Category Archives: Book Genres

Hidden voices of Chinese women [book reviews]

good women of china-1Maybe I was spoiled by the brilliance of Wild Swans by Jung Chang but any thoughts that The Good Women of China by Xinran would be similarly revealing about the lives of Chinese women today were sadly quashed.

Xinran is a journalist who worked for eight years as a presenter at a Chinese radio station. Touched by many letters she received from women she persuaded her bosses to let her reveal some of their stories. It was a bold move because some of those stories were critical of Chinese society and it’s ruling elite — exactly the kind of story subject to the country’s strictly enforced censorship rules. Though Deng Xiaoping had started a process of opening up the country in 1983, it was still risky to discuss personal issues in the media. But Xinran prevailed. She was, she said:

… trying to open a little window, a tiny hole, so that people could allow their spirits to cry out and breath after the gunpowder-laden atmosphere of the previous forty years.

Over time she began pushing the boundaries, taking a risk that one mistake – even one comment – could endanger her career if not her freedom. Such was the popularity of her program that the radio station had to install four answering machines so women could call in and record their comments.  Words on the Night Breeze became famous through the country for its unflinching portrayal of what it meant to be a woman in modern China. Xinran was hailed as the first female presenter to ‘lift the veil’ of Chinese women and delve into the reality of their lives. Her programme dealt with sexual abuse, attitudes towards disability, forcible removal of children from their mothers and a practice of pushing intelligent women into unhappy marriages with government leaders — marriages they could not leave because of the resulting damage to the husband’s reputation. Her stories concerned women of all different classes and ages and degrees of experience.

The most moving for me was the story of  Xiao Ying, a survivor of an earthquake in Tangshan in 1976 which killed 300,000 people.  In the subsequent chaos she was gang raped by soldiers. When her mother found her in a ditch, she kept pulling down her trousers, closing her eyes and humming. Xiao Ying was sent for psychiatric treatment. She seemed better after two and a half years, but the day before her parents were due to take her home, she hanged herself. She was 16.

Xinran was deeply affected by what she discovered, travelling the breadth of the country to track down some of the women whose stories she had heard. One of them lived in a poor shack next to the radio station, keeping body and soul alive by scavenging though Xinran discovered her son was a wealthy party official. Another woman she found in a remote hotel in shock after meeting again the boyfriend from whom she’d been separated 45 years earlier. Xinran sat with her throughout the night, slowly giving the woman the courage to speak about her life.

Centuries of obedience to the principles of “Three Submissions and the Four Virtues” (submission to fathers, husbands and sons), followed by years of political turmoil had made women terrified of talking openly about their feelings. Xinran won their trust and, through her compassion and ability to listen. Repeatedly they told her that she gave them a space in which to express themselves without fearing blame or other negative reactions.

If the ability to tell their stories, changed these women, hearing them also changed Xinran. Her youthful enthusiasm gave way to pain the more she learned and the more she understood.

At times a kind of numbness would come over me from all the suffering I had encountered, as if a callus were forming within me. Then I would hear another story and my feelings would be stirred up all over again.

By 1997, after a particularly traumatic visit to a community where women were denied sanitary product, whose wombs had collapsed through constant childcare,  the pain became too much and Xinran left China for England. She wanted, she said to breathe new air and to feel what it was like to live in a free society. But she didn’t want to abandon the women who’d been encouraged by her programme – so she wrote her book to teach the west what it meant to be a woman in China.

It’s a worthy cause and there is little doubt that Xinran gave hope to thousands of women whose stories she heard and the millions more who listened to her programme. But it doesn’t make for a very good book. By the very nature of its subject The Good Women of China is an episodic book and each of the 15 personal stories she relates is touching. But it lacks objectivity and analysis. Instead of stepping back from a story and reflecting what this tells us about Chinese society, she’s onto the next example and the next and the next. Without analysis and reflection on whether these conditions have changed, it’s hard to comprehend if these are isolated examples or how representative they are of real life. Reading this book left me with too many unanswered questions.

Footnotes

About the bookThe Good Women of China: Hidden Voices is translated by Esther Tyldesley. It was published in 2002 by Chatto and Windus in the UK.

About the author: Xinran (the name means “with pleasure” ) was born in Beijing in 1958 and lived with her wealthy family until the Cultural Revolution separated them when she was seven. After working in a military university she became a radio journalist. Her talk show, Words on the Night Breeze, started in 1988; within three weeks she was receiving 100 letters a day, mostly from women. She moved to the UK in 1997, where she compiled their stories in The Good Women of China. Xinran is a columnist for national newspapers in the UK.

Why I read this book: I’ve been fortunate enough through my job to visit China and to meet many people from that country. The stories of their culture and how this is under pressure as the country becomes an economic power house and a force in international affairs, has fascinated me. I thought The Good Women of China would help me better understand the people of this country. This book is part of my 20booksofsummer reading list.

 

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel #bookreviews

station 11-1Last month I put out an appeal here and via Twitter for recommendations of books that would help me break through my aversion to science fiction. One book was mentioned over and over again: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.  I’m not going to promise that this book has made be a sci-fi convert but if this is a taste of what’s available then I can certainly see me reading more in that line in the future.

Usually when I hear a novel is set in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic world, my reaction is akin to that of encountering the most fetid smell possible. But Mandel’s imagined world, while disintegrated, degraded and thoroughly unpleasant, is recognisable enough for me to feel it could still be real. The characters’ names for one thing are largely realistic — admittedly one of them is called Jeevan which is not a name I’ve ever heard of before, but you can’t get much more down to earth than Arthur and Clark. The locations are also real with most of the action taking place in Toronto, Chicago and the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan.  And then the opening scene takes me to a very familiar experience, that of being in the theatre watching a performance of King Lear. The combination of those realities made it possible for me to accept the disruptive elements of Station Eleven more readily.

Mantel begins with a personal tragedy. Part way through a performance of King Lear, the renowned Hollywood actor Arthur Leander collapses. Despite the efforts of Jeevan, a trainee paramedic, and a cardiologist, both of whom who were in the audience, he dies. Tragedy on a considerably vaster scale follows quickly via a flu pandemic so virulent its victims die within 48 hours. In a few short weeks Georgia Flu sweeps across the globe and claims the lives of 99.99 per cent of the world’s population. The few survivors must learn to live without power, mechanised transport or antibiotics. The world, as they have come to know it, exists no more.

No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite. …  No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pick up.

As bleak as this sounds, Mantel can’t resist a touch of humour for the results of the lack of power is a world sans the Internet and social media:

… no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.

The narrative hops forward from Day 1 to Year 20 of the virus. The survivors have formed small settlements in abandoned towns and empty shopping malls and factories, forever fearful of armed bandits who roam the land.

Civilisation in Year Twenty was an archipelago of small towns. These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbours, lied and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm. These places didn’t go out of their way to welcome outsiders.

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel for me was the way Mandel deals with individual responses to the calamity. Some hunker down in isolated properties living off whatever they can hunt; others take to religion and follow prophet-like figures bent on absolute power. Some never give up hope that out there, somewhere, something of normality survives. In Traverse City an inventor rigs up an electrical system to a stationary bicycle that when pedaled furiously could power a laptop and help him find the Internet. Over in Chicago pilots use their last fuel supplies for reconnaissance trips outside the city where they might find food and supplies. They never return. One of the more unusual responses comes in the form of The Travelling Symphony:  a group of 20 or so musicians and actors in horse-drawn wagons who move between settlements staging concerts and theatrical performances wherever they stop. Why? The answer lies in the message painted on the side of their lead wagon:  “Because Survival is Insufficient.”

For many of these people the past is recalled only in fragments. Kirsten, an actress with the symphony, was eight at the time of the outbreak. Her mother’s face has grown vague over the years but she remembers clearly the actor Arthur Leander because she was there, on stage with him, the night he died. She’s made a habit of collecting information about him that she finds in deserted houses during her travels. Photos with actresses outside restaurants, gossip column pieces about his repeated failed marriages and reviews of his films; all are kept safe in her zip-lock bag. Also in the bag are two  issues of a comic-book series featuring a character called Dr. Eleven, a physicist who lives on a space station after escaping an alien takeover of Earth.

A very different response to the past is shown by a survivor holed up in the airport. Clark Thompson, friend of Arthur Leander,  begins collecting some of the items abandoned because in the new world order, they are useless. He discovers there is no end to the number of objects that had no practical purpose but people want to preserve nevertheless : credit cards; Nintendo consoles; drivers’ licences; passports; cellphones; laptops; car engines and a gleaming chrome motor cycle; even a pair of red stiletto heels. All become the basis for the Museum of Civilization, a museum of artefacts to teach people born into the new world, about the old world.

But what of the future? It would have been easy for Mandel to end the novel with a sense that the apocalypse is nearing its end. Too easy and far too neat a resolution. Instead she leaves us with a feeling that a major collapse might have crippled the world, but has not ruined it as long as there are people alive who retain hope:

If there are again towns with streetlights, if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain? Perhaps vessels are setting out even now, traveling toward or away from him, steered by sailors armed with maps and knowledge of the stars, driven by need or perhaps simply by curiosity: whatever became of the countries on the other side?

The combination of beautiful style of writing  and a compelling narrative made this a book I found hard to put down.

About the Book:

Station Eleven is Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel. Published in 2014 it was long listed for the National Book Award.

About the author:

Emily St John Mandel was born in Canada. Her second novel, The Singer’s Gun was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. She is a staff writer for The Millions. She lives in New York City with her husband.

Why I read this book:

It was recommended by several book bloggers who have far more knowledge of science fiction than I possess. This was the first of their recommended authors that I could find in the local library.

The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien #historicalfiction

shadowqueenThere’s much talk at present in Europe about strong women who occupy positions of power. I suppose it’s inevitable since we have a female Prime Minister in the UK plus, in the shape of Queen Elizabeth,  the country’s longest reigning monarch; a female Chancellor in Germany and at one time it looked possible that France could have its first  female President. Discussions in the media about these modern-day women at the helm of government proved a fitting companion for reading The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien.

This is a novel which takes us back seven hundred years to a woman who, while she never became Queen in her own right, was a pivotal figure in the mid 1300s. Joan of Kent (also known as the Fair Maid of Kent in celebration of her beauty) was cousin to one King, Edward III, and mother to another, Richard II. For a large part of her son’s reign she was the mastermind behind the throne since Richard was too young to govern in his own right.

She was quite a girl was our Joan. As a princess in the Plantagenet dynasty, the question of who she would marry was a matter of political expediency not love. She was meant to get hitched to either a European prince or an English lord from one of the foremost families in the land. But at the age of 12 Joan fell in love with and secretly wedded a humble knight who had barely a penny to his name. She kept it secret for three years during which time she went through a bigamous ceremony with the future Earl of Salisbury. When her bigamy was discovered it naturally caused a furore and became an international cause celébrè with various sides taking their appeals for help to the Pope. Joan got her own way but her reputation was tarnished.

You’d have thought one brush with ignominy would have been enough. But not a bit of it – years later, as a wealthy widow wooed by Edward, Prince of Wales (who later history labelled The Black Prince), she once again married in secret and once again incurred the wrath of the King.

Anne O’Brien’s novel brings to life a woman who from an early age was resolute in following a course of her own choosing:

I would never again act against my better judgement in future. I would never allow myself to be persuaded to renounce what I knew to be in my best interests. … I had learned from my mother that a woman had to keep her wits and her desires sharp if she were to follow the path of her own choosing.

A brave – though dangerous – stance to take in the highly charged atmosphere of the fourteenth century court, especially for a woman. But Joan is no shrinking violet – she is a girl intent on making a mark on the world:

What would enhance the pattern of my life further? One word slid into my mind. A seductive word. A dangerous word, perhaps, for a woman. Power.

The Shadow Queen is essentially a blend of romance and adventure that reveals how Joan kept one step ahead of the political intrigues with a combination of good judgement of character and some luck.  She spent all her life at court. She knows what games those who surround the throne play – and how to beat them at their own games.

It makes for a good yarn with plenty of drama as Joan’s future ebbs and flows. After the discovery of her first marriage she is banished from the court and kept under close confinement by her family but years later she is in France ruling the roost with her 3rd husband as Princess of Aquitaine, (an English-owned territory). Written in the first person, Anne O’Brien’s novel gives us  immediate access to Joan’s reactions to all the set backs and successes of her life.

This is a period of history about which I know very little so I enjoyed the insight The Shadow Queen provides. This is a period when knights and noblemen seemed to spend most of their time either preparing for war or engaged in battle. It was one way to keep them from squabbling and jostling for power and since every prisoner they captured could be ransomed, success on the battlefield was lucrative. The fate of their women folks was to be sit quietly at home caring for the children, sewing and praying.

Joan is strongly characterised but for me the most interesting character was the Prince of Wales. I’ve always had this impression of him as a ferociously brave military leader who won renown for his astonishing victories over the French at the Battles of Crécy and Poitiers, In The Shadow Queen, where he is generally referred to as Ned, he comes across as also a spendthrift and arrogant man who is so intent on enforcing his will on the people of Aquitaine that he forces them to seek support from their former ruler, the King of France. It’s Joan who sees the danger of her husband’s attitude but her sound counsel falls on deaf ears for once.

I thought the book could have been shorter without losing its impact but generally its blend of the personal and the political made it an enjoyable reading experience, especially for the glimpse it provided into a largely uknown episode in British history.

 

Footnotes

The BookThe Shadow Queen  was published in May 2017 by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins in e-book and hardback. I received a copy from the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

The author:  Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history. She now lives in the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire, on the borders between England and Wales.

Why I read this book: Quite simply it was a chance to learn about a period of British history about which I knew next to nothing. The names of the Fair Maid of Kent and the Black Prince were familiar but I couldn’t have told you anything about the individuals themselves. I’m glad to have put some flesh on the bones now.

 

The Primrose Path by Rebecca Griffiths #WritingWales

primrosepathThe Primrose Path is an atmospheric thriller based on the premise that no matter how fast or far you run, you can never escape the past.

At the age of 19, Sarah D’Villez was abducted during a visit to some riding stables and held prisoner for days. She managed to escape though her attacker’s wife was murdered in the course of her flight. For years, Sarah re-lived the anguish of her ordeal and the media attention it generated. The trauma alienated her from her friends and mother and ultimately caused the breakdown of her marriage and separation from her child.  Now in her 30s she learns that John Blundell, her abductor, is about to be released from prison. She has to escape before he, or the press, catch up with her. So she dyes her hair, changes her name to Rachel and moves to a converted barn in rural Wales to start a new life,  telling no-one not even her mother about her whereabouts.

Even in such an isolated location she doesn’t feel completely safe. It’s not only the fear that someone might discover her secret. One of her nearest neighbours is Idris, a creepy, filthy truck driver who keeps turning up on her doorstep un-announced. Rachel is sure Idris is spying on her and is stealing her underwear. She’s afraid of what this brutish man could do to a woman living alone.

Rebecca Griffiths packs a lot into this book with several plot lines that appear unconnected but which gradually converge as the story progresses. We get Rachel’s flight to Wales and the tension created by her mother’s decision to hire a private investigator to track down her daughter. Added to that there is a mystery about the barn in which Rachel now lives. It once belonged to Idris’ family but no-one knows what happened to his young sister who just disappeared one day on a trip to the seaside. And for good measure, there is a serial killer on the loose who is preying on young women.

The story is told from the point of view of several characters, Rachel of course is one of the key narrators but we also hear from her mother Jennifer and from Dai, a widower who has reason to loathe Idris. In between we get some chilling first-person chapters narrated by the unnamed, unidentified serial killer who watches for their next victim.

Rebecca Griffiths certainly has a talent for creating some obnoxious characters. Rachel’s mother is a really masterful portrait of an acerbic, cold woman whose armour is pierced when she makes a shocking discovery in her husband’s study. And then there is Idris, a socially isolated, dysfunctional man who doesn’t know the meaning of the term personal hygiene. So repugnant is he that everyone in the community finds it easy to believe he is capable of anything.

Overall, The Primrose Path is a cleverly-plotted novel. I’ve seen several comments from reviewers that it’s overly slow to get going but that wasn’t my reaction. We needed time to get to know the multiple characters and their relationships to each other. Once Rachel is firmly established in Wales the pace picks up  as we learn more about her former life. There are plenty of surprising twists and moments which challenge your assumptions. The clues to the denouement were there all along but I didn’t spot them so the ending was a surprise.  I won’t spoil this for other readers other than to say that its worth keeping in mind as you read The Primrose Path that this is a novel in which virtually everyone has a secret…

I did have a couple of issues with the book. One is that it felt repetitive at times –  we kept getting told for example that Idris’ home is a tip while Rachel’s new home is remote. I know Griffiths wanted to emphasise her vulnerability but I didn’t feel I needed to be hit over the head with that fact quite so much. The biggest issue however was the resolution of the serial killer sub-plot. Griffiths leads her readers down several garden paths about the identity of the killer and, to my delight, completely wrong-footed me ( I hate thrillers where the culprit is too evident.). However her solution felt too much of a cop-out because the culprit was barely present as a character in the novel so we never really understood their motivation for killing women they considered ‘slags’.

Overall however The Primrose Path is a well-structured tale that shows some deft handling of multiple plot lines and levels of tension.  It’s clear why this debut novel by Rebecca Griffiths has earned her many accolades in the UK with predictions that she is on the track to a highly successful career. She’s someone I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for in the future.

Footnotes

About the Book: The Primrose Path by Rebecca Griffiths was published by Sphere in 2016. The title is a phrase taken from Hamlet and has come to mean a course of action that seems easy and appropriate but can actually end in calamity.

About the author : Rebecca Griffiths grew up in rural mid-Wales.  She returned to live there after a successful business career in London, Dublin and Scotland. The Primrose Path is her debut novel.

Why I bought this book: I came across this while mooching around the bookshop last year and was drawn to the fact this was by an author from my homeland.

 

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude [review]

Cheltenham Square MurderThe town of Cheltenham has a reputation for being the rather genteel, upmarket part of Gloucestershire. With its Roman provenance and tradition as a spa town it likes to think of itself as the cultural capital of the Cotswolds. Michelin starred restaurants, classy boutiques and Regency-style buildings, give it an ambiance that you wouldn’t think would harbour murderers.  But it’s surprising what tensions and hostilities can fester behind those classic facades as John Bude points out at the beginning of The Cheltenham Square Mystery: 

… as in so many cases, the outward suggestions of the square are by no means compatible with the inward life lived by the people inhabiting it. … though for the most part the community live in amity, the very fact that they live in an enclosed intimacy not to be found in an ordinary road is sufficient to exaggerate such small annoyances and dissensions which from time to time arise.

The underlying rancour between some of the occupants of the square over an old elm-tree, yapping dogs and noisy telephones escalates to physical violence when one of their number is found in his chair with an arrow in the back of his head. The question of course is who killed him. There are plenty of suspects because many of the residents of Regency Square are members of an archery club and are pretty darn good shots. Some of them also have good reason to want the Captain dead since he wasn’t exactly a man who endeared himself. He’d seduced the wife of one of resident, the banker Arthur West, was blackmailing another and had recently come into rather a large sum of money. Oh and he rides a very noisy motorbike which regularly disturbs the peace of this square, a place where:

The general effect is of a quiet residential backwater in which old people can grow becomingly older, undisturbed by the rush and clatter of a generation which has left them nothing but the memories of a past epoch.

For local police the challenge is to how to break through the alibis that most of the residents conveniently seem to possess. There’s another question that perplexes them – how could the perpetrator have walked unnoticed around the Square with a six-foot bow in his (or her) arms? Fortunately reinforcements are to hand in the form of Superintendent Meredith, detective par-excellence with Sussex County Constabulary, who just happens to be staying in the square as the guest of a friend. His bosses give him leave to partner up with Inspector Long, the man in charge of the case. The pair hit it off and have a good old time in clambering over the rooftops and questioning various suspects. Just when they think they’ve nailed it, another resident gets bumped off in almost identical circumstances.

Bude provides a set of potential murderers many of whom are fairly typical of Golden Age crime. We get the respected local doctor and a vicar, a banker, two spinster sisters and a dog-obsessed woman. No butler though there is Alfred who acts as general factotum to one of the residents.  This is a tale that has plenty of various red herrings and blind alleys before reaching the inevitable revelation of the culprit’s identity. There were a few points where I thought the police investigators were a bit slow to grasp the significance of the evidence (even I worked out the identity of the murderer before they did who and I’m no great shakes at this detective lark).  I wouldn’t class this as a page turner or a compelling read but it was enjoyable enough for the most part.

The one aspect that did irritate me was the dialogue. Meredith gets to speak in ‘proper’ English whereas Inspector Long’s dialogue is full of more cheery plebian utterances (Crikey seems to be a favourite) and dropped aitches and Alfred the servant comes with a full-blown rendition of Cockney. Was this Bude’s attempt to differentiate his characters or at attempt at humour (if so, it failed with me). Or was it a reflection of the class consciousness of his era? Either way it was a blot on the reading experience.  The Cheltenham Square Murder isn’t a page turner or a compelling read but it was workmanlike and a reasonably pleasant novel that did a good job of evoking the spirit of Cheltenham’s ‘leisure, culture and tranquility.’

I’ve seen some comments that this isn’t the best of Bude’s work by far – The Cornish Coast Murder and Death on the Riviera are apparently superior in terms of both plot and characterisation. I’ll look out for them next time I’m in the mood for a bit of crime that isn’t sensational or violent but isn’t necessarily ‘cosy’ either.

About the book: The Cheltenham Square Murder was published initially in 1937.  It was re-issued in 2016 as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, an imprint of the Poisoned Pen Press.

About the author: John Bude is the pen-name of a theatrical producer, stage director and playwright, who abandoned the stage to become a prolific writer of detective stories. Over the course of  twenty-five years he wrote some thirty mystery novels, the last of which came out in 1958. The Cheltenham Square Murder is Bude’s fourth mystery novel, but only the third one to feature his series character: Superintendent Meredith of the Sussex County Police.

Why I read this book: I bought this as a gift for my sister who works in Cheltenham and is also a fan of Golden Age Crime. Unfortunately she already had a copy so I got to keep it. I too it off my shelves when I was looking for something to read that was a completely different pace to the novel I had just finished (Hell’s Gate by Laurent Gaudé)

 

 

Read books you’ll hate: it’s good for you

Are there some genres you will never ever read because you know you’ll hate them? Or maybe some specific titles that will never find room in your bookcases for the same reason (yes Moby Dick, I’m looking at you!) . If the answer to either – or both – of these questions is a YES, then an opinion piece published recently in the New York Times  might make you rethink your ideas.

In “Why You Should Read the Books You Hate”  NYT Book Review editor Pamela Paul argues that confining your reading to those books you think you’ll appreciate and enjoy is a mistake. Her own experience has shown that it’s not until you tackle the texts written in a style you usually find difficult or about subjects and issues that you find hard to grasp, that you’ll gain the skills to be a better, more thoughtful, more knowledgeable reader.

It was only by burrowing through books that I hated, books that provoked feelings of outrage and indignation, that I truly learned how to read.

Reading ‘hated’ books, claims Pamela Paul, will challenge you to think more deeply about why certain kinds of books make you feel uncomfortable. Is it the style, the story line or a particular argument? If the latter, the more you think about why you disagree with that point of view and gather supporting evidence in your mind, the more actively you’ll engage with the text.

Sticking it out for 300 pages means immersing yourself in another person’s world and discovering how it feels. That’s part of what makes books you despise so hard to dismiss. Rather than toss the book aside, turn to the next page and wrestle with its ideas.

You may may even think of chasing down other texts dealing with similar issues.  You’ll end as a more thoughtful, more considered reader than one who gets the end of a book thinking simply “I enjoyed that/I didn’t enjoy that” but not being able months later to recall much of what you read.

Her challenge to readers is to put aside preconceived ideas by delving into a ‘hated’ book:

Pick up a book you’re pretty sure you won’t like — the style is wrong, the taste not your own, the author bio unappealing. You might even take it one step further. Pick up a book you think you will hate, of a genre you’ve dismissed since high school, written by an author you’re inclined to avoid. Now read it to the last bitter page.

This is not about reading a book you know is bad, a pleasure in its own right, like an exceptionally dashing villain. It’s about finding a book that affronts you, and staring it down to the last word.

Until I saw that comment that the idea is not to deliberately read a ‘bad book’ I wasn’t convinced by her arguement. When I have so many books on my shelves that I know I will enjoy why waste my time on something that doesn’t bring any pleasure.

After a day or so reflection I can see that her suggestion makes more sense now particularly when I think about my own reading prejudices – you will never find me reading a science fiction book for example. Over the years I’ve convinced myself that I do not enjoy this kind of fiction so I never go anywhere near that section of the bookshop or the library. And yet in my teens I did read science fiction; maybe not to the same extent as I read historical fiction but I did enjoy Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 Space Odyssey and a number of John Wyndham’s novels.  More recently, despite feelings of trepidation I did actually enjoy Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights and Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve more recently. Which means that I can’t be as averse to science fiction as I thought. I’ve just built up this notion that I won’t like these books but I can’t explain why. except that I prefer novels about real people and realistic events. And yet people who read science fiction tell me constantly that the plots and themes found in the best of these novels are convincing and the characters are authentic. Perhaps my aversion stems instead from my incomprehension of a lot of scientific principles – in other words if I can’t understand what is being written about, how can I possibly enjoy it?

Maybe the time has come to slay this particular dragon of mine by following Pamela Paul’s advice. Reading some of the best examples from this genre will at least help me understand some of the characteristics and the styles employed by authors to create parallel universes or scientific and technological innovations.

My difficulty is knowing where to start. There seem to be a multitude of sub genres from dystopian to science fantasy (or is that a genre of its own?). And of course a whole clutch of authors. Many of those on the list created by Forbidden Planet of Top 50 Science Fiction novels I don’t even recognise. There are others whose names I recognise but thats as much as I can tell you about them. So do I go for  Ursula le Guin or Diana Wynne Jones; Margaret Atwood or Iain Banks? Or do I go back to the classics with Asimov and co? I need your suggestions please – just bear in mind I’m a beginner so go gently on me and ease me in…..

Would you read ‘hated’ books?

Are there some genres or authors that fall into the category of ‘hated books’ for you? What do you think of the idea of pushing yourself to read some of them? Do leave a comment here about your reactions to Pamela Paul’s opinion piece.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I wouldn’t like to be drawn against Graeme Macrae Burnet in any game that requires participants to keep a straight face while lying through one’s teeth. He’d be far too good for me to spot if he was telling porkies.  Not that I know the man personally you understand – I’m basing my depiction of his character entirely on the subterfuge he concocts in his novel His Bloody Project. 

This is a book that is written to make you think it’s a true story. It’s subtitled “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae” for one thing and contains a preface declaring that these  documents relate to a murder trial that the author uncovered while researching his family history.  The  documents ‘found’ in the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness include a manuscript in “handwriting… admirably clear with only the most occasional crossings-out and false starts” about a triple murder.  Burnet keeps up the fiction that this is a ‘true’ story through the rest of the book, presenting it in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial. And so we get witness statements, a written account by Roderick Macrae, the 17-year-old crofter  accused of the murders, an extract from a (fictional) investigation by the (real) pioneering criminologist James Bruce Thomson and local newspaper accounts of the trial.

But this is neither a story about one of his ancestors nor a fictionalised account of a real incident. However, according to a newspaper interview with Burnet there is some grain of truth in His Bloody Project. In the novel, for example two of Roderick Macrae’s uncles die in a shipwreck – a similar accident befell two of Burnet’s own family around the same time as the novel is set and close to the location of the fictional tragedy. There actually was a triple murder committed some forty years earlier by a crofter just like Roderick Macrae but both these incidents only came to light after Burnet had finished the first draft of his novel.

This is one ingeniously plotted novel. We know from the early part of the book that Roderick is in prison accused of beating to death the local constable Lachlan Mackenzie who had waged a war of intimation against his father. There is no question that Roderick is the culprit – he was seen with blood on his hands and he confessed to his actions. In his testimony he says “I carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering from father from the tribulations he had lately suffered.” What we don’t know at the start of the book is who the other two victims are nor why he might have killed them. His former teacher describes him as an exceptionally intelligent boy who could have gone on to greater things but for his father’s insistence that he works on the land. Neighbours however describe him as a bit of an idiot, a lad who was always “wrong in the head.” Did he intend to kill or did he suffer a temporary loss of sanity, a form of moral insanity so that he is not responsible in law for his actions?  The prison doctor and a criminologist are brought in to give their opinions on the state of his mind, leading to some blackly funny dialogue about whether all murderers share common physical characteristics.

The book’s pretence at veracity is one of the pleasures of reading His Bloody Project. Along with that we have the presence of not just one, but several unreliable narrators to keep us wondering where truth lies. Add to the mix the fact Macrae brings into focus the hardships of life for poor crofting families in the Highlands of Scotland who have to scratch a living from impoverished soil, and you have a highly enjoyable reading experience. A minor niggle for me was the lucidity of Macrae’s testimony – he makes an apology at the outset for “the poverty of my vocabulary and rudeness of style’ and then proceeds to turn in some fluid and perfectly grammatical prose. Even the schoolteacher’s assessment of the boy’s superior intellect didn’t convince me that a boy from such a poor background with little formal education beyond a village school could write so coherently.  Overall it didn’t markedly spoil my enjoyment of what was in essence a well conceived and well executed novel that I highly recommend.

Footnotes

The Book: His Bloody Project was published in 2015 by the small independent publisher Saraband. It went on to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016.  Though it was considered an outsider because it fell into the genre of crime fiction (which isn’t a genre the Booker judges tend to select), it beat off strong competition to get onto the shortlist.

The Author: Born and brought up in Kilmarnock, Graeme Macrae Burnet worked for several years as an English teacher in Prague, Bordeaux, Porto and London, before returning to Glasgow and working for eight years for various independent television companies. His first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (Contraband, 2014), received a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust. His Bloody Project is his second novel. His third is currently in progress.

Why I read this book: The day the Booker longlist was published I noticed this book was available an an e-version at a ridiculously low price so I bought it intending to read it before the shortlist announcement. I started it but got the impression it would be one of those books that has crucial information at the beginning so you need to keep turning back – which I find impossible to do on an e-reader. I requested a hard copy instead from the library but it arrived when I was out of the country and then I didn’t have time to read it so back it went unopened. But clearly the fates were determined I would read this because in February my sister turns up to visit me in hospital with a paperback copy, declaring “you really should read this.” Who could argue with that? So third time lucky for Mr Burnet…

 

 

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

The discovery of skeletal remains under a public car park in Leicester a couple of years ago re-awakened interest in King Richard III, the man forever lodged in the public imagination as a murderous hunchback with withered arm.   Archaeological and forensic evidence of the skeleton revealed a spinal deformity but established unquestionably that both the withered arm and the hunchback were myths. What about that other accusation that Richard was a murderer? Did he actually have his two young nephews, the real heirs to the throne, killed in the Tower of London in order to clear the way for his own ascent to the throne?  Or is that an invention of Tudor-era historians keen to separate the new dynasty from the past?

Richard’s role and culpability has long been a subject of fascination but most of the debate took place in the narrow confines of historical academia. In 1951 however, the question became popularised with the publication of The Daughter of Time by the Scottish novelist Josephine Tey.

It’s rather an odd book; a mash-up of historical novel and detective story; in which a modern-day detective ‘investigates’ the crimes of which Richard has stood accused for centuries. All the investigation takes place from the confines of a hospital bed where Inspector Alan Grant (the central figure in Tey’s crime fiction series) lies flat on his back having broken his leg by falling through a trap door. He’s desperately bored. He knows every crack on the ceiling and has zero interest in the pile of books brought by well-meaning visitors. He perks up when his actress friend brings him a collection of portraits attached to historical controversies. After years in the police force Grant thinks he can tell a villain from an innocent just by their face so when his eye falls on a portrait of Richard III,  his curiosity is aroused. What he sees is not the face of a murderer but a man “used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority. Someone too conscientious. A worrier; perhaps a perfectionist.” The more Grant reads about Richard, the more convinced he becomes that there is a mystery waiting to be uncovered. He quizzes hospital staff about their knowledge of the Princes in the Tower and reads whatever he can get his hands on – fortunately for him, one of his nurses has kept her old school history book.

All good detectives in fiction need a side kick to do the running around on their behalf, digging out the info from which the great brain will make his deductions. In The Daughter of Time the side kick role is allocated to Brent Carradine, a young American researcher at the British Museum. Together the pair read chronicles from Richard’s time and the Tudor era; delve into assessments by more contemporary historians and track down original documents. Grant dismisses the assessments of chroniclers like Thomas More (whose History of Richard III is the primary source for the conventional story of the murders) as “back-stair gossip and servants’ spying.” More after all was just five years old when Richard seized the throne so couldn’t possibly have written his account based on personal knowledge.

Nor does Grant have much faith in latter-day historians. “They see history like a peep show, with two-dimensional figures against a distant background” he tells his actress friend. Instead Grant relies on his ability to judge a man’s character by the cut of his jib and to spot the gaps in evidentiary documents – skills honed from his years at Scotland Yard. On the eve of Grant’s departure for home, he summarises the case for Richard’s defence and the case for seeing a wholly different culprit – his successor on the English throne, King Henry VII.

This is a novel that was immediately popular upon its publication. It took a subject seen by many as ‘dry’ and made it into a quest for justice and the truth.  It caused many readers to burrow in their attics for their dusty school history books and re-acquaint themselves with the fifteenth-century equivalent of Who’s Who. A radio program based on the book followed in 1952 and then a spate of  novels, plays, and biographies sympathetic to Richard throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

If Tey’s intent was to rehabilitate the reputation of a man best known as the villain of Shakespearian drama, she certainly succeeds in creating doubt about the veracity of that portrayal. But as a work of literature it has its faults. By necessity a lot of background information needs to be provided and explained so we get large chunks of narrative along these lines:

Do you know about Morton?

No

He was a lawyer turned churchman, and the greatest pluralist on record. He chose the Lancastrian side and stayed with it until it was made clear that Edward IV was home and dried. Then he made his peace with the York side and Edward made him Bishop of Ely. And vicar of God knows how many parishes besides. but after Richard’s accession he backed first the Woodvilles and then Henry Tudor and ended up with a cardinal’s hat….

Then we get multiple conversations between Grant and Carradine which go along the lines of

I’ll tell you something even odder. You know we thought that XYZ……… Well, it turns out that …….

What!

Yes you may well look startled.

Are you sure?

Quite sure.

Not exactly riveting dialogue is it?  I know a certain amount of exposition is required for the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the period or the key figures but Tey goes over-board on this. I didn’t feel I needed to have everything spelled out and it deadened what would otherwise be some fascinating insights into the machinations of the times. The shame is that it marred an otherwise fascinating book. My knowledge of the period isn’t deep enough to judge for myself whether it’s Henry we should consider to be the instigator of what happened more than 500 years ago. But Tey does make a persuasive case for re-evaluating Richard’s reputation. She’s also re-awakened my interest in the period – tonight I’ll be watching the BBC version of the Shakespeare’s play (the final episode in the Hollow Crown series). Then tomorrow I plan to head for the library hoping they might have a history of Richard’s reign.

Footnotes

The Book: The Daughter of Time was published in 1951, the year before the death of its author. In 1990 it was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers’ Association.

The Author: Jospehine Tey was one of the pen-names of Elizabeth MacKintosh, a teacher from Inverness, Scotland. She started publishing novels in 1929 under the name Gordon Daviot, using that pseudonym also for some historical plays. A Daughter of Time was her final novel.  She left her copyrights to the National Trust.

Why I read this: I tried reading another of Tey’s novels – Brat Farrar  – but found it rather dull so gave up. I found a copy of The Daughter of Time in a second hand shop at very low cost and since I’m a sucker for the Wars of the Roses period in history, my curiousity was awakened.  The 1951 Club, the latest in a series of events hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, gave me the impetus to take it out of the bookcase.

Get Audiobooks for Free

Audiobooks while exercising

Via Wikipedia creative commons licence

Audio books – you either love them or think they’re a pale imitation of the real experience you get when you read a book in print.  I’m in the former camp. I don’t view them as an alternative to reading but as a valued companion.

They’ve been a godsend on many a long flight when the eyes are too tired to read and there’s nothing of interest on the in flight entertainment system. They help time go faster on the treadmill. In the days when I had to commute to work, they were a calmer way to start the day than listening to the frequent political rants on radio news programmes.  They even make ironing palatable.

The downside is that they’re expensive to buy (Margaret Attwood’s Hag Seed would set you back £18 for example). Perhaps for that reason they’re not easily available second hand. You can reduce the price by taking out a subscription with Audible but it’s not worth it if you’re only an occasional user. Thankfully, there are ways to get some audiobooks free or at very low cost.

1. Your public library

You may be fortunate to live in a country that hasn’t decimated its public library system. Most of those services in the UK let you borrow audiobooks in CD format for a nominal sum – in my area it’s £1.50 a time. Many of them now have a tie in with a service provider like  BorrowBox or OneClickDigital so you can download the audiofile free of charge to your computer, phone or MP3 player. The range of titles is reasonable if not wonderful; don’t expect to find that many ‘literary’ options but there will certainly be a good selection of classics and crime novels.

2. Librivox

Librivox, which has been running since August 2005, is a non-commercial, non-profit project. Its mission is to “make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet.”  Their collection is extensive but there are a few downsides. One is that they source most of the texts from  Project Gutenberg meaning all of them are books whose copyrights have expired. The selection is rather hit and miss as a result – plenty of Charles Dickens, Henry James and Arthur Conan Doyle but no Agatha Christie or Grahame Greene. The biggest issue I’ve encountered however is on the variable quality. While some recordings are read by actors or professionals, many are solo readings by amateurs in makeshift home studios. But since it’s all free, if the recording isn’t to your taste you haven’t wasted any money.

3. Loyal Books

Loyal Books claims that users will “always find the best collection of completely free public domain audiobooks…” on their site. This includes material in a variety of languages like German, French and Chinese. They’ve been digitised and recorded by volunteers or – in the majority of cases – by Gutenburg. In essence they are offering the same kind of texts as Librivox but say their superior search function makes the experience more user friendly.  They also offer e-texts of best sellers but I found the selection very poor.

4. Mind Webs

This is much more than an audio recording site. It started in 1996, collecting published works of all formats and making them available digitally.   This is a project on a massive scale – 4 million audio recordings (including 160,000 live concerts), 1 million images for example.  The audio recordings cover the usual suspects in the realm of the classics with plenty of options for fringe interests – anyone fancy a recording of Thucydides’ Histories? (the history of the first 20 years of the war between Athens and Sparta). They My favourite section of this site however is their Old Time Radio collection featuring, among others, Sherlock Holmes and Orson Wells.

5. Open Culture

Open Culture has sifted through the free audiobooks offered elsewhere  online, and compiled them into one list of 900 browsable titles. You’ll find they’re mostly classics of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, by authors like Geoffrey Chaucer, Mark Twain,  Jane Austen and Fyodor Dostoevsky but you’ll also come across more modern authors like Arthur C Clarke, Junot Diaz , Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury and  Maya Angelou and Charles Bukowski. As a bonus you can watch a video of  Neil Gaiman reading Coraline

6. Scribl

This site takes  a different approach to most of the other service providers. They offer newer releases rather than classics and are mainly self-published works. The cost for each download is varied since Scribl uses a crowd-pricing strategy where the price is based on each title’s download popularity within its genre.  You’ll find some texts are free, many are less than a dollar but the price of some of the highest rated books can go up to $8.   If you like to experiment with new authors, this could be a good option – catch the moment right and you’ll have a bargain.

7. Lit2go

Lit2Go is another site which takes a different path. It offers a free online collection of folk tales, stories, passages and poems in Mp3 (audiobook) format. However it is more geared to educators than general readers since many of the passages can be downloaded also as a PDF and used for supplemental reading in the classroom. Readability levels are given for the books using the Flesch-Kincaid grade levels

Audiobooks – love them or indifferent. Where do you stand?

Are you a lover of audiobooks? If so how do you source them since I might have missed some sites.

If you’re not a fan, is this because you’ve tried them and didn’t enjoy the experience or believe there’s only one way to appreciate a book, and that’s to read it?

Tomorrow by Graham Swift [review]

tomorrowSome protagonists are designed to be annoying.  Some simply are that way.  No matter how annoying, frustrating or distasteful they can still be fascinating and memorable for readers.

If only that were the case in Graham Swift’s Tomorrow. Sadly his central character Paula Hook is decidedly irritating but – it has to be said – too self-centered and pre-occupied to also be interesting. She’s the mother of sixteen-year-old twins Nick and Kate (or as she likes to call them her “pair of shrimps” or “angels”. It’s 1995 and she lies awake one night thinking of what will occur the following day when she and her husband Mike plan reveal a BIG SECRET to the children that “will change all our lives.”.  It’s Mike who will do the talking because that’s his role. But tonight, as the rain falls and her husband snores, Paula mentally addresses the twins herself.  She wants to supply the missing pieces in the jigsaw of their lives.

“I picture a bomb going off and this house falling to bits. I picture everything remaining oddly, precariously, ominously the same. An unexploded bomb. It still might go off — next week, the week after, any time.”

And so she rewinds to the time when she and Mike met as students at Sussex; fell in love and got married. Success followed – for her as director of an art gallery and for him as editor of a popular science publishing business. All that marred their blissful existence were some family bereavements and the disappearance of their cat Otis.  For more than 100 pages we’re drip fed information and just as we think Paula is at last going to reveal all, she stops, rewinds and starts off on another train of thought.

Now this would be ok if what she has to say is insightful or fresh. But it’s not. It’s repetitive, with each anecdote or revelation seeming to be an excuse for yet another of Paula’s indulgences in word play. One of her favourites is based on their family surname; another is about her husband’s doctoral interest in the breeding habits of snails. She’s a judge’s daughter and her mind is occupied by how her kids will ‘judge’ their father the following day. So of course when she describes the first meeting between future father-in-law and Mike, he feels he is being weighed up by ‘a judge of men, a judge of wine’ though Paula says, Mike’s “real moment of judgment was to come much later in life’ (in other words, tomorrow).

“Listen to your father, he’s got something important to say,” she says. “And then he’ll be nobody, he’ll be what you make of him. If you want, you can even tell him to leave.”

The trouble is that what Paula says to her children often stretches credulity.   Paula is so keen to demonstrate how she has the perfect marriage that she delves into details few children care to know about in relation to their parents. Over and over again we get told what an active sex life she and Mike have, and how it was even more perfect when Otis the cat joined them in bed (eh??). What kind of mother tells a story including the phrase “as I straddled your father” or reveals in great detail the one night stand she had with the vet?  What kind of mother tells her kids that if it comes to a choice, she will choose Mike not them? For whose benefit is this being disclosed I wonder?  It feels like a contrivance to put a bit of spark into an otherwise lucklustre tale.

Tomorrow is constructed to keep the reader in the dark for as long as humanly possible. Which would be ok if a) the secret was a jaw-droppingly big one and b) i wasn’t foreshadowed so much that it became simple to guess.  As a result the novel flopped into a stream-of-consciousness monologue by a woman utterly self-absorbed that she failed to get me to empathise with her in any measurable way.

Footnotes

The Book: Tomorrow by Graham Swift was published in 2007 by Picador. I listened to an audioversion from my local library.

The Author: Graham Swift is from London, UK. Tomorrow is his eighth published book. He won the Man Booker Prize in 2006 with Last Orders. 

Why I listened to this book: I loved Last Orders (reviewed here) so was keen to explore more of Swift’s work but they had nothing in print in the library at the time. I thought the interior monologue nature of Tomorrow would work well in audio format. Maybe it just made Paula Hook even more irritating however since I couldn’t get away from her voice

 

 

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