Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.

 

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. 

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.

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.

 

 

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.

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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.

 

 

Classics Club spin #15

roulette-wheelMany many months have passed since I last paid attention to my Classics Club project. In fact it seems that I barely read anything from that list last year. I still have 21 books remaining to be read which means I am not going to achieve the goal of 50 read by August this year. But hey, these are classics so they’ve been around for decades or centuries. Which means they can easily wait for another year or so.

The Classics Club spin which has just been announced has given me a much-needed prod to revisit this list however.  The idea is to list 20 of the titles from our list of books remaining to read. On Friday, March 10 we’ll be told which number has come up in the spin and then we should read that book by May 1. Easy peasy…. 

My Spin List

  1. Candide  — Voltaire 1759
  2. Vicar of Wakefield  — Oliver Goldsmith 1766
  3. Evelina  — Frances Burney 1778
  4. Ormond – Maria Edgeworth 1817
  5. The Black Sheep  — Honore Balzac 1842
  6. Basil – Wilkie Collins 1852
  7. Framley Parsonage  – Anthony Trollope 1861 
  8. The Kill/La Curée – Emile Zola 1871-2
  9. Anna Karenina  — Leo Tolstoy 1873-77
  10. Daniel Deronda  — George Eliot 1876
  11. The Brothers Karamazov  — Fyodor Dostoevsky 1880
  12. The Diary of a Nobody  — George Grossmith 1888
  13. New Grub Street – George Gissing 1891
  14. The Secret Agent  — Joseph Conrad 1907
  15. Clayhanger – Arnold Bennett 1910
  16. The Voyage Out  — Virginia Woolf 1915
  17. Age of Innocence  — Edith Wharton 1920
  18. All Passion Spent – Vita Sackville West 1932
  19. Frost in May  — Antonia White 1933
  20. Love in the Time of Cholera  — Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1985

Ideally I would like the ball to fall on number 8 which will re-unite me with Emile Zola or number 7 so I can read the next in the Chronicles of Barchester series. But if that doesn’t come to pass I shall not be too distressed since all titles on this list are ones I want to read (rather than feel I have to read). 

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths

the-chalk-pitIt’s risky to begin reading a series part way through its run. I knew when I opted for The Chalk Pit, the ninth in the Dr Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths, that I’d be missing a lot of the background details about the characters and their relationships. But the premise of a crime/mystery series whose central character is a forensic archaeologist, seemed rather different so I was willing to take the chance that I could get up to speed fairly quickly without having to go right back to book one.

The publishers Quercus are clearly aware that this could be an issue since they provided a handy ‘who’s who’ at the back of the book.  This wasn’t of much help to me however since, by the time I discovered the guide, I had already finished reading the novel. Not that it proved a problem because  within the first few chapters Elly Griffiths succinctly provided everything I needed to know about Dr Galloway and her tangled relationship with Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson. The two have worked together on several cases but they have an even closer connection – they have a six-year-old daughter though Harry still lives with his wife.

In The Chalk Pit, the two are thrown together once more when Ruth is called in when some bones are discovered in a tunnel under the city of Norwich. They look as if they’ve been there for hundreds of years but there’s something odd about them – they might have been boiled, a practice Ruth knows is associated with cannibalism. Harry meanwhile is wrestling with his own mystery – who has killed two homeless men who live on the streets of Norwich? And is this somehow connected with the disappearance of a female rough sleeper? His team don’t have a lot to go on other than the rather strange remark that she had ‘gone underground’. Progress is slow which doesn’t please the new (female) Superintendent who wants Harry focused on higher priority matters instead of wasting time on this investigation. The pressure mounts further when two other women go missing.

Two elements of this book were disappointing. One was the pace at which the plot progressed. Books are like cheese in my view – they need time to mature. This one felt rather rushed. Just when I was having my imagination fired up with the idea of homeless people forming a new community to live in old chalk pits underneath the city of Norwich, Ruth announces she knows the identity of the killer. From there we get a bit of rushing around the city and then the killer is in custody and it was all over. I could happily have spent more time exploring the underground world. The second disappointment was that

the-guildhall-norwich

The fifteenth-century Guildhall in Norwich, below which bones are discovered.

we didn’t get to experience Ruth at work as much as I would have expected. Yes she examines the bones and sends them off for various types of analysis and has a few conversations about the history of chalk pits and different underground societies around the world. But I wanted more of this – and less about her daughter and their life together in a remote seaside cottage.

Where The Chalk Pit really scored highly for me was in the way it treats the issue of homelessness. Elly Griffiths avoids the easy option of portraying the street dwellers as ‘salt-of-the-earth’ type figures who are ranged against a society that doesn’t care. Instead she shows them as people who have sadness in their lives but also character flaws that led them to nights in doorways.

This nuanced handling comes through also in the way that the police officers respond to these homeless people. Early on in the novel one of the street dwellers, a guy nicknamed  “Aftershave Eddy’ by police who have experienced his less than fragrant body odour, is found dead on the steps of the police station. Harry castigates officers who had walked passed the man, assuming he was asleep though he had a knife in his chest.  The deliberate disregard is however modified once the investigation is underway however and officers come fact to face with the reality of the world of the homeless. One female detective, visiting a day shelter remarks:

The homeless are like the remnants of a long-forgotten army, still dressed in their ragged uniforms reminding their more-fortunate neighbours that there is a battlefield out there, a place of violence and fear and dread.

Through their investigations the officers come to see these figures as human beings who had a life before they took to the streets. They learn how small gestures  such as talking about football or playing a game of chess can make a difference in helping a homeless person feel part of society. Unfortunately the majority attitude is to treat street dwellers as an inconvenience. “Nobody cares about the homeless,” one man tells a detective. “They just want us to go away so they don’t have to see us and feel guilty.” Faced with that reaction, it’s understandable why, for some of the characters in this novel, life underground  is far more attractive than an existence above.

Footnotes

The Book: The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths was published in February 2017 by Quercus . itis the ninth in the Dr Ruth Galloway series which began in 2010 with The Crossing Places.

The Author: Elly Griffiths is the pen name of Domenica de Rosa. She was inspired to write the Dr Ruth Galloway series by her husband who swapped his career in the City for a job as an archaeologist. Discover more about Elly Griffiths on her website.

Why I read this book: Although I don’t read a huge amount of crime, I’m often on the look out for a novel in the genre that is slightly different from the usual fare. I’ve never read anything featuring a forensic archaeologist and in fact had little idea what that job could entail – I thought this book could enlighten me. Seems like I will need to read some of the earlier titles in order to be further enlightened. I received a copy from the publishers via Net Galley in return for an honest review

 

 

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively [Booker prize]

Egypt. Cairo - Giza. General view of pyramids

In Penelope Lively’s Booker-prize winning Moon Tiger, an elderly woman lies dying in a hospital somewhere in the UK.  As the nursing staff suspect from her rambling utterances, she is no ordinary woman. She is Claudia Hampton, an esteemed war journalist during World War II who went on to become a published historian. Now lying on her bed she decides to construct in her head a history of the world and at the same time her own history.

The question immediately confronting her is how best to tell this story. Claudia is clear that her readers should not expect a linear narrative  nor to encounter just one Claudia. “I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water,” she declares. “The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled, there is no sequence, everything happens at once.”

This statement becomes a metaphor for the way Penelope Lively constructs her own narrative. Instead of a linear progression we get a kind of fragmented monologue from Claudia (the results of her medication or her ageing mind?) interposed with the comments of an omniscient narrator. Some episodes are relayed multiple times from the – often conflicting – viewpoints of different people who are reaching into their own memories. Claudia – and hence Penelope Lively – orchestrate these people as if they were providing stage directions for a set of characters in a play.

Mother, Gordon, Sylvia, Jasper, Lisa. Mother will drop out before long, retiring gracefully and with minimum fuss after an illness in 1962. Others as yet unnamed will come and go. Some more than others; one above all. In life as in history the unexpected lies waiting, grinning from around corners. Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.

Females do in fact play second fiddle to the male characters in Moon Tiger. For this is a story that revolves around Claudia’s relationship with three men: her brother Gordon against whom she competes intellectually; her first lover Jasper by whom she bears a child; and Tom, a British tank commander she meets and falls in love with in Egypt while reporting on Rommel’s desert campaign. Their time together is confined to one weekend during Tom’s leave from the front but it is enough for them to begin to make plans for the future, for marriage and children. Shortly afterwards Claudia learns of Tom’s death during the Battle of El Amamein. Now, after many decades, Claudia vividly recalls details of this precious weekend, the ring he bought her and the Moon Tiger mosquito coil that sent coils of smoke into the night as they lay in bed on their last night together.

Lively takes two risks with this novel. First of all she chooses as her protagonist a character who it is difficult to like.  Claudia is an opinionated, selfish, competitive, headstrong woman who doesn’t seem to feel any strong emotional attachment to her daughter Lisa, leaving her in the hands of her grandmother while she goes off on her reporting assignments. She also has a questionable relationship with her brother that might disturb some people. But then we get Lively’s inventive form of story-telling where the narrative seems to start, stop, rewind and then fast forward.  It’s a tricky technique to get right. It makes for a difficult to understand opening chapter compounded by the fact we don’t know the characters being mentioned. But once Lively gets into her stride, the result is rather wonderful. And she succeeds, against the odds, in providing a story laden with atmosphere and poignancy (nowhere more so than in the final few pages).

It’s a novel that captivated me with its exploration of the difficulties of producing a history even if it is one’s own; of sifting through and trying to reconcile memories with facts.  I’m sure it’s one that will withstand a second reading but in the meantime I’m left with an abiding image of an old woman in bed watching darkness fall on bare branches outside her room… and remembering.

Footnotes

The Book: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively was first published by Andre Deutsch in 1987. My paperback edition was published by Penguin in 2010. It won the Booker Prize in that year against competition from Iris Murdoch and Chinua Achebe.  A recording of Penelope Lively talking about Moon Tiger is available as a podcast from the BBC World Book Club via this link. 

The Author: Penelope Lively grew up in Egypt though moved to England to take up a place at Oxford University. She was twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize with her first novel The Road to Lichfield in 1977 and then According to Mark in 1994.

Why I read this book: It is part of my Booker Prize project 

 

 

 

Peter Pan by J.M Barrie: darkness beneath the gaiety

peter-pan-representations

Representations of Peter Pan over the decades

With its pirates and fairies, fights and flights, it’s not surprising that Peter Pan has long been a popular play to mark the Christmas season. The playful and adventurous spirit of the title character have captured the imagination since the play was first performed in 1904.  The various film versions, particularly the Disney version from 1953 have added considerably to the play’s popularity. Perhaps part of its enduring appeal rests in the feeling that there could be a little bit of Peter in all of us. Maybe we, like Peter, want  “always to be a little boy and have fun.”  Film directors and stage directors have consequently tended to present Peter Pan as a celebration of childhood and the power of  imagination. How else to explain why audiences enthusiastically respond when they hear Peter’s appeal:

“Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe! If you believe, clap your hands!”

It wasn’t until I read the text of the play that I realised how much it undercuts and disturbs the idea of carefree childhood. In fact it raises some disturbing questions which are never totally resolved.  

Let’s take the character of Peter himself as an example. This is a boy who has boundless energy and enthusiasm for adventure. He wages constant war against his arch enemy Captain Hook, enjoys mock fights with the Indians, and leads the Lost Boys on hunting expeditions. Yet beneath his bravado he is rather a sad figure. He is essentially an orphan, a boy who severed his familial connections when he overheard his parents discussing what he would be when he grew up – growing up is of course the last thing Peter wants to happen. Taking Wendy to Neverland as a ‘mother figure’ who looks after the home and tells stories, is an attempt to fill that gap in his life. Wendy of course wants to be something other than a mother to Peter but the emotional side of his character is so deficient he is confused by her overtures. She is looking to be kissed. He doesn’t understand the concept of ‘a kiss’ – so when asked for one all he can do is present her with an acorn.

It’s not surprising – this is a boy who doesn’t comprehend emotions and in fact has built a protective shield against such sensations. The warning signs are there in his first encounter with Wendy:

Peter: “You mustn’t touch me.”

Wendy: “Why?”

Peter: “No-one must ever touch me.”

He means ‘touched’ in a physical sense but the play makes evident that his emotions are equally impenetrable. Which leaves us with a problem:  if Peter cannot feel anything for another human being, cannot indeed even recognise other people have emotions (he is totally baffled by Tinker Bell’s jealousy of Wendy) he can never fully mature. On that basis, his desire to always want to be a child is a denial of his own humanity. He will forever be stuck as a child, not because this is the most attractive of states but because he cannot be anything else. He cannot move on but remains stuck in an endlessly-repeating cycle of adventures and mistakes and so becomes a tragic figure. It’s a long way from the idea in the popular imagination of Peter as a loveable imp.

Even more disturbing is that Peter also wants to deny other children the possibility of maturity. He is the leader of the Lost Boys, the youngsters who supposedly fell out of their prams as babies, but he doesn’t act as a responsible parent, guiding them through life.  Instead he manipulates them so they think his world, the world of invention, is the real world. They exist in a state of complete make believe, eating pretend meals and wearing the skins of animals they imagine they have killed. Of real life, their life before Neverland, they have only a vague recollection. Wendy proves to be their saviour. Through her influence they begin to remember their past and to long for more than a world of invention.  They are not so far steeped in the cult of Neverland that they cannot leave and join the real world as adopted sons of Mr and Mrs Darling.  But Peter is destined always to remain the outsider.

His isolation is an example of a feeling of sadness that I saw running through the play. Yes it celebrates the exuberance of childhood but Barrie shows that there is also a price to be paid by those who choose to remain in childhood. Though Peter Pan  is in so many ways a celebration of immaturity, it also contains a  warning to those who refuse to grow up. 

Footnotes

The book: Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was first performed in London in 1904. The script however was not published until 1928 – by then Barrie had made some significant changes including the addition of a scene containing an alternative ending. The original play ends with the Darling children back home and Peter promising to return for Wendy every spring. The revised ending – entitled When Wendy Grew Up. An Afterthought – came four years after the play premiered. In this newer version Peter returns for Wendy years later to find that she is now grown up with a daughter of her own named Jane. Wendy is too old to return to Neverland herself but allows her daughter to go as Peter’s new ‘mother’.

The author: J.M Barrie was a Scottish novelist and playwright. He was inspired to create the character of Peter Pan through his involvement with the Llewelyn Davies boys who became his adopted sons when their parents (his friends) died. Barrie first brought Peter Pan to life in a 1902 novel The Little White Bird. 

Why I read this book:  Peter Pan is a set text for a module on children’s literature I have been taking.

Further Information

The text of the play including J. M Barrie’s copious stage directions is available via Project Gutenburg.

 

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