Author Archives: BookerTalk

3 thought-provoking novels not just for kids

cross-over readingOne of the biggest trends in publishing in recent years has been the emergence of ‘cross-over fiction” – novels written for teen readers which can also be enjoyed by adults. J.K Rowling set the trend with her Harry Potter series and it’s continued with the Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series, Hunger Games, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night; The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; The Book Thief etc etc  Here are three ‘cross-over” novels I’ve read in the last year which all can be enjoyed  by young readers but which contain plenty of material to get adults thinking…

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

First of all a confession. I hated this book the first time I read it. If it hadn’t been required reading for my children’s literature course I would never have even considered reading this. It’s in the fantasy genre which is never my cup of tea. We not only get  anthropomorphic animals – in the shape of armoured bears with human-level intelligence – but Pullman introduces some weird fictional beings called “dæmons” that are the companions of humans and accompany them everywhere. Both these elements were guaranteed to get me squirming with discomfort.  I struggled through the book and was relieved to get to the end.

But such is the nature of reading for academic purposes that reading a set text once is not enough. So I gritted my teeth and entered once more the parallel universe in which Northern Lights is set. And you know what; after a while I actually began to appreciate that what Pullman has created a book that can be enjoyed in two vastly different ways.

One one level this is a pure adventure story of good versus evil. Lyra Belacqua, an orphaned girl, sets off on a quest in search of her friend Roger who’s gone missing. There are plenty of narrow escapes and thrilling moments to keep younger readers entertained – this is a world that crawls with danger in the form of gobblers who snatch children and academics who use poison.  Lyra makes her way through this world with the aid of a golden compass which acts like a lie detector and one of those armoured polar bears.

For readers who want more thought-provoking content, Pullman introduces a mysterious celestial phenomena called ‘Dust.”  This, Lyra discovers, has spawned parallel universes,  is connected to death and misery, and is believed to be the physical basis of  original sin. Dust accumulates only around adults, not around children who are more ‘innocent’ and unconscious beings.  Her adopted uncle Lord Asriel believes ‘Dust” is a force for evil and wants Lyra’s help to destroy it.  This is a novel that explores big themes: the conflict between the powers of science and religion; innocence versus knowledge; the soul versus the human body. Apparently Pullman’s intention was for  Northern Lights to be  “A rewriting of Milton’s Paradise Lost,” for young adults, hence the ideas of Dust and daemons are meant to be read allegorically. I have a feeling this is a book that could easily be re-read several times for that reason. I’m glad I gave it a second chance.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

This is another powerful novel which asks big questions, this time about racism and poverty. It’s set in southern Mississippi during the years of the Great Depression and  has a wonderful narrator in the form of nine-year-old Cassie Logan. She’s  a strong-willed girl with a fiery temper, whose family fights to hold onto the land that rightfully belongs to them. It’s through her that we experience attitudes towards the black population of the state and see the catastrophic effects when some local people take the law into their own hands.  For young readers the content around school and friendship would likely be of interest but for older readers there is a lot of darker material with lynch mobs and arson.  I thought the first few chapters were bogged down by too much exposition and the narrative voice didn’t always feel like that of a young girl. But the remainder of the novel was a compelling story about dignity in the face of injustice.

Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve

I had no idea when I started reading this book that it fell into the category of ‘steampunk’. Frankly I had no idea what that term even meant. Good old Wikipedia came to my rescue by explaining that steampunk is a  “subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. ”  Glad we got that cleared up. It does describe Mortal Engines pretty well since this is an alternative history kind of novel which imagines a post-apocalyptic world of Traction Cities –  giant mobile machines that roam a land torn apart by earthquakes and volcanoes. London, the primary traction city, has to hunt down and dismantle other cities and towns to ‘feed’ itself. This is a fast-paced action novel with two teenagers as the heroes who uncover a sinister plot by the city’s Lord Mayor and get into plenty of scrapes and near misses as they try to block his plans.  My problem with science fiction/fantasy novels is usually that the imaginary world doesn’t feel realistic enough or that the narrative is stuffed full of technical info that I don’t find interesting let alone understandable. But Reeve’s imaginary world is so superbly conceived I had a whale of a time reading this book. Like Northern Lights, it can be read as an adventure story but it also has some powerful ideas about nuclear warfare, the value of learning from history.  In our current volatile world, it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to envisage these traction cities like countries always on the prowl for other nations to swallow.

 

10 literary mothers – the good, the bad and the ugly

It’s Mothering Day in the UK today – or to give it its secular name, Mother’s Day. A day when we are asked to show our appreciation for the women who brought us into the world. Mothers in books, just as they do in real life, come in all shapes and sizes. Some epitomise wisdom; love and thoughtfulness; others, well shall we say, reflect less desirable qualities.

To mark this day here’s a list of the good, the bad and the decidedly horrid mothers in literature.

Role model mothers

Mrs March: Little Women by Louisa M Alcott

Idealised motherhood as seen in this 1949 film version of Little Women

If you’re looking for a vision of maternal perfection, look no further than Mrs March (also known as Marmee) in Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. She’s left to look after the home and her four daughters while her husband goes off to provide religious comfort to troops in the American civil war. Using a mixture of common sense and homilies she nurtures the girls to adulthood and encouraging them to be fine, upstanding young women of whom their father would be proud. The saccharine levels in this novel are at maximum setting but if you can get beyond that, it’s easy to appreciate a woman for whom there can be “no greater happiness” than to see her daughters happy and fulfilled in life.

 

 

Helen Graham: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

The obstacles Mrs March had to overcome to realise her dreams for her daughters, are as nothing compared to the obstacles facing Helen Graham, the mother figure in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Her escape fromArthur Huntingdon, her womanising, alcoholic husband, wasn’t simply going against every standard of behaviour at the time, it was illegal. Bronte’s first readers would have been well aware that Helen, as a married woman had no independent existence in English law. She had no right to enter into contracts unless under her husband’s name; no right to sue for divorce and no rights over the control and custody of her children. When Helen thus decides to leave her husband to protect her son from his father’s corrupting influence, she exposes herself to the threat of arrest as a kidnapper.

Ma: Room by Emma Donoghue

Protection of  her son is also foremost in the mind of the mother in Emma Donoghue’s Room. Ma lives in a small space with five-year old Jack, the child born from repeated rape by her abductor. All Jack has ever known is Ma and Room; he has no concept of the world outside except what comes via their television set. It takes every ounce of courage and resourcefulness to protect and nurture her son, making the best of  the limited resources at her disposal.

Questionable behaviour

Paula Hook: Tomorrow by Graham Swift

Late at night a mother mentally rehearses a conversation that will take place the following morning when her husband will reveal a secret that’s been kept hidden for sixteen years. Paula traces the history of her marriage, from the time when as students in Sussex she first met the biology student Mike. She holds nothing back – tomorrow will be a revelation that might destroy their family so she believes her children need a full understanding of the background. Her marriage has been a very physical relationship she imagines telling 16-year-old Nick and Kate. And then goes onto provide the kind of details  I suspect most teenagers simply don’t want to know about their mother.

Mrs Bennet: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Alison Steadman as Mrs Bennet in BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice

Austen portrays Mrs B as “a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper”. She’s made a comic figure, a gossip who has a habit of putting her foot (or in her case her mouth) in it to the detriment of her elder daughter’s hopes of marrying an eminently desirable wealthy young man. But despite her flaws, it’s difficult to be too harsh on this woman. Her actions, as crass as they are on times, are driven by economic necessity.  She has five daughters and lives in an age where, if they do not secure a good marriage, they will be reduced to earning their own income as seamstresses or governesses.  Faced with that precarious existence, even marriage to a scoundrel like George Wickham is better than spinsterhood in her eyes.

Lady Arabella Gresham: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope

Another mother who plots and schemes to get her offspring married. Lady Gresham is married to a squire whose estate is in a precarious state so it’s imperative that the heir Frank Gresham, marries a wealthy woman. It matters not to his mother that his heart is set on a sweet young lady from the village. She will do everything possible to see that Frank comes to his senses and puts his own family’s needs ahead of his own interests. This is a woman who risks alienating her son, her husband, her medical adviser as a result of her determination.
Emma Bovary: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Does Emma deserve sympathy or condemnation? Is she simply a hopeless romantic who yearns to escape marriage to one of the dullest men on earth? Or a manipulative little minx who runs up debts because she can’t stop spending money on frivolities?  Whichever way you choose to look at Emma’s character, the reality is that her frustrations with the banalities and emptiness of her provincial life  have a long term impact on her daughter Berthe. Left an orphan, the young girl is taken into the care of her grandmother. But when she in turn dies, Berthe is despatched to live with an impoverished aunt who forces her to work in a cotton mill; exactly the kind of life Emma was desperate to avoid.

Beyond redemption? 


‘The Mother’: Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Pity the girl who has this woman for a mother. Ostensibly a devout woman of her fundamentalist religious community, this is a woman whose zeal disguises a lack of compassion and goodness. Having adopted Jess she plans to make her a servant of God. But when the girl doesn’t conform to the required behaviour is locked in her room without food and subjected to physical assault. Later when the girl discovers she is a lesbian she is publicly condemned by her mother and forced to go through two lengthy exorcisms.

 

Corinne Dollanganger: Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews 

Few readers get to the end of this novel viewing Mrs Corrine Dollanganger as anything but a horror figure. Ok so she is left in debt when her husband, the father of her four children, is killed in a car accident. Understandable that, with no skills of her own to help her get a job, she moves in with her estranged wealthy parents. But when her mother Olivia, insists the children must be hidden from their grandfather, and confines them to an attic wouldn’t you think any self-respecting mother would say no way? Not Corinne. But then what mother would abandon her children for weeks and then poisons them so she can keep her inheritance.?  And what kind of grandmother is this that no only colludes in this horrific behaviour, but is one of the main perpetrators?

Medea: Medea by Euripides

If only Corinne and Olivia were the worst models of motherhood it would be possible to imagine. But we have only to look back a few centuries to find a figure of equally horrific proportions. I wonder if William Congreve had Medea in mind when he wrote:

“Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.” (The Mourning Bride)

When Medea discovers her husband Jason has abandoned her for a younger model, she unleashes her fury on his new bride, sending her a dress soaked in poison. Jason reproaches her but she’s having none of it and in revenge kills their two sons. Medea’s rationale is that when a woman “is wronged in the matter of love, no other soul can hold so many thoughts of blood.”  Now you’d think this would be the kind of behaviour guaranteed to make the Gods extremely angry with her. What they actually do is to send a chariot to pick her and and transport her to a new life in Athens. I wonder what the Greeks in the audience thought of this benevolent outcome?

 

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym [review]

Quartet-in-autumn

Barbara Pym and the novel that revitalised her career

Quartet in Autumn was only my second experience of Barbara Pym’s work and now I can see why she has such a devoted group of followers. What I enjoyed about Some Tame Gazelles (her debut novel) was her ability to portray the peculiarities of ordinary life in an English village of the 1950s. She uses the same approach in Quartet in Autumn but this time the focus is on the minor irritations and peculiarities of  office life in 1970s London.

Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia work in the same office, engaged in the kind of unskilled, menial clerical activities that don’t add up to very much at all. Now in their sixties they are on the verge of compulsory retirement. It should be the autumn of their lives, a time filled with colour and mellow fruitfulness, but that is not the case for this quartet of rather lonely people.

Letty and Norman live alone in rented bedsits; Edwin in the home he once shared with his wife; Marcia in her parents’ old house. They chat in work but mainly keep their private lives, private, and there’s no suggestion they should ever get together outside of the office. They don’t even lunch together. Letty goes to the library while Edwin prefers to visit a church. Since his wife died he’s rather thrown himself into church affairs, assiduously reading the Church Times,  ticking off a list of church buildings to visit and joining in with many church celebrations, especially those involving free sherry and food. Norman, a rather spry figure,  occupies his time planning trips with his detestable brother-in-law that he never takes.

And then there is Marcia, the character Pym imbues with the greatest quota of pathos. The highlight of her life was the time she needed major surgery, an event about which she regularly reminisces. That’s when she’s not talking about the wonderful surgeon who performed her mastectomy and about whom she maintains particularly warm thoughts. One of her happiest moments comes when she takes the bus to his home, hoping to spy him if only in the distance. Marcia is a birdlike figure, an obsessive who hoards empty milk bottles and plastic bags in a shed in her over-grown garden. In her house stand row upon row of tins of food yet Marcia is slowly starving.

The foursome try to keep in touch post retirement but it’s not a successful experiment. Her funeral brings three of the quartet back together again, an awkward event which sees them take tentative steps towards a relationship that is more than simple acquaintanceship.

At times Pym’s tone is mildly satiric as she takes us through the mundane lives of these four and their individual frustrations and preoccupations. But she’s never cruel, recognising that these are people who despite their melancholy lives are doing their best to soldier on. Letty captures the spirit perfectly when she reflects after one lunchtime reunion:

”She must never give the slightest hint of loneliness or boredom, the sense of time hanging heavy.”

As boring as their lives are, and as full of regret and disappointment, Pym illustrates that their attempts to establish contact with one another is what gives purpose and meaning to their lives.

Footnotes 

The Book:  Barbara Pym wrote Quartet in Autumn over a three year period between 1973 and 1976. Several publishers rejected it on the basis that times had moved on and the reading public wanted more sensational topics than she offered. This changed when in 1977  the Times Literary Supplement published a list, compiled by notable literary figures, of the most underrated writers of the century. Pym was the only writer to be listed twice, poet Philip Larkin and the critic Lord David Cecil were both fans of her work  Within a month, Macmillan  accepted Quartet in Autumn. It went on to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The Author:  Barbara Pym’s first novel Some Tame Gazelle was published in 1950, followed by Excellent Women (considered her finest work) two years later. She enjoyed success as an author for the next 11 years while continuing to work for the International African Institute. Her novels fell out of favour in the 1960s, being considered ‘old fashioned.’  Quartet in Autumn was the beginning of the revival of her reputation.

If you’re interested in learning more about Barbara Pym there’s a good review of her work in The Guardian, written by Alexander McCall Smith, or visit the website of the Barbara Pym Society.

Why I read this book: It was recommended by a number of bloggers after I published my review of Some Tame Gazelle. 

The Best of the Booker winners

I’ve never met Joslyn except through her blog Chronic Bibliophilia. Her home is in Massachusetts, USA. Mine is in Wales, UK. Thousands of miles separate us physically but we are united by one thing – our interest in the novels that win what’s considered one of the most prestigious prizes in the literary world: The Booker Prize. Over the last few years each of us has been reading through the list of winners.

Which of these are our favourites – we asked each other that question and came up with vastly different answers. Here we chat about the progress we’ve made and pick our top 3 titles from the winners we’ve read so far.

Joslyn’s Top 3 Booker winners

JosylnJoslyn @Chronic Bibliophilia

Born and raised in the US, my lifelong bibliophila was initially heavily biased towards American works, a bias imposed by convenience rather than ideology. As I child, I aspired to read all of the Newbery Medal winners – awarded annually for the most distinguished American children’s book. Though that project didn’t survive adolescence, in my early adulthood I found myself formulating a similar goal – to read all of the Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction. Again, this was a prestigious list of feted works by Americans. When I actually completed the Pulitzer project in 2012, I felt compelled to expand my reading horizons and to take on a new challenge. Two UK-led prizes – the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize – shimmered in front of me like irresistible bait. I was hooked. Within a few years, I finished these prize lists, as well.

To my mind the Booker’s Prize list is one list that is particularly fraught with inconsistencies – stocked equally with exquisite masterpieces and near misses. Though there are a number of award winners which were quickly read and forgotten, however, some of the finest works on this list remain among the top books I’ve read. 

Booker top 3

Selecting the creme de la creme was a painful process, but eventually I arrived at what, for now at least, are my top three Booker Prize winners – “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “Possession” by A.S. Byatt, and “The Bone People” by Keri Hulme.

“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

In “Life of Pi”, Yann Martel spins an engaging story, an epic reminiscent of the Odyssey for its magic and mystery. Pi, a young Indian boy, is lost at sea after the cargo ship upon which he, his family, and their zoo animals, were attempting to emigrate, sinks. Pi valiantly finds his way to the one and only lifeboat, but soon he realizes that he is not alone. Far from bringing him comfort, his newly discovered companions put him in even graver danger. This story is full of bigger-than-life events and, as a reader, I willingly suspended disbelief early on, finding myself taking for granted the possibilities (and impossibilities) laid out throughout the tale.

“The Bone People” by Keri Hulme

1985’s winner, “The Bone People”, also has its mystical moments as it explores the intersection of a dwindling Maori culture and the crush of modernity. Kerewin is a misanthrope, shut off in an odd cottage of her own making, eschewing any interaction with the outside world. Her peace, self-torturous though it seems, is interrupted when a young mute boy finds his way into her home and gradually into her steely heart. Keri Hulme has written what I suspect is a partly autobiographical story of isolation, culture, and the definition of family. The main characters are troubling and troubled, finding themselves and each other in a complicated world. The storytelling is beautiful, painful, and heart-stopping

“Possession” by A.S. Byatt

The book nerd and researcher in me was immediately tantalized by this book. “Possession” tells the story of two literary scholars who discover and dissect letters between two tragic latter-day poets. It is part mystery, part scholarship, part romance, crafted in intricate and dazzling measure, woven like a centuries-old tapestry full of impossible detail and discovery. Byatt explores the interplay between passion and ambition, desire and drive. I was astounded by how good this book was. The experience was visceral, the story deeply moving.

About Chronic Bibliophilia

For as far back as I can remember, reading has been more than a past time for me. Reading is breakfast; it is a hot shower; it is sleep on the perfect pillow. Sure, I could go a day without it. But why on earth would I? Chronic Bibliophilia chronicles my journey as I endeavor to become a ridiculously well-read human being. This blog provides reflections, reviews, and recommendations from a reading list focused on supporting and highlighting the voices that continue to face suppression. I believe that this project has changed not just what I read, but how I read and how I think. I hope you’ll join me on my literary odyssey. Click here to visit Chronic Bibliophilia and to sign up to follow the blog.

Karen @BookerTalk.com 

BookerTalkI’m from Wales which for those of you who are geographically challenged, is a country within the UK. I’m one of those people that helps keep the publishing industry afloat since I simply cannot resist buying books. I’ve  been like this ever since I was a child, saving up my pocket money just so I could by the latest Enid Blyton. Naturally my tastes have evolved since then … My adventures in the world of the Booker prize started just over five years ago. I’m not exactly sure what triggered the idea – probably I’d just heard something on the radio about the latest winner – but I started to think about the whole question of why some novels are deemed ‘better’ than others. Maybe, I thought, if I read all the winners of one of the most prestigious literary prizes, I might find the answer. Although I’ve now read 39 of the winners the answer is still proving elusive.

Reaction to Joslyn’s choices

It’s been fascinating to see how different Joslyn’s choices are from my own. I enjoyed Life of Pi, far more than I expected to given that relies on magical realism which not my favourite technique. I didn’t rate it as highly as Joslyn does however – it’s  currently ranked at number 13 on my list of the Booker titles I’ve read. Possession trails a long way behind at number 31 in my list. I appreciated A. S Byatt’s ability to weave the Victorian era and the contemporary period stories together but looking back at my review I see that I didn’t find the characters very convincing and the poetry I found tedious. The Bone People, is currently ranking at number 28 in my list. I would have ranked it higher if Keri Hulme hadn’t gone and introduced a set of mystical creatures right towards the end. It spoiled what was otherwise an intriguing novel that kept me engaged even if sometimes I wasn’t sure what I was reading.

Karen’s Top 3 Booker winners

Favourite top 3 Booker winners copy

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

The winner in 2012, this is the follow up to her 2009 Booker winning novel Wolf Hall, a novel which broke the mold in terms of historical fiction. Mantel was by no means the first author to write a fictionalised biography of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s right hand man. What made Wolf Hall novel so distinctive was how Mantel went behind the mask of Cromwell’s actions and into his head, revealing the complexity of his character and what it takes to navigate the treacherous waters of the King’s court. Bring Up the Bodies takes us further by  showing how Cromwell has to decide if he is willing to do whatever is necessary to serve the King even if that means putting integrity and honesty to one side.

It’s a stunning novel from a writer at the top of her game.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Given the fact this is a novel set against a backdrop of the notorious death railway in Burma, I was expecting it to be an uncomfortable read. But this is a novel that ranges far beyond savagery and survival to ask profound questions about culpability and forgiveness. Its central character is an army surgeon who is damaged by his experience as a prisoner of war. Rather than make the Japanese camp commanders a one dimensional portrait of evil, Flanagan gives them a voice that recognises their helplessness to act according to their own sense of humanity in the face of orders from their Emperor. It’s a haunting story that well deserved to win the prize in 2014

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

This novel, the Booker winner in 1992, is a beautifully paced tale of four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war. One is a man burned beyond recognition during the North African campaign of World War 2; a Canadian Army nurse who is traumatised by what she has witnessed in the conflict, a Sikh British Army sapper and a thief. They come together in the bomb-damaged ruins of an Italian monastery, hoping to heal their wounds and repair emotional scars. What I loved about this novel was how Ondaatje wraps multiple themes, of identity and nationality, of belonging and isolation, into a relatively short book.

Joslyn’s reaction to Karen’s choices

I, too, found Mantel’s Booker winners riveting. Both works are weighty and complex, but remarkably approachable – no small feat for a collective 1000 pages set in the 1500s. Haunting is exactly the right word to describe The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This book is chilling and devastating in a way that I did find a bit uncomfortable, but appropriately so. Flanagan tells his story in raw detail, offering the reader no quarter and no chance to avoid its intended impact. A brutal read, but an absolutely worthy one. I am a fan of Ondaatje’s works, though I preferred his In the Skin of a Lion, which explores many of the same themes. Where The English Patient fell a bit short for me was in its ability to elicit emotion; the narrative was cast in a ‘romantic’ haze that felt a bit …lacking. In spite of that criticism, Ondaatje’s beautiful and deliberate storytelling are on full display in this novel.

What do you think of our choices?

If you’ve read any of the six titles we picked, what did you think of them? Would you rate them as highly as we did? Are there other Booker winners that you would put in your list of top 3?

10 books for time-pressured readers

Short reads Some occasions cry out  for a short (ish) book. You may have just finished a 600 pager and want a change of pace. Or you might be about to head off for a weekend break and really don’t want to lug that heavy tome with you. Speaking of weight, the measly baggage allowances set by low cost airlines almost force you down the path of lighter (ie shorter) reading material.

So for those occasions here are some short reading options – I’m reluctant to call them quick reads because that implies lightweight content. In fact these are all novels that should get you thinking…

All the links take you to my reviews.

 

 

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata: An enigmatic, rather bleak, tale of a love affair between Shimamura, a wealthy intellectual from Tokyo and Komako, a young geisha.

 

The Many by Wyl Menmuir: Another enigmatic story, this time set in a fishing village in Cornwall, UK that is contending with heavy pollution by “biological agents and contaminants” that has impacted its fishing grounds.

 

Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: This is a touching novella about a young couple of newlyweds who arrive at a coastal hotel. They want their wedding night to be perfect but a problem arises which threatens their future.

Of Mice and Men by  John Steinbeck: How is it possible for a book of little more than 100 pages to contain so much depth? Yet Steinbeck does it with this parable about people  who are life’s losers yet never relinquish their hopes and ambitions for a better life.

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul: From Denmark comes a crime story that confounds most of the conventions of that genre. Yes it has a murder and a detective but the discovery of the killer’s identity isn’t really the point of this novel. It’s more about the sense of loss and feelings of regret about failed relationships triggered by the murder.

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen: In a harsh Finnish winter, a mother and her two children try to walk to St Petersburg in search of bread. It’s their only hope of avoiding death through starvation.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa: An odd little tale of a friendship between a Professor of mathematics who has severe memory problems, the woman sent to look after him and her son.

 

Disgrace by J, M Coetzee: A Booker-award winner set in post-apartheid South Africa that raises questions about sexual predatory behaviour, denouncement and reconciliation.

Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb:  A young translator from Belgium falls foul of cultural expectations when she begins working for Yumimoto, a prestigious international corporation run on strictly hierarchical lines.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thierault: This is a lightly plotted story of a postman who falls in love with a young teacher in Guadeloupe, a woman he knows only via her letters and poems.

 

 

Ancient Light by John Banville

In Ancient Light, John Banville returns to themes explored in his earlier Booker prize winning novel The Sea: the remembered past and its ability to shape our destinies.

Alexander Cleave, a stage actor,  looks back to one year during his schoolboy days when he had an affair with his best friend’s mother, a woman 20 years his senior.  After their first encounter in the laundry room of her house, the pair graduate to sexual trysts on the back seat of her car and then to a mouldy mattress in a run down cottage. So infatuated is Alexander with Mrs Gray that he spies on her when she takes family trips to the cinema or the seaside, jealous of any time she spends away from him.  He wants to possess her fully.  Years later when the mature Alexander reflects on these times he recalls them as moments of  bliss punctuated by tantrums and petulant behaviour as he sought to bend her to his will.

I should confess that sulking was my chief weapon against her, nasty little tyke that I was and I employed it with the skill and niceness of judgement that only a boy as heartless as I would have been capable of. She would resist me for as long as she was able, as I fumed in silence with my arms calmed across my chest and my chin jammed on my collar-bone and my lower lip stuck out for a good inch, but always it was she who gave in, in the end. 

Trying to make sense of his younger self, the mature Alexander doesn’t seek to excuse his petulant behaviour. He accepts also that his memory of certain facts is hazy – he constantly jumbles up the times and the seasons when certain events took place for example.  He’s not even certain that his recollection of the first time he saw Mrs Gray is accurate. He remembers seeing a woman freewheel towards him down the hill from the church. As she nears him, the wind catches her skirt and exposes her bare skin all the way to the waist, a sight that of course causes a frisson of excitement for the teenage boy. Alexander recalls how he felt at the time and remembers in detail what the cyclist wore but he cannot conjure up her facial features. 

Is he lying to himself or simply being selective about what he will remember? Memory is, after all, he explains, an artificial construct.

Images from the far past crowd into my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions,” he declares as the novel begins. “The items of flotsam that I choose to salvage from the general wreckage – and what is a life but a gradual shipwreck – may take on an aspect of inevitability when I put them on display in their glass showcases, but they are random; representative, perhaps, perhaps compellingly so, but random nevertheless.

That relationship is not the only aspect of his life causing Alexander to ruminate about the past. He is grieving for the death of his daughter Catherine (Cass) some years earlier. Though we learn she had suffered a form of mental illness, her suicide off the Italian coast still perplexes him. Why was she in Italy? Who was the father of her unborn child? Who is the person called Svidrigailov that was with his daughter when she died? An opportunity to answer those questions arrives when Alexander is given a film role in a biopic about Axel Vander, a famous, now dead, academic who led a double life. Alexander begins to suspect there is a connection between Axel Vander and Cass. He gets his chance to uncover the truth when Dawn Deveonport, the female lead in the film, suffers a mental breakdown. Alexander, who has become a bit of a father figure for her,  spirits her away from the media frenzy and the anguish of the film’s producers. Guess where they go? – yep, to Italy to a spot a short distance across the water from where his daughter’s body was found.

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John Banville in conversation at Hay Literary Festival 2013

If you’re thinking this sounds a bit of a convoluted plot relying heavily on coincidences, then you’re not far off the mark. But I forgave Banville for this because Ancient Light is written so beautifully, almost poetically  with its use of rhythm, imagery and allusion.  He delights in descriptions about the landscape and the weather: rain “sizzles through the leaves”; the sky  “was the colour of wetted jute” while a late-autumn afternoon is marked by “scrapings of cloud like bits of crinkled gold leaf.”

Banville sketches characters deftly even when he gives them little more than walk on parts. Dawn Devonport  begins as a Marilyn Monroe type figure, a much feted starlet who captivates by making each person feel they’ve been singled out for her special attention. Alexander however sees beneath the veneer to a vulnerable young girl unable to cope with the recent death of her father, a girl in fact much like his own beloved daughter. More notable is Billie Stryker, ostensibly the film’s researcher, whose “sad and sweetly” demeanour lulls Alexander into revelations about his life. “There must be more to her than meets the eye” he concludes after their first meeting.

In fact the same thing could be said for many of the characters in a novel which is in essence about the way people lie to others and themselves about who they are. Nothing is as it seems at first glance. One of the recurring ideas of the novel is the effect of light on perception – Alexander for example recollects one day how he saw Mrs Gray reflected in two mirrors simultaneously, the resulting image turned into fragments of the whole. In another scene he lies on his bed and through a tiny crack in the curtains sees an upside -down projection of the secret. What enables him to ‘see’ himself, to understand his actions and make sense of the fragments and distortions, is an ancient light that comes from distant galleries, taking billions of miles to reach earth.  But the same light also provides a form of consolation by the end of the novel, seeming to “shake  within itself even as it strengthened, … as if some radiant being were advancing.”

Footnotes

The Book: Ancient Light by John Banville was published in 2012 by Viking. It’s a sequel to Eclipse and Shroud which all feature Alexander Cleave. I haven’t read either of the two earlier novels but didnt feel I was at a disadvantage as a result – Ancient Light to me was easily able to stand on its own merit.

The Author: John Banville comes from Wexford in Ireland. In addition to more than 10 novels written under the name of John Banville, he also writes a crime fiction series in the persona of Benjamin Black. At the Hay Festival in 2013 he explained that he adopts completely different writing practices for each persona. As John Banville he writes long hand with fountain pen and agonises over each word (the process is a long and protracted one he revealed). As Benjamin Black he uses a typewriter.

Why I read this book: I loved reading The Sea (see my review here) and enjoyed the talk Banville gave at the Hay Festival. Signed copies of Ancient Light were available at the festival and I couldn’t resist buying. Reading Ireland 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging was the prompt I needed to get it out of the bookcase.

10 books to read this Spring (maybe)

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by The Broke and the Bookish requires me to list 10 novels on my to read list this Spring. An impossible task I fear for one who finds planning and reading do not make for happy bedfellows. I’ve tried – really I have (quit  rolling those eyes would you please) over the last five years. I have pledged my allegiance to various challenges short and long and dutifully listed what I would read as my entry ticket to such events. The list making is the fun part. After that it all goes down hill rapidly. The minute a book title goes on a list, I seem to lose all interest in reading it and instead much prefer something lurking in the darker recesses of the bookcase. So I’ve given up essentially and just read what takes my fancy at the time. 

My list of 10 is therefore offered with full disclosure that I might read all of these. I might read some of them. It’s conceivable, being as fickle as I am, that I will read none of them.  I reserve the right to completely change my mind in the next few weeks (scratch that, I mean next few hours). The most likely one I will read is the book I drew in the Classic Club SpinDiary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith.

Diary_of_a_Nobody

My one and only commitment is that whatever I do read, it will be from the collection of books I already own – this is in support of my 2017 goals. 

10-to-read - 2017

Hell’s Gate by the French author Lauren Gaude is due for publication by Gallic Books in April.I have a NetGalley copy for review. Gallic describes it as “A thrilling story of love, loss, revenge and redemption in Naples and beyond.”

GhostBird by Carol Lovekin: Another title by the independent Welsh publisher Honno Press that I picked up as part of my plan to read more fiction from my fellow countrymen and women. This was Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops
Book of the Month in April 2016.

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane: One of the titles I have in mind for Reading Ireland 2017 – I’ve read only one novel by Keane (Devoted Ladies – under her other name of M.J Farrell) so I’m keen to see if this one resonates more with me.

When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen, translated from Finnish by  Lola Rogers. It’s described by The Independent newspaper as a tense family drama. I was more interested in their assessment that “When The Doves Disappeared is indeed a thrilling page-turner but it is equally a shattering family drama and an unsparing deconstruction of history.” I bought this as part of my quest to broaden my reading horizons with authors from many parts of the world.

Twilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis, I picked up a second hand copy of this about four years ago. Its one of only two books I own by an author from Indonesia. The cover has a rather dark, retro feel which apparently matches the mood of the book. It was published about 50 years ago, having been smuggled out of Indonesia where the author was held under house arrest, and depicts social and political events in the capital during the run up to a national election.

His Bloody Project  by Graeme Macrae Burnet. A historical thriller that was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016. I meant to read it before shortlist was announced and got a bargain electronic copy but it wasnt the right format – I wanted to be able to flick back to previous chapters etc which is never easy on an e reader. But now my sister donated her print copy to me, I have no more excuses.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (note that I erroneously had this attributed to Dodi Smith until an astute reader spotted the error). I know, I know, you are astounded I have never read this classic. So am I. And so I will. At some point

The Finkler Question  by Howard Jacobson. One of the remaining titles on my Booker project list. It has its fans and its detractors. I’ve read the opening chapter and enjoyed it.

Sacred Hunger  by Barry Unsworth. Another Booker prize winner that has been highly recommended by many of you who follow this blog.

How many of these will I actually read? I dare you to make a forecast…..

 

A Time for Silence by Thorne Moore

A Time for Silence - Thorne MooreThe last few decades have seen such a boom of interest in genealogy that, according to ABC News, it’s now the second most popular hobby in the United States. I suspect the majority of new enthusiasts start out in the hope they’ll discover they’re descended from nobility or ‘someone famous’ or failing that, that their research will uncover some scandal in the past. But if there’s one lesson we can take from A Time for Silence by Thorne Moore it’s that some aspects of the past are best left untouched; leaving the dead “to their silent sleep.”

This is a novel which begins with a young woman who stumbles upon  the farmhouse once inhabited by her grandparents. It’s in ruins; the roof has fallen in and cobwebs ‘thick as rope with dust’ lie amongst the rotten woodwork but Sarah is drawn inexorably to the property. On impulse she buys the farmhouse at Cwmderwen, imagining how it can be transformed into a weekend retreat for her and her soon-to-be husband. She knows little about her Nan (Gwen), and her husband John Owen yet seeing the farmhouse deep in the countryside of Pembrokeshire, Wales awakens her interest. How did John die? Why and how did the family lose their ownership of this land? Why didn’t her mother ever talk about her childhood there? Sarah’s attempts to find the answers are frustrated by the silences of her family members, the authorities and the handful of people still living near Cwmderwen who knew her grandparents.  She begins to suspect her family were the victims of an outrageous act that it’s now her duty to avenge. What she discovers however is darker than she could ever imagine.

Sarah’s  pursuit  of the past provides the narrative framework for A Time for Silence. For the answers to her question we have to look to a different narrator – Sarah’s grandmother Gwen. We first meet her on the day of her marriage in 1933 as she leaves behind her beloved father and sister and makes her way by cart to her new home. It’s a solid building shadowed by trees, more gloomy than she imagined, and with no luxuries or signs of comfort. But she believes she can fix that easily with fresh curtains, embroidered fire screen, bright china on the heavy old dresser, a piano even with which she could accompany her husband who was renowned for his fine voice. As the novel progresses we witness how these dreams are destroyed at the hands of a proud, puritanical husband. Gwen is resilient and learns how to accommodate his demands but she and her children, live in fear that one wrong word will bring his wrath down on their heads.

It’s Gwen’s story that resonated most with me. I found Sarah, the modern day woman, a bit irritating. She’s a woman going through a crisis, still mourning the loss of her close friend in an accident for which Sarah feels responsible. She’s given up her ambitions to be a singer and is now beset with a future mother in law who wants to control every aspect of her upcoming wedding. With so much stress we can forgive some of her strange behaviours (like buying a derelict cottage on a whim) but some of her reactions struck me as bordering on the drama queen. Contrast her with Gwen who so dreads asking for money to clothe her children she makes do by unravelling old sweaters and knitting them into mittens and socks. She’s an isolated figure, her sister not being welcome in the cottage and any visitor from the nearby estate farm treated with suspicion by her husband. In Gwen, Thorne Moore has created a figure who reaches out across the decades and grabs our sympathy with her quiet determination to take whatever is thrown at her for the sake of her children. Her character transforms the novel.

Footnotes

The Book: A Time For Silence is the debut novel by Thorne Moore. It was published in 2012 by Honno Press, an independent publishers that specialises in work by women writers.

The Author: Thorne Moore is originally from the Luton area, near London. She has a long connection with Wales dating from her time as a history student at the University of Wales in Abertystwyth. She now lives in a Victorian farmhouse in Pembrokeshire in west Wales where she divides her time between writing and her craft business. Thorne will be featured in the ‘Put a Book on the Map’ series at Cleopatra’s book blog in April 2017.

Why I read this book: I’m trying to read more work by authors from my home country of Wales. I therefore couldnt resist when three independent Welsh publishers had a pop up bookshop in Cardiff in December 2016. A Time for Silence was one of the titles recommended by the team from Honno. Since it was such a good recommendation I’ve now gone on to buy Thorne’s second novel Motherlove. Check out the Authors from Wales page on this blog for more information on literature from Wales.

 

 

Classics Club spin lands on Grossmith

Diary_of_a_Nobody

Cover of first edition of The Diary of a Nobody. Creative Commons License, Wikipedia

The latest Classic Club roulette wheel has spun and landed on number 12 which for me is The Diary of a Nobody  by George Grossmith. It had to happen sometime – this poor book has been on the list for five previous spins and missed out every time. 

But now its day in the spotlight has arrived, what kind of book will I be reading?

First thing I can tell you is that it’s a comic novel, the sole output of  two brothers George and Weedon Grossmith. Both were stage entertainers – George often played the comic figure in Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Weedon was also an artist and it was his work that illustrated early copies of the text. 

The Diary of a Nobody records the daily events in the lives of a London clerk, Charles Pooter, his wife Carrie, his son Lupin, and numerous friends and acquaintances over a period of 15 months. They are a fairly ordinary family of lower middle-class status but have significant social aspirations. A lot of the humour apparently comes from Charles’ deluded sense of his own importance which is undercut by his propensity to make mistakes, many of which prove socially embarrassing.

Initially Charles’ exploits saw the light of day in a serial which appeared periodically in Punch magazine in between 1888 and 89. It was intended as a spoof that mocked the proliferation of diaries and memoirs at the time; the brothers taking the view that if Anybody could publish a diary then why couldn’t a Nobody? It wasn’t published in book form until 1892. The book had a lukewarm reception from the reading public and critics with The Athenaeum, declaring that “the book has no merit to compensate for its hopeless vulgarity, not even that of being amusing”. But by the time of the third issue in 1910 it was recognised as a classic work of humour – J B Priestley described it as “true humour…with its mixture of absurdity, irony and affection” while Evelyn Waugh considered it “the funniest book in the world”. Its tone and format have been emulated in many subsequent ‘diary’ novels from Sue Townshend’s Diary of Adrian Mole to Bridget Jones’ Diary. 

Why is the Diary of a Nobody  on my Classics Club list you might wonder? It’s certainly an unusual choice since I don’t tend to enjoy comic novels. But I happened to come across a copy, at the back of the bookcase, that seems to have been purchased sometime in the early 1990s and thought maybe it was time it got read….

 

 

 

 

Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope

Dr Thorne by Anthony TrollopeIs there no place to hid from news of (alleged) election shenanigans. First we had allegations of  voter fraud and wire-tapping in the US presidential race. Then came claims the British electorate was misled about the impact of the referendum on future membership of the EU. And now we have accusations about misuse of public funds against one of the candidates in the French presidential elections. Surely if I buried my head in Anthony Trollope’s Dr  Thorne, a novel set in a quiet English country village, I would be free from such issues?. Not a chance….  Mr Trollope had a surprise up his sleeve.

Dr Thorne is the third of the Chronicles of Barsetshire series. In the first two – The Warden and Barchester Towers  Trollope concerned himself with the insular ecclesiastical world of a cathedral town.  In Dr Thorne we move to the countryside and an entirely different pillar of society- the landed gentry in the shape of Squire Gresham and family. They’ve lived at Greshambury Park as the foremost citizens of this part of the county of Barsetshire for many generations but these are precarious times for the Greshams. They are beset by financial difficulties, most of which originate with the Squire’s wife Lady Arabella. As a descendant of the aristocratic De Courcy family she firmly believes she has a certain status in life that must be maintained. This means she absolutely must have a house in London so she and her daughters can enjoy The Season. And of course the said property has to be refurbished to the standard befitting her position. Her most damaging measure however was to encourage the Squire to seek election to Parliament. Now after two unsuccessful bids, both of which involved the outlay of vast sums of money, the Squire is having to sell off part of his land and take out a loan.

The family’s only hope for the future lies in the son and heir Frank. There is no doubt at all in Lady Arabella’s mind but that  “Frank must marry money’” if they are to avoid the unthinkable, the loss of the estate. There is just one obstacle in the way of her determination to find him a rich heiress as his wife: Frank is in love Mary Thorne, the niece of the local doctor. Though she’s been hitherto welcomed at Greshambury Park, she is considered totally unsuitable as Frank’s wife. Not only doesn’t she have a bean to her name, she comes with the taint of illegitimacy and murder. What the Greshams don’t know – and neither does Mary – is that she’s an heiress to a large fortune.

Most of the novel is concerned with the romantic problems of Mary and Frank. Will Frank remain true to his childhood sweetheart or will the needs of his family prevail? it’s a story line that enables Trollope to weave in themes of class and lineage versus integrity and loyalty. Which matters most asks Trollope – to marry someone who is inherently good and honest even if they don’t have the right family credentials or to marry someone with money and breeding but without love? Lady Arabella’s view on this is quite clear and she’s prepared to take drastic action and sacrifice everything – her son’s happiness, Mary Thorne’s reputation and even her own medical treatment – to get her way. Her husband is more inclined to hope Frank’s passion for Mary is just a phase that will pass so he adopts more of a ‘wait and see’ stance. Two of the Gresham daughters fare very differently in the ‘money or love’ debate. One of them is jilted by her fiancé when he sniffs a chance to cut a more lucrative deal with a wealthy heiress but her sister, though also hampered by a very small dowry, gets to the altar because her fiancé declares he wants her and not her money.

anthony-trollope

Anthony Trollope

It isn’t just the Greshams who are concerned with status. Some of the other characters are equally keen to rise up in the world, such as Sir Roger Scratchard. Once jailed for murder this humble stonemason became a wealthy man as the developer of ports and railways. Proving of invaluable help to the Government, he gets rewarded with a baronetcy despite his predilection for vast quantities of alcohol. But this title is not enough for him – he wants to be an even bigger Somebody with Influence – a member of Parliament no less. And so he throws his hat into the election ring, giving Trollope a chance to satirise the dubious electioneering practices used by the aspiring politicians of his day.  During the campaign, Scratchard’s opponents paint caricatures of him around the area, portraying him as a labourer “with a pimply, bloated face …  leaning on a spade holding a bottle in one hand” and throw a dead cat at him at one of the hustings. Unfortunately one of his election team sails too close to the wind when trying to secure a key voter, leaving Scratchard facing a prosecution for bribery.

Every kind of electioneering sin known to the electioneering world was brought to his charge; he had, it was said in the paper of indictment, bought votes, obtained them by treating carried them off by violence, conquered them by strong drink, polled them twice over, counted those of dead men, stolen them, forged them, and created them by every possible, fictitious contrivance; there was no description of wickedness appertaining to the task of procuring votes of which Sir Roger had not been guilty, either by himself or his agents.

Now you might very well draw some parallels between that situation and some more recent events. But in the vein of House of Cards “I couldn’t possibly comment. “

It’s good fun though Trollope is using the election campaign and Scratchard’s fate to counterpoint Lady Arabella’s belief that money is everything. Having been disgraced, Scratchard is forced to acknowledge that though he is still a wealthy man, this is of little comfort – what he has valued all along is to rub shoulders with the great and the good.

Money had given him nothing but the mere feeling of brute power; with his three hundred thousand pounds he had felt himself to be no more palpably near to the goal of his ambition than when he had chipped stones for three siblings and sixpence a day. But when he was led up and introduced … when he shook the old premier’s hand on the floor of the House of Commons, when he heard the honourable member for Barchester alluded to in grave debate as the greatest living authority on railway matters, then indeed, he felt that he had achieved something.

Trollope packs a lot into his novel. Dr Thorne is consequently rather baggy, especially when it deals with the backstory of the Gresham’s declining financial situation. Trollope was so aware of this that he apologises to his reader for the fact the novel begins with “two long dull chapters full of description”.  He also acknowledges that readers might find the young, energetic Frank more interesting than the real hero, the middle aged country Doctor. Yet Dr Thorne is one of the two most interesting characters in the novel for me. He acts as the novel’s moral compass, confronting a personal ethical dilemma (should he reveal the secret of Mary’s impending fortune) with fortitude and refusing to instruct Mary in how to deal with Frank’s continued declarations of love, preferring instead that she work out for herself the best course of action. Even in the face of insults from Lady Arabella and Sir Roger’s wayward son, he shows great forbearance. Essentially he is an all round good egg. 

But pride of place as a character has to go to Lady Arabella Gresham. She’s a magnificent portrait of a thoroughly selfish woman, so imbued with notions of her status that she cannot see the damage she causes through her manipulative treatment of her daughters, her son and even her husband. The one person who is more than a match for her is the doctor. Despite her best endeavours to break off the relationship between him and the Squire, it’s the doctor to whom her husband turns for support and with whom, ultimately, she herself has to find a compromise. How would Lady Arabella fare when confronted with Trollope’s other superb harridan – Mrs Proudie the Bishop’s wife last seen in Barchester Towers. Now that would be an encounter I’d love to see……

Footnotes

The Book: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope was published in 1858 as the third in his Barchester series. According to Ruth Rendell in the introduction to my edition, the idea of the plot was suggested to Trollope by his brother.  A television adaptation by Julian Fellowes (scriptwriter for many classic adaptations) was broadcast in the UK in 2016.

The author:  In addition to giving the world two series of best-selling novels, Anthony Trollope left a permanent mark on British society with his introduction of the Royal Mail pillar box in 1874. These were painted green initially but changed twenty years later to the red that exists today on every post office collection box in the country. Trollope was working as a civil servant at the Post Office at the time – an occupation he continued until 1866. More information about his career and writing can be found at the Trollope Society website. 

Why I read this novel: I enjoyed The Warden and Barchester Towers so much I decided to read all of the Chronicles of Barsetshire novels in order. Dr Thorne is one of the titles on my Classics Club list.

 

 

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