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The Quest continues…
The first batch of ten contenders produced some fantastic reads, but so they should have since they were carefully chosen as some of the traditional front-runners in the race to be The Great American Novel. However, the list was also heavily weighted towards Dead White Men, with the addition of the occasional living one. All white and only one woman. This time round I’ve selected a rather more diverse group – 6 from the pens of female writers, three of whom are black, and a couple of recent books that haven’t been around long enough for us to know what their eventual status will be.
There has been much interesting and thought-provoking chit-chat amongst my fellow readers as to the near impossibility of a book achieving that pesky fifth criteria which it needs to be declared The GAN…
For the elusive fifth flag, it must capture the entire ‘American experience’. That is to say, it must seek to include all the various very different aspects of culture that make up the American whole.
…though I would (and did) argue that American Pastoral does. I’ve found coming up with a revised fifth criterion that’s better than this one to be impossible also – to skew it so that favourite books can get in would certainly increase the number but would kind of take away the point, which is surely that The Great American Novel is one of the rarest of beasts, perhaps mythical. And entirely subjective.
But, to be honest, the quest is more about finding Great American Novels in general than identifying one ‘winner’, so I’m quite content that several in this second batch are unlikely to be The GAN. I’m hopeful that some will be GANs and that more will be great novels. And if one of them happens to gain the elusive fifth flag, then that will be an added bonus.
* * * * * * *
So… a drum roll, maestro, please… for…
The Second Batch
Beloved by Toni Morrison – “Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison.“
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – “When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds …”
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – “a story of love and race centered around a young man and woman from Nigeria who face difficult choices and challenges in the countries they come to call home. Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet.“
Moby Dick by Herman Melville – “ In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America.“
Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner – “The story of Thomas Sutpen, an enigmatic stranger who came to Jefferson in the early 1830s to wrest his mansion out of the muddy bottoms of the north Mississippi wilderness. He was a man, Faulkner said, ‘who wanted sons and the sons destroyed him.'”
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – “Many novels have been written about the Civil War and its aftermath. None take us into the burning fields and cities of the American South as Gone With the Wind does, creating haunting scenes and thrilling portraits of characters so vivid that we remember their words and feel their fear and hunger for the rest of our lives.”
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton – “The tragic love story reveals the destructive effects of wealth and social hypocrisy on Lily Bart, a ravishing beauty. More a tale of social exclusion than of failed love, The House of Mirth reveals Wharton’s compelling gifts as a storyteller and her clear-eyed observations of the savagery beneath the well-bred surface of high society.“
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – “Middlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967 before moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan.“
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – “Humbert Humbert – scholar, aesthete and romantic – has fallen completely and utterly in love with Lolita Haze, his landlady’s gum-snapping, silky skinned twelve-year-old daughter. Hilarious, flamboyant, heart-breaking and full of ingenious word play, Lolita is an immaculate, unforgettable masterpiece of obsession, delusion and lust.“
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe – “Stowe’s powerful abolitionist novel fueled the fire of the human rights debate in 1852. Denouncing the institution of slavery in dramatic terms, the incendiary novel quickly draws the reader into the world of slaves and their masters.”
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – (carried over from the first batch) “an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).“
(NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.)
* * * * * * *
Many thanks to everyone who has joined in the discussions and/or suggested contenders. I have another 25 or so still to come after this, but am still looking for recommendations. I’d particularly like to add some more cultural diversity to the list (there are no black male authors on it, for example, and none from authors with Latin-American or, indeed, Native American heritage). Also, more women are needed to even things up a bit – there are very few female authors amongst the remaining 25, since I’ve included most of the ones on my list in this batch. And I’d love to mix some outstanding modern American fiction (1980 to 2010, say) in with the classics, whether they would be contenders for GAN status or not. For preference, though, they should shed some light on that great conundrum which is America.
* * * * * * *
So… what do you think of the list? Are there ones that you would endorse… or dump? Any recommendations?
The story so far…
Since I’ve now read nine of the original batch of ten books I selected at the start of the Great American Novel Quest and am delaying the tenth for a while, I thought it might be time for a quick round-up and the selection of the next ten.
It’s taken me much longer to read these than I originally planned, for the usual reason – too many review copies of new books. I just can’t seem to break that habit! However, the protracted timescale is no reflection on the quest – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed becoming a little more familiar with some of the greats of American fiction and am looking forward to the next selection just as much.
* * * * * * *
First, a brief summary of the criteria and how well they were achieved by the books I’ve read so far…
The Great American Novel – must achieve 5 stars and 5 GAN flags.
A Great American Novel – must achieve 5 stars and any 4 GAN flags.
Great novel – 5 stars books that don’t achieve at least 4 GAN flags are simply great novels.
The quest is of course entirely subjective and results are heavily influenced by my personal preferences, so the whole thing shouldn’t really be taken too seriously!
* * * * * * *
The GAN criteria (which are explained in greater depth in the original post) are:
1. Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.
2. The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.
3. Must be innovative and original in theme.
4. Must be superbly written.
5. Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.
* * * * * * *
So here are the results for the first batch of ten. If you’d like to see any of the full reviews, please click on the book cover…
* * * * * * *
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
A Great American Novel!
* * * * * * *
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
A Great American Novel!
* * * * * * *
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Gulp! Sorry, America!
* * * * * * *
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A Great Novel!
* * * * * * *
Empire Falls by Richard Russo
A Great Novel!
* * * * * * *
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
The Great American Novel!!!
* * * * * * *
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon
* * * * * * *
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
A Great American Novel!
* * * * * * *
The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford
* * * * * * *
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
It won the Pulitzer!
* * * * * * *
Check back tomorrow for details of the next ten. And meantime, please let me know what you think of the ratings so far…
:D :D :D :D :D
This first volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, focuses on the life of Chris Guthrie, daughter of a tenant farmer in the fictional estate of Kinraddie in the north-east of Scotland, before and during the First World War. Sunset Song, written in 1932, is generally considered the strongest book in the trilogy and one of the greatest Scottish novels of the twentieth century. Although it’s written in a form of the dialect of the area, it’s been pretty heavily anglicised so that it keeps the rhythms without being too hard for non-Scots (or modern Scots) to understand. There’s a heavy sprinkling of old Scots words, but also a glossary of them should the meaning not be obvious from the context.
Chris is born the daughter of John Guthrie of Blawearie, a farmer hardened by the lifelong struggle to wrest a living from the land, and Jean, a woman worn down by years of pregnancies and childbirth. John is a harsh father to his sons, demanding hard labour and unquestioning obedience, and exacting cruel physical punishment when angered, while Jean can do nothing but watch passively. But Chris shows signs of academic intelligence, and it is John’s wish, and her own, that she be educated and get away from the land to become a teacher. All this changes when first Jean and then John die, leaving the family broken up and Chris as the inheritor of the farm. Now with the money to leave and make a new life for herself, Chris realises the land is in her blood – she wonders how she could ever have thought to leave it and to take up a career that would deny her the joys of marriage and children.
And so she marries young Ewan Tavendale and together they are content to farm their land, Chris’ happiness enhanced when she bears her first son. But the world is changing and over in Europe war clouds are gathering. And during the four years of fighting, life for Chris and for this entire community will be changed forever.
Chae jumped up when she finished, he said Damn’t, folk, we’ll all have the whimsies if we listen to any more woesome songs! Have none of you a cheerful one? And the folk in the barn laughed at him and shook their heads, it came on Chris how strange was the sadness of Scotland’s singing, made for the sadness of the land and sky in dark autumn evenings, the crying of men and women of the land who had seen their lives and loves sink away in the years, things wept for beside the sheep-ouchts, remembered at night and in twilight. The gladness and kindness had passed, lived and forgotten, it was Scotland of the mist and rain and the crying sea that made the songs.
The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing, with some of the characters flirting with the new socialist politics of the fledgling Labour Party.
It took me a good third of the book to really find myself involved in the story. It begins with a long introduction to all the characters and a potted history of the area. While there’s some great writing and quite a lot of humour in this section, I found it was trying to cover too much and I didn’t really get a feel for most of the characters – which was a problem that remained throughout the book in fact. The main characters become very well realised, but all the others flit in and out and I never felt fully on top of who they were or how they related to each other. As Chris grows from childhood into young womanhood, there is a major emphasis on her awakening sexuality, with some writing which I feel must have been considered pretty shocking in its time, including allusions to rape and incest.
But suddenly, at the point where Chris finds herself alone and independent, the book turns into something quite wonderful. The story of Chris and Ewan falling in love and marrying is full of emotional truth. This isn’t a great romance – this is two young people setting out to make a life for themselves and their inevitable children, farming the land in continuity with the generations before them and assuming they will hand it on in turn to the next, and making the adjustments that any couple must when the realities of living with another person don’t quite match up to the dream.
It lingered at the back of her mind, dark, like a black cat creeping at the back of a hedge, she saw the fluff of its fur or the peek of its eyes, a wild and sinister thing in the sunlight; but you would not look often or see those eyes, how they glared at you. He was going out there, where the sky was a troubled nightmare and the earth shook night and day, into the lands of the coarse French folk, her Ewan, her lad with his dark, dear face and that quick, blithe blush. And suddenly she was filled with a weeping pity in her heart for him, a pity that brought no tears to her eyes, he must never see her shed tears all the time he was with her, he’d go out to the dark, far land with memories of her and Blawearie that were shining and brave and kind.
And when war begins, Gibbon handles beautifully the gradual change within the community, from feeling completely detached and uninvolved to slowly finding their lives affected in every way. As the men begin to either volunteer or, later, be conscripted into the Army, each character reacts differently but truly to the personality Gibbon has so carefully created for them. Some of the writing is heart-breaking in its emotional intensity but never overloaded with mawkishness or sentimentality. Gibbon touches on questions that must still have been hugely sensitive so soon after one war and with another already looming – conscientious objection and desertion – and asks not for forgiveness for his characters but for understanding and empathy. The ending echoes the beginning, as Gibbon again takes us round the community showing the irrevocable changes wrought by war and modernisation on each family – some winners, some losers, but none unaltered. And as he brings his characters together one last time, we see them begin to gather the strength to face their uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again.
A brilliant book that fully deserves its reputation. Highly recommended, though I should warn you I sobbed solidly through most of the second half…
Nothing new under the sun…
:) :) :|
Two schoolgirls have been abducted in the small town of Polesford, where Helen Weeks grew up. Helen and her partner DI Tom Thorne are on holiday when the news reports that a man has been arrested for the crimes, although no bodies have been found. When Helen realises that the man is the husband of an old friend of hers, she insists on going to Polesford to offer support. At first reluctant, Thorne soon finds himself interested in the investigation and at odds with the local police.
I read the first few books in the Tom Thorne series but lost touch with the series several years ago. While there is clearly a running story arc over Tom’s relationship with Helen, this book works perfectly well as a standalone. Past cases are referred to but not in a way that affects the understanding of the plot of this book.
My first impressions were pretty favourable – the serial killer storyline is increasingly hackneyed but Billingham tells the story well, and I initially liked the characters of both Tom and Helen. Although I picked up along the way that their partnership is fairly new, it was refreshing to have the detective in a seemingly stable, loving relationship. Thorne has some baggage from past cases, but is a functional detective, well able to handle the pressures of the job, and oh joy! He doesn’t have a drink problem! In fact, early on in the book Billingham has a sly dig at the cliché of the angst-ridden drunken maverick of current crime fiction.
There’s nothing terribly original in the storyline, and it’s pretty slow in places with a good deal of repetition. However Billingham keeps the tension flowing for the most part by skilfully casting suspicion on most of the male characters in turn. It’s interesting to see the story from the perspective of the family of the accused, although they’re all so unlikeable I couldn’t develop much sympathy for them. And it all leads up in the end to the usual thriller ending.
Overall, for the quality of the writing and storytelling I’d have rated this quite highly but for two things. The first is the ridiculous amount of unnecessary bad language, which is constant all the way through. Most of it is fairly low-level, simply a sign of a lack of imagination and facility in the author’s use of vocabulary, but some of it is pretty strong. And of course it adds nothing to the story.
Mild spoiler alert!
(You might want to skip the next paragraph if you’re planning on reading the book.)
But the thing that annoyed me more, especially after Billingham mocking the maverick cop cliché himself, was that Helen and Tom suddenly turned into violent criminals halfway through – beating up a teenager in front of his friends (who fortunately seemed to be the only teenagers in Britain without smartphones to film it on) for the heinous crime of spitting, with no repercussions. (Did I mention Helen’s job is to deal with child victims – good grief!) From that point on, the book lost any credibility and the characters lost any appeal for me. If every fictional police officer must be a violent criminal, the least authors could do is try to make it believable. (Hint for all the brutal and corrupt fictional police officers out there – take your victim up a dark alley, alone, and check there are no CCTV cameras around. It’s hardly rocket science…)
(End of spoiler)
To sum up, a standard serial killer police procedural, quite well-written, slow in places, with lots of swearing, a bit of angst, the obligatory child abuse angle, and some gratuitous and silly police brutality. Same old, same old…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.
Divisions and links…
:D :D :D :D
When the body of elderly Ouma is found drowned in the dam on her property, everyone assumes that she slipped. Everyone except her young granddaughter, Delilah, that is, who is convinced that there is more to it than that. But who would have killed Ouma – and why? Even in the apartheid years, she treated everyone in the community, black or white, with the same respect and used her skills as a doctor to help those in need. Despite the lack of motivation, Delilah persuades a young policeman, Jannie, to investigate her death.
Sometimes crime is only included in a novel, it seems to me, as a hook on which to hang a wider story, and that’s the case in this one. Proctor uses the story of Ouma’s relationships with her family and the community to paint a picture of rural life in post-apartheid South Africa, showing a society struggling to overcome the racial divisions that have scarred it. Still divided, with Ouma’s white family as landowners and the black characters as employees, we also see the links that go back often to childhood, links of love and loyalty that cross racial lines. But this is a deeply troubled society, and Proctor touches on many of the strands that make it so – gang and random violence, police corruption, prostitution, AIDS, old tribal hatreds still surviving. Add in dementia, assisted suicide and homophobia and I couldn’t help but feel at points that the book is trying to do too much.
We soon learn that Ouma had been suffering from the early stages of dementia and, as a doctor, was well aware of how the disease would progress. She had been asking all of those near to her to help her to die. Since the book opens with Ouma’s death, her scenes are given to us in flashback, and it’s partly through these that we get to know the other characters and see how they relate to each other. There’s a fairly wide cast of characters – Ouma’s family, her black housekeeper who is also a loyal friend, the farmworkers, Klein Samuel and Cheetah, and the policeman, Jannie, who each in different ways feel an intense love and loyalty to Ouma for having helped them at some crucial point in their lives.
There is an emotionalism in all of these linked stories that builds to something uncomfortably close to bathos at times. But the quality of the writing just about pulls it back from the brink, and I found the storytelling element compelling, though I did find that I could only read it in quite small chunks. Proctor is particularly strong at creating a sense of place, both of the struggling, drought-ridden farm and of the town, when we follow Jannie there. She gives a real feel for the harshness of lives lived on the edge of poverty and the sometimes cruel decisions people must make to ensure their survival.
I have mixed emotions about the book. I felt that there were too many points being made, too many strands being forced in. I’ve made this criticism of other books too – sometimes an author seems to want to cram every aspect of a complex society into her story and it becomes unreal that all these things would happen to such a small group of people in a short time, and that unreality tends in the end to lessen the effect. It’s the old ‘less is more’ thing – in this one, I felt several strands, not least the ‘murder mystery’ itself, were unnecessary and in fact detracted from the overall impact. Nonetheless I enjoyed Proctor’s writing style and for the most part she made the characters feel real, so that I cared about what happened to them. And I found her depiction of this struggling society a convincing one – bleak, certainly, but not devoid of hope. She subtly makes the point that whatever the difficulties of the present they pale in comparison to the apartheid past, and she shows the beginnings of a gradual realignment of the relationships between black and white South Africans, shifting slowly towards a more equal footing as time passes. A thought-provoking read and I would certainly be interested to read more of her work in the future.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.
* * * * * * *
Some information from the publicists, for anyone in the London area who may be interested…
Award-winning film maker and writer, Elaine Proctor, will be doing a talk at her local library, Central Kensington Library, on Tuesday 28th July.
On 28th July Elaine Proctor will be discussing her latest novel The Savage Hour which has recently been short-listed for South Africa’s 2015 Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize. Set in rural South Africa, Elaine’s second novel begins when the matriarchal doctor of a small village is found dead in a shallow river. Her death was not an accident. A young detective, a close friend of the doctor’s, is determined to discover the truth. Elaine initially wrote the character of the doctor as a way of exploring her own emotional responses to her mother’s long battle with Alzheimer’s. The novel deals with provincialism, homophobia and redefining the language of Afrikaan.
Elaine Proctor is the niece of the famous South African poet Elisabeth Eybers (1917 – 2007). She grew up in Johannesburg and attended the first illegal non-racial school in South Africa. At 17 she was one of the first people to make true life documentaries about apartheid. Elaine has since moved to London and studied film under Mike Leigh. She is on the board of BAFTA and has directed several critically acclaimed feature films and documentaries, including Friends which won Mention Speciale – Prix de Camera D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Tickets for Elaine’s event at Central Kensington Library are free and can be booked here.
You can see Elaine’s TED Talk about why we tell stories here.
:D :D :D :D :D
William Heath Robinson was a British cartoonist and illustrator who is now best remembered for his cartoon contraptions. In fact, he’s one of very few cartoonists whose name has become a shortcut in everyday use – in his case, for any design that seems unnecessarily complicated or slightly ridiculous. (Makes me think of these wine bottle openers that require a gas canister, a physics degree and a diploma in Health & Safety to operate.) His career having begun in 1897, he was already well established by the time of the outbreak of WW1, and this collection from the Bodleian Library brings together three of his wartime books – Some ‘Frightful’ War Pictures (1915), Hunlikely! (1916), and The Saintly Hun: a book of German virtues (1917).
An introduction by Geoffrey Beare of The William Heath Robinson Trust gives a brief biography of the man. Starting out as a book illustrator he gradually moved on to drawing humorous sketches for some of the periodicals of the day. His first ‘contraptions’ appeared in The Sketch in 1908, in a series entitled Great British Industries – Duly Protected. Over the following years, while book illustrations became less prevalent, his humorous work steadily became more popular. He remained popular between the wars, still entertaining the country with his cartoons during the Second World War, until his death in 1944.
These First World War cartoons are satirical and absurd in tone and directed as much at the British war effort as at the enemy. Apparently they were hugely popular with the troops as well as at home. Some of the things he poked fun at – poison gas warfare, for example – made me think that somewhere during the last century we seem to have lost our willingness to laugh collectively at horrors while keeping our individual fears hidden, or perhaps even as a method of keeping those individual fears at bay. We’re much more likely now as a society to protest and publicly emote. I’m not sure which is the healthier reaction, to be honest, since neither seems to prevent war, but these made me think very much of the old ‘stiff upper lip’ approach we used to take. I suppose in a continent that had been fighting amongst itself since pre-history the people had to have a way of lightening the emotional toll or survival would have been well nigh impossible; and perhaps it’s the long years of relative peace (in Western Europe) since WW2 that have caused us to react differently now. The book certainly made me feel that the idea of Tommies trudging through the mud of the trenches cheerily singing Tipperary is not so far-fetched and propagandistic as our generation might think. I like the thought that, even in the midst of the hell around them, the boys at the Front were able to laugh at the tragic absurdities of their situation. It doesn’t make the idea of war better but it makes it somehow more bearable.
Anyway… as well as his contraption cartoons, Heath Robinson also drew a series of silhouettes depicting German officers and soldiers performing acts of kindness to old ladies and animals, as an ironic response to the daily reports of atrocities, many true but many propaganda, that were appearing simultaneously in the press. As Mike Webb of the Bodleian Library points out in his preface, “Although in his gentle way Heath Robinson was drawing attention to these stories, there is no rancour or hate in his depictions, and perhaps one can detect too an undercurrent of mockery of not only German propaganda, but also more hysterical sections of the British Press.”
Over this 100 year anniversary of the start of WW1, as well as reading a very good history of the lead-up to the war, I have found that reading some of the complementary publications of writings of the time has added a lot to my understanding of how it must actually have felt, particularly for those at home, as the war dragged on. This collection adds to that understanding, along with the excellent collection of war journalism in The Telegraph Book of the First World War. And on a lighter note many of the cartoons are still as fresh and funny as they would have been at the time. The book itself is good quality and well produced, and would make a great gift for anyone with an interest in the WW1 period. Or for yourself…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bodleian Library.
The shock truth revealed!
(Yes, I know it’s Thursday, but the scheduling all went horribly wrong this week…)
One of the things loads of bookie people comment on is the annoying habit publishers and authors have of splashing the covers of books with straplines that bear little relationship to the actual content. After many months of dedicated research, involving top secret undercover work and great personal danger, I can now reveal the true meanings hidden behind these coded messages…
* * *
“The next Gone Girl!!”
(Please, please, please buy my book! I’m desperate!)
* * *
“The most inspirational book ever written!!”
(I haven’t read it, but I share a publisher with the author…)
* * *
“The No. 1 Bestseller!!”
(In Inverurie where my mum lives.)
* * *
“Shocking and hair-raising!!”
(And that’s only the grammar!)
* * *
* * *
“Sweet Sixteen and So In Love!!”
(Comes complete with free sick bag…)
* * *
(Winner of the 1986 prize for Best Handwriting in Auchtermuchty Primary School.)
* * *
“The next Jo Nesbo!!”
(But Irish. And female. And chicklit.)
* * *
* * *
“Brand New Short Story!!”
(2 pages followed by a twenty-page ad for my next novel.)
* * *
“As mentioned in The New York Times!!”
(In the small ads when I sold my old bike.)
* * *
“First book in an exciting new trilogy!!”
(It doesn’t have an ending.)
* * *
* * *
In the public interest, if you know the true meaning of any other straplines, please post the information below…
A digressive, long-winded, over-adjectived, frequently-hyphenated contemplation of the middle-aged, middle-classed, middle-of-the-road American male…
Frank Bascombe sets out to have a meeting with his ex-wife. Five immensely tedious reading hours later and nearly a third of the way through the book, he hasn’t yet got there. But he has digressed endlessly on those subjects that seem to obsess the white, middle-class, middle-aged American male of fiction – their health, the fact that they don’t understand their children, their ex-wives (almost always plural), their sexual prowess or lack thereof, and the way the country is going to the dogs. I admit defeat – I can’t take any more.
I feared right from the beginning that I was going to struggle with this book. Straight away, Ford gets into existential crisis mode with our narrator, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer, fearing that he is not ready to meet his maker. Five hours later, I was unsympathetically thinking that he shouldn’t worry – he has plenty of time left since he has the ability to turn every hour into a yawning eternity of low-level angst. It took me four days to read that five hours’ worth, because I had to keep stopping to remind myself that actually life isn’t a dismal wasteland of pretentious emptiness – or at least, if it is, then I prefer my own pretentious emptiness to that of the tediously self-obsessed Frank Bascombe.
Each line of sparse and unrealistic dialogue is separated by two or three paragraphs analysing the one before and anticipating the one to come, while every noun is preceded by roughly eight, usually-hyphenated, increasingly-convoluted-and-contrived, unnecessary-except-to-fill-up-the-space adjectives…
…elderly, handsome, mustachioed, silver-haired, capitalist-looking gentleman in safari attire…
…a fetid, lightless, tin-sided back-country prison…
…a smirky, blond, slightly hard-edged, cigarette-smoking former Goucher girl… (what on earth is a Goucher girl? All those words and yet he still fails to communicate his meaning.)
Frankly, until I tried to read this book, I thought I was fairly fluent in American. After all, I coped with Twain’s dialect in Huckleberry Finn and Steinbeck’s in The Grapes of Wrath, and dealt comfortably with Ellis’ pop culture obsession in American Psycho. But it appears not. Even my Kindle’s built-in US-English dictionary didn’t recognise more than half of the words I looked up. Has he invented this language? Or is it a kind of slang that was fashionable a decade or so ago and has now been already forgotten? Whatever, if it’s comprehensible to Americans then that’s what matters, of course, but I think I’d have to wait for the English translation to become available. Though I’m in no rush for it…
…skint black hair…
…business lunch and afternoon plat-map confab…
…against every millage to extend services to the boondocks…
My life in Haddam always lacked the true resident’s naive, relief-seeking socked-in-ed-ness…
It’s not just made-up words and jargon related to the property market that are problematic for this non-US reader, it’s also his use of brands as a shortcut to description – fine if the brands mean something to the reader, otherwise irritating. And he constantly does the same with what I assume are cultural references…
He knows I bleed Michigan blue but doesn’t really know what that means. (Nope, nor me.)
This means a living room the size of a fifties tract home. (So… tiny? Huge? Average?)
Mike frowns over at me. He doesn’t know what Kalamazoo means, or why it would be so side-splittingly hilarious. (Again, nope – pity, because by that stage I could have done with a laugh.)
I’m not really blaming the book for being ‘too’ American – why shouldn’t it be? – but it did make it impossible for me to get into any kind of reading flow, since I was constantly either looking things up or trying to work out the meaning from the context, a problem I’m not usually aware of when reading American fiction, or certainly not to this degree. I’m quite sure that was a large part of why I found it such a stultifying read, but I’d have tolerated it if I’d felt the book was shedding light on anything that interested me. But I’m afraid the trials and obsessions of the well-off, educated, American male don’t, particularly. Shall I eat wheat-grain or indulge my wicked side with a ‘furter? Let me list all the things I wear so you can understand my social position. I spent $2000 dollars on Thanksgiving lunch just because I can.
Buried amidst the heap of unnecessary wordiness, there is probably some insight on what it is to be middle-aged, middle-classed, middle-of-the-road and male in Millenium America, and there may even be bits that are funny. Sadly I lost my ability to laugh at around page 5, but am hoping it may return now that I’ve abandoned it. Is there a plot or a story or any kind of forward progression? Not that I noticed, but maybe it becomes a gripping read once he gets to the meeting with his ex-wife, if he ever does. I guess I shall never know…
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(Dear Matt, (who recommended this one to me) – my sincere apologies! Sometimes the reader and the book just don’t gel, and I had to get it out of my system for fear of developing stomach ulcers. ;) )
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So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? *laughs hollowly* To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…
Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.
The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.
Perhaps it would have if I could have borne to read all the way through. But since I couldn’t – not achieved.
It must be innovative and original in theme.
Since I feel as if every second book written by American males (and indeed British males) is an exceedingly similar account of their middle-aged angst, then no.
Must be superbly written.
Umm…guess the answer to this one!
Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.
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So not The Great American Novel, and since I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, neither A Great American Novel nor even a great novel, I’m afraid. Though perhaps Americans might feel differently…
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PS Fascinatingly, every single 5-star review of this on Amazon UK is written by a man. I don’t think I’ve ever come across that before on any novel. Perhaps it’s not so much that I’m the wrong nationality as the wrong gender… or both.
:D :D :D :)
Another in the British Library Crime Classics series, this works well as a companion piece to Martin Edward’s other recent anthology, Capital Crimes: London Mysteries. As the title suggests, Resorting to Murder is a collection of classic crime stories set in holiday destinations. While a lot of them are set in and around Britain, several others take us abroad, mainly to Europe with the Swiss mountains featuring more than once (well, a good place to make a murder look like an accident, eh?). In his introduction, Edwards suggests that holiday settings were popular with authors since the novelty of the location allowed them to concentrate a bit less on creating strong plots. The stories are in rough chronological order, as in Capital Crimes, again allowing us to see the progression of the mystery story.
There are a few well known names in here – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot is the first story (a favourite story of mine which I recently mentioned in a review of a different anthology) and GK Chesterton appears with a non-Father Brown story. But there also many whom I didn’t recognise at all or only knew because they had also appeared in Capital Crimes.
Here are a few of the stories that stood out for me…
The Finger of Stone by GK Chesterton – I admit that the Father Brown stories have never appealed much to me, so it was refreshing to read something different from Chesterton. This one centres on the creation versus evolution debate when a scientist who has ‘proved’ that the Biblical timetable can’t be correct disappears. It’s a bit silly, especially the twist ending, but fun and well written.
Holiday Task by Leo Bruce – this is a great example of a howdunit. A newly appointed prison governor is killed when he apparently drives his car off a cliff. But was it murder? And if it was, how was it done? The solution is clever and I kicked myself for not being able to work it out. As Holmes often remarked, it’s all so easy once you know how…
The Hazel Ice by HC Bailey – I enjoyed Bailey’s contribution in Classic Crimes and liked this one just as much. Reggie Fisher is again the amateur detective, this time in a story involving a man who is missing after an accident in the mountains. Edwards puts Bailey’s decline from the public eye down to his quirky writing style, but I find it entertaining. It’s terribly upper-class 1920/30s style – Fisher doesn’t wear a monocle but one feels he should. A cross between Lord Peter Wimsey and PG Wodehouse, though admittedly not quite as well written as either. But fun.
A Posteriori by Helen Simpson – A short and strictly humorous story centring on the dangers of ladies travelling alone and being forced to make use of… ahem… public conveniences. Made me chuckle.
The House of Screams by Gerald Findler – a great little horror/crime story about a man renting a haunted house. Are the screams that he hears in the middle of the night the ghost of a previous tenant? I’d have loved to read more of Findler’s work, but Edwards tells us that he only published one other story.
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In truth, I thought this collection was quite a bit weaker than the London stories. Perhaps it’s the locations – London has always been such a great setting for crime fiction – or perhaps Edwards’ point about plotting is at the root of it, but on the whole I found many of these stories pretty obvious and not overly original or atmospheric, and often without much sense of place despite the interesting locations. There is some crossover of authors between the two collections, but there are also several in this who don’t appear in the other volume, and I felt one or two had been included for their curiosity value more than for the intrinsic quality of the stories. As usual in any collection, though, the quality is variable and there are enough good stories to outweigh the weaker ones overall, meaning this is still an enjoyable read.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, who publish the Kindle version. The paper version is part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series.
:D :D :D :D :D
Robert Neville is the only human left in his neighbourhood and possibly the world. It’s some months since a devastating plague swept through humanity, killing many and turning the rest into vampires. For some reason, Neville alone seems to be immune. Now he spends each night barricaded into his house, surrounded by all the traditional anti-vampire weapons – garlic, crosses, mirrors – while a growing horde of vampires gathers outside howling for his blood. By day, the vampires go into a coma-like sleep and Neville uses this time to fight back the only way he can – by killing as many of them as he can find.
Put away your anti-vampire fiction prejudices for a moment. The book is sci-fi in the sense that it’s set in a near-future and involves a plague, Neville’s world is about as dystopian as you can get and there are passages of great horror writing. But Matheson combines all these genres to produce something that is fundamentally about humanity – about loneliness, prejudice and the overwhelming will to survive.
The story is told from Neville’s perspective, though in the third person, and begins by showing his day-to-day existence – checking his house is still secure, making good any damage the vampires have done the night before, collecting any supplies he might need from the abandoned grocery stores. Then if there’s enough daylight left, he takes his stock of wooden stakes and hunts for vampires. The horrors of the plague are never far from his mind, though, and it’s through his memories that the reader learns what happened at that time. And Neville hasn’t given up all hope yet, either that there might be other people who escaped with their humanity intact, or that by studying the medical books in the abandoned libraries he might be able to fathom out the cause of the plague and develop a cure.
The quality of the writing is very high, not always a given in sci-fi. Where a modern day writer would doubtless waffle on for a stultifying 500 pages and throw in a love triangle, (yes, I am bitter…), Matheson cuts to the chase and packs a huge amount into a relatively small space. The search for a cure is done interestingly, with Neville taking the usual vampire story tropes one by one and testing them out to see which ones are true, then speculating on possible scientific causes for why they should work. Why garlic? Why do they only go outside when its dark? Why wooden stakes?
But when evening comes and the shouting and howling begins, then we see the utter loneliness and despair that haunt his nights, with memories of his happy, normal life before the plague constantly reminding him of all he has lost. It’s at these times that he questions what it is that makes him go on day after day, why he is driven to continue with the futile task of killing vampires when he knows that he’ll never be able to make even a tiny dent in their overwhelming numbers. Would it not be easier to give up, go outside and join them? But he is disgusted by them, a visceral, instinctive disgust at their very nature, a disgust that comes as much from hatred of difference as from fear.
The descriptive writing is spare but very effective in building an atmosphere of fear and tension, with occasional gleams of hope serving only to deepen the pervading darkness of despair. Neville isn’t a super-hero – he’s just a normal guy, meaning that the reader empathises with him (this reader empathised so much, she did her usual crying thing again at a couple of points). But what pushes this book beyond good and towards great is unfortunately the thing that cannot be discussed in a review without major spoilers. Suffice it to say that, when you have finished reading, you will probably find that you feel very differently than you expected to, and might well be left pondering the very nature of what it means to be human. Intrigued? Then read it…
PS If you’re thinking “Oh, but I’ve seen the Will Smith film and I know the story already” apparently you don’t. I haven’t seen it, but I understand it’s been changed out of all recognition, losing the whole point of the book in the process – why do they do that?
:D :D :D :D :D
I loved the Narnia books as a child and read them many times, especially this first one. As a child, I was completely oblivious to any religious symbolism in the book, so for me it was simply a great adventure story with a fantastic hero in Aslan. I think I was around eighteen when I last read them and, as with many childhood books, have always been a bit worried to revisit them in case my older, more cynical self has turned me into a Susan – unable to remember the magic and find my way back to Narnia. But when I came across this series on Audible, with some great narrators, I decided to take the risk.
And it was worth it. The book didn’t have quite the same effect on me as when I was seven, but it’s still a great story very well told. This time around I was obviously more aware of the parallels to the Christ story but I was intrigued to note that there are a lot of other references too – Bacchus puts in an appearance, as does Silenus, and of course all the stuff about fauns and centaurs and other creatures from folk legends and mythology. It’s all a bit of a mish-mash really but it works, and stops it from becoming overly preachy. Occasionally the messages are a little heavy-handed – about the evils of lying and so on – but this was fairly standard for children’s literature of the time from what I recall, and isn’t nearly as blatant as in some of them.
I was also much more aware of how terribly middle-class the children are, and how indoctrinated we were through the books we were reading to accept the subordinate, nurturing role of women and the heroic warrior status of boys. It’s amazing that the generation of women who grew up reading books like these, and Blyton and most of the other books I remember, managed to both love the books and rebel against the message. I did wonder if young mothers of young girls today would be quite so happy to have them reading books where girls help lay the table while boys go off in a manly way to catch fish for dinner, not to mention the girls ending up on the diplomatic marriage market when they were older. Daughters of Eve, Sons of Adam…hmm! Correct me if my knowledge of biology is a bit shaky, but my understanding is that the procreation process requires both genders to participate (or a test-tube or turkey baster at the very least). But I’d encourage young mothers not to let it put them off – my generation seemed to survive the onslaught of not-so-subliminal messages. (I also found myself thinking how little had changed in the role of women in the thousands of years between the Old Testament and this book and yet how much has changed, for those of us in the West at least, in the sixty or so years since. It rather made me proud…)
But apart from all this adult over-analysis, I enjoyed the story a lot. The descriptions of the frozen world are great and the Queen is just as scary and horrible as I remember. Edmund is still a revolting little oick, Susan and Peter still badly need brought down a peg or two from their superior teenage smugness and I still identify with Lucy – youngest of four siblings, you see – even if she is a bit too sweet to be true. I loved the thaw – the way he matches the returning of life to the landscape with the returning of joy to the characters. Mr and Mrs Beaver are lovely, and poor Mr Tumnus! The bit with Aslan and the Stone Table is as moving and beautiful as ever it was and I still want to run and play with him, and put my hands in his golden mane! But why, oh why, must it end with them all having turned into stuffy, pompous adults complete with mock medieval language? I hated that bit when I was young and I hate it now – in fact, it was surprising how in tune young FF and old FF turned out to be. Perhaps my inner child isn’t so deeply buried after all…
Michael York’s reading is excellent. He gives all the characters distinct voices, and uses different British regional accents for the creatures. Mr Tumnus is Irish, the Beavers are some kind of rural English – Somerset-ish perhaps? – and I laughed a lot at Maugrim the wolf’s vurry, vurry Scottish accent. The children’s voices grated a bit on me – awfully posh standard English – but I did think they were right for the characters. And crucially he does Aslan’s voice (and roar) brilliantly – just the right deep tones filled with power and menace, but with a warmth beneath.
So overall a happy visit to my childhood and I can now look forward to enjoying the rest. Since I’m sticking with the original publication order, next up will be Prince Caspian, narrated by Lynn Redgrave. Doesn’t that sound good?
The Halfway Point…
Well, it started off with a bang but now I’m beginning to whimper! Of course, I was distracted by a variety of gorgeous men, not least this one…
So some serious reading to be done over the next 6 weeks, and some even more serious reviewing catch-up. Here’s how it’s looking to date…
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Of the original list I’ve read and reviewed just five so far:-
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I’ve also read another 4 for which the reviews should appear over the next week or so. Two 5-stars, a 2½-star, and a 1-star abandoned – but I’m not saying which is which…
Time of Death by Mark Billingham
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford
Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd
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I’m swapping 2 out…
Coup de Foudre by Ken Kalfus – still hasn’t appeared on Kindle and no date is being shown, so I’ve given up on it meantime.
Disclaimer by Renee Knight – I’m afraid I only managed about 15 pages of this. Couldn’t bear the author’s writing style. It might have a great plot – the blurb sounds as if it will – but not for me, I fear.
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And swapping in two replacements…
Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie – I’ve never made it through a Rushdie book but maybe this will be the one to change that.
The Case of the Dotty Dowager by Cathy Ace – I suspect I’ll need something light!
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And then there’s still 9 from the original list not yet read…
Waverley by Sir Walter Scott
A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (just starting)
The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by SG MacLean
The Last Refuge by Craig Robertson (currently reading)
The Tender Herb by Lexie Conyngham
In Another Light by Andrew Greig
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
Docherty by William McIlvanney
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Gulp! Must get in extra chocolate supplies…
:D :D :D :D
It’s little wonder that Nancy Goldstone has chosen to use quotes from Machiavelli to head each chapter in her romping history of her rival Queens, Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France, and her daughter Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre. It was a great time for Queens, though maybe not quite so great for their subjects. Over in England, Elizabeth was working up to the beheading of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. But the shenanigans of Catherine and Marguerite frankly make the British Royals look tame.
Goldstone sets the scene well by beginning with Marguerite’s wedding to Henry of Navarre, a marriage she didn’t want since she was a devout Catholic and Henry was one of the leaders of the Protestant Huguenots. But Catherine didn’t much care for what her children wanted, on the whole – especially her daughters. From her perspective, they were simply pawns to be pushed around on the dynastic chessboard of Europe. To be fair, that was how she had been treated herself, so hardly surprising that she dealt with her own children’s wishes as cavalierly. But to then massacre the bridegroom’s friends and relatives during the wedding celebrations might have been a little over the top even for Renaissance royalty!
Goldstone then takes us back to Catherine’s early life as Queen to Henri II of France. Throughout, the tone of this hugely readable history is light. This early section in particular is full of some fairly ribald humour, as we learn of Catherine’s difficulties in becoming pregnant, and the helpful bedroom tips she is offered by Henri’s long-term mistress, Diane de Poitiers. In truth, by page 25 I had tears of laughter streaming down my face and my only regret is that if I were to quote the passages that made me howl so much I’d have to re-rate my blog as ‘explicit content’! Suffice to say, this book has the honour of containing the funniest footnote of all time and my Google search recommendations may never recover…
After this rocky start, Catherine managed to produce ten children (Diane’s advice must have been spectacular!) before Henri’s death left her poised to become regent for her young son Charles IX. After years of playing second fiddle to Diane and being sidelined as Queen, there might be some slight justification for Catherine’s desire to grab power when the chance arose. And she soon proved there was nothing that she wouldn’t consider, including murder and war, to hold onto it. Unfortunate for her that this was the time of the Reformation, meaning that the country was almost constantly either in civil war or in danger of it. The Huguenots were numerically hugely outnumbered in the general population, but had some influential people at their head, while the Catholic Guises were constantly on the prowl, looking for opportunities to gain control over the throne for themselves.
Catherine started out willing to conciliate the Huguenots, hence the betrothal of her young daughter to Henry of Navarre. But by the time of the marriage, Catherine’s attitude had changed, not for reasons of religious conviction (of which she had none, it would seem), but mainly to try to get in the good books of Philip of Spain. Having gone through with the marriage and then been horrified by the massacre which followed, Marguerite found herself in an uneasy alignment with the Huguenot husband she didn’t love and the brother, Francis, whom she did, and at odds with her mother and the King. From there on, the story is one of plot and counter-plot, shifting allegiances, betrayals and lots and lots of romping! Unloved by her husband, Marguerite took comfort in a succession of affairs throughout her life, seeming to be fairly indiscriminate on whom she bestowed her favours. In and out of her mother’s favour at different times, always for reasons of politics rather than any kind of familial love, the rivalry was finally resolved only by Catherine’s eventual unlamented death. Marguerite’s husband later ascended to the throne of France, at which point he promptly divorced the childless Marguerite (if only Diane had still been around to advise, eh?). But they got on better after that, and Marguerite ended her days as a sort of favoured aunt to Henry’s children with his second wife, and loved by the populace for her charitable works.
Despite the light tone, the book feels well-researched, although I give my usual disclaimer that I’m not qualified to judge its historical accuracy. Goldstone handles all the personalities well, making it easy for the reader to keep up, despite the fact that almost everyone is called either Henri or Henry. I felt that she was very biased in Marguerite’s favour and against Catherine. As often as not, the source material that she quotes is Marguerite’s own memoirs – again, I can’t judge, but I’d have assumed these would not be an unbiased account of the period. My own view was that Catherine was indeed not a shining example of motherhood, or Queenhood for that matter, but that Marguerite wasn’t exactly blameless either. Both women seemed willing to use their subjects as dispensable pawns in their own struggle for power and wealth and both seemed to have a pretty superficial view of what was important in life – money, sex, money, power and money. Goldstone remarks on Marguerite’s devotion to Catholicism frequently, but her moral behaviour suggests she was pretty relaxed about following the Church’s teachings only when it suited her.
Goldstone just stops short of claiming that Marguerite’s sexual adventures showed her to be an early feminist, demanding the same sexual freedom as the men. This seemed like a fairly ridiculous leap to me – historical characters must surely be judged by the standards of the society in which they lived rather than by those of today, and there seems little doubt that Marguerite was more promiscuous, or at least less discreet, than was considered acceptable at the time. And Goldstone is fairly harsh on Catherine for remaining in control (emotionally and politically) each time one of her children died – again I felt this was projecting today’s sensibilities backwards. Early death was much commoner then and therefore something that had to be coped with. I wondered if Goldstone would have expected a King to fall apart in similar circumstances. It seemed a bit unbalanced that Marguerite’s behaviour was a sign of feminism while Catherine’s was a sign of unwomanliness.
A biased history then, I think, but a highly readable one. At points it reads like a great thriller, complete with cliffhanger endings to chapters, and then at others it becomes like an episode of Dallas, with Catherine in the role of JR and Marguerite as sweet little Pamela. It concentrates entirely on the machinations of those in power, so there is no feeling for the social history of the time beyond mentions of the disruption caused by the religious wars. For me, this was a limitation although clearly an intentional one, and it undoubtedly made the book easier to read and more enjoyable. However sometimes I felt the subject matter perhaps deserved a rather more serious treatment – one feels somehow that the French people probably didn’t have as much fun living under these awful monarchs as I had reading about them. A great starter book though for someone who, like me, knows very little of that period of French and European history – a very palatable way to learn some history.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Weidenfield & Nicolson.
I don’t do fan mail but one of my bookish regrets is that I never made the effort to tell Reginald Hill how much pleasure he gave me over so many years. With current favourite authors, I think of my reviews as a form of fan mail, but Hill published what turned out to be his final book before I began reviewing. I joined the Dalziel and Pascoe series at probably around the eighth book, immediately read his entire back catalogue and from then on he was a ‘must read on publication day’ author – the first author who made it onto that exalted list. I enjoyed his standalones and am extremely fond of his Joe Sixsmith series, but it’s the Dalziel and Pascoe books I love most. So, time for him to make his overdue blog debut on this week’s…
The Last National Service Man
by Reginald Hill
Dalziel and Pascoe made their first appearance in 1970 in A Clubbable Woman, as a wonderfully mismatched pair of detectives working in the Mid-Yorkshire CID. Andy Dalziel is an old-school copper, a larger-than-life, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Yorkshireman, but with an implaccable drive for justice that he will take into his own hands if the system fails to punish the guilty. Peter Pascoe is a graduate entry officer, complete with classical education and left-liberal ideology. On the surface, Dalziel is a bully and Pascoe a softie but, underneath, each has a core of steel and a loyalty to each other that builds and deepens as the series goes on. Neither compromises, exactly, but they learn to respect each other and value their different strengths.
In 1996, Hill produced a collection of 4 novella-length stories, Asking for the Moon, one of which, The Last National Service Man, is the story of Dalziel and Pascoe’s first meeting. After nearly thirty years, the series’ fan-base was as well-established as the duo themselves, so Hill has a lot of fun taking us back to those early days but with the added twist that we know how the two develop in their future. I think this could be read and enjoyed by someone coming to it without having read any of the books, but it’s filled with lots of ‘in’ jokes and references which make it a special joy for fans, to whom Hill dedicated the book with his usual wit.
Dalziel has been away on a job in Wales and comes back to discover that a rookie graduate has been allocated to his team in his absence. He’s back to give evidence in court and coincidentally Pascoe is also at court to attend a different trial. Wieldy, the third member of the team and a major character in his own right in the later books, is there to pass a message to Dalziel. But first Dalziel and Pascoe, unbeknownst to the other, watch each other’s performance in court, and each is horrified by what he sees. Dalziel is up against a man being tried for rape of a prostitute…
“Nay, sir!” said Dalziel in all injured innocence. “Tha knows I’d never mention a man’s record in court, no matter how rotten it were. All I was going to say was, I said to myself, spotty little scrote like that, I bet he’d have to use force to get his own mother to kiss him goodnight!”
Appalled, young Pascoe hurries off to give his own evidence in the trial of two men charged with stealing a litter of piglets. The watching Dalziel is not a little stunned by the following exchange…
“As things stand” [said the lawyer] “it seems to me what we have here is a serious allegation of crime unsupported by any corpus delicti whatever.”
“Perhaps, Mr Harris,” said the magistrate who aspired to judicial wit, “we should say corpi as their were six or seven, or even eight, of them.”
“Indeed, sir. Corpi. Very good.”
“Corpora,” said Pascoe.
“I’m sorry?” said Harris, histrionically puzzled.
“The plural of corpus is corpora,” explained Pascoe.
With these two little sketches, Hill gives a beautifully witty summary of the differences between the two characters. And that’s the joy of his writing. I don’t think he ever tells us anything – he lets the characters tell us themselves. The story turns into a hostage situation when Dalziel and Pascoe are taken prisoner by a man with a grudge, but really it’s a device to put the two in a room together and let us see them getting to know each other. And, as they do, we see the wary beginnings of the respect that we know will eventually turn into an unlikely friendship over the years.
The quality of Hill’s writing is first-class – many of the later books read as much like literary fiction as crime. I hold him in part responsible for my pickiness about the standards of writing in crime fiction – he proved again and again that ‘genre’ fiction never needs to compromise on quality. Throughout his career he refused to jump on the book-a-year treadmill, which meant impatient waiting for his fans, but also ensured that his standards never dropped. I don’t ever remember reading one of his books and feeling let down by it – a remarkable achievement in such a long-running series. He loved to play games with words and structure, and with referencing some of the literary greats in his novels, but he could get away with it because he was skilled enough to play them well. And even at his most playful, he never forgot the need for great plots and consistent believable characterisation. He did darkness just as well as light, and some of his books are deeply emotionally harrowing. On Beulah Height is the book I always name when asked for my favourite crime novel, but actually I could pick several of the later books – he continued to develop and improve throughout his long career, never taking his fans for granted.
Belatedly, thank you, Mr Hill. You are missed.
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Little Grey Cells rating: :?: (It’s not a mystery)
Overall story rating: :D :D :D :D :D
:D :D :D :D
When young Davie Balfour is left orphaned on the death of his father, he is given a letter that his father left for him and told to take it to one Ebenezer Balfour, Esquire, of Shaws. Dutifully he obeys, only to find that miserly old Ebenezer is his uncle, who is not best pleased at having his nephew foisted upon him, for fear he may discover the family secret. So Ebenezer tricks David into going aboard the brig Covenanter, where he is promptly knocked senseless and carried off to be sold into slavery in the Carolinas. But with the help of a new-found friend, Alan Breck Stewart, David escapes and finds himself wandering the Highlands of Scotland – a dangerous place just a few years after the failed Jacobite rebellion, where clan is set against clan, and supporters of the Pretender are being hunted or victimised by those who support the King. And when David is accidentally caught up in a murder, he finds he too is being hunted. His only hope is to make it safely back to the Lowlands, while Alan Breck must try to escape back to France, where his chief is in exile.
Written in 1886, the story is set over a century earlier, in 1752. In reality, it’s mainly an adventure story, but I always find old historical novels interesting because of the double hit – seeing how people of an earlier generation interpreted an even earlier historical period. Stevenson gives us a very unromanticised version of the clans as uncouth hard-drinking, hard fighting men scratching out a subsistence living from the barren wastelands of the Highlands – a good deal more accurate, I’d imagine, than some of the later more idealised versions of the Jacobite story. It surprised me a little though since I thought that, by the time he was writing this book, the romanticisation of the landscape and culture, begun by Sir Walter Scott and encouraged by Queen Victoria’s love affair with the Highlands, was well underway. Stevenson’s depiction conveys none of the wild grandeur we now associate with the mountains and glens and even our heroes are pretty unheroic.
However, without over-emphasising it, he does show some sympathy for the hardships the Highlanders were forced to suffer at the hands of a government determined to destroy the clan system to prevent further rebellion. He talks of the banning of the kilt and points up the difficulties this caused to those too poor to acquire other kinds of clothing; he describes the hiding of arms to get round the ban on Highlanders carrying weapons; he shows the severe privations caused to the poor by being expected to support their own chieftains in exile while also paying taxes to the government; and he hints at the depopulation of the landscape through forced mass emigration to the New World – the beginnings of the euphemistically named Highland Clearances. But his hero is a loyal supporter of King George and a true son of the Covenanters, complete with priggish antipathy towards anything that might be considered fun.
All of this is entertaining to anyone with an interest in Scottish history, but I feel Stevenson assumes a certain degree of familiarity with the aftermath of the Rebellion that most non-Scottish readers and probably even many modern Scottish readers may not have. And I suspect the result of that may mean that the story feels slow in places as he digresses a little from the action to set the book in its historical and social context. I felt the pacing was uneven overall. There are some great action scenes – the battle aboard the ship, the shipwreck, the flight from the murder scene – but there are also quite lengthy lulls, usually when poor David is taken ill, which happens with great regularity. Again, probably realistic given the circumstances, but not the stuff of which great heroic adventures are normally made. And I found his personality grating – the older David who is narrating the story frequently remarks himself on how self-obsessed and immature his younger self’s behaviour was, and I could only agree. There is some Scots dialect in the dialogue but not enough and not broad enough, I think, to cause problems for non-Scottish readers.
The beginning of the book was the best part for me, when David was at sea, and it picked up again towards the end, when they had made it back to civilisation and set out to prove David’s identity. But I found the central section dragged, when David and Alan are wandering interminably around the Highlands, and half the time is spent on David bemoaning the physical hardship he is undergoing or describing his ill-health. And the ending is so abrupt that I actually wondered if a final chapter might be missing from my Kindle edition, but apparently not. Definitely worth reading, but if I was recommending just one novel about the Jacobite rebellion it would still be DK Broster’s The Flight of the Heron – it may be overly romanticised, but it’s also much more fun. And with a far, far better hero in my beloved Ewen Cameron, the Darcy of the Highlands…
:D :D :)
It is 9 years since the blinded and heartbroken Paul Muad’dib walked off into the desert of Dune to die. His weird little children, Leto and Ghanima, take after their Auntie Alia in so many ways – prescient, gifted or cursed with the memories of all their ancestors, nuts. Until now I thought the horrid little kids who sing the duet in Polar Express were the creepiest children ever, but Leto and Ghani have them beat hands down! Alia, meantime, has overindulged so much in the spice drug melange that she has become what the Bene Gesserit feared – an Abomination! No longer able to control all the voices of her ancestors inside her head, she has fallen under the influence of the strongest of them – the evil Baron Harkonen. Leto and Ghani look on this as a warning and are assiduously avoiding doing the spice drug conversion thingy that Rev Mothers do, as they think this is what caused Alia to become Abominable.
Meantime Jessica has returned to the folds of the Bene Gesserit and has now been sent back to Arrakis (Dune) for reasons that remain somewhat hazy. Basically she appears to be trying to protect the genetic line by persuading Leto and Ghani (9-year-old twins, remember) to mate and breed. It’s always good to have a supportive granny, isn’t it? And has Paul really died in the desert? Who is the mysterious Preacher who keeps popping up and calling Alia names? If he is Paul, why is he trying to undermine his family’s rule? Why do Leto and Ghani want to get to Jacurutu? How come Leto is having prescient dreams if he’s not taking spice? What is the Golden Path that Leto keeps banging on about as the way to save something? Save what? Or who? Seriously – if you know the answers, do tell – personally I’m baffled!
By all the descriptions this had to be Fondak, and no other place could be Jacurutu. He felt a strange resonant relationship with the tabu of this place. In the Bene Gesserit Way, he opened his mind to Jacurutu, seeking to know nothing about it. Knowing was a barrier which prevented learning. For a few moments he allowed himself merely to resonate, making no demands, asking no questions.
The book starts off well, getting straight into the story. I was about to say that it’s important to read these in order or you wouldn’t have a clue what was going on but… I did read them in order and I still found this one almost completely incomprehensible! I can only assume that Mr Herbert too may have been sampling the delights of mind-altering substances while writing, and I wondered if perhaps it’s necessary to be doped up to the eyeballs to follow the ‘plot’. Unfortunately, having no illicit drugs to hand, I was forced to attempt it on wine only and that clearly wasn’t strong enough. (I also tried sobriety – but that was so much worse!)
The thing is it seems as if it’s going to be good. The writing is as good as usual and Herbert creates a nicely chilling atmosphere. The description of all the personalities within Alia trying to take control of her mind is brilliantly done, and Leto and Ghani channelling the thoughts of their dead parents is incredibly creepy. Herbert uses Leto’s mullings on what he should do as a vehicle to indulge in a bit of philosophising about the Cold War concerns of his own time, concluding unsurprisingly that the American Way of Life is best. There are loads of conspiracies going on with everyone scheming against everyone else, and Herbert makes this a fascinating look at the loneliness and ultimate fragility of power.
But… Herbert forgets to tell us what’s actually going on! Having a rotten memory, I usually jot down brief notes for review purposes – here’s one of my notes… “About 2/3 now – haven’t a clue what’s going on, don’t like anybody, don’t care who wins (wins what?) and thoroughly bored with the psychedelic drugs, man! Lots of pseudo profundity that’s supposed to be taken seriously and sooooo repetitive. Just want it to be over now.” You can tell I was really enjoying it!
The last third shows some brilliant imagination even if it’s frankly weird to the point of laughable. I have to mention the sandtrouts…
(Spoiler!!! Spoiler!!! Spoiler!!!)
The bit where Leto and the sandtrouts merge is without a doubt one of the most inspired pieces of lunacy I’ve ever read, made beautifully squirmily disgusting by the quality of the writing. But when the process turns Leto into some kind of pint-sized superhero who can leap tall buildings in a single bound and destroy hardened warriors with one punch, I began to giggle. And, during the big dramatic finale, that giggling turned into uncontrollable, tears-running-down-the-face, hysteria when he picked up his Abominable Auntie Alia and swung her around his head! I’m not altogether convinced that was the effect Herbert was aiming for…
Alia feinted to the left but her right shoulder came up and her right foot shot out in a toe-pointing kick which could disembowel a man if it struck precisely.
Leto caught the blow on his arm, grabbed the foot, and picked her up by it, swinging her around his head. The speed with which he swung her sent a flapping, hissing sound through the room as her robe beat against her body…Alia screamed and screamed, but still she continued to swing around and around and around.
(End of spoiler)
Great start, incomprehensible middle, unintentionally hysterical end. The last sentence of my notes reads “Right load of old tosh!” and I stand by that! Will I be reading more of the Dune books? Not for the foreseeable future… see? I’m prescient too…
FIVE 5-STAR READS
Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it.
So here are my favourite June reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…
I’ve been a long-term fan of Peter May’s since back in his China Thrillers days, but I felt that with the Lewis Trilogy he took a real step up to take his place as one of the very top crime writers in Britain today. The Blackhouse is the first book in the trilogy introducing us to DS Fin MacLeod, who is sent back to Lewis to investigate a murder that resembles one that took place earlier in his Edinburgh patch. Returning home after 20 years away, Fin is thrown into remembering and re-assessing his difficult childhood and adolescence. The book alternates between the present day and Fin’s past and it gradually emerges that the shadow of that past may be involved in the current investigation. This was one of the earlier examples of the double timeline that has now become almost obligatory in crime fiction, but it’s done much better than most, with both the current story and the past equally strong and coming together to a dark but satisfying conclusion. And the rest of the trilogy is even better…
This is a beautifully written novel, each word carefully crafted to draw the reader in to a world full of poetry and drama. Morgan fills the gaps in our knowledge about Shakespeare’s life by creating a character who is completely convincing and compelling – a man who questions his own existence except as he lives through his work. But much though I loved the story of Shakespeare and his London life, for me the standout feature of the book was the character of Anne Hathaway – her love for Will, her fear of losing him, her strength to let him follow his driven path despite the cost to herself. We see Anne grow and develop as she tries to reconcile her pride in Will’s accomplishments with her sense of abandonment. She has to provide the strength that can make their relationship survive his absence, that gives him the freedom to be something she never fully understands. A wonderful book that will appeal not only to Shakespeare fans but also to anyone who appreciates a superbly crafted tale filled with poetry, humanity and tenderness.
“Rewilding recognises that nature consists not just of a collection of species but also of their ever-shifting relationships with each other and with the physical environment. It understands that to keep an ecosystem in a state of arrested development, to preserve it as if it were a jar of pickles, is to protect something which bears little relationship to the natural world.”
This book is a call for us to step back from nature conservation as we know it and give nature space to recover on her own. Monbiot suggests that humanity has lost something precious by its disconnect with the wild world and that we in the UK have taken that disconnect to further extremes than most. He isn’t arguing for a return to the world of hunter/gatherer, but for the return of at least parts of the country to true, unmanaged wilderness status and for the reintroduction of some of the top predators we have driven to extinction in our islands. A cogently argued and inspiring book that made me look with fresh eyes at what our landscape has become, and imagine what it could be if we have the courage to hand back the controls to nature herself. Although he talks specifically about the UK, much of what he says is relevant to the whole ‘first world’.
You only have to look at the cover of this book to see some of the huge names who have contributed stories to this anthology in aid of Oxfam. In total, there are twenty-seven stories, most of them original, and the overall quality is exceptionally high. There are a few that are really quite short, but most of them are pretty substantial and a few of them star the detective for whom the author is famous. As well as straightforward crime/detection, there are examples of both horror and sci-fi with a crime element, and black humour puts in more than one appearance. Anthony Horowitz, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Neil Gaiman, Mark Billingham, Peter James… need I say more? To be honest, you’d need to be pretty much impossible to please if you didn’t enjoy at least some of these stories. Imaginative tales and great writing from top authors – the fact that it’s for a good cause is just an added bonus.
First published in 1939, this is a fairly contemporaneous account of the devastation wrought on Oklahoma farming communities during the Depression. Driven by poverty and lack of work, many of the farmers are uprooting their families to go to California, their own promised land, where, they are told, the country is filled with fruit ripe for picking, and there is work for all. Starkly political, overly polemical, emotionally manipulative and tending towards bathos… but also hugely powerful, brilliantly written, immensely moving and just as relevant to today as to the time of writing. I can’t remember the last time a book made me this angry, both at the subject matter and at the author’s manipulation of the reader. Made me think, made me cry, made me want to throw my Kindle at the wall, bored me silly at some points, and left me so enraged it took me weeks to be able to write a (reasonably) coherent review. Not an easy read, or an enjoyable one… but a book that deserves to be read.
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If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for June, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…
A massive decrease in the TBR this week – to 140. I’m powering through the books but developing a backlog for review. This is due to a combination of summer, tennis and general procrastination – all of which have meant I haven’t been visiting your blogs this week either, for which my apologies! Wimbledon is underway so I may not be around much for the next week or so, but should be back properly after that, revitalised and ready to serve up some backhanded reviews and slice a few more off the reading list. Hope I don’t hit any ballboys…
Meantime, a few that are rising to the top of the heap. A mixed bag this time – the only one I feel really confident about is the Ken Kalfus…
This book has been a long time in the publishing – I originally pre-ordered it in January 2014, and still no Kindle version available, and I’m not sure the hardback is out yet either over here, though it is in the US. However with Kalfus I’m sure it will have been worth the wait…
The Blurb says “The third collection by the celebrated author of Thirst and PEN/Faulkner Award finalist Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, Coup de Foudre is the groundbreaking work of literary invention Ken Kalfus’s fans have come to expect. The book is anchored by the biting title novella, a sometimes comic, ultimately tragic story about the president of an international lending institution accused of sexually assaulting a chambermaid in a New York hotel. With irony and compassion, Kalfus skewers international political gridlock and the hypocrisies of acceptable sexual conduct. The stories in Coup de Foudre vary boldly in theme, setting, and tone, yet they each share Kalfus’s distinctive humor and intellect, inextricably bound with high literary ambition.”
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The Blurb says “Imagine a world where everyone is born with a ‘skin’ name. Without skin you cannot learn, you are not permitted to marry, and you grow up an outsider amongst your own people.This is no future dystopia. This is Celtic Britain.
It is AD 43. For the Caer Cad, ‘skin’ name determines lineage and identity. Ailia does not have skin; despite this, she is a remarkable young woman, intelligent, curious and brave. As a dark threat grows on the horizon – the aggressive expansion of the Roman Empire – Ailia must embark on an unsanctioned journey to attain the knowledge that will protect her people, and their pagan way of life, from the most terrifying invaders they have ever faced… and it is this unskinned girl who will come to hold the fate of her people in her hands.
SKIN is a standout, full-blooded debut which invokes the mesmerizing, genre-transcending magic of novels such as Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cavebear; it combines epic storytelling with a strikingly unique plot set during a fascinating period of Britain’s history.”
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Courtesy of NetGalley. I love Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint series, but I’m not so sure how I’ll feel about this standalone. However I think she’s a great storyteller, so hopefully she’ll carry me with her… (I’ve started it since I drafted this – hmm! Still not sure…)
The Blurb says “What’s the worst thing your best friend could do to you?
Admittedly, it wasn’t murder. A moment’s carelessness, a tragic accident – and two children are dead. Yours. Living in a small island community, you can’t escape the woman who destroyed your life. Each chance encounter is an agonizing reminder of what you’ve lost – your family, your future, your sanity. How long before revenge becomes irresistible? With no reason to go on living, why shouldn’t you turn your darkest thoughts into deeds?
So now, what’s the worst thing you can do to your best friend?”
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Courtesy of NetGalley. Given my growing aversion to ‘gritty’ modern crime fiction (i.e., police brutality, drunkenness and swearing), I’m hoping this title suggests something a bit more mystery and a bit less graphic…
The Blurb says “Meet the Women of the WISE Enquiries Agency. The first in a new series.
Henry Twyst, eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth, is convinced his mother is losing her marbles. She claims to have seen a corpse on the dining-room floor, but all she has to prove it is a bloodied bobble hat. Worried enough to retain the women of the WISE Enquiries Agency one is Welsh, one Irish, one Scottish and one English Henry wants the strange matter explained away. But the truth of what happened at the Chellingworth Estate, set in the rolling Welsh countryside near the quaint village of Anwen by Wye, is more complex, dangerous, and deadly, than anyone could have foreseen . . . ”
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NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.
So…what do you think?
Do any of these tempt you?
(Apart from Rafa, obviously…’cos he’s mine!)
:D :D :D :D
Paul and Claire meet for dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette quite often, and Paul usually finds them uncomfortable occasions, having a contempt born out of jealousy for his brother’s successful political career. But on this occasion, things are more tense than usual because the two families need to talk about an incident involving their children. When it becomes obvious they’re not going to agree on how to handle the situation, the tension begins to grow and the conventions of polite behaviour begin to fall apart. The question the book asks is – how far would you go to protect your children?
The book gets off to a flying start, with some great observational humour as Paul, the narrator, looks forward apprehensively to the evening ahead. Koch is great at ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ and we learn as much about Paul’s relationship with his wife and brother from reading between the lines as from what he actually says. But this is only the first layer of the onion – as the book progresses, outward appearances are stripped away until eventually each character is laid bare to us in all their prejudices and flaws. And a pretty unsavoury bunch they are, with Paul himself turning out to be far more complex than he gives us to believe at the beginning. The whole thing slowly becomes very dark, and though it’s clearly heading for a dramatic climax, it’s not at all obvious what that will be until it arrives.
I read Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool a few months ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. The twisted morality and dark storyline mixed with some great black humour to make an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. The focus was on the father and asked the same question – what would you do to protect your children? I’ve noticed that many people who read The Dinner first found Summer House a bit disappointing because it trod a similar path. Reading them in reverse, I found The Dinner a little disappointing for the same reason.
The Dinner is one of those books where it’s important to know as little as possible going in to get the full effect of the various surprises, so I’ll say no more about the plot. But there were a couple of other things that made me like it a little less than Summer House. Though there is some good observational humour in The Dinner, it doesn’t have quite the edge as in Summer House. In it, the humour is often cruel, but wickedly close to what we maybe all think but don’t say from time to time – and then feel appalled at ourselves for thinking it. In this one, I didn’t get that feeling of delicious recognition and guilt – the humour was more straightforward. But the big difference – and I’ll have to be a little oblique to avoid spoilers – is that there is some small degree of moral justification for the actions in Summer House, but absolutely none that I could accept in The Dinner. Therefore while I had some sympathy for some characters in Summer House, I had none at all for any of them in The Dinner.
But the mild disappointment in this one is only because of the comparison. In itself, this is a good dark psychological thriller, where the quality of the writing and characterisation helps to get the reader past the lack of credibility at some parts of the story – for most of the time. Personally, I found the ending asked me to suspend my disbelief a little too much, but this didn’t destroy my enjoyment of the book overall. The translation from the original Dutch is again by Sam Garrett, who does another very fine job with it. I’ll be interested to see where Koch’s dark imagination takes us in future…
Thanks to Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books whose great review persuaded me to read this one.