Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Friday, 15 October 2021

You've obviously forgotten what it's like

Black Swan Green In Black Swan Green David Mitchell has brilliantly recreated the struggles of a teenage boy who's trying to make sense of the world. It's narrated by the thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor in thirteen chapters, each representing a month in his life from January 1982 to January 1983.

Jason has plenty of problems and several secrets.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Like visiting friends you've not seen for ages

Nightrise (A Philip Dryden Mystery) What a pleasure to revisit Ely and the Fens of eastern England in Jim Kelly's crime mystery novel Nightrise. It's a couple of years since I read my last Philip Dryden book, The Skeleton Man, and this one is set five years after the fictional journalist's previous outing.

It was a bit like visiting friends you've not seen for ages and who have hardly changed. Dryden's wife Laura has come out of her coma and just given birth to their son. The Crow, the local newspaper where Dryden works, is struggling in the new media climate. Humph is still driving the journalist around and learning foreign languages, this time Estonian.

The story takes place over one week and as with previous Dryden mysteries, weaves together several seemingly unconnected events. It touches on how the death of a loved one affects people, how deaths are registered, identity theft, and IT changes in journalism.

One of the things that Jim Kelly always does well is describing the Fens. Chapter 15 is particular vivid, when Dryden witnesses a re-flooding.
"the landscape was lifeless, which made the sky the most important facet of all, because it was the only moving, living thing. And so it didn’t matter how much water they let through the sluices, the sky would always be there; in fact, there’d be more of it, reflected in the water. Not a sea at all, or even a lake, carrying the inverted outlines of hills or mountains, pine trees, or lakeside homes; but instead just more sky."
There's not much to dislike in Nightrise. Only a churlish nerd would point out that the iMac laptop isn't a thing, but you can overlook that. It's best read in summer rather than in the middle of a cold snap, since it's set during a heatwave. Although the backstory is explained, making it unnecessary to read the previous five books, more enjoyment is gained if you've been with Dryden since 2003's The Water Clock. Re-discovering his immobile face "as if carved in stone on some cathedral tomb", that he's still finding food in his pockets that "he’d stowed away a few days earlier" and that Humph’s car's glove compartment is still "crammed with miniature spirits and wines" adds to the pleasure.

A good read for a dark and stormy night

The Small Hand Driving back from visiting a wealthy client in the south of England, Adam Snow takes a wrong turn and finds himself at the gate of a deserted house with an overgrown garden that used to be open to the public. As he stands in the silent dusk he "felt a small hand creep into my right one". So begins Susan Hill's ghost story, The Small Hand.

Don't believe the hype

Where the Crawdads Sing Here's one thing I liked about Delia Owens's Where the Crawdads Sing. It's a vivid description of the onset of a storm: "The wind hit first, rattling windows and hurling waves over the wharf." The use of the word hurling is very evocative. Unfortunately, that's about the only positive thing I have to say.

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Michael Collins - Mission Accomplished

Michael Collins (S69-31742, restoration)

I woke up to the sad news that Michael Collins had died. Five years ago the Apollo 11 astronaut inspired the first story I wrote that I was pleased with. I don't remember watching the Apollo 11 mission on TV, but there's plenty of information online which I used as research: Computers in Spaceflight: The NASA Experience, and Glamour: Would you go to Mars? Meet the four women astronauts who can't wait to go, and most importantly, the EP-72 Log of Apollo 11. Here's my story. Hope you enjoy it.




Mission Accomplished

“What are you doing there?”

Static crackled through the radio receiver.

Saturday, 3 April 2021

The everyday as exceptional

The Complete Talking Heads I studied Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at school and even forty years on I can recall, probably inaccurately, some of the wonderful language. The teacher had to explain what it was that would have made Queen Elizabeth 1 and her court laugh, although as a teenager it was enough to know that one of the characters is called Sir Toby Belch. The thing was tho', the play was rather dry and stolid on the page, and it was only when a group of us went to the theatre to see it performed that it came alive.

And so, I was wary of expecting too much from Alan Bennett's "The Complete Talking Heads",

Monday, 23 November 2020

A Marxist and a monarchist

The Untouchable The British royal family is an anachronism. Don't you find it odd in the 21st century that one family's wealth, prestige and standing is based on its claim to be descended from a French bastard who invaded England nearly 1000 years ago? Geneticists tell us that pretty much everyone with English ancestry is related to William the Conqueror, including Danny Dyer, who's traced his roots back to King Edward III. So why should Queen Elizabeth and her extended family be the exception and hang on to all the loot?

Thursday, 22 October 2020

A daft story with a philosophical theme

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang Imagine the scenario; climate change and ecological destruction has reached the point where a great catastrophe is about to unfold unless world leaders agree to "Turn off the factories, ground the airplanes, stop the mining, junk the cars." What would you do? If you're a member of the Sumners family in Kate Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, you decide to build your own hospital and research centre, and start cloning yourselves to save the human race.

Friday, 16 October 2020

A Dark-Adapted Eye. What's the truth?

A Dark-Adapted Eye I used to love the telly series Columbo. Peter Falk as the shuffling detective in his rumpled mac knew who'd committed the crime right from the beginning. He just had to work out how to catch 'em. In Barbara Vine's book A Dark-Adapted Eye we know there's been a murder, we know the murderer was Vera Hillyard, and we know she was hung for her crime.

Over thirty-five years Vera's family has tried to forget about the incident, and in their own ways have distanced themselves from it. The long dormant memories are reawakened when a true-crime writer contacts Faith Severn, the murderer's niece.

Friday, 25 September 2020

A Long Petal of the Sea? Not my cup of tea.

A Long Petal of the Sea Our book club choice for August was Isabel Allende's A Long Petal of the Sea, published in 2019. Len and Yvonne are fans of the Chilean writer and were keen to read it.

She's a new author for me. Allende's Wikipedia page was encouraging, mentioning magical realism and saying her novels are often based on historical events and real-life individuals. As for A Long Petal of the Sea, it ticked quite a few of my boxes. The opening part is set during the Spanish Civil War, a conflict I know little about, during a period of time that I find fascinating - the 1930s, economic depression, competing ideologies of Marxism and Fascism, the run-up to World War II. With a couple of weeks to spare before book club I read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and then sat down to immerse myself in Allende's tome.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Romantic fiction or psychological manipulation?

Mission to Monte Carlo I just read my first, and last, Barbara Cartland book, Mission to Monte Carlo. It's a piece of romantic fluff set at the turn of the 20th century and so absurd that I had to imagine it was a parody of itself in order to get to the end. But while I sniggered through its seven chapters, the "happy" ending left me uneasy and fearful for the future of its heroine. I know it's only fiction, but hear me out.

Spoiler Alert

Every Barbara Cartland story, so I'm led to believe, follows the same basic plot. In Mission in Monte Carlo it's this: A man who's had lots of affairs but never been in love, saves an inexperienced girl who's under pressure to offer up her virginity in exchange for secret information. The handsome man and the timid virgin fall in love spontaneously. They marry. The end.

Here's my problem. Our leading man Craig, a millionaire playboy, removes all agency from his supporting actress Aloya in what looks to me like gaslighing.

Friday, 31 July 2020

One reads for pleasure. It is not a public duty.

The Uncommon Reader I've been watching Season 1 of The Crown again and particularly enjoyed episode 7, Scientia Potentia Est*. Poor Princess Elizabeth struggles with the intricacies of the UK constitution, schooled by the Vice-Provost of Eton under the beady eye of his pet raven. It was a singular education, tutored at home with her sister Princess Margaret. Apparently she speaks French like a native thanks to her governesses.

If we're to believe The Crown, the Queen's educational achievements have never been tested in the way that your average British teenager would recognize. Alan Bennett's fictional Queen Elizabeth II is also lacking in knowledge and appreciation of literature. In his humorous 2006 novella The Uncommon Reader Queen Elizabeth discovers a mobile library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and out of politeness borrows a book, something by Ivy Compton-Burnett, which she describes as "too hard going altogether." Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate is her second, more enjoyable choice, and the Queen is soon an avid reader. Unfortunately this leads to a less conscientious performance of her duties, neglectful even, as she prefers to lose herself in a good book. Her private secretary is not pleased.

The Uncommon Reader can be finished in a couple of hours and is a wormhole through which to discover new writers, for example the previously mentioned Ivy Compton-Burnett. I wonder how much of Bennett's own preferences are mirrored in Queen Elizabeth's thoughts. Why would you want "to give Henry James a good talking-to?" and is it really worth reading Dr Johnson when "much of it is opinionated rubbish?" And is it a good or a bad thing when a book of Ian McEwan or A.S. Byatt is "leaped on by any attendant dog, worried and slavered over and borne to the distant reaches of the palace or wherever so that it could be satisfyingly torn apart."

There can't be many who envy a monarch's life of duty and courtesy. Those who marry into it often struggle. Perhaps someone could put together a list of essential reading for the new Royal, literature "about other lives. Other worlds."

* Beloved quote of librarians and researchers: knowledge is power.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

The problem of society's expectations

Girl, Woman, Other How could a white person know what it's like to be a BAME woman in the UK? A good place to start is to read Bernardine Everisto's Girl, Woman, Other.

The book tells the stories of twelve interconnected characters: young daughters, middle-aged mothers, the childless, the celibate, monogamous and polyamory. From new born children to a woman in her 90s, all have experienced discrimination and abuse because of their skin colour and their gender.

It starts with Amma, who's into threesomes and whose play is about to be performed in London, where many of the characters were born and raised. The pleasure is in discovering aspects of each character's life that one can relate to. You might not be BAME, but you may identify the teacher Shirley's pride that "she’s the one who’s made it, not her older brothers who didn’t have to do any housework or even wash their own clothes, whereas she had to spend her Saturdays mornings doing both". Shirley has known Amma since they were at school, but "began to feel self-conscious of her body around her friend" after Amma came out as lesbian. In her profession she believes "intelligence is not innate ... it's acquired", which underpins her desire to help children who show promise. One of these is Carol, who studies at Oxford then works in the City. In a very poignant scene, teacher and student meet after many years when they're invited to Amma's luvvie party.

None of the characters is perfect, just as in any society. Amma kept her "predilection for big tits quiet because it was un-feminist to isolate body parts for sexual objectification". Gas-lighting of women is practised by women too. And Yazz is forced to look at her own prejudices when her white friend Courtney, who has read Roxane Gay, warns against playing 'privilege Olympics', that "privilege is about context and circumstance".

So, a white person may not be able to appreciate the problems of a BAME person, but a woman (or womxn) will certainly relate to the problems of the characters in this book. As Megan/Morgan says, "being born female isn’t the problem, society’s expectations are".

I give the book only 4 out of 5 stars and you may wonder why. As ever, it relates to my predilection for certain sorts of endings.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

What's with the teeth?

The Power and the GloryIs there anything more that can be said about Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory? Three things spring to mind.

First, there are the teeth: Mr Tench the dentist, cautious because "Any dentist who's worth the name has enemies", the mestizo with his two protruding yellow fangs, and the jefe (Chief of Police) with his incessant toothache. No-one in the story has a perfect set of choppers.

Second, there are the references that can be traced back to Greene's Mexican travelogue, The Lawless Roads: the black beetles that "exploded against the walls like crackers", mosquitoes "flashing through the air to their mark unerringly", and uncomfortable travel "bouncing up and down to the lurching slithering mule's stride".

And finally, there's the whisky priest's impossible dilemma, "the slave of his people, who may not even lie down in case the winds should fail". He remains at large to perform mass and hear confessions, yet puts his flock in danger by doing so. "It's your job - to give me up. What do you expect me to do? It's my job not to be caught", he laments, having witnessed an innocent young man taken hostage in order to flush the padré out. Unlike the humble and pious martyr Young Juan in the forbidden Catholic story books, the priest is certainly not happy to go to his death.

So, there you have it. My six penn'orth of opinion to add to the mass of words written in praise of this great book.

Monday, 29 June 2020

A dream-like love story

The House of Sleep The blurb for Jonathan Coe's The House of Sleep didn't really sell the book. It was instead a positive discussion on a podcast that brought it to my attention.

Much of the action takes place in the student accommodation where Sarah, Robert, Terry and Gregory meet. They lose contact after graduation, but a decade later a number of coincidences cause their paths to cross again. At its heart it is a love story.

Sleep, dreams and reality run through the narrative, in fact the book is divided into six sections that follow the sleep cycle. Odd numbered chapters deal with incidents in the 80s, even numbered ones the 90s. This constant shift in time from one chapter to the next initially gives the narrative a dream-like character, which is extended through ending each section with an unfinished sentence and beginning the following section in mid-sentence. It's not as confusing as it sounds.

Coe's work is often described as humorous. This example of his writing provokes most often a wry smile or chuckle, although I did laugh out loud on reading the incident of the fictional film-maker's after-dinner speech and its footnotes. There's another episode that appears to presage horror, also sad moments. Indeed one of the three appendices brought a tear to my eye.

Above all, Coe's skill is to be able to take a reader back in time. It's difficult to pinpoint how he captures the zeitgeist of the Thatcher years in The House of Sleep. Of course, he mentions the occasional cultural reference such as Dallas and Knots Landing, but it's more than this. There's a sort of alchemy to it which he refined for the 70s setting in his 2001 book, The Rotters' Club.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

The obsession of a spy

The Long Room Francesca Kay's The Long Room is story about the loneliness and obsessions of a spy, the sort of spy whose life is dull, drab and tedious, not at all exciting.

It's primarily told from the point of view of Stephen, a man in his late 20s, recruited to the secret service at university. He works at the Institute with a team of friendly colleagues, but he doesn't like to socialise with them. During the week he lives in London where "it is a long time since he remembered to wash the sheets." At the weekends he retreats to his elderly mother in Didcot. It's a lonely life.

Stephen's job involves listening to tapes of telephone and house bugs and transcribing them to help identify security threats. This is 1981 Britain, when the IRA are planting bombs and members of CND are considered to be communists. In the course of his work, Stephen has become obsessed with Helen, the wife of a target, PHOENIX. He has only ever heard her beautiful voice, which "speaks poems to him, and her piano playing, and the sweetness of her nature." His thoughts veer towards worship, believing girls like Helen are "pure and vestal, the innocent and the good". His is a devotional, romantic idea of love.

Ultimately The Long Room is a character-driven story with a well-drawn protagonist, however it comes across as a bit too clever. If your literature studies ended at age 16 you might not pick up on some references. A google search after finishing revealed allusions aplenty to Byron and romantic love, Shelley and the quest for perfect union, Goethe and introversion, all of which are themes of the book. In spite of the fine characterisation and descriptions, Stephen's ultimate actions weren't credible, and if you're the sort of reader who needs a fast moving plot, you may find yourself putting it to one side without finishing.

Friday, 29 May 2020

A tale of two Johnsons

A Demon In My View Arthur Johnson has a secret that he keeps in the cellar of 142 Trinity Road, Kenbourne, where Ruth Rendell's A Demon in My View is set.

Arthur is an odd man, old-fashioned and stuffy, but pretty harmless. He does have a strange attitude towards women tho', especially "women who waited in the dark streets, asking for trouble, he cared nothing for them, their pain, their terror." Everything changes for Arthur when a new tenant arrives, a young, lovelorn PhD student by the name of Anthony Johnson.

We know from the beginning of the story what Arthur is capable of and as it unfolds we get to know his character and his past actions. The "other" Johnson, Anthony, unwittingly becomes Arthur's nemesis when an innocent and absent-minded act is seen by the older man as a "deliberate shunning of him".

There are plenty of details that help take the reader back to London in the early 70s, when the local cinema was still in business but under the new name of Taj Mahal and with a program of Indian movies. More specifically the dustmen were on strike. The period is important because some of the plot relies on the fact that people used to communicate with public telephones and written letters through the post.

The book is an easy-read psychological thriller which builds tension not through action, but by slowly revealing Arthur's backstory. Ruth Rendell doesn't try to hide important details, everything is clearly laid out. Nonetheless, there's a surprise at the end which is very satisfying.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Extremely shoddy editing

Hunters in the Dark Some people like to lie on a beach and do nothing on holiday. Robert, the English protagonist of Lawrence Osborne's Hunters in the Dark prefers to do nothing whilst upright. When we meet the 28-year-old teacher, he's crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia, where the story is set. He'd just experienced "the happiest month of his life thus far. The happiest and also the vaguest: the two were connected." He has no firm plans for his remaining month other than to roam, and since there "would be little else to do here anyway" he visits a casino, plays roulette and wins some money. His holiday takes a more interesting turn after he meets a louche American called Simon.

Robert is variously described as naive, lonely, mediocre and empty. You could add irresponsible to the list too, as he wonders if there's anything he wants to go back home for. He "only worried about his mother, even though there were other things to worry about, a thousand loose ends left in a chaos of abandoned responsibility." This desire to live elsewhere is perhaps credible, but his actions in the story are less so. Bizarrely Sophal, the doctor's daughter, describes Robert as "a bit Heathcliff," but he's the least Heathcliff person I can think of.

Other characters are more believable, especially Simon's girlfriend Sothea, and policeman Davuth, who has a very interesting background.

Osborne uses Buddhist concepts such as karma, samsara and ghosts to drive the characters, as he does in the more enjoyable The Ballad of a Small Player, and overall it's an enjoyable read and an interesting plot. However, the first few chapters are a bit heavy on the use of frangipani and nagas to describe the surroundings. Much worse is the poor editing throughout the book. I lost count of the number of times I came across a sentence with a missing word. There was also an instance where the character name Sothea had been incorrectly used for Sophal. Worst of all, Simon's last name was inconsistently spelled, sometimes Beaucamp, other times Beauchamp. This is very shoddy.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Can she really be so naive?

Good Behaviour Poor Aroon St Charles. In the opening chapter of Molly Keane's Good Behaviour she insists, "I do know how to behave .... All my life so far I have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives." She reminisces on why so many people she knew have been unhappy, even her bed-ridden Mummie, to whom she's taking a dish of rabbit quenelles for luncheon. What follows is a memoir of Aroon's life at Temple Alice in Ireland, the grand house owned by Mummie when the family had money. She documents relationships between family and friends, as well as those that work for them, shining a light on expectations of behaviour and propriety within the fast collapsing Anglo-Irish society of the early 20th century.

Throughout the book Aroon constantly seeks reassurance and praise. In one bitter-sweet memory of swimming with her brother she says she "stayed up four strokes longer than Hubert and nobody said, 'Nothing to crow about, is there, Aroon? He's three years younger than you, after all.'" We're never told who would have said this, but we can guess. Papa "was the one who patted me and kissed me", whereas Mummie "didn't really like children," but sometimes "would touch Hubert".

Aroon also suffers from insecurity about her looks. Aged 57, she says "how nice that bosoms are all right to have now; in the twenties when I grew up I used to tie them down with a sort of binder. Bosoms didn't do then."

Boys at that time were raised to be boisterous and enjoy the outdoor life. When her brother introduces Aroon to his friend Richard, she relates some of his childhood experiences, which include a flogging by his father. This was not because he told "quite a big fib", which was considered to be natural, but rather for being caught reading a book of verse, since "it's this poetry that bothers me."

Of the other characters, Mrs Brock the governess was the most admirable, the one who seemed to show genuine affection for her charges and "accepted without comment my grotesque, unsentimental fixation on Mummie." Mr Kiely the solicitor was indeed solicitous, but perhaps had a hidden agenda, and one longs to know a bit more about Mister Hamish and Miss Enid, Aroon's cousin with the "hedgehog kiss".

You can't help feeling sorry for Aroon. She seems to be oblivious to the shenanigans that those around her get up to. Can she really be so naive, or is she wilfully ignorant and extending her good behaviour even to her own memories? In her world of emotional repression and Victorian values, "There was to be no sentimentality", even in the depths of despair, "It was the worst kind of bad manners to mourn and grovel in grief."

Thursday, 9 April 2020

How should people die?

Have The Men Had Enough? Margaret Forster's Have the Men Had Enough? starts on a Sunday, at a McKay family lunch. Grandma, in the early stages of dementia, is at the table with her son Charlie, his wife Jenny, and their children Hannah and Adrian. Grandma doesn't live with them tho'. She has her own flat, paid for by Charlie, and is looked after by her daughter Bridget and a team of helpers.

The story is narrated by Jenny and Hannah in alternate chapters. They share their thoughts about how their relatives behave, and their frustrations about caring for Grandma, whom they both love. But love is not enough to help them decide what is in Grandma's best interests as her health deteriorates. Is it better for Bridget to give up her job to look after Grandma full time, or to leave her in a mental hospital. As Hannah says, "is it better to be mad or is it better to be sane and cruel?"

The book's subject matter won't appeal to everyone, although whilst it's quite bleak, there are plenty of moments of black humour. Forster's observations are spot on. Anyone who has had experience, no matter how brief, of caring for someone with even very mild dementia will know that laughing about the absurdities is a great release for the stress. But for some readers it will provide a sounding board, just like Hannah, who at 17 years old determines to consider her own death, thinking, "It can't be meant, intended, that people should die like that, can it?"

It's not just about death and how we care for the elderly tho', it's also about family relationships. Grandma "didn't like men, she saw them as enemies, as nuisances, as tyrants. She saw them as spoiling her life. She only liked women". This attitude had a significant influence on the way in which each of her children showed their love for her at the end of her life.