Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Existential crisis…

🙂 🙂 😐

Red PillOur unnamed narrator, a writer of academic literary criticism, is going through a mid-life crisis. He is seemingly happily married and with a little child, but he’s finding it hard to write. So when he is offered a residency at the Deuter Institute in Berlin, he jumps at the chance to spend a few months working in luxurious surroundings, even though his wife is not thrilled at him leaving her to cope alone. But when he gets to the Institute, he discovers that they have odd and strict rules on how their visitors should work and associate, and he finds himself even less able to write than before. And so begins his existential crisis, tied in with the work he is, or isn’t, doing on the ‘lyric I’ as exemplified in the work of Heinrich von Kleist, a poet of the German Romantic school…

My reviews are entirely subjective and are rarely meant to be a quality judgement. The quality of this book may be wonderful if you happen to know anything, and care, about the philosophies underpinning German Romanticism. I don’t, and I don’t. As a result, I found some of this incomprehensible, and most of it tedious.

hari kunzru
Hari Kunzru

Kunzru uses his narrator’s philosophical musings and descent into madness to consider the current rise of the alt-right and to make comparisons to the totalitarian regimes of both left and right in the mid-twentieth century. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that this would have been more interesting if the book had come out in the pre-Trump era, as a warning – not unlike Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land, which met with harrumphs of disbelief from some quarters on its publication in 2013, particularly from Americans who then believed their democracy and fundamental freedoms were so strong they could not be overturned. The timing of this one, as the Trump era ends, or at least pauses, felt to me as if it had rather missed the bus. Most of us have been angsting for years over the question of whether America would pull back from the brink of fascism before it was too late, and so the questions raised in the book felt somewhat stale, as if looking ahead to a future that is already receding into the past (hopefully).

So, unfortunately, the combination of lots of self-indulgent lit-crit which didn’t interest me, combined with political questions which I feel have been done and done again in recent years, meant that I didn’t enjoy this one nearly as much as I have enjoyed Kunzru’s previous books. I hesitate to use the word pretentious, because perhaps it only feels pretentious to me because it’s so heavily immersed in a subject about which I am profoundly (and yet happily) ignorant. I’m sure people who are interested in German Romantic poetry and philosophy will have a different reaction. My opinion is, therefore, even more subjective than usual – the book didn’t work for me, but may work for you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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People’s Choice: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

On a mission…

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The Price family arrive in a remote village in the Belgian Congo to take over the Baptist mission there. The preacher father, Nathan, is enthusiastic and sure of his ability to bring the villagers to his rather wrathful version of God. The mother, Orleanna, and their four daughters are less keen, but being female their opinions don’t count, so at first they’re willing to try to make the best of it. It’s only for a year, after all. But when the Congo declares independence from Belgium and the mission tells Nathan to return to America, he refuses – he is determined to finish his work whatever the cost to his own family. Left without even the meagre wage the mission had provided or the support of other missionaries to fall back on in emergencies, life, already hard, becomes almost unbearably tough for Orleanna and the girls. And then tragedy strikes…

We are told from the beginning that Orleanna has left one of her precious children buried in the African soil, but we don’t find out which one till long into the book, nor how she dies. The first half of the book tells of the day-to-day life of the family as they begin to learn about the ways of the people they have come to live among. Gradually the older girls realise, each in her own way, that the Congolese are not in some kind of spiritual darkness – they have their own culture, beliefs and traditions, as meaningful to them as baptism and the Commandments are to Nathan. The poverty in their life is not of the spirit but of the body, scraping out a mean existence from land the forest is always seeking to reclaim, at the mercy of the rain – too little equals famine, too much, mudslides and destruction. Meanwhile, the white colonialists in the cities live in luxury gained through the exploitation of the Congo’s rich natural resources and its people.

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

Yes, it is a preaching, message-driven book with much to say about racism, the evils of modern colonialism, the greed of American capitalism, and the perversion of religion into a tool of subjugation and control. But it’s done extremely well and is beautifully written, and (perhaps because I agreed with most of what she was saying) I found I wasn’t irritated by the drip-drip of worthiness running through it. It’s also somewhat plotless – I’d describe it as a family saga except that somehow that always sounds like a rather disparaging term. It follows the girls from childhood into their middle age, so that we see not just what happened to them in the mission but how that period impacted the rest of their lives.

The story is told in the voices of the mother and daughters. Orleanna only appears briefly at the beginning of each section of the book and she is looking back from the perspective of her old age. The girls, however, are telling us the story in real time throughout, in rotating chapters, and Kingsolver does a remarkable job of juggling four distinct voices and personalities, while gradually ageing them through childhood into young adulthood and finally to the more reflective maturity of mid-life. By the end of the book, they are of the age their parents were at the beginning, and so can perhaps understand and forgive more readily than their younger selves could.

Rachel is the eldest, fifteen when the book begins, a typical teenager, more interested in clothes and boys than religion and missions, and is frankly appalled at being dragged to a place where there are no cinemas or dances, no potential boyfriends (since to Rachel black boys certainly don’t count), and no electricity. It’s 1959, so no cell phones or internet – the girls are completely cut off from their former lives. Rachel is not what you’d call studious and she uses words wrongly all the time, which gives a humorous edge to her chapters. But she’s a survivor, protected by the shell of narcissism her prettiness has allowed her to develop.

….Slowly Father raised one arm above his head like one of those gods they had in Roman times, fixing to send down the thunderbolts and the lightning. Everyone looked up at him, smiling, clapping, waving their arms over their heads, bare bosoms and all. Then he began to speak. It was not so much a speech as a rising storm.
….“The Lord rideth,” he said, low and threatening, “upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt.”
….Hurray! they all cheered, but I felt a knot in my stomach. He was getting that look he gets, oh boy, like Here comes Moses tramping down off of Mount Syanide with ten fresh ways to wreck your life.

Ruth May is the youngest, just five when we first meet her, and to me her voice was the least true – she uses a vocabulary and thought processes well beyond her years, I felt. But she’s still fun, and unlike her sisters she’s young enough to adapt quickly to life in the village, befriending the African children and picking up their language easily.

Adah and Leah are twins, aged about fourteen at the start. Adah was brain-damaged at birth, and although highly intelligent she rarely speaks. She thinks oddly too, loving to find palindromes wherever she can and having a particular enjoyment in reading and writing backwards. I found this extremely tedious and was glad that she gradually grew out of it before I reached breaking point – reading backwards, I’ve realised, is not something I enjoy! Leah soon begins to show through as the main voice. Also intelligent, she is observant and interested in the world around her, though she’s still young enough at the beginning to not always understand what she sees.

Later in the book, we see how life plays out for the three surviving daughters. I need to be vague here so as not to give spoilers, but two of the girls make very different lives for themselves in Africa, while the third returns to America, though still carrying her African experiences in her heart. These three lives combined give Kingsolver an opportunity to show the broad history of this part of Africa and its troubled relationship with America over the next three decades or so, and she does it very skilfully so that it remains a personal story rather than sinking into polemics. She has an agenda and she gets it across, but it’s the girls, now women, who think the thoughts and live the lives that show the reader the contrasts, the politics, the aftermath of colonialism – no lectures from the author required.

There is not justice in this world. Father, forgive me wherever you are, but this world has brought one vile abomination after another down on the heads of the gentle, and I’ll not live to see the meek inherit anything. What there is in this world, I think, is a tendency for human errors to level themselves like water throughout their sphere of influence. That’s pretty much the whole of what I can say, looking back. There’s the possibility of balance. Unbearable burdens that the world somehow does bear with a certain grace.

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This was a People’s Choice Poll winner so thank you, People – you picked an excellent one! I thought this was a wonderful book, well deserving all the praise and plaudits it has received. It made me laugh and cry and care and think – isn’t that what all good fiction should do?

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The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

The one with Little Nell…

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Nell Trent, a child of thirteen, lives with her doting grandfather in his shop where he ekes out an existence selling old and unusual items. Grandfather (he is never named) has lost both his beloved wife and their daughter, Nell’s mother, and Nell has become a substitute to him for their loss, though he also loves her for her own sake. He is worried about what might happen to her when he dies, so is determined to make lots of money so he can provide for her. But the method he chooses – gambling – soon becomes an addiction, and he gradually loses all his savings and ends up in debt to the evil dwarf, Daniel Quilp. Quilp turns Nell and her grandfather out of their home, and they must leave London and learn to make their way in a life of poverty. Grandfather is old and becoming senile, so young Nell must take on any jobs she can find, and beg for them both when work isn’t available. But Quilp isn’t finished with them yet…

This is the only one of Dickens’ novels that I hadn’t read before, so it was a real pleasure to get to know the cast of characters and follow Nell on her journeys. Unfortunately what happens to Little Nell is so well known (in case you don’t know, I won’t say) and a book I read a few years ago had also told me what happens to Quilp, so I didn’t get the joy of suspense over the main plotline. But, as usual with Dickens, there are so many sub-plots and digressions, the characters are so beautifully quirky, the settings are described so wonderfully and the language is a delight, so I didn’t feel I missed out on much.

(Nell dreaming angelic dreams amidst the shop’s curiosities…)

Nell starts out rather better than a lot of Dickens’ drooping heroines. She’s a girl of spirit who loves to laugh, and who affectionately teases her only friend, young Kit, her grandfather’s assistant. She does eventually turn into the usual saccharin perfect saint, though, losing much of her initial appeal as she does. But all the worry of looking after her grandfather and herself falls on her, and Dickens allows her to have enough strength and ingenuity to carry them both through some dangerous and heart-breaking moments. She’s not quite as strong as Kickass Kate Nickleby, but she’s certainly no Drippy Dora Copperfield either! I could fully understand why people got so caught up in her story when the book was originally published in serial form although, sadly, apparently the story about people storming the docks in New York when the ship carrying the last instalment arrived is apocryphal. Grandfather is a surprisingly unattractive character who really doesn’t deserve Nell’s devotion, but in him Dickens gives a great portrayal of how addiction can destroy a man’s character and life.

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The bulk of the story, however, is really about Kit, Quilp and the characters around them in London. Quilp is a sadist who delights in bullying his wife and anyone else who comes in his way. For no particular reason – Quilp doesn’t need reasons – he has taken against Kit and sets out to destroy him. But Kit is an honest, upright young boy who has the knack of winning friends who will stand by him when he needs them. When Nell leaves London with her grandfather, Kit hopes to find her one day, so he can make sure she is alright. Quilp also wants to find Nell, but for very different reasons – mostly just to be mean to her and to a young man called Dick Swiveller, who has been persuaded by Nell’s brother (oh, I forgot to mention – Nell has a ne’er-do-well brother, Fred) that he, Dick, should marry Nell, for complicated reasons. Gosh, summarising Dickens’ plots is exceptionally hard! Trust me, it all makes sense in the book! Dick is a lot of fun, constantly quoting from romantic songs of the day, and having a heart of gold under his drunken wastrel exterior.

Quilp is a great villain, without a single redeeming feature. Because he’s described as an ugly, misshapen dwarf when we first meet him, I tried to have some sympathy – to consider whether his treatment as a child may have warped his character – but honestly, he’s so vile that after a bit I couldn’t feel anything for him other than hatred and a desire to see him get his comeuppance! Sally Brass is another wonderful character. Sister to Sampson Brass, Quilp’s lawyer, she works alongside her brother and is the real force in the business. She’s mannish in her mannerisms, obnoxious, a tyrant to her little servant, and joins happily in all Quilp’s evil schemes. Sampson also goes along with Quilp, but he’s weaker than Sally and acts mostly out of fear of Quilp’s wrath.

(Quilp interrupts the ladies taking tea…)

Now, the ladies being together under these circumstances, it was extremely natural that the discourse should turn upon the propensity of mankind to tyrannise over the weaker sex, and the duty that devolved upon the weaker sex to resist that tyranny and assert their rights and dignity. It was natural for four reasons; firstly because Mrs Quilp being a young woman and notoriously under the dominion of her husband ought to be excited to rebel, secondly because Mrs Quilp’s parent was known to be laudably shrewish in her disposition and inclined to resist male authority, thirdly because each visitor wished to show for herself how superior she was in this respect to the generality of her sex, and fourthly because the company being accustomed to scandalise each other in pairs were deprived of their usual subject of conversation now that they were all assembled in close friendship, and had consequently no better employment than to attack the common enemy.

I felt there were more signs of this one’s origins as a serial than in most of his novels. It starts off with a first-person narrator, but this is dropped after a few chapters and from there on it becomes a third-person narrative. Kit starts out as a kind of simpleton comedy character, but then turns into a fine upstanding young man with plenty of intelligence as the story develops, and Dick has a similar change of character, though less marked. And there are, unusually for Dickens, one or two loose ends, particularly one around the birth of the one of the characters. There’s a great introduction by Elizabeth M. Brennan in my Oxford World’s Classics edition, which explains how these discrepancies arose from the rushed method of writing for weekly publication and the fact that Dickens hadn’t planned out the whole story when he began to write it. Brennan also tells us that Dickens cut some passages before the serialisation was published in novel form, including the birth mystery to which I referred. It doesn’t, however, explain why Dickens chose to cut that particular scene, leaving the reader to guess from a couple of hints along the way. The cut sections are given in the appendices.

(Grandfather gambling away Nell’s little hoard of money…)

However, none of these minor flaws are enough of a problem to take away from the sheer enjoyability of watching Dickens masterfully juggle humour and pathos, horror and joy, with all of his usual skill. And, oh dear, as always there’s so much I haven’t even touched on – the travelling entertainers Nell meets with on her journey, the waxworks, the Punch and Judy men, the hellish scenes of industrialised towns, Quilp’s poor mother-in-law, Kit’s family, the delightfully obstinate pony Whisker, the prison scenes, and so much more!

I’ll have to let it settle and perhaps read it at least once more to decide where it will finally sit in my league table of Dickens’ novels. Currently, it’s in the middle – not quite up there with Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby and so on, but not down at the bottom with poor Oliver Twist either. However, a middle-rank Dickens is still vastly better than most other books written by people unfortunate enough to not be Dickens, so that means it’s great – highly recommended!

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A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

Truth v emotional truth…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a short collection of six stories, some of them autobiographical, others fictional. A couple of them are set at Christmas, while Thanksgiving and birthdays make appearances in others. For me, the collection was divided strictly down the middle. The three autobiographical ones were overly sentimental, veering perilously close to mawkishness, and full of preachy moral lessons the young Capote learned from his wise but childlike elderly cousin. The three fictional ones, however, were excellent – emotional, certainly, but with an underlying feeling of truthfulness that I found sadly lacking in the autobiographical ones. Since it’s a short collection, here’s a brief idea of each story:

A Christmas Memory – here we meet young Buddy, as the child Capote was known, as he and his cousin prepare for Christmas. There is much baking of cakes and collecting of boughs to decorate the house, and so on. The impression is of a rather lonely child, living with elderly relatives because of some family problem. The elderly cousin, here unnamed, is dismissed by her siblings as somewhat simple, but to Buddy she has retained her childlike innocence and sense of joy in life. It’s beautifully written, but too sentimentalised to ring wholly true.

A Thanksgiving Visitor – now we learn that the elderly cousin is called Miss Sook, and that the family problem is the separation and divorce of young Buddy’s parents, each of whom has gone off to live his or her own life leaving Buddy in the care of relatives. In this one, Buddy is being bullied by a boy at school, and Miss Sook sets out to deal with the issue by inviting the boy to Thanksgiving dinner, much to Buddy’s horror. Buddy behaves badly, and is taught a moral lesson that will stand him in good stead for life. My contemporaneous note about this one contained the words “self-pitying” and “trite”.

One Christmas – in this last of the autobiographical stories, Buddy’s father decides the boy should spend Christmas with him in New Orleans. Buddy barely knows his father, and has to travel hundreds of miles all alone to stay with this stranger. We learn more about his parents in this one, and if true (and I have no reason to doubt it) they were a pretty appalling pair. Buddy behaves rather badly, and when he gets home Miss Sook teaches him a moral lesson, blah, blah, blah. This one tipped right over into mawkishness, leaving me feeling as if I’d seriously over-indulged in Christmas cake. I was glad to move on to the fictional stories!

Master Misery – this is a strange, sad and rather haunting story of a young woman who leaves her small town to come to New York, full of dreams of how wonderful life will be there. But of course it isn’t, and she finds herself in a dreary job with no spare money for fun. So when she hears of a man who will pay to have other people’s dreams related to him, she goes to see him. There’s a mystical edge to this, although it never quite tips over into the supernatural. It’s a kind of allegory on the difficulty of keeping dreams alive when faced with the harshness of reality. Beautifully written, emotional in a good way, and thought-provoking.

Children on Their Birthdays – the story of Miss Bobbit, a little girl who comes to stay in town. She dresses oddly and behaves like an imperious grown-up lady, and two of the boys in the neighbourhood are so smitten with her that their lifelong friendship is broken by their mutual jealousy. That’s where the story starts, not where it ends. The ending, in fact, is told to us at the beginning – Miss Bobbit dies, run over by a bus. However, the real emotion of the story is in the boys’ friendship rather than their feelings for the girl. It’s a wonderful depiction of the hormonal angst of teenage boys discovering girls for the first time.

Jug of Silver – this is probably the least overtly emotional story in the collection and a rather more cheerful one to end on. As a publicity stunt, the owner of the local drug store fills a jug with coins and promises to give it on Christmas Eve to the customer who guesses nearest to the total in the jug. A poor little boy called Appleseed is determined to win, but first he has to find the money to buy something in the store to qualify for a guess. He comes every day to stare at the jug, and says he’s counting the coins. The story itself is enjoyable, but the real interest is in the depiction of small town life, with some lovely descriptions of the preparations for Christmas.

Truman Capote

The whole thing reminded me rather of the Avonlea-based short stories of LM Montgomery: warm, full of moral lessons and with a love of small town life, and walking that dangerous tightrope between emotionalism and mawkishness. For me, Montgomery manages the balance better, and her insertion of humour lifts the overall tone. There’s not a lot of humour in this collection and a good deal too much self-pity. I feel harsh saying that, because if “Buddy’s” depiction of his parents is authentic, then he had some reason to feel sorry for his younger self, though it would seem he lived a pretty pampered life in material terms in comparison to the poverty of many of those around him. But he milks it too much for my taste, I fear. Overall, I gave each of the three fictional stories five stars, but the autobiographical ones only managed to scrape a generous three apiece.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics via NetGalley.

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GAN Quest: All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

The paradox of democracy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Jack Burden, our narrator, tells the story of Willie Stark, an ambitious, high-flying politician in the Depression-era South. Along the way we learn about Jack’s life too, and how he came to be Stark’s most loyal lieutenant. And we see played out in detail the corruption at the heart of politics – how a man who starts out full of good intention and moral purpose cuts a little corner here, exerts a little pressure there, sucks up to the rich, all initially to achieve his pet projects for the benefit of his constituents; until suddenly he finds he has become the kind of crooked, manipulative, self-justifying politician he once despised and intended to destroy. It’s a marvellously American story, especially when read at a time when all the worst of American politics is out there unashamedly displaying its stinking underbelly of moral corruption to the world. But of course the themes resonate for those of us who live in other democracies, since all share the same fundamental weakness – that those who stand for office are as fallible and flawed as everyone else.

Jack starts his story by taking us back in time to three years’ earlier, in 1936, to a day when Willie and his entourage visit his father in the house where Willie grew up. The main purpose of the visit is a photo op, to show how Willie is still rooted in the community from which he sprang years before. It’s a wonderful portrait of political hypocrisy. Stark is a hard man, but a politician to his toes, able to turn on his man of the people act at will. The old house, fully modernised on the inside, has been left carefully untouched on the outside so folks wouldn’t think Willie was putting on airs. We begin to see Jack as a thinking man, philosophical, cynical and rather defeated – why has he ended up as Stark’s minion? It is on this trip that Willie tells Jack to dig up dirt on Judge Irwin, a man who stands between Stark and his desire to become Senator for the state. Judge Irwin is inflexibly moral, crossing the line towards moral righteousness. But in this noir view of American politics, if you dig hard enough into anyone’s past, there’s almost certain to be something to find…

Then I was traveling through New Mexico, which is a land of total and magnificent emptiness with a little white filling station flung down on the sand like a sun-bleached cow skull by the trail, with far to the north a valiant remnant of the heroes of the Battle of Montmartre in a last bivouac wearing huaraches and hammered silver and trying to strike up conversations with Hopis on street corners. Then Arizona, which is grandeur and the slow incredulous stare of sheep, until you hit the Mojave. You cross the Mojave at night and even at night your breath rasps your gullet as though you were a sword swallower who had got hold of a hack-saw blade by mistake, and in the darkness the hunched rock and towering cactus loom at you with the shapes of a visceral, Freudian nightmare.

Then California.

The writing is excellent, stylised, intensely American, almost stream of consciousness at some points, and full of long, unique descriptions and metaphors. The chapters are long, almost novella-length, and to a degree contain separate stories within the main story. So, for example, we will go back in time to learn about how Jack and Willie met, when Jack was a young journalist covering Willie’s first failed run for Governor. We’ll see how the already cynical Jack found himself fascinated by the naive idealism of Willie, and that allows us to understand how, through all the years and despite all the corruption, Jack still sees Willie as a man who genuinely wants to improve the lives of his people. Or we’ll learn about Jack’s relationship with his four-times-married mother, still beautiful and rich, and Jack’s love for her, mingled with his resentment at all she stands for. Or we’ll go back to the time when Jack was in love with Anne Stanton, and learn how that has affected him throughout his life.

Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark in the 1949 movie

There are really no weak points to the book as far as I’m concerned, but the chapter that tells the story of Jack’s great-uncle Cass Mastern stands out as a particularly brilliant piece of writing, worthy on its own of the Pulitzer the novel won. Cass and his brother were on the side of the Confederacy in the civil war, but where Gilbert, the elder brother, is a conscienceless slave-owner, driven by his desire for wealth and power, Cass is a man who may be flawed in more ways than one, but has a strong moral compass. Jack researched their stories for his college dissertation and it was as he came to understand them that he began to wonder who he himself is, and the fear that he is more like Gilbert than Cass haunts him. In a way, the chapter is a diversion from the main story, but in another way, it’s the heart of the book, allowing us to understand Jack’s introspectiveness and self-doubt, and why he finds Willie, a man of supreme self-belief, strangely appealing.

After a great blow, or crisis, after the first shock and then after the nerves have stopped screaming and twitching, you settle down to the new condition of things and feel that all possibility of change has been used up. You adjust yourself and are sure that the new equilibrium is for eternity . . . But if anything is certain it is that no story is ever over, for the story which we think is over is only a chapter in a story which will not be over, and it isn’t the game that is over, it is just an inning, and that game has a lot more than nine innings. When the game stops it will be called on account of darkness. But it is a long day.

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And Willie is an oddly sympathetic character to the reader too, despite his brutality, his womanising, his corruption. Like Jack, we see a man who might line his own pockets, who might give and take bribes, who might blackmail and threaten opponents, but we also see that he genuinely wants to improve life for those at the bottom – give them the hospital and schools they deserve. Perhaps he’s motivated by the narcissistic desire to be the great working-class hero, adored and revered, but at least he started out meaning to do good. But somewhere along the way he forgot the need to cajole and explain and persuade, as his growing power enabled him to achieve his ends quicker through bullying and force. And once you’ve used and abused everyone, including your family, who is there left that you can trust?

Robert Penn Warren

Truly a brilliant book which, although it has a lot to say about the political system, isn’t fundamentally about politics. It’s about how we are made and re-made throughout our lives, changed by our own choices and by the events that happen around us. Jack’s view of life is dark, almost nihilistic, in that ultimately all effort is meaningless – men may have free will, but their choices will always lead them into a downward spiral towards defeat. As a reader, a step removed from Jack’s involvement, it is yet another reminder of the truth that power corrupts, and that those who seek to rule us are usually the least fit to do so because of the very hubris that makes them want to. The paradox of democracy. This one gets my highest recommendation.

* * * * * * *

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? 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.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flag

Yes, the corruption which has always mired American democracy is brilliantly dissected, and the theme is as relevant today as it was at the time of writing. So – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flag

Hmm, the question of power corrupting is age-old, but the noir approach to the story, with no heroes to put in opposition to Stark’s growing villainy, makes it feel fresh and original. Plus, I really want it to win, so…achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flag

Superb to the point where at some points it left me breathless, full of power and imagery, and deep insight into the motivations and humanity of the minor as well as the major characters. Achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

us flag

Geographically and in terms of the subject matter the answer might seem to be no, but the theme of corruption has always run deep through the American political system and forms a fundamental part of what makes America uniquely American – a society which values democracy and yet is utterly tribal in its loyalties even when its leaders flaunt their flaws in its face; a society whose American Dream too often veers towards nightmare. So I’m going to say yes, achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

So, for achieving 5 stars and 5 GAN flags, I hereby declare this book not just to be a great novel and A Great American Novel, but to be my third…

* * * * * * * * *

NB The previous winners were American Pastoral and Beloved.

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PS Apologies for disappearing so abruptly – my reading and writing slump have now reached epic proportions so I suspect I’ll be an irregular blogger for the foreseeable future. Hope you’re all staying well!

The American by Henry James

Culture clash…

😀 😀 😀 😀

American nouveau riche businessman Christopher Newman has come to Europe in search of culture. Not that he’s really sure what it is, nor does he make much attempt to learn – rather he wants to acquire it, with money. It’s the American Way, and Newman’s way tells him that to buy a copy is as good as owning the original. So he finds himself in the Louvre, offering excessive sums of money to a mediocre young female artist to copy some of the great paintings there to adorn his walls. But Newman has also decided it’s time to acquire a wife, and here he wants a true original – a pearl, a work of art. A friend suggests the young widow, Madame de Cintré, daughter of generations of French and English aristocracy. Her first marriage had been arranged by her family, to a man many years older than her with whom she shared no affection, but who was suitable due to his impeccable bloodlines. But now her own family is in a state of financial decay, like so much of the old aristocracy, and may be tempted to sell her this time round for American money. And so Newman sets out to woo her, incidentally introducing her brother Valentin to the young artist.

This was more enjoyable than I expected a James novel to be, concentrating on the contrast between the brash money-driven society of the New World and the snobbish exclusivity of the Old, with neither showing in a particularly good light. Newman himself is a moral man by his own lights, but it seemed to me this was as much because he lacked passion as because he exercised any kind of control. His growing love for Madame de Cintré – she never really became Claire to me – comes over more in the way someone would admire a vase or a painting than a person. But then, she also has about as much passion in her as a vase, so they seem well matched.

The secondary characters – Noémie the artist and her father, Valentin, and Mme de Cintré’s horrible old hag of a mother – are much more fun. Noémie is setting out on a career of her own, a traditional one if not quite a respectable, to work herself up through society by becoming mistress to men of as high rank as her beauty can attract. Valentin is fascinated by her, but has been around society long enough to know better than to fall for her snares. The old Marquise de Bellegarde – the mother – and her equally horrid son, the current Marquis, are snobs of the first water, always on guard to ensure that nothing besmirches their ancient family name. Forced marriages and mistresses are fine, but heaven forbid that they should allow the family to be tainted by the stench of “business” – one has to maintain one’s standards, after all.

Book 71 of 90

The first half is slow but quite amusing, as James reveals the characters and the society in which they operate. But suddenly it turns, unconvincingly, into a rather lifeless Gothic melodrama when the Bellegardes decide out of the blue that, after encouraging him for months, they really can’t face allowing someone with his background to marry into their family. Will Newman find a way to overcome their snobbery, or to take his revenge against them? It takes an awful long time to find out, and I found that I didn’t much care. Noémie and Valentin pretty much disappear in different way in the later stages of the book, and I felt their loss. Unlike the Bellegardes, I didn’t object to Newman’s lack of culture and blue blood, but I fear I found him a bit of a bore, and Madame de Cintré proved what I had feared all along – that she lacked any kind of independent spirit.

Henry James

I’ve only read a few of James’ ghost stories before, and objected to his convoluted style and ultra-ambiguity. His style in this is much more straightforward, making it more enjoyable to read. His observations of French society are fun, but not particularly in-depth or profound – they very much feel like what they in fact are: the first relatively superficial impressions of a youthful outsider of a culture very different from his own. I felt it required a lot of suspension of disbelief. How, for example, did Newman manage to become a reasonably sophisticated man given what we are told of his background? Why did the family countenance the match in the first place? Why did Madame de Cintré, no longer a young girl at the mercy of her family, not make decisions for herself? I felt James glossed over these questions, where just a little more work would have filled in the holes.

As always, the introduction in my Oxford World’s Classics edition helped to set the book in context and the notes were helpful in explaining unfamiliar references. There is also a glossary of all the French phrases sprinkled throughout the text – very helpful for monoglots like me!

Overall, then, quite enjoyable, but flawed. However, it has left me more willing to tackle some of his later work to see if they avoid the weaknesses of this one, so I guess that means it was quite a successful read in the end.

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Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

If this is the lost generation, don’t send a search party…

🤬

A teenager develops a crush on a married man, and he simply can’t help himself, darlings – what’s a devilishly handsome, utterly charming, autobiographical alter-ego of a narcissistic author to do? Especially since women exist only for their men – to deny Rosemary her opportunity to slavishly adore him would surely be cruel? And so long as the wife, Nicole, never finds out that her husband and her young friend are up to hanky-panky, she won’t be hurt by it, right? So Dick reasons, anyway. (Yes, he is called Dick… a moment of subconscious insight on Fitzgerald’s part, perhaps?).

Gosh, I hated this. So much so that I abandoned it at 32%, thus happily missing out on the promised descent of Dick into alcoholic self-indulgence and Nicole into madness over his unfaithfulness (I assume). The odd thing is that I read this when I was around twenty, just after loving The Great Gatsby, and while I didn’t think it was anywhere near as good, I don’t remember having the kind of visceral antipathy to it that I experienced this time around. Admittedly that would have been sometime in the ‘70s, so my extreme youth coupled by the fact that back then women were still routinely treated as pathetic little accessories to strong, purposeful men might have made it seem almost quite romantic. But surely even young FF couldn’t have overlooked the fact that it’s immensely, seriously dull? Pointless people leading pointless lives pointlessly. Maybe I envied them their wealth and glamour? I hope not!

Book 70 of 90

Let me give you a few quotes to try to show why I hated it so much – bear in mind that Dick Diver is largely Fitzgerald himself, and Nicole is his wife, Zelda:

… the two Divers began suddenly to warm and glow and expand, as if to make up to their guests, already so subtly assured of their importance, so flattered with politeness, for anything they might still miss from that country well left behind. Just for a moment they seemed to speak to every one at the table, singly and together, assuring them of their friendliness, their affection. And for a moment the faces turned up toward them were like the faces of poor children at a Christmas tree.

Uh-huh! OK, but that’s probably a one-off example of how wonderful Dick – I mean, Fitzgerald – thinks he is, eh?

But Dick Diver—he was all complete there. Silently she admired him. His complexion was reddish and weather-burned, so was his short hair—a light growth of it rolled down his arms and hands. His eyes were of a bright, hard blue. His nose was somewhat pointed and there was never any doubt at whom he was looking or talking—and this is a flattering attention, for who looks at us?—glances fall upon us, curious or disinterested, nothing more. His voice, with some faint Irish melody running through it, wooed the world, yet she felt the layer of hardness in him, of self-control and of self-discipline, her own virtues.

Yes, well, OK, maybe this is just teenager Rosemary’s idea of him, and not Fitzgerald’s own. Let’s see what the third-person narrator thinks…

But to be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience: people believed he made special reservations about them, recognising the proud uniqueness of their destinies, buried under the compromises of how many years. He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect. Then, without caution, lest the first bloom of the relation wither, he opened the gate to his amusing world.

Maybe he’s being ironic? Please tell me he’s being ironic…

But Fitzgerald’s self-obsessed narcissism is only part of the problem. The other part is his opinion of women…

Their point of resemblance to each other and their difference from so many American women, lay in the fact that they were all happy to exist in a man’s world – they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them. They would all three have made alternatively good courtesans or good wives not by the accident of birth but through the greater accident of finding their man or not finding him.

Not misogynistic enough, you say? Well, how about…

Like most women she liked to be told how she should feel.

Funnily enough, I’d really like to be able to tell Dick – I mean, Fitzgerald – exactly how I feel right at this moment…

Dick Diver came and brought with him a fine glowing surface on which the three women sprang like monkeys with cries of relief, perching on his shoulders, on the beautiful crown of his hat or the gold head of his cane. Now, for a moment, they could disregard the spectacle of Abe’s gigantic obscenity. Dick saw the situation quickly and grasped it quietly.

While the vision of Dick quietly grasping Abe’s gigantic obscenity set me howling with welcome laughter, I fear the narcissism, misogyny and accidental (I assume) massive double entendre in this final quote was the end for me. If I allow myself to grow to hate Fitzgerald – I mean, Dick – any more, I shall never be able to read Gatsby again – it’s already looking shaky – and that would be a pity since up till now I’ve always declared it one of my most treasured novels.

Note to authors: if you must include yourself in your novel, probably best not to praise yourself too highly.

A few of us were reading this simultaneously with a view to doing a review-a-long today, so I’ll add a link to Eva’s review if she posts it later, and check out the comments section below for Alyson’s and Christine’s opinions. I sincerely hope they all enjoyed this considerably more than I did!

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A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason

A triumph of homage…

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A collection of short stories linked by subject matter and style rather than through the characters, this is a wonderful homage to the science fiction of the late 19th/early 20th century. There are nine stories in all, and I gave six of them five stars, two got four, and only the last story in the book, which I freely admit I didn’t understand, let it down a little for me at the end. But not enough to spoil my overall enjoyment – some of these stories are brilliant and the quality of the writing is superb.

As regulars will know, I love early science fiction, books from the colonial era, and stories set in fog-bound, sooty old London, and Mason manages to tick all those boxes in this slim collection, so I think it’s fair to say I was destined to love it. It could all have gone horribly wrong though if he’d got the style wrong or dragged in accidental anachronisms. Fortunately, he does an amazing job at catching just the right tone, and I could imagine HG Wells and the lads nodding enthusiastically over his shoulder while he was writing. That’s not to say the stories feel old-fashioned or dated, though. Mason looks at the subjects he chooses with a modern eye, but includes those observations so subtly it becomes part of the style. So the anachronisms that are there are quite intentional and disguised so beautifully that they’re barely noticeable, except in the way that they make the subject matter resonate with a modern reader. In short, what I’m attempting – badly – to say is that there’s no need to have read any early science fiction to enjoy the stories – they work twice, as a homage as I’ve said, but as a fully relevant modern collection too.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the stories I loved most:

The Ecstasy of Alfred Russell Wallace – Wallace is a collector of bugs and birds and animals, which he sends home for the many scientists studying such things. During a fever, he has an epiphany and realises that living things evolve to survive. He writes to a scientist he knows vaguely – Charles Darwin – and waits for a reply. And waits. And waits. And gradually he begins to doubt himself, and to doubt the scientific community, fearing they will take his idea for their own since he isn’t one of them and doesn’t deserve recognition. This reads so much like a true story I looked it up, and Wallace did indeed exist, although his real story seems to be rather different than the story Mason gives us. It’s truly excellent, full of insight into how the scientific world worked in that era.

On Growing Ferns and Other Plants in Glass Cases in the Midst of the Smoke of London (Phew! He likes his long titles!) – This is the story of an asthmatic child and his anxious mother, and the lengths to which she will go to save his life. Mason gives a superb depiction of nineteenth century sooty London, industrialized and choking. Also of medicine, at a time when the treatment was often worse than the disease. It has a wonderful science fiction element to it which I won’t explain for fear of spoilers, but it’s a fabulous story that brought the tears to my eyes at the end.

The Line Agent Pascal – a story set in colonial Brazil. Pascal is one of the agents who live along the communications line that crosses the country, each many, many miles from the next along. Every morning, a signal is sent from head office and each agent confirms in turn that the line is working. But one day, one of the agents doesn’t respond. This is a great character study of Pascal, a man who struggles to fit in with other people, so his solitary posting suits him perfectly despite the dangers lurking in the forest around his station. But he has grown to think of the other men along the line as some kind of friends despite never having met them. The colonial setting is great, with the feeling of loneliness and constant danger from nature or the displaced indigenous people. Worthy of Conrad, and in fact reminded me not a little of the setting in his story, An Outpost of Progress, though the story (and the continent!) is entirely different.

On the Cause of Winds and Waves, &c. – The story of a female aéronaute – a balloonist – whose exploits have made her famous. But when one day she sees an odd rift in the sky she discovers that her gender and class mean that the scientific community not only don’t take her seriously but actually ridicule and humiliate her. So she sets out to prove her story true, taking along a witness. Another science fiction one, but with a delightful quirk that takes it into the realms of metafiction. (I swore I’d never use any word beginning with meta- on the blog, but I really can’t think of another way to describe it. 😉)

So plenty of variety linked, as I said at the beginning, by style, subject matter and wonderful writing. A great collection – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle at Pan Macmillan.

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The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver

“Okay, boomer…”

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Serenata has always been a fitness freak, no day complete without its allocated hours of exercises and running. So much so that, now she has reached sixty, her knees have given up the unequal struggle and forced her to learn to take things easy. Still trying to come to terms with this, she finds it rather cruel and insensitive when her husband Remington decides that, after a lifetime of sedentary laziness, he will run a marathon. Besides, she hates the new culture of fitness sweeping the country – when she started her punishing regime all those years ago, she was unusual, and that was a large part of the charm. Now when she’s out cycling it seems half the world is there alongside her, and for her running was always something you did on your own to get fit, not in crowds for pleasure. Plus, is there just a little jealousy in there? Serenata has never run a marathon… not that she wanted to, of course, but still. She is honest enough to admit to herself that she thoroughly resents Remington’s new-found enthusiasm…

This is my first Shriver so I don’t know how it compares to her other books. This one is written with a great deal of humour from the perspective of a grumpy older woman struggling to take modern attitudes seriously and derisive of the hubristic belief of the young that they have somehow invented anti-racism and feminism and know all the answers. Anyone who reads my tweets or reviews may not be too surprised to learn that this resonated strongly with me! Shriver mercilessly mocks the worst of political correctness and the ridiculous extremes of identity politics which have made us wary even of referring to ourselves as men or women for fear that that will offend someone somewhere somehow, or of inadvertently using a term that was considered not just acceptable but progressive five years ago but is now apparently an indication of some hideously unforgivable Neanderthal attitude. Poor Serenata gets very tired of people assuming that because she’s white, middle-class, middle-aged and straight, that that automatically must mean she’s racist, homophobic and downright stupid. Oh, Serenata, I feel your pain!

Remington, meantime, is going through a mid-life crisis, complete with an infatuation with another woman, his fitness coach. Serenata realises that her open mockery of his marathon ambition is driving a wedge into their long and happy marriage, so tries her best to show him support. Shriver is very funny about the whole fitness industry, where one marathon is no longer enough – people have to run at least four, consecutively, in a desert, if they want respect these days. To her horror, Remington is not satisfied by his marathon. Instead he now decides he wants to do the Mettleman Triathlon – a gruelling all-day race involving cycling, swimming and running. Serenata feels this may literally kill him, but her earlier ridicule means Remington puts her warnings down to mere petulance. Will he survive? Even if he does, will their marriage survive? Does Serenata even want it to?

Lionel Shriver

I don’t know how young people will react to this – it may be making too much fun of subjects they erroneously think they own. But as someone roughly the same age as Serenata, I found it sharp and perceptive, and hilarious. I’m sure when I was young I was just as convinced my elders were all idiots, but now that I’m old I can see that the young have their fair share of idiocy too, and I look forward gleefully to the day when the youth of today are old (as they will be, sooner than they think) and are being told by their grandchildren’s generation that they failed in everything and know nothing about anything. Serenata is an unlikely heroine, but I’m sure she speaks for many of us who have spent a lifetime fighting all the ’isms only to find ourselves derided, dismissed, patronised or ignored by those who benefit every day from our achievements – even for many who would never admit it for fear of not seeming groovy/cool/woke/insert-latest-self-congratulatory-buzzword-here.

So, highly recommended for grumpy older women everywhere, and please feel free to call me Serenata from now on… *smiles sweetly*

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins, via NetGalley.

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Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Wealth of nations…

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In the harbour town of Sulaco, on the coast of the South American country of Costaguana, the silver mine of San Tomé is a source of great wealth to its English owner, Charles Gould, as well as to the local economy and the Costaguanan government. When yet another political upheaval threatens to bring down the dictatorship of President Ribiera, Gould’s first inclination is to provide support to shore up Ribiera’s tottering regime. But other voices in the multinational community of Sulaca have another suggestion – to break up the nation and set up an independent state with the mine at its heart. As reports arrive that the forces of the leader of the latest revolution are about to arrive in the town, Gould orders Nostromo, the incorruptible, indispensable “Capataz de Cargadores” (Overseer of the Dockers) to take the latest batch of silver offshore in a lighter ship so the revolutionaries can’t get their hands on it. But an accident occurs which leads Nostromo to hide the silver on an island in the bay, while he returns to the town only to be given another dangerous mission… to journey over the mountains to summon aid for the beleaguered town.

Set around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, this isn’t about the impact of political colonialism as in Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim. Rather it’s a look at the even more destructive and insidious economic colonisation by capitalist countries of those nations whose resources they exploit while taking no responsibility for the adverse impacts of their actions. The major capital investment in the mine comes from America, giving us an early warning of the way the wealthy and powerful US would abuse their neighbours and distort their political development for their own greedy purpose – a situation that continues to the present day, giving the book an unsettling relevance. However, it’s not the Americans alone whom Conrad shows as exploiters – Britain, through the Englishman Gould, and Spain, through the old aristocracy of the town, are both shown as earlier waves in the continuous rape of the southern continent. All the major characters in the book, and in Sulaca, are foreigners either by birth or heritage, while the indigenous Costaguanans are relegated, quite intentionally, to being nothing but helpless pawns and onlookers, dirt poor amidst the fabulous wealth being extracted from beneath their land.

Men ploughed with wooden ploughs and yoked oxen, small on a boundless expanse, as if attacking immensity itself. The mounted figures of vaqueros galloped in the distance, and the great herds fed with all their horned heads one way, in one single wavering line as far as eye could reach across the broad potreros. A spreading cotton-wool tree shaded a thatched ranch by the road; the trudging files of burdened Indians taking off their hats, would lift sad, mute eyes to the cavalcade raising the dust of the crumbling camino real made by the hands of their enslaved forefathers. And Mrs. Gould, with each day’s journey, seemed to come nearer to the soul of the land in the tremendous disclosure of this interior unaffected by the slight European veneer of the coast towns, a great land of plain and mountain and people, suffering and mute, waiting for the future in a pathetic immobility of patience.

Costaguana is apparently geographically based on Colombia, but in terms of its political identity, it could be any one of a number of South or Central American states, or African, or indeed anywhere else that the West has exploited in its rapacious history. I found it completely believable, both physically and culturally, and gradually described with such detailed clarity it’s hard to believe that Sulaca isn’t real.

Nostromo is an intriguing character, although I found he was a little too caricatured to ring wholly true. Italian, he too is an incomer, but for him wealth is not the major motivation. He wants to be respected, for his character, integrity and courage, and to a large degree he is. The leaders of Sulacan society turn to him whenever they have a problem, and trust him absolutely. But they never treat him as one of themselves – his nickname, Nostromo, could be taken to mean “shipmate”, but it also could be a contraction of “nostro uomo”, meaning “our man”, and this is how the upper-classes treat him, as a faithful servant to be used as required. Eventually this treatment will have its effect on Nostromo, threatening that very integrity for which he is valued.

With Gould, Conrad shows how this class of economic colonialists see themselves as always separate from and above the countries in which they choose to make their fortune. Gould is third generation Costaguanan in terms of where his family has physically resided, but sent home to England to be educated, utterly English in his national allegiance, and of course, when it’s time to marry, selecting an English bride. None of this makes him feel he doesn’t have the right to use his economic power to influence the politics of this country to which he has no real loyalty, and he uses that power solely for the benefit of himself and the foreign elite who run the town, with no concern whatsoever for what might benefit or harm the indigenous Costaguanans.

Conrad’s portrayals of Gould and particularly of his wife, Emilia, are more nuanced, I feel, than that of Nostromo, and several of the secondary characters are very well drawn too: the Frenchman Degoud, who drifts into involvement in politics rather unintentionally because of his developing passion for the daughter of one of the leaders of this society; that leader himself, Don José Avallanos, descended from the old Spanish conquistadors and now part of the decaying aristocracy of Costaguana; Giorgio Viola, the old Italian innkeeper who once fought alongside Garibaldi; the various Generals on all sides of the conflict, all only too recognisable to the modern reader as representative of the type who would as easily start a coup as defend against it, for their own political and personal gain.

Joseph Conrad

In terms of the writing style, this seemed to me more straightforward than the other few Conrads I’ve read. It does jump about in time and requires constant concentration and occasional back-tracking, but for once it isn’t told as a narrated story within a story, so thankfully none of those nested quotation marks that turn some of his other books into brain-frazzling puzzles to follow. There are lots of Spanish words sprinkled throughout the text, so the included glossary in my Oxford World’s Classics edition was very welcome – indeed, essential. But his prose is so wonderful and he is so insightful about humanity in its individual and social state that I forgive him totally for being hard to read. This is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve ever read, and gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A pastoral…

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Tom Birkin is still suffering the after-effects of shell-shock as a result of his experiences at Passchendaele. His personal life also in disarray, he gladly accepts a commission that will take him out of London for the summer, to the village of Oxgodsby in Yorkshire, where a recently deceased parishioner has left a bequest to the local church, contingent on the uncovering of a wall painting she believed was concealed beneath centuries of whitewashing. The same parishioner has also requested that a search be made for the burial site of a long dead ancestor, excommunicated and therefore denied burial in the churchyard. Archaeologist Charles Moon, another survivor of the war, will become Birkin’s first friend as they both immerse themselves in the past and present of the village.

A pastoral, this is a beautifully written novella full of descriptions of the countryside at the last point of the horse age, before farming became an industry like any other. Birkin is badly damaged by his wartime experiences, not physically, but mentally, and he will find a kind of healing as the long summer passes and he reconnects with the long-distant past as he slowly reveals the work of the artist who, in medieval times, painted the Last Judgement on the wall of the church.

As he works, he also comes to know some of the villagers. The Ellerbecks take him under their wing, with Mrs Ellerbeck making sure he is well fed and the young daughter of the family, Kathy, keeping him organised and ordering him around, showing herself already a mini version of the backbone of community life she will undoubtedly grow up to be. Mr Ellerbeck preaches at the Wesleyan chapel, and out of a sense of gratitude for their hospitality, Birkin becomes involved in the chapel community although he is a non-believer, perhaps because of the scenes of horror he witnessed in the war.

JL Carr

Rev. J.G. Keach, the minister of the church in which Birkin is working, feels the uncovering of the wall painting is a nuisance – a waste of time and money, tolerated solely to satisfy the requirements of his late parishioner’s will. His wife is young and beautiful, and Birkin gradually comes to fall in love with her, but in a romantic rather than a passionate sense, almost as an obligatory part of a summer idyll.

I enjoyed this, especially the writing and the slow uncovering of the wall painting, and all the seemingly knowledgeable information Carr provides about medieval church art. However, I found it rather slight overall, like a pretty piece of pastoral music, pleasant but not soul-stirring. It is written from Birkin’s perspective, looking back as an old man to a golden summer of his youth, an interlude between the horrors of war and the resumption of his real life; a brief period of suspended time given to him to heal his mind and perhaps his soul. And for the reader, it also provides a pleasurable escape for an hour or two, to a simpler time when the sun always shone and people were intrinsically good. Did that time ever exist? Perhaps it only seems that way when enough years have passed for harsh reality to have been hidden beneath several layers of whitewash.

Book 20 of 20

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Sula by Toni Morrison

Who needs enemies?

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Well, I might as well be up front – if this book has a point, it sailed straight over my head. Two girls grow up, lots of people kill other people and themselves, everyone has sex all the time with anyone who happens to be passing. And in the rare moment when they stop to catch their breath, they think about sex.

I’ll leave it to Morrison scholars to analyse it. I loved Beloved and A Mercy, because I felt I understood what she was trying to say. Song of Solomon and this defeat me. She portrays black life as animalistic, where people eat and rut and rut and eat; and resent, neglect and beat their children; and betray and kill each other for little or no reason. She writes about black culture in a way that, if it were written by a white author, would be rightly trashed as the peak of racism. I’ve tried both times to assume she’s saying that white oppression has made black Americans behave this way, but I’m not convinced – neither that I’m right about her intention nor that it’s a realistic portrayal of black American culture. I hope it isn’t, anyway.

Morrison does make a couple of points about the subjugation of black people, legally free in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when the book is mainly set, but still excluded from all the benefits of freedom, including well-paid jobs and the possibility of a career, leading to a kind of crisis of masculinity in the men. She also makes reference to the black men whom white America called upon to fight their wars for them, and then abandoned on their return to deal with the after-effects without help (though I expect that was true of a lot of white men too, especially after WW1. It certainly was in the UK). These were the strongest parts of the book for me, but they were merely side issues.

Toni Morrison

The writing is as wonderful as her writing always is, and I certainly enjoyed reading it. The characters are entirely vile, especially Sula, who starts out bad and gets progressively worse as she ages. Her friend Nel is more ambiguous but, while I started out quite liking her, it wore off, and I felt they were a pretty good match for each other – a real illustration of the old phrase, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Many things are left unexplained, but it’s entertaining and at points even amusing, with a couple of well-done shock moments. But I felt nothing for any of them, because I didn’t believe in them as real people.

Entertaining, then, and maybe you’ll do better at finding a meaning in it than I did. Or maybe there isn’t one, and the entertainment is the point. In which case, job well done!

Book 19 of 20

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The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

Life in the Lane…

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Little Janie McVean has grown up on Lady’s Lane, a place ruled over by the women for most of the time, till the men come home from work and make it theirs for a while. No man comes home to Janie’s house though – or perhaps too many. For although Janie is too young to understand, the reader soon discerns that her mother, Liza, is a prostitute, along with some of the other women who live in the Lane. Janie doesn’t care – to her this is the only possible life, and though she has only one dress and often goes hungry and dirty and has nits in her hair, she’s happy. She has friends who are just like her and an interest in people of all sorts, and she loves to watch and listen to the women of the Lane. So when the Cruelty Man comes calling, to Janie the real cruelty is the threat of being taken away from the mother she adores, however bad a parent she may be.

Largely autobiographical, the book is set in the town of Elgin in the north of Scotland in the 1920s. Because it’s so well known to be based on Kesson’s own early life, there’s a feeling of reassurance for the reader – however painful it is to watch the neglect of this child, we know she survives and pulls herself out of the poverty of her beginnings. This makes it an easier, less tense read than it might otherwise have been, allowing the reader to find amusement, along with Janie herself, in the scrabbling existence of the women of the Lane and the hardships of Janie’s life. And Janie’s uncomplicated love for her neglectful, inadequate mother makes the reader see her with sympathetic eyes too, for, whatever Liza’s flaws may be, she loves her daughter.

Book 66 of 90

“About that doll you’re to get, I’ve got an idea it might be lying under some bits of things that’s come from America. Some bits belonging to my cousin’s bairn; just your size she is. And my word there’s some bonnie bits that will fit you. There’s a blue velvet frock for one thing. And a ribbon to go with it. I’m having a sort out just now. And when I’ve sorted out, you’re the queanie that’s going to get the fine surprise, or my name’s not Annie Frigg!”

Janie emerged as always, empty handed but full-visioned after an encounter with Annie, and with but one small doubt, how to share the delight of this new promise with Gertie, who could never see that something to look forward to, and something to dream about, were such glad things, even when you knew within yourself that they might never come true.

The writing is wonderful, managing to give a real flavour of the local speech without ever becoming hard for standard English speakers to understand. It’s told in the third person, in the language of adults, but the perspective comes almost entirely through the lens of eight-year-old Janie’s observant but sometimes uncomprehending eyes. So it’s up to the reader to fill in the blanks, and sometimes it’s in these spaces that the true pathos of Janie’s life is shown – a pathos Janie doesn’t feel at this young age. Her mother comes from a respectable and rather well-off family, and sometimes they visit Janie’s grandmother – another warm and loving, if occasional, presence in Janie’s life. But her grandfather’s reaction to Liza and Janie lets the reader know how badly the family feels Liza has disgraced them, and gives us pointers as to how she fell from here all the way down to the Lane. It’s a hard story, told with warmth and empathy and no bitterly pointed finger of blame from the adult Kesson.

Jessie Kesson

As well as her clear-sighted but sympathetic portrayal of the Lane and its inhabitants, Kesson also has an excellent eye for the landscape and nature of the area, and the ability to weave her fine descriptive prose seamlessly so that it becomes part of the story. Their mutual love of the countryside is part of the bond between mother and daughter.

The wind had begun to threaten the air. Passionately she had longed for the wind to come. To blow herself and the landscape sky high into movement and coherence again. Almost she had been aware of the wind’s near fierceness. Ready to plunge the furious hillside burns down into the Cladda river. To hurl the straws all over the dykes. To toss the chaff into the eyes of the protesting people, bending before it, flapping in their clothes like scarecrows. To sting the trees in Carron wood into hissing rebellion. To give the land some loud, loud cry, other than that of pain.

When the Cruelty Man takes Janie off to the orphanage, the story suddenly contracts, with years covered in just a few pages. This feels a bit disconcerting, but actually I think it probably works better than it would have if Kesson had devoted more time to that section. One gathers that her time there was neither wonderful nor terrible – she was just stuck in a kind of limbo until her life could resume. The real story is of the Lane, and of the love between child and mother that transcends the things that society determines to be good parenting. The ending is bittersweet – the tragedies of Janie’s young life tempered always by the knowledge that she will survive and rise. A beautiful book that challenges the reader to be slow to judge – to accept that love and even joyousness can sometimes be found in the darkest circumstances. Highly recommended.

Book 16 of 20

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The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

A tale well told…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The old fisherman Santiago’s luck has run out. For eighty-four straight days he hasn’t caught a fish, and is surviving only with the help of the young boy, Manolin, who once fished with him but whose parents have now insisted he go out with another luckier boat instead. Manolin feels an intense loyalty to old Santiago, and helps him each day with his gear, catching bait, and even buying him food when Santiago’s funds run out.

On this day it will be different. A fish takes Santiago’s bait – a huge marlin, so big that Santiago can’t pull him in. As the marlin sets out to sea, dragging Santiago’s little skiff behind him, Santiago must decide whether to cut the line or run with the fish. And so it becomes a matter of will, as Santiago battles with nature, with his own failing strength, with growing exhaustion and with his pride as a fisherman.

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

This is a beautifully written and absorbing short tale – mesmerising, almost, as hour after hour passes and still the fish won’t tire. Although written in the third person, once Santiago is alone on the sea with his fish, the reader is taken directly into his thoughts. He is a simple man, and his mind dwells on great successes and failures of his past, a lifetime’s experience all guiding his actions in this moment. He knows he is at the limit of his physical endurance as the line cuts his calloused hands each time the fish changes pace. He recognises that the pride of youth has given way to the humility of age, and wonders when that happened. But he still has enough pride to want to kill this fish, although he loves it for its strength and will and beauty.

The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver and the old man saw the great scythe-blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out.

I suspect people may have read all sorts of symbolism into this over the years and maybe there is lots and I just missed it. But for me, this is simply a tale well-told, by a man who clearly knew what he was talking about. As usual with Hemingway, there’s a degree of pondering on the meaning of masculinity, though less overtly than in the couple of longer novels of his I’ve read. It’s an old theme, man against nature, and Hemingway brings nothing new to it except his wonderful prose. And that alone makes this well worth reading.

Book 13 of 20

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Thirst by Ken Kalfus

The first collection…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Ken Kalfus has become one of my favourite authors in recent years, and I’m gradually working my way through his earlier works. This collection of short stories was his first publication, so I was prepared for it to perhaps be less polished than his more recent stuff. And, indeed, I found it very variable, with only around half of the stories rating as good or excellent, and some of the rest being really rather poor. It reads to me as if he was maybe still searching for a style, trying things out, some of which worked better than others. His trademark humour, insight and precise prose are already there, but many of the stories are too insubstantial to be satisfying.

I’ve read both of his later collections, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies and Coup de Foudre, both of which I loved, and I think the major difference is that the stories in them tend to have a more political edge or be more clearly about that nebulous thing we call the “human condition”, even when he’s being whimsical. So, on the one hand, I found this collection a little disappointing but, on the other hand, it was interesting to see this early stage in his development towards becoming a master of the short story form, as he undoubtedly now is.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I most enjoyed:

Suit – a teenage boy and his father are in a men’s outfitters looking for a suit for the boy. It’s for a particular occasion, although we don’t know what. We only know the father is not pleased about it. They are joined by a third man, and together the three reject every suit the poor assistant shows them – too smart, too casual, too old, too preppy, etc. It is only when the harassed assistant asks what the occasion is that we finally have confirmed what we have gradually come to suspect… This is whimsical and humorous but it’s very well done, and gives a light-hearted commentary on a specific aspect of privilege, about which I can’t be clearer without spoiling the story.

Night and Day You Are the One – a rather strange story about a man who is living two lives, inadvertently shifting between them each time he falls asleep. In each life he has a different home and a relationship with a different woman. Neither of these women knows about his other life, and indeed, it’s not clear if the two lives are real or if the man is suffering from some kind of delusion. In essence, it’s a love story, but done with a lot of originality and with a nicely satisfying ending.

Among the Bulgarians – this was my favourite story. A teenage boy has spent the summer in Bulgaria with his parents. Now he’s home, and in the narcissistic way of teenagers, he assumes the world will have stood still in his absence, his friends waiting impatiently to hear all about his adventures. But he’ll learn that they have had their adventures too – normal teenage ones, dating, and learning to drive and so on – and to them his Bulgarian experiences are only of mild interest. It’s a coming-of-age tale, beautifully done, and with the suggestion that the boy may have been inspired over the course of this summer to take a first small step towards becoming a writer. I wondered, as I often do with Kalfus, if it had an autobiographical element.

So enough in there to make the collection worth reading, but it wouldn’t be where I would suggest any newcomer to Kalfus should begin. I’m glad I’d read his later stuff first, since I may not have been tempted to investigate further if this had been my introduction to his work. But I recommend it for existing fans, since it’s always interesting to see how a favourite author started out.

Book 11 of 20

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Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Short and sharp…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon is forced to cut short her stay at Langford when the lady of the house, Mrs Manwaring, becomes jealous of Lady Susan’s flirtation with Mr Manwaring. Off she goes to Churchill, the residence of her late husband’s soft-hearted brother, Mr Charles Vernon, and his sensible wife, Catherine. But soon Catherine is worried that Lady Susan might have got her well-manicured claws into Catherine’s brother, Reginald de Courcy, and she’s also concerned about Lady Susan’s young daughter, Frederica, whom Lady Susan is determined to marry off to an unsuitable young man against her will…

Written entirely in letters between the various friends and family members, this novella length story is full of fun. Lady Susan is so wicked one really feels the need to hiss whenever her name is mentioned, and Catherine is a delightful contrast in her general sense and good nature. While the men are all taken in by Lady Susan’s undeniable beauty and charming manners, Catherine rarely wavers in her opinion of her as a manipulative schemer and an uncaring mother. Maternal Catherine is determined that Frederica must be saved from her mother’s manipulations, but the rules of society preclude any open hostility between the two women. The only time Lady Susan drops her bewitching guard is in her letters to her dear friend, Mrs Johnson, a woman unfortunately married to an older, inconveniently respectable husband, a situation Lady Susan deplores…

“My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! Just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.”

A comedy of manners in which Austen spares no character from being a target for her sharply observational wit, this is of course much slighter than her major novels, with far less room for in-depth characterisation and a simple plot that moves quickly towards an end that is relatively obvious from an early stage. While the epistolary style adds to the fun, especially in Lady Susan’s letters to her friend when her true personality is revealed, it’s also limiting in that there’s not much room for description or for commentary on the wider society of the time. On the other hand, this makes it deliciously short, so that it can be gulped down and enjoyed in one sitting.

Part of me would have loved to have seen Austen develop these characters more deeply in a full-length novel, but I’m not sure the slight story could have borne the weight. As it stands, it feels like the perfect length for the story it tells. And Lady Susan deserves to take her place alongside some of the other major victims of Austen’s lethally wicked pen – Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mrs Bennet, the Eltons, et al. Pure pleasure!

Book 9 of 20

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The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

Expletives deleted…

😐 😐

When the old Abbess of Crewe dies it seems inevitable her shoes will be filled by Sister Alexandra, the Machiavelli of the convent. But Sister Felicity is becoming an unlikely rival, preaching her message of free love as she stitches her embroidery. Sister Alexandra expects her followers to fix this threat but when their plans lead to a break-in at the convent, the ensuing scandal threatens to destroy her. She has no intention, however, of going down without a fight… or at all, if she can help it…

This is a ham-fisted satire of Watergate, with Sister Alexandra in the Nixon role. While half my brain (all that was required) was watching the too obvious unravelling of the cover-up of the scandal, the other half was wondering why satire often falls so flat. On the whole I’m not a huge fan of satire, so I’m probably not the best person to come with a definitive recipe for success, but I do think there are some essential ingredients.

It should take facts that are so obvious that people tend to forget or overlook them and spin them in a way that forces the audience to face them. Currently Sarah Cooper has this down to perfection with her lip-sync versions of some of Trump’s utterances. Her body language cuts through our jaded shellshock and reminds us of the true idiocy of what’s coming out of his mouth…

Bird and Fortune went a stage further. This super-intelligent satirical duo would go through all the hidden detail in government reports or scandals, and then present them with such humour that even people whose eyes glazed over at the thought of reading a lengthy newspaper article were happy to listen and learn…

Satire must also be cruel, at least a little, if it’s to hit home. The cruellest satire can change the way an audience thinks, not by telling lies, but by exaggerating the truth until it becomes monstrous. Many people who were around in John Major’s time as Prime Minister, if asked what they most remember about him, are quite likely to say that he was boring, grey and liked peas, because that’s how Spitting Image made us see him…

Another essential is that it must be brilliantly performed and highly entertaining. Otherwise it just sounds like a political rant, and we’ve all heard more than enough of them. The wondrous Randy Rainbow’s parodies of songs from musicals contain some of the most intelligently written, insightful and brutal satire of the Trump era in the lyrics, and his performances are so superb they almost make me hope we have Trump for another four years. Almost…

(NB Adults only for this one…)

I hope you enjoyed that little run through some of my favourite satirists, past and present. If you did, then you had more fun than I had reading Spark’s book, I’m afraid. She doesn’t show us any new aspect or perspective on Watergate. Anyone who remembers it will learn nothing new, and anyone who doesn’t is likely to be left head-scratching as to what the point of the book is at all. It’s dully written, full of extracts from the Bible and poems, and frankly I’d rather have been reading a lengthy newspaper article on the real scandal. And it’s not cruel – I fear it is “cosy satire” and what on earth purpose does that serve except to act as a perfect example of an oxymoron?

But its major downfall is that it’s simply not funny. Whatever else satire should or shouldn’t be, it ought to be funny.

A major fail for me, and I’m feeling that, despite having loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, perhaps Stark and I are simply not destined to get along.

Book 7 of 20

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Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Journey’s End…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is Wednesday, 2nd October, 1872, and as he does every day, Mr Phileas Fogg is playing whist with his friends in the Reform Club. But this day the conversation turns to how the world is shrinking as more and more places become linked by fast steamships or railroads. Fogg claims that it is now possible to go around the world in eighty days. His companions pooh-pooh this notion, and Fogg offers to prove his point by making the journey. A wager is hastily arranged for the massive sum of £20,000 – half Fogg’s entire fortune. He intends to use the other half to cover any unforeseen expenses on his travels. And within hours he’s off, accompanied only by his French manservant, Passepartout, whom he had hired just that morning. But, unbeknownst to them, they are being followed…

I started my Around the World in 80 Books Challenge back in March 2016, so it has taken me considerably longer to make the trip than Phileas Fogg allowed himself! When I got close to the end I realised this was the only possible book I could choose to bring me back to London where my journey started all those years ago. And a perfect choice it proved to be! Not only is it a great book in its own right, but it also took me to all the places I’ve read about in the books I picked for my challenge. So when we got to Bombay I thought of playing cricket; when Fogg and his companions travelled by elephant I remembered Solomon’s journey; when they reached Omaha I thought of the World Fair. Anyway, I shall do a proper round-up of the challenge soon, but meantime, back to this book!

Fogg is a man of rigid habits and an obsessive concern with punctuality and exactness in all things. The narrator suggests his background is rather unknown, but that he must have travelled in the past to give him his fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of the world. He is unflappable to an extraordinary degree given that his entire fortune is in the balance, but we eventually see that he has hidden depths. Passepartout, in contrast, is volatile and constantly getting into scrapes, but on the other hand he soon develops strong feelings of loyalty to his master and shows true bravery on more than one occasion. Then there is Detective Fix, trailing Fogg whom he suspects of having robbed Baring Brothers bank on the day he left London so suddenly. Fix spends half the time trying to slow them down and the other half trying to speed them up since he can only arrest Fogg on British soil – and the book reminds us that British soil spreads fairly extensively across the world at this period. The fourth character is an Indian woman they pick up along the way, but I won’t say more about her because to tell her story would be a bit too spoilery.

The book starts a little slow, with a lot of concentration on timetables and dates and so on, and Fogg is not initially a very endearing character. He is interested only in achieving his aim of proving that the journey can be done in the time – he has no interest in the places to which they travel other than how quickly he can get out of them again on the next leg of the trip. Europe gets barely a mention, Egypt is a passing blur, and it’s only really when they reach India that they begin to have adventures. But by that time, Passepartout and Fix have developed into entertaining characters, sometimes friendly, sometimes not, and they give the story the life and liveliness that Fogg’s cold mechanical persona lacks. It’s in India too, though, that for the first time we see signs of humanity beneath that British stiffness, and from there on gradually Fogg also becomes someone we care about.

From India to Hong Kong, to Yokohama, across America – sometimes ahead of the clock, sometimes behind. One adventure after another holds them back, each time throwing Passepartout into gloom and desperation but leaving Fogg unruffled and determined. And each adventure is more fun than the one before – storms and Sioux warriors, acrobats and opium dens, trains and steamships, polygamists and Parsees, and oodles of luck both good and bad. Will they make it back in time? Even though I knew the answer, I must admit I found the last fifty pages or so pretty heart-pounding, and joined Passepartout on his emotional roller-coaster ride between despair and euphoria. And the end is brilliantly done, misdirection and twists abounding!

Jules Verne

The new translation by William Butcher in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is excellent – flowing and fun. His rather scholarly introduction left me somewhat befuddled, in truth. As always, I read the book first, and imagine my surprise on being told that it’s full of sexual innuendo and “brazen homosexual overtures” between the three male characters. I missed all of that! Even though he’s now told me it’s there, nope, I don’t see it. Maybe he’s right – in fact, since he’s a Verne expert and I’m not, I’m willing to assume he is right – but then, on the other hand… sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Butcher goes so far as to say “the book is not designed for callow adolescents”. Hmm, I was probably a callow adolescent when I first read it, and I don’t think it corrupted my innocence! I did enjoy Butcher saying that Verne had portrayed the Mormons as an “erotico-religious group” though – I missed that too…

So an excellent adventure story suitable for all ages, or a walk on the wild side of sexual psychology, depending on whether you believe me or Butcher. Either way, highly entertaining – great stuff!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Book 5 of 20

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Atlantic View by Matthew Geyer

Connections…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Following his father’s death, Patrick Munchen finds a bundle of letters among his papers, from a girl he knew in Lyme Regis while he was stationed there in advance of the Normandy landings. His curiosity aroused, Patrick sets out to find if the woman is still alive – a journey that will take him from his home in California first to England and then to Ireland, and will lead him to reassess his own life as he discovers more about his father’s.

My usual disclaimer – Matt Geyer has been an online friend of mine for some years now, but as always I’ve tried my best not to let my friendship with him bias my opinion or this review. Fortunately I loved the book, so it wasn’t too difficult!

Geyer writes beautifully and from the heart. There is a distinctively American style to his prose – what I think of as West Coast writing, though I’m no expert. It’s a kind of specific vocabulary that in itself creates a sense, not perhaps so much of place, but of a culture and, dare I say it, a class – educated, liberal, moderate, introspective, male (though that may simply be that my limited reading of American fiction hasn’t covered women writing from the same cultural perspective). While I often find this language style more “foreign” to my British ears than many other American regional variations, I find the attitudes far more in tune with the overarching culture of western Europe and that always makes it easier for me to empathise with the characters.

The book is heavily character-focused, but the plot is strong enough to carry it. On arriving in Lyme Regis, Patrick finds that the letter-writer, Molly Bowditch, no longer lives there but he discovers a few people old enough to remember war-time and the American troops who mingled with the locals while they waited for the order to invade Europe. Later, he follows Molly’s trail to Ireland – to a small island off the Ring of Kerry looking out over the vast Atlantic towards America. As he becomes more involved with piecing together his father’s past, his own present is in flux. His beloved daughter grown and off at college, his career as a journalist in freefall as technology changes the face of the profession, his marriage, once solid, now seems hollow, purposeless. He’s not consciously searching for a new meaning to his life, but perhaps understanding his father will help him to understand himself.

Geyer’s depictions of modern and wartime Lyme Regis are excellent – it’s easy to see the amount of research that has gone into the book, but he uses it lightly to convey an impression that I found believable and authentic in both time periods. Equally so with the troops stationed there, socialising within the community and gradually building connections that both sides knew would be temporary. He shows us these men, knowing that they were about to be thrown into the hell of war, living through this hiatus with a mixture of courage, comradeship and fear. And I found the relationship that grew up between Patrick’s father and Molly just as believable – a kind of reaching for human contact at a time when the future was uncertain and fragile.

Matthew Geyer

When the story moves to Ireland, the setting is just as authentic. Geyer avoids the pitfalls of “Oirishness” – a trap too many American (and other) authors fall into of making Ireland seem quaint and twee and a little fey, populated by characters so eccentric one has to wonder if they’re half-leprechaun. Geyer’s Ireland is the real modern country of his time setting of 2005: revolutionised economically as the Celtic Tiger, advanced technologically and culturally, highly educated. This really shouldn’t be refreshing, but it is – hugely! He catches the distinctive Irish speech patterns and rhythms well but subtly, never over-playing his hand. And his descriptive writing gives a real sense of the lovely ruggedness of the landscape, together with a feel for the harder, poorer past from which Ireland had so recently emerged.

In essence, this is a quiet, reflective book concentrating on one man’s journey, physically across the world, and emotionally from his past towards his future. But we also come to know and care about the people he knows and cares about. There are no villains here, nor heroes – just flawed humans doing their best to understand themselves and each other and make connections as they navigate their lives. Excellent characterisation, three distinct and well-drawn settings, lovely writing and an interesting story – great stuff!

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Flemington by Violet Jacob

Clash of loyalties….

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Archie Flemington was brought up at Ardguys in Fife by his grandmother, Christian. She has made him into a Whig, violently opposed to the deposed Stuarts whom she once served but now hates. Under cover of his real talent as a painter, Archie is a government spy. Now Bonnie Prince Charlie is in Scotland once again, leading the Jacobites in rebellion against the Hanoverian king (or usurper, depending which side you were on). Archie inveigles his way into the household of Lord Balnillo, a retired judge who is known to have Jacobite leanings, although he hasn’t come “out” for the rebels. It’s actually Lord Balnillo’s brother, James Logie, who is Archie’s real target, though – a man suspected of actively aiding the rebellion. It’s for Archie to find out what Logie is up to, and to get proof of his treason if he can. But Archie finds in Logie a decent, honourable man, the type of man he would be proud to call friend, and suddenly he is torn between duty and this unexpected liking for his enemy…

This is a fairly straightforward adventure story, but with enough depth to make it rather more than a simple romance. The Jacobite rebellions were such a major event in Scottish history that they have been used over and over by authors, and are often reinterpreted according to the contemporary view of Scotland’s relationship with England. Jacob sits somewhere in the middle – writing in 1911, some 160 years after the events, she isn’t obliged to look nervously over her shoulder at a Hanoverian government still wary of a Stuart comeback, but she also avoids the over-romanticisation of the Jacobites in which many authors have indulged over the years. Although I felt she was rather on the side of the Hanoverians overall, she shows that there was honour, and dishonour, on both sides.

Christian Flemington is a great character, cold and autocratic – a Lady Macbeth using her grandson as a weapon to get revenge for old grievances. She loves Archie but expects total obedience to her will and sees any opposition as personal disloyalty. So when Archie begins to sympathise with Logie, she has no hesitation in giving him a choice – do as she bids or be cut off from her and from his home forever. Archie also loves his grandmother, making his choice doubly hard.

Book 64 of 90

Archie himself is a likeable character and brings some humour and lightness to what is essentially a dark story of civil war and betrayal. He and Christian together give an idea of the differences between the generations – the old guard still strongly divided over the deposition of the Stuarts; the younger ones, despite this being the time of the last desperate throw of the Stuart dice, perhaps looking more to a future where those divisions can be forgotten and the country united.

The story is well told, with Archie’s dilemma giving it a good deal of moral ambiguity. The writing is excellent, in standard English with only a tiny amount of Scots appearing occasionally in dialogue. Jacob is a little weaker in the action sequences, failing on the whole to create an atmosphere of drama, but this is a small part of the book so it didn’t drag it down overall. The main strength is the characterisation, not only of the lead characters, but of the several secondary characters who play a part in the plot. Jacob takes us from high society to low, into the drawing-rooms of Edinburgh in the company of the self-important Lord Balnillo and his friends, and into the world of intrigue carried out in inns and back streets under cover of night, with Logie and the marvellous Skirlin’ Wattie, the bagpiping beggar who has his own secret – a character almost Dickensian in his eccentricity, and a wonderful mix of comic and tragic.

The occupant of the cart was an elderly man, whom accident had deprived of the lower part of his legs, both of which had been amputated just below the knee. He had the head of Falstaff, the shoulders of Hercules, and lack of exercise had made his thighs and back bulge out over the sides of his carriage, even as the bag of his pipes bulged under his elbow. He was dressed in tartan breeches and doublet, and he wore a huge Kilmarnock bonnet with a red knob on the top. The lower half of his face was distended by his occupation, and at the appearance of Flemington by the gate, he turned on him, above the billows of crimson cheek and grizzled whisker, the boldest pair of eyes that the young man had ever met. He was a masterly piper, and as the tune stopped a murmur of applause went through the audience.

Violet Jacob
(c) Angus Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It reminded me throughout of The Flight of the Heron, a trilogy I loved in my teens. However this one came first, so it’s possible that DK Broster, writing in the 1920s, may have been influenced by this. Each book is basically about the friendship between two men on opposite sides of the rebellion, but this is darker and less romanticised. In truth, I enjoyed The Flight of the Heron more, but I think this one is probably truer in terms of characterisation and culture, and the writing probably has more literary weight, though it’s a long time since I read The Flight of the Heron so I may be doing it an injustice. Both books have what seem to modern eyes like unmistakeable gay subtexts, but truly I think it used to be possible to actually love people of the same gender without sex coming into it. Who knows what the authors intended? And, frankly, who cares? Both are great stories whichever way you choose to read them. I enjoyed Flemington very much and recommend it, but if you only intend to read one book about the Jacobites in your life, then make it the Broster trilogy – OK, that’s three books, but you know what I mean…

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