And up to about half way through, I was enjoying it, but it just sort of tailed off and became tedious. Apart from Death, in the second half of the book I couldn't bring myself to care about the characters, Mort included.

Pratchett's humour and descriptions kept me reading tho': "the sort of smile that lies on sandbanks waiting for incautious swimmers", the flooding of the river "brought to the region prosperity, security and chronic arthritis", "porridge, which led a private life of its own in the depths of its saucepan and ate spoons", "shoulders hunched like vulture's wings", and Death's consideration of his own particular skill, "a certain amount of expertise with agricultural implements."

But it wasn't enough to raise my curiosity for exploring Discworld further.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Water, shelter, clothes and olive oil: the primitive necessities of life

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 Lionel Shriver's The Mandibles: a family, 2029-2047 mostly takes place in the near future of 2029, when the collapse of the US economy leads to the collapse of society. Set primarily in the suburbs of New York, it relates how four generations of one family, many of whom think of "the primitive necessities of life as fresh water, shelter, clothing, and extra-virgin olive oil", deal with sudden and utter destitution.

This was the premise that interested me, but it took at least a third of the book to get to it. Before that, there was lot of rather tedious dialogue, which was unfortunately necessary to explain the economics behind the plot. With such a large family and so many characters, it was occasionally confusing working out who was speaking.

Perhaps the most important characters are Nollie, the expat author who returns to live with her niece Florence, and Florence's son Willing. I liked the feisty septuagenarian Nollie, but preferred the teenage Willing, who quietly observed what was happening, and sensibly prepared for the future. I also felt a certain affinity with Florence, her frugality and humanity.

In addition to the theme of societal breakdown, Shriver had plenty to say about how the expectation of a tidy inheritance can skew familial relationships and lead to stupid actions. There's plenty of dark humour too, nothing laugh-out-loud, but when "real poverty is about doing what you have to do as opposed to what you want", you probably need to have a sense of humour to cope.

Overall, although I appreciated The Mandibles, I think that Lionel Shriver probably found a lot more enjoyment in the writing of it than I found in its reading.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

For the librarians

People of the Book How could I not enjoy Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book, when her dedication states "for the librarians"?

The story is about Hannah, an Australian book conservationist who has been asked to restore a treasured Hebrew codex (based on the real Sarajevo Haggadah). Brooks takes us back through time from 1996 to 1480, revealing a fictional creator of the haggadah in Seville and its various protectors on its journey through Tarragona, Venice, Vienna and Sarajevo. Interspersed with the backwards tale, is the story of Hannah's life, her research and relationships. Some reviewers have said they disliked Hannah, but I found her appealing, and enjoyed the strange relationship she had with her mother.

I bought the book because it's partly set in Tarragona and I had a trip planned in that part of Spain. Knowing very little of 15th century Spanish history, I found descriptions of the Spanish Inquisition methods gruesome and was shocked by the way in which the Jews were expelled. It certainly coloured my viewing of an exhibition of 15th century religious art whilst on holiday.

On the whole, the ending was too contrived for my taste, but I take issue with the many comments that compare the book with Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which I've also read. People of the Book is not at all like Dan Brown's thriller which, if memory serves me, was based on rather dodgy "history". Its "surprise" revelation was easily guessed if you'd read Holy Blood, Holy Grail The Secret History of Jesus, the Shocking Legacy of the Grail. In contrast, Brooks's story is anchored in the intriguing origin and survival of a real thing, based on proper research and benefiting from a foreign correspondent's journalistic knowledge. I also preferred Brooks's theme that, "to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox."


After visiting Valencia I made my way to Tarragona and visited the Maricel Museum in nearby Sitges. There was a dreadful dissonance between the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition and the loving message of Christianity and its gorgeous religious art.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Valencia holiday preparation

The Mayflower; A Tale of the Valencian Seashore Flor de Mayo (Mayflower) is the story of a family living in the late 19th century Valencian fishing community. It begins when Tona is widowed by the death at sea of her husband, "the most thrifty saver of all savers," "a fisherman in winter and a smuggler in summer." The resourceful Tona opens a tavern on the beach, using the upturned wreck of her husband's boat as her home and workplace. She raises her two fatherless sons alone, until she falls for Martinez, a handsome Andalusian and a cad.

The book relates what happens to Tona and her family, their fortunes, misfortunes and adventures.

Vicente Blasco Ibanez paints a vivid picture of the small fishing community where everyone knows everyone else's business. His description of the fish wives and their antics at the market are especially enjoyable, and he dramatically evokes the terrifying, destructive violence of storms at sea. The style is unsentimental and non-moralizing, and the English translation is fine, if a little old-fashioned.

Flor de Mayo is one of four Blasco Ibanez books that depict rural life around Valencia and it's a great read if you're planning a trip to that region of Spain. Although the story is set over a century ago, I'm looking forward to seeing many of the buildings, districts and towns mentioned in the text.


I had a great holiday in Valencia, taking in a celebration of the city football team's victory in the 2018-19 Copa del Rey and a exhibition of images by 19th century photographer Jean Laurent. His photos brought to life many of the scenes described in The Mayflower, including this one of the oxen that beached and launched the fishing boats.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

It's not about Mormonism

Educated "This story is not about Mormonism," states Tara Westover in the Introduction to her memoir, Educated. As such, you won't find much in the book that is critical of the author's fundamentalist upbringing. Plenty of bad things happen, often due to wilful negligence, but no blame is attributed.

So what is the story about? If it's not about how religious beliefs can twist logic, maybe it's about how toxic patriarchy within families prevents women from living their lives as they choose. But again, there's no criticism of this in the book. The fact that wives and daughters are in danger of being abused seems to raise no emotion. Who will look out for Tara's sister-in-law and her children? Does anyone care? The message seems to be that it's up to the woman to sort herself out, just as Tara did. It's no-one else's problem.

Educated then, is about just one woman's desire to learn, and the conflict that that desire produced, both within herself and her family. It's about taking individual responsibility for your life. All very inspiring, but for this reader, ultimately self-centred and unsatisfying.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Daphne du Maurier's Brexit vision

Rule Britannia (VMC Book 304) Emma awakes one morning to the sound of aircraft overhead, an American warship at anchor in the bay, and US Marines making their way through the fields. Following its exit from the Common Market (European Union), Britain, with high unemployment and close to bankruptcy, has formed a coalition with America.

So opens Rule Britannia, in a rural area on the coast of Cornwall, where Emma lives with her grandmother Mad and her six adopted boys. The arrival of the US Marines is intended to be a peaceful precursor to the establishment of the USUK coalition, but when a soldier shoots the local farmer's sheep dog, it sets off a series of events that transforms the situation into a military occupation.

What unfolds, is how Emma and Mad deal with the threat to their family and community. We follow the story from Emma's point of view, and although she appears to react to the situation very differently to her grandmother, we're told at the beginning of the book, "they were equal in power, she and Mad, they were identical faces on either side of a coin.".

Never having experienced life under occupation, I can't comment on Du Maurier's opinion that the "old mocked, the young threw sand and stones," and that "it was only the middle-aged and the up-and-coming who collaborated with the invaders." But it does seem likely that in the face of restrictions on liberty, one would need to remain positive and perhaps use humour to cope. Throughout the narrative, Du Maurier switches back and forth between the humorous actions of Mad and her boys and the invading forces' increasingly vicious, repressive treatment of the community. For example, there's a recurring joke involving the older boys teaching the 3-year-old Ben new words. They start with "shit," then move on to other four-letter words. It's not laugh-out-loud humour, but it serves to counterpoint the violence of military occupation.

I prefer Du Maurier's Don't Look Now and Other Stories, and of course Rebecca. But Rule Britannia's plot and subject matter can't really be compared to these. The writing style is a little old fashioned and consequently the characters feel as if they are rooted in upper class 1930s-1950s English society, which they are. But it's an easy read and left me musing over such questions as at what age should a child be held responsible for committing serious crimes, how the acquisition and loss of power changes people, and where one's loyalties should usefully be placed on the scale of family, community, nation, continent and world.

Friday, 26 April 2019

A toxic relationship

Deep Water In Deep Water Patricia Highsmith has created a truly toxic relationship. Vic Van Allen's courtship of his wife Melinda was "like breaking a wild horse", but after several years of marriage and the birth of a daughter, Trixie, "she was not attractive to him as a woman." The couple live separately in the same house, where Melinda invites her men-friends and gets drunk with them, and where Vic tends his herbs and snails.

On the surface Vic accepts his wife's extra-marital affairs with dispassion, but his actions portray a deeper rage. He is constantly looking to score petty points over Melinda. At friends' parties, he won't dance "simply because his wife liked to dance." At home he stays "up until four or five or even seven in the morning," simply because his wife's male guest "would have preferred him to retire and leave him alone" with her. It is truly a pernicious relationship.

Deep Water traces Vic's gradual breakdown and the explosive release of his bottled-up emotions. It's like watching a car approach a cliff edge, the driver ignoring the warning signs, the outcome inevitable.

Although I enjoyed the book, preferred Highsmith's earlier Strangers on a Train for its suspense. Deep Water's set-up was not entirely credible. Why on earth did Melinda stay with Vic? The most sensible and normal character is the six-year-old Trixie, but one wonders what will become of her with such toxic parents.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

A very satisfying ending

The Devotion of Suspect X By the end of Chapter Two of The Devotion of Suspect X, author Keigo Higashino has put the reader in the shoes of TV's Detective Columbo. It's an inverted detective story: we've seen a murder take place and we know who's committed it. Yasuko has killed her violent ex-husband Togashi. Neighbour Ishigami, a mathematical genius who keeps himself to himself has overheard the crime. He also happens to have a crush on Yasuko and offers to deal with the body and arrange things so that she will never be found guilty.

The remainder of the story follows Detective Kusanagi's investigation and the help he receives from his brilliant physicist friend Yukawa, aka Detective Galileo.

Ishigami's genius is to have created a mystery which appears to have logical answers, but which the detective's instinct tells him are wrong. I too kept thinking, there must be more to the story than meets the eye. Indeed, the clues are there, but they are well hidden and I didn't work it out before the reveal. A very satisfying ending.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

An elegant death

The Sweet Dove Died (Bello) When we first meet Leonora Eyre, she speaks with "mock humility," which tells you, in two words, what a self-centred creature this middle-aged, unmarried woman is. The Sweet Dove Died spans about a year of her life.

After successfully bidding for a Victorian book of flowers, Leonora becomes light-headed and is helped out of the auction room by Humphrey Boyce and his nephew James, antique dealers. The two men become rivals for the affection of Leonora, who clearly prefers James, but the friendship develops only because the young man is willing to play along with the woman's need to be assured of her elegance and dignity.

Everything seems to go well, until Ned, James's manipulative American friend enters their lives. He exposes the characters as they truly are, the "glitter of his personality making Leonora seem no more than an ageing overdressed woman, [-] and James and Humphrey a callow young man with his pompous uncle." They are all dislikable.

The secondary characters garner a lot more sympathy. Meg had her own problematic friendship with a younger, gay man and recognised "the need to accept people as they are and to love them whatever they did." Liz "loved cats more than people," and Phoebe, with her "raw outpouring of feelings" that made James "feel so guilty."

Leonora did not make friends of women. She regarded them as "a foil for herself, particularly if, as usually happened, they were less attractive and elegant than she was." Not a pleasant person.

It's the second of Barbara Pym's books I've read. There's more humour in Excellent Women and the protagonist, 30-year-old spinster Mildred Lathbury, is more likeable. In The Sweet Dove Died, Leonora might be what Mildred would become, an older, menopausal spinster who has spent her days in splendid, narcissistic isolation. Its darkly humourous treatment of aging and death is somewhat comparable to Muriel Spark's Memento Mori. Leonora believed "there was no reason why one's death should not, in its own way, be as elegant as one's life, and one would do everything possible to make it so." It seems rather sad to dismiss other ways of living a full life for such a superficial concept.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Some things you've got to stop thinking about

A Kind of Intimacy Annie Fairhurst wants to start a new life. When A Kind of Intimacy opens, she is dancing naked around the home she is leaving, kicking the sofa she has always hated. You might think her reaction a bit strange, but in the circumstances, understandable. How did she put up with the hated sofa for so long? "What starts off as intolerable, [-] eventually becomes merely irritating and in time, in a matter of months or years, you become immune to it. You've got to, haven't you? Some things you've got to stop thinking about, or you'd never survive." Annie gradually reveals throughout the rest of the book what it is she has to stop thinking about.

Annie's awkward attempts to make friends of her new neighbours are sad and funny. You can see how she might take a dislike to Lucy next door, who makes derogatory comments about Annie's knickers "on the line: like bloody parachutes." With anger management problems and an inability to read friendly signals, Annie see-saws between absolutely terrifying and painfully embarrassing. I often wished I could put my hand over my eyes and read through my fingers.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

The law does not always punish the guilty

Anatomy of a Scandal "The truth is a tricky issue," asserts prosecuting barrister Kate Woodcroft QC, at the beginning of Anatomy of a Scandal. After losing a case, the "forty-two years old; divorced, single, childless" woman is reflecting on the nature of the justice system in the UK, in which "you can win even if the evidence is stacked against you provided that you argue better." At the end of the chapter, Kate is presented with her next case.

We're then introduced to Sophie Whitehouse, "the most calm and controlled of individuals, who was brought up to temper any unpleasant feelings with dry humour or to keep them firmly suppressed." Her husband James is an up-and-coming junior minister and close friend of the Prime Minister. In the morning Sophie is a happy mother and wife, but by the evening her world is thrown into disarray by the discovery of her husband's five-month affair with his parliamentary researcher, Olivia Lytton. Handsome and charming, "someone who exercises strong self-control and is capable of great discipline," James confesses to the affair, but worse is soon to come, when Olivia accuses him of rape. This is the case that Kate must prosecute.

Sarah Vaughan see-saws the narrative of the story between the present day court case in London, and twenty-three years earlier at Oxford University, where James and Sophie met. We discover that something significant happened during their student days, and for the canny reader, the text carries plenty of clues.

It's a fast-moving story and covers several themes, including privilege, 'relationship' rape, and especially justice, or rather injustice, since "the law does not always punish the guilty."

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

A pair of star-crossed lovers

Brighton Rock A stick of Brighton rock is sickly sweet, often pink, and so hard it can break your teeth. It's a perfect metaphor for Pinkie Brown, the nasty protagonist of Graham Greene's book.

The story opens with Hale the journalist who's visiting the English seaside town of Brighton on a bank holiday weekend. In the guise of Kolley Kibber he surreptitiously places cards in public places, which entitle the finder to ten shillings (about 25 GBP today). His mind is not on his job 'tho, because he knows the local mob will murder him before the day is out.

Graham Greene admitted in an introduction to the 1970 edition of the book that he had intended to write "a simple detective story", but ended up with a book that discusses "the distinction between good-and-evil and right-and-wrong and the mystery of the 'appalling strangeness of the mercy of God'."

Pinkie and his girlfriend Rose have both been raised as "Romans," understanding the consequences of mortal sin, the concepts of Heaven and Hell. Together, the characters serve to highlight what is evil and what is good. "What was most evil in him needed her: it couldn't get along without goodness." Their beliefs are different to those of Ida Arnold, amateur detective and nemesis of Pinkie. She is "a bit sly, a bit earthy, having a good time." Her morality doesn't depend on what happens after death, it comes from a living sense of what's right and what's wrong: "Vengeance was Ida's, just as much as reward was Ida's, the soft gluey mouth affixed in taxis, the warm handclasp in cinemas, the only reward there was. And vengeance and reward, they both were fun."

Apart from Ida's optimism and joie-de-vivre, Brighton Rock is a bleak read. There can be no salvation for Pinkie, and under his influence, Rose's desire for martyrdom is particularly grim. The poverty caused by the 1930s Great Depression in the UK infuses the novel too, when a "twopenny ice from an Everest tricycle" was the only luxury. Thankfully, the enjoyment of excellent literature does not depend on it being light and happy. Pinkie and Rose are just as captivating as that other pair of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet.

Other stuff

Check out the excellent Brighton Rock (1948) movie with a screenplay written by Greene and Terence Rattigan. It stars Richard Attenborough as Pinkie and the original Doctor Who, William Hartnell as Dallow.

The book has also been adapted for stage twice (1943 by Frank Harvey and 2018 by Bryony Lavery), for radio in 1997, turned into a musical in 2004, and a second film in 2010.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Power and powerlessness

The God of Small Things The God of Small Things opens with the return of Rahel to her childhood home in Ayemenem, in the south-west of India and to her twin brother Estha. Why did she leave? "It all began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem."

Arundhati Roy has said that the theme of much of what she writes is "the relationship between power and powerlessness and the endless, circular conflict they're engaged in." In The God of Small Things, there are characters who attempt to escape their 'powerlessness', and those who scheme to maintain, at all costs, their superior position. Within the family, divorced Ammu and her twins must be informed "of their place in the scheme of things." Baby Kochamma resented her niece Amma, "because she saw her quarrelling with a fate that she, Baby Kochamma herself, felt she had graciously accepted."

The incessant pettiness and bitterness throughout the tale makes for quite a depressing read, and that's before considering the 'laws' of interraction that must be upheld not only when dealing with different classes, religions, ideologies, gender or nationalities, but also between members within these societal constructs. In the book, prejudice and contempt are manifestations of "unacknowledged fear - civilization's fear of nature, men's fear of women, power's fear of powerlessness," and eventually, in one of the most shocking scenes, "man's subliminal urge to destroy what he could neither subdue nor deify."

The narrative jumps between the present and the past and occasionally the writing style is exhausting and creates a barrier to moving the story forwards. However, there are vivid images that jump from the text, for instance the "dissolute bluebottles" that "hum vacuously" in the hot May weather, and Baby Kochamma's feet that are "puffy with oedema, like little foot-shaped air cushions."

By the end of the book we realise that, "to say that it all began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem is only one way of looking at it. [-] it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.

Other stuff

John Crace digested classic in The Guardian

Friday, 15 February 2019

'Tis not wealth makes men

Moonfleet Moonfleet is a cracking good children's adventure story with a moral. It begins with John Trenchard, aged 15, inspired by a story of buried treasure. He sets out to make his fortune by finding it.

John himself relates the tale, and most of the action takes place on the Dorset coast, in and around the fictional village of Moonfleet where he lives. The residents are poor but generally happy, as they make the most of what little they have. John becomes a surrogate son to Elzevier Block, a noble character in spite of his smuggling exploits. Dastardly Magistrate Maskew's betrays the villagers to the Revenue men. John's Aunt Jane, who raised him after the death of his parents, was "too strict and precise ever to make [him] love her", and Grace Maskew is rather too saintly to be credible. But the characters are not as important as the adventure which takes John far from the home he loves.

J Meade Falkner wrote the book in 1898 and set it in the mid-1700s, so the writing style is old-fashioned. Regardless, his descriptions of the sea are wonderfully vivid, and readers may experience feelings of giddiness and vertigo in the episode when John and Elzevier escape customs officers by climbing a cliff.

By the end of the book, young readers may have learned "'tis not wealth makes men", and that "a good woman's love is worth far more than all the gold and jewels of the world".

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Regretting is always pointless

Moon Tiger "Regretting is always pointless, since there is no undoing". So says Claudia Hampton as she lies dying in a hospital bed. She has been writing "a history of the world. [-] The Life and Times of Claudia H."

Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger is Claudia's story, primarily narrated by Claudia herself, warts and all. Working as a war correspondent in Egypt during WW2, she describes herself as "by far the best looking [woman in a predominantly male occupation]. As well as the most resourceful, the most astute, the least deceivable. And the most immodest." She is dismissive of her brother Gordon's wife Sylvia, and leaves a lot to be desired as a mother, admitting, "I was no good at kissing away tears or telling bedtime stories -any mother can do that: my uses were potentially far more significant." But one can't help admiring her, and feeling a great deal of sympathy for her.

The writing style may initially put some readers off. Sections shift between Claudia's personal voice and a narrator that tells the story from other characters' points of view. It also moves between the present and past tenses, so readers need to concentrate. It's well worth the effort tho'.

Friday, 1 February 2019

People like us don't go to plays, let alone act in them

An Awfully Big Adventure An Awfully Big Adventure opens with a mystery. A girl, who we soon discover is Stella Bradshaw, insists she's "not the only one at fault" whilst an adult, Rose, declares "God forgive us, but it'll be good for business." Beryl Bainbridge then slowly reveals the events that have led to this tragic occurrence, and explains what Stella's role has been.

The story is set in a Liverpool repertory theatre company shortly after WW2, inspired by Bainbridge's own experiences working at the Liverpool Playhouse. Stella's Uncle Vernon encourages her to take up acting and takes her to the theatre for a job. Meredith the director, and Bunny the stage manager make it " plain to Stella that neither man liked the look of her", but spite of this, the girl develops an unrequited crush on Meredith.

It's worth noting that the book's title is a reference to Peter Pan, and the Epigraph quotes several lines spoken by The Lost Boys, which is one of the plays staged by the theatre company. Stella's own mother "lost" her, and much of the girl's character is defined by this. The story also deals with relationships and sex from a humorous, working class perspective. Stella's sexual knowledge is gleaned from library books, which told her "Penetration [-] was inescapably painful unless one had played a lot of tennis or ridden stallions." Her attitude was that "It had to happen sometime and now was as good a time as any. She wanted to get it over with." People like her didn't talk about these things, "Emotions weren't like washing. There was no call to peg them out for all the world to view."

It's the second Beryl Bainbridge book I've read, the first being The Bottle Factory Outing. Both deserve a second reading, as it took several chapters to get into them. In An Awfully Big Adventure, there are an awful lot of characters to remember, and it didn't help that two names, Dotty and Dawn, were similar. The writing style can suddenly jump from one scene to another without warning, as does the narrative point of view. However, by half way through I was hooked, and the ending was very satisfying.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

The past is a foreign country

The Go-betweenIn The Go-Between, Leo Colston, aged 60, finds his childhood diary and through its pages relives a traumatic event that impacted the course of his life. It was during the hot summer of 1900, when, approaching his 13th birthday, Leo spent three weeks in Norfolk with his schoolfriend, Marcus. He is eager to please Marcus's sister Marian, admires the rough masculinity of the farmer Ted, and is deferential to the aristocrat, Hugh.

L.P. Hartley has so beautifully crafted the character of Leo that it's impossible not to feel sorry for the youth. He is a self-conscious boy, ruled by the unspoken codes that ensure his survival at school. Unfortunately these do not transfer to the world of grown-ups. Leo's naivety leaves him utterly confused by the language and social mores of the world in which he finds himself, and leads to a fateful misapprehension of the complexities of adult relationships.

It's perhaps inevitable too, that the misunderstandings provide some humour in the story. An exchange between Leo and Marian is a worthy predecessor of The Two Ronnie's Fork Handles sketch :
Hugh asked me to tell you -
I asked you to tell me?
No, not you, Hugh.
Not you, you, [-] I can't understand a word you say.
No, [-] Hugh, you know, Hugh.
Yes, of course I know myself.
It's not you, it's Viscount Hugh.
Oh, Hugh. [-] How stupid of me.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Fast-paced page-turner for horror aficionados

Rosemary's BabyA creepy castle, a woman in distress, disturbing dreams and much, much more. Rosemary's Baby is a classic gothic horror story that takes place, not in the middle of nowhere, but right in the heart of New York City.

It starts with a young, married couple, the Woodhouses, moving into The Bramford apartment building, much in demand for its period features, "weird, gargoyles and creatures climbing up and down between the windows." Rosemary is a little insecure, having been rejected by her large, Catholic family because she moved away from home and married a Protestant. Guy, her husband, is an ambitious actor, full of self-confidence. Everyone seems envious of their good fortune in obtaining a flat in The Bram, except for Hutch, Rosemary's paternal, English friend. However the couple ignore Hutch's misgivings and are soon getting to know their strange neighbours.

Ira Levin published the story in 1967, and 50 years on, some of the characters' actions, as well as the plot machinations, teeter on the verge of incredulity. Initially, much of it relies on Rosemary's unwillingness to appear unfriendly, her choosing to ignore Guy's "signals of a shortcoming in his love for her," and his frankly appalling idea of sexual "fun." Nevertheless, it is a well-written, fast-paced page-turner of a book and a must-read for aficionados of horror.

Friday, 11 January 2019

What happens when the ones we love are enemies of the state

Home FireThe ones we love ... are enemies of the state, writes Kamila Shamsie in the epigraph to her book Home Fire. The story then, is about what happens when a family member joins a group of people whose actions are seen to be dangerous to society. It is also a contemporary telling of the ancient Greek tale of Antigone.

In the opening pages, Isma, a young woman, is stopped at the airport on her way to America on a student visa. We find out that when her parents died she had to abandon her studies in order to raise her sibling twins, a brother and sister.

The story is told from the points of view of Isma and four other characters: Eamonn, a young man and distant relative of Isma; Parvaiz, Isma's nineteen-year-old brother; Aneeka, his twin sister; Karamat, Eamonn's father. It is a tragedy about a naive boy manipulated into fighting for ISIL, believing that he will discover the truth about the father he never knew. In addition, it raises questions about the corrupting influence of power and ambition, the dangers of keeping secrets, grief, love for family, and what it is to be a man.