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Anglesey Blue by Dylan H Jones #Writing Wales

Dramatic cliffs that drop down to small bays. Sandy beaches unspoiled by over-development. A few ancient monuments and megalithic tombs left behind by early settlers and Druids. The island of Anglesey in North Wales sounds like an idyllic spot doesn’t it? One rather famous couple certainly thought so, making one of the island’s farmhouses their first home when they could have chosen to live in a castle (the family has a few of them going spare). Prince William and his bride Kate lived there for three years declaring when they left, that Anglesey had a special place in their hearts.

Detective Inspector Tudor Manx, the protagonist of Anglesey Blue by Dylan H Jones has a rather more complex attitude to his homeland.  He remembers some of his youthful experiences with great affection, especially summer holidays spent at the seaside and the year he worked at the fairground. But that was also the year his younger sister disappeared. His relationship with his mother and other sister fell apart as a result. After which he couldn’t wait to get away.

Now, thirty years later, he’s back to take up a new role heading the island’s small, and rather inexperienced, team of detectives. He finds there is trouble in paradise. The island is suffering from falling property prices, the dwindling appeal of the traditional seaside holiday and an active drug scene. When a body is discovered bound to a boat as if crucified, then two more bodies are discovered in quick succession and a powerfully addictive new drug comes onto the scene, Manx comes under pressure to prove he’s the right man for the job. What follows is a solidly-plotted police procedural novel with plenty of opportunities for Manx to ignore all his boss’s instruction to avoid “maverick, Lone Ranger fuckery” as he tries to keep one step ahead of a drug baron and his henchmen. 

Anglesey Blue is the first outing for this DI in what is planned to be a series located on the island. Given this is such a crowded market in literature, the challenge is to bring something fresh to the table. Two things hold the key to success. One is the character of Manx himself who has to be more than a sum of cliched attributes. The other is the setting which has to feel like a place inhabited by real people rather than just a stage for crime.  I’d say Dylan Jones has succeeded on both fronts.

He gives Manx a few quirks – like the fact he drives a completely impractical seven-litre Mark 3 Jensen, smokes cigars rather than cigarettes and has a very limited wardrobe.

Manx’s choice of wardrobe had always been uncomplicated and predictable, a limit colour palette of white Oxford shirt, a slim, black necktie left loose at the collar, black straight-legged jeans, a black sports leather jacket (either work, linen or leather, depending on the weather) and back, chisel-toe Blundstone books which he purchased off the internet directly from the factory in Tasmania.

Dylan Jones makes Manx a man of action, someone who often puts his own life at risk, but also a tenacious, methodical guy who continuously revisits his case notes, searching for anything he might have missed.  Not for Manx is the kind of light bulb moment beloved of the scriptwriters of television detective series; but the  “mundane reality of police work. The day-to-day grind, exhausting every avenue and cul-de-sac” kind of detective work. In part this attention to detail could be connected to the fact he’d left his last job with the Met in London under something of a cloud; the nature of  which is never fully disclosed.

This is not the only unresolved mystery in Anglesey Blue; we also never get to know exactly what happened to Manx’s sister. The sense of mystery which remains by the end of the novel is one of the attractions of this novel for me; I don’t want everything tied up with a ribbon. It also cleverly leaves the door open for future episodes.

Of course Anglesey Blue isn’t solely about Manx.  He’s supported by an array of colourful characters from the bright rookie policewoman Delyth Morris to the hostile Detective Sergeant Maldwyn Nader, a man prone to sudden outbreaks of extreme violence and the forensic scientist Ashton Bevan who loves dropping hints he knows all of Manx’s secrets. All of these have the potential to blossom as the series develops. 

As for the setting, it’s enticingly atmospheric.  Mists roll in across the Irish sea, obscuring the small inlets and islands and robbing the landscape of form and colour but then the sun breaks through, enticing holidaymakers to the beaches and the coastal resorts in search of “sand between the toes pleasure and dirty postcard innuendos.” Descriptions of the main settlements and Manx’s encounters with some of the sceptical inhabitants provide a lot of the local colour which is then supplemented by a few in-jokes about the difficulties of the Welsh language. They give a fresh feel to this novel, making it an entertaining read with the promise of more to come.  

Footnotes

About the book: Anglesey Blue by Dylan H Jones was published by Bloodhound Books in March 2017. My copy was provided by the author and publisher in return for an honest review.

About the author : Dylan is a native of Anglesey. Though he now lives in Oakland, California, he regularly visits Anglesey where most of his immediate family live.  He has worked as a media executive and copywriter at various TV networks and advertising agencies both in London and San Francisco. Currently, he is owner and Creative Director of Jones Digital Media, a video content agency.  More information is available on his website  and in a Q&A with Dylan Jones on this blog site in which he talks about the choice of Anglesey as a setting and his plans for the series.

Why I read this book: I’ve been cautious in accepting books for review this year but who could resist an approach from one of my fellow countrymen. Reading this gives me yet another opportunity to boost visibility of some of the great writers we have in Wales. Anglesey Blue is one of the books on my 20booksofsummer list. 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang [book review]

The-Vegetarian-Han-Kang-2I stopped eating meat about 30 years ago as an experiment in healthy eating. Like Yeong-hye, the central character in The Vegetarian, I came in for many challenges from certain members of my family who couldn’t understand why I wanted to forsake what, for them, was a standard element of any meal. Fortunately I had a more cohesive answer than the one Yeong-hye gives her husband: “I had a dream.” she tells him when he discovers her sat on the floor of their kitchen in Seoul, surrounded by packets of meat she has thrown out of the freezer.

We learn, though her husband doesn’t, that her dream is grotesque, bloody and aggressive. And so is the reaction to her decision. Her husband frets about how this will look to his boss who invites them for dinner (the resulting occasion is a painful event). father, so incensed that she will not eat the delicacies prepared for a family lunch, tries to force a piece of sweet-and-sour pork into her mouth. In protest Yeong-hye stabs herself.

And yet who would have imagined this of a woman whose nature until then had been so docile and insignificant; the very reason her husband chose her for his bride was that she was “completely unremarkable in every way”. And yet here she is refusing to wear a bra, defying Korean cultural expectations by putting her own needs above those of family and husband,  and to eat only plants even though she is clearly starving herself. Only her brother in law, an unsuccessful video artist, finds her attractive. Unfortunately he’s not interested in her as such, only in Yeong-hye as a body, a canvas upon which he can paint giant flowers and plants. She becomes the object of his sexually-charged obsession that transforms her body into a “huge, abstracted plant.”

The Vegetarian is told in three acts which have distinctive differences in language from measured prose to almost hallucinatory description and to fragmented internal monologues where we get to learn what is going on in Yeong-hye’s mind.

Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts; nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I’m okay. Still okay. So why do they keep on shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening–what am I going to gouge

The first act, narrated by her husband interposed by Yeong-hye’s dreams, deals with her decision and her family’s reaction;  the second is narrated by her brother-in-law and the third by her sister In-hye; the only member of the family who seems genuinely to care for Yeon-hye. She maintains contact when all others abandon the woman, unable to deal with her increasingly bizarre actions. But In-hye’s patience is tested severely when she visits her sister to learn she believes she is a tree, taking sustenance only from the soil, violently refusing attempts to force feed her when placed in a mental institution.

“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”

This is a portrait of disintegration. Yeong-hye’s rebellion causes her mental faculties to collapse and lead to the destruction of two families. It’s also a quite unflinching portrait about the clash between personal desire and conformity to expectations of behaviour in a society that denies such desires. Repeatedly we’re shown the clash between desire and denial in a way that asks disturbing questions about the nature of personal choice and ownership of one’s body in Korean society.

For a short novel, this is a startling piece of work. It’s disturbing in its portrayal of mental collapse, provocative in its portrayal of rebellion against conformity and unstinting with its descriptions of bleeding, vomiting, and manic behaviour. This is not a novel you can say you ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ but it’s certainly one that you will not forget.

Footnotes

About the book: The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith was published in 2015. It was considered ‘very extreme and bizarre’ in Korea on first publication but has since been translated into more than 20 languages. The Vegetarian won the International Man Booker Prize in 2016. Han Kang has gone on record that the inspiration for the book, initially published as three novellas, was a line by a modernist poet Yi Sang: ‘I believe that humans should be plants.’ which obsessed her while she was at university. Further insights on the book are in an interview for the White Review. 

About the author: Han Kang comes from a literary family in Korea, her father is a novelist and her brother a writer. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University, South Korea.  She is the winner of several awards including the Yi Sang Literary Prize (2005), Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. Since 2013 she has been teaching creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. 2016 saw the publication in translation of Human Acts which begins with the massacre of students in South Korea in 1980.  If you don’t know her work, you can get a taste with the short story Fruit of My Woman on the Granta website 

Why I read this book: I bought The Vegetarian as a way of  making up for my large deficiency of knowledge of writers from Asia. It’s the first book I’ve read from my 20booksof summerproject for 2017.

Summer reading 2017 #20booksofsummer

Twenty Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 746books is about to begin so I can’t procrastinate much longer about the books I’m putting on my list to read.  This is about the third version I’ve created.  I’ve gone for a mix of classics from my Classics Club project, some Booker prize winners (only nine more to read in this project), some translated fiction and a few by authors from Wales.  All of these are on my ‘owned but not read’ shelves.

I know I’ll never manage to read 20 books between June 1 and September 3 (that’s 7 books a month) so I’m going for the 15 books of summer option. But since past experience tells me the minute a book goes on a list its appeal for me diminishes, I’ve listed 20 books anyway in the hope that this, plus the mixture of genres/styles I’ve chosen will give me plenty of choices to suit all moods.

Here’s my  20 Books for summer 2017 list – click on the titles to read the description on Goodreads:

Update as of August 17, 2017: 11 read. One abandoned.

1. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf Read August 2017

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One that featured on my post about books that have been on my ‘to read’ list for many years. Following several comments from bloggers about how good this is, I’m persuaded it’s time to just get on and read this.

2. We Have Always Lived In the Castle by Shirley Jackson Read July 2017

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I’d not heard of Shirley Jackson until I started listening to some book podcasts and kept hearing about this but since it’s considered  Jackson’s masterpiece it feels like the right place to begin exploring her work.

3. Good Behaviour by Molly Keane Read August 2017

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I bought this in a library sale (unfortunately my edition has a less attractive cover than this one but I couldn’t find that image).  It’s the first novel Keane published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name (rather than her pseudonym of M. J Farrell. I’ve read only one book by her – Devoted Ladies which I enjoyed but didn’t love. I’m hoping Good Behaviour comes up trumps because so many other readers seem to love her work.

4. Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier (Read June 2017)

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Inspired by the real life Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor at which du Maurier stayed in 1930, this is a tale about a  group of murderous wreckers who run ships aground, kill the sailors and steal the cargo. I was disappointed by the last du Maurier I read (My Cousin Rachel) so am hoping this proves more enjoyable.

5. The Finkler Question  by Howard Jacobson (part read)

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This won the Booker Prize in 2010, becoming the first comic novel to win the prize since Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils in 1986. Opinions are greatly divided on this book amongst the blogging community.

6. The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

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Another Booker winner that remains on my list to read. I started reading it last year but found it rather dull at the time.  I see that the Guardian reviewer described it as “a portrait of a dangerous man lent dangerous power by apartheid is great writing, but not brilliant reading.”  Based on what I’ve read so far I’m not convinced that it really does constitute ‘great writing’ but I know I’ll at least be able to finish it (unlike the appalling The Famished Road by Ben Okri which remains the only Booker prize  that I absolutely could not finish.)

7. Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth Read August 2017

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Joint winner of the Booker prize along with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient in 1992, this is likely to be a grim read because of its subject.  It is set on an eighteenth century slave ship called The Liverpool Merchant which is bound for Africa to pick up its human cargo. Much of the book apparently deals with the issue of greed.

8. True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

kelly gang

Peter Carey is one of the few people to win the Booker prize more than once. His other award winner — Oscar and Lucinda — is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read so far this year. The True History of the Kelly Gang, a fictionalised biography of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly,  won the prize in 2001, and also the Commonwealth Writers Prize in the same year. Since it’s written in a distinctive vernacular style, with little punctuation or grammar, it could be tough going.

9. The Vegetarian by Han Kang (read June 2017)

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Han Kang’s novel features a rather ordinary South Korean housewife who decides to throw away all the meat from the freezer and announces that henceforth she is going to be a vegetarian. Her action is completely counter to South Korean culture so the book examines the reaction of her family, husband and friends.  This will be only the second Korean author I’ve read and if it’s as good as my first experience – with Please Look after Mom by Shin Kyung-sook – I know I’m in for a treat.

10. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Read June 2017)

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Ruth Ozeki’s novel got my attention when it was shortlisted for the 2010 Booker prize but I never got around to reading this story which has two narrators. One is a sixteen-year-old Japanese American girl in Tokyo who keeps a diary, the other is a Japanese American writer living on an island off British Columbia who finds the diary washed up on shore some time after the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan. 

11. Twilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis

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I put this on my list of books to read this Spring but it fell by the wayside so I’ve resurrected it for summer. The novel was published about 50 years ago, having been smuggled out of Indonesia where the author was held under house arrest. It depicts social and political events in the capital during the run up to a national election.

12. The Kill/La Curée by Emile Zola

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My plan to read all the books in the Rougon-Marquet cycle stalled last year but I’m looking to The Kill to give it a kickstart. The Kill is book number 2 in the series is set against the background of the massive redevelopment of Paris and the birth of the modern city.

13. Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran read July 2017

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Xinran is a former radio journalist from China who, over a period of 10 years in the 1990s, collected stories of women who endured child child abuse, rape, gang rape, abduction and the forced parting of parents and children. The 15 stories in this collection lift the lid on Chinese society at a time when prohibitions against discussion of feelings and sexuality were relaxing.

14. Three Days and a Life by Pierre Lemaitre

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I wanted something in my list that fell into the genre of thriller, for those days when I just crave a fast paced narrative. Three Days and a Life which will be published in July, fitted that description perfectly. It begins in a small provincial town of Beauval, France with the accidental killing of a young boy. More than a decade later the killer returns to the town and discovers there was a witness to his crime,  a person who has the power to destroy his life. [note I corrected this synopsis based on the comment by Words and Peace that I had the gender of the victim incorrect).

15. Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto (Read July 2017)

goodbye tsugumi

I’ve enjoyed my explorations of Japanese fiction so far but have never read Banana Yoshimoto. I know little about this book other than it’s about relationships between two cousins in a small Japanese seaside town.

16. An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah

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This is on my list to assuage my feelings of guilt that it was on last year’s 20 books of summer list but I only got half way through the collection of short stories.

17. What I Know I Cannot Say/ All That Lies Beneath by Dai Smith

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One of the books by Welsh authors that I bought at the end of 2016, this is actually a combination of a novella and a linked section of short stories that reveal life in the South Wales Valleys during the twentieth century.

18. Ghostbird  by Carol Lovekin

Ghostbird

From another author living in Wales, Carol Lovekin’s novel was the Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops Book of the Month in April 2016.

19. Anglesey Blue by Dylan Jones (read June 2017)

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The first in a crime fiction series featuring a Welsh Detective Inspector based on the island of Anglesy in north wales. The colour in the title has nothing to do with the colour of the sea around the island but a powerful new drug which is being ruthlessly introduced to the island community. There is trouble in this paradise with drugs, disaffected youth and brutal murders.

20. The Hogs Back Mystery  by Freeman Wills Crofts Read August 2017

Hogs Back Mystery-1

There are times when my brain cries out for a good yarn about crime. The Hog’s Back Mystery is on my list in case that need arises over the summer. A crime story from the past this has been given new life via the British Library Classic Crine series. It’s the fourteenth title written by Freeman Wills Crofts and begins with the disappearance of a semi-retired doctor from the North Downs in Surrey. He apparently simply walked out of the house in his slippers.

 

So that’s my 20 books of summer list. Whether I’ve made the ‘right’ choices is debatable – I have a feeling that I’ll come across a book on my shelves over the course of the next few months and wish I’d put it on my list.

If you want to join the fun, Cathy will put up a post on June 1 to mark the official start of the challenge and will tweet regularly using the hashtag  #20booksofsummer.

NW by Zadie Smith: portrait of a divided city

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Until a few years ago few visitors to London would have made it to the parts of the city that collectively form the postcode area known as NW (an abbreviation of North West). Places like Willesden and Kilburn were simply names on the map but not anywhere you’d want to visit.  They’re still not in the top 10 places to see in the city but time has given some parts a more trendy and even gentrified feel.The rennovated houses and newly-built homes do however sit uncomfortably with down at heel council estates and crack-addicts just a few streets away. This idea of a divided city forms the basis of NW by Zadie Smith. This is her home turf as it were, an area she ‘escaped’ just as the upwardly-mobile Caribbean Keisha and the half-Irish Leah attempt to do in the novel with varying access.

Keisha makes her escape by changing her name to the more ‘acceptable’ Nathalie and making a name for herself as a commercial barrister tipped to be one of the youngest admitted as Queen’s Counsel. Her marriage to rich and stylish Italian-Trinidadian Franco, is accompanied by two kids and a plush home in the desirable Queen’s Park area – all signals to outsiders that that she’s made the leap from her respectable black working class origins in Kilburn. But it’s an illusion for Nathalie harbours a misery and tries to overcome it through some high-risk adventures.

Her school friend Leah also took the educational route away from her upbringing though her degree in philosophy hasn’t given her the financial success or the feeling of smug satisfaction she sees emanating from Nathalie. Leah is doing Ok, she’s married to a hairdresser who wants to be an online investor whizz kid, living in a council flat not too far from her childhood home and under pressure to have his child. Her work in an office is marred by the resentment of her fellow African-Caribbean workers who all think Michel, a black man of French origins. rightly belongs to them not to Leah. Whenever Leah visits Nathalie she can’t help ending up irritated by her friend’s patronising attitude.

The paths they take to  escape from destiny are shadowed by two men from their schooldays: Nathan Bogle who was once the shining boy in school, the flame around whom Leah built an obsessive love. Now he is a crack-smoking addict who hangs around the bus station . Then there is Felix, a boy neither of the others really knew but who descended into drugs before reforming and now appears to be on the cusp of a new beginning to his life.

The interactions with these men propel some of the story forward and force the girls to re-evaluate their lives. But these men – just like the two husbands – are figures in the background  whose personalities are not as fully developed as the women and who existed for me simply to move the story along and give us a different perspective.

So what is the story? The details I’ve given above are about as coherent as I can describe it since this is a novel that doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense. It’s more a kaleidoscope of closely observed scenes of city life and inward reflections about individual struggles.

It’s told episodically in four sections which begin with Leah’s story  in a section called Visitation as she goes about her life. At the end she hears of a fatal stabbing in a street in a local street. We then switch to Guest which takes place on the day of the murder and is told through the point of view of the dead man (I wont give the name to avoid spoiling the story). Section 3 Host is about Nathalie which takes us back to their childhood and teenage years and reveals her unhappiness with life. In the final section she meets unexpectedly with Nathan and they go on a wander around their old neighbourhood which acts as a catharsis in her relationship with Leah and her husband.

At times intense, at others rather chaotic and jumbled, this is a novel where the personality of one segment of a city and its population come to life. It’s closely observed from street level as it were with finely judged dialogue. In one scene, where Leah and Michel go for dinner at Nathalie’s home, the conversation is rendered as a meld of banal comments about food fetishes amidst diatribes about the state of the health service, immigration, Islam, birthing strategies, water shortages and so on.

The conversational baton passes to others who tell their anecdotes with more panache, linking them to matters of the wider culture, debates in the newspapers. Leah tries to explain what she does for a living to someone who doesn’t care. The spinach is farm to table. Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates. Pass the buttered carrots. … Pass the heirloom tomato salad. … Pass the green beans with shaved almonds

Much of the narrative is stream of consciousness which at times is delivered with such pace it’s hard to keep up with. Fresh and original as this novel is in style and fun for that reason to read, overall I was left with the feeling that I was missing whatever it was Zadie Smith was trying to say. Was she trying to show that you cannot entirely escape your past? That there is questionable value about getting on in the world since it doesn’t always make you happy. NW felt like a book that meandered rather than coming to any conclusion.

 

Footnotes

Author: NW by Zadie Smith

Published: 2013 by Penguin

Length: 294 pages

My copy: I acquired this as a spur of the moment purchase in Birmingham airport as a way of relieving the boredom of a delayed flight to Brussels. The forgot I had it until the 20booksofsummer challenge prompted me to delve deep into the bookshelves.

Holiday week catch up

Suitcase is unpacked and laundry is in the washing machine. I’ve done a walk along the coastal path taking advantage of a dry morning. Raspberry and white chocolate muffins are cooling off ready for a little afternoon tea indulgence. So now I needn’t feel guilty about spending some time with a catch up on the blog about the last week.

travelcompanionI expected to get a lot of reading done while we took a mini holiday in Dorset but it didn’t quite work out that way because the weather was much nicer than expected. Lucky us for picking one week when the clouds parted and we saw the sun. Everywhere looks more attractive under a blue sky but this part of England certainly knows how to sparkle in sunshine. So we got out our walking shoes and explored. Of course I took a book with me in my sturdy rucksack but darn it, my eyes kept getting diverted by all the scenery around me. That was when they were not closed for a quick nap due to the effects of all the fresh air.

One book I did read was the rather odd but mesmerising Booker long listed title The Many by Wyl Menmuir.  It’s set in a fishing village somewhere in Cornwall so not far along the coast from Poole, a harbour town and fishing port where we were staying.  It was rather sobering reading about the fictitious village whose livliehood is threatened by pollution and then to look out onto the lobster pots and fishermen in Poole who are still trying to make a living from the sea. Beyond the dangers posed to our coastal heritage I’m still trying to think what what the message of this book is, but an exchange with Jen at The Readers Room pulled me up short. I thought of a dream sequence as a foretaste of what happens to Timothy one of the two main characters in the future. Jen suggests it’s actually a recollection of what happened to him and provides the reason why he  moves into a derelict house in the village. It just shows how elusive this novel can be ….

I also read Harry Potter and The Philosophers’ Stone ready for the Open University course on children’s literature that I’ve signed up to take in October and got a quarter of the way through The Sleeping World, a debut novel from the Spanish author Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes. I had planned this to be part of my Women in Translation month reading but though the theme and setting of 1970s post-Franco Spain was something that interested me, the book was so poorly written I simply couldn’t get through to the end. I’ve now moved on to the far more intriguing All that Man Is by David Szalay which is on the Man Booker longlist this year. He takes nine different men, all at a different stage of their lives, and puts them into a situation in which they have to make a decision that will affect the rest of their life. It’s described as a novel though each story is entirely separate from the rest so they read more like a collection of short pieces to me. It’s a book that slips down very easily so I’ve already got to the half way mark.

In between walking, eating, reading I’ve been playing around with the Feedly feedreader that many people mentioned when I asked for recommendations on a better option than Bloglovin. Feedly is set up to make it easy to find a site, follow it and then group it with other similar blogs into ‘collections’ that you can review as a block. I’ve been migrating some of the feeds I have on Bloglovin over to this new site so you may find an ‘unfollow’ message from me – it’s not that I don’t love you, just moving you into your new home. I’m going to give it a month and then will share with you all how the new tool is going.

So that was my week – no time to catch up on reviews unfortunately so the backlog is creeping up once again. Expect to see a flurry of those next week including my final book for All Virago/All August which also got me to the end of #20booksofsummer.

An Embarrassment of Riches

This was the week where my reading life went out of control.

newbooksI’ve been doing reasonably well with my attempt to read more from the books I already own this year, and consequently buy less. But the plan started to go south when I wandered into the library on Monday where they had a sale and found a reasonably good copy of Ruth Ozeki’s Booker shortlisted A Tale for the Time Being which was a novel I meant to read when it was shortlisted but never got around to. Only one purchase – not disastrous by any means but a few minutes later as I was passing a Pound store  I remembered Karen at Kaggsy’sBookishRamblings had uncovered a few choice books among the acres of cheap shampoo and bathroom cleaner, there might be a few books).  It had frankly never occurred to me this kind of shop might offer any intellectual stimulation so it was a surprise to find two gems.

The first one, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller was much talked about when it was published in 2011 but I wasn’t sure I was that interested in a novel set around the time of the Trojan War. But having been following a Coursera module on Greek and Roman myths for the past few weeks, my interest level as increased – so of course how could I resist a pristine copy at £1???  And then another much-discussed novel Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood – this was even more of a bargain since it’s a never-opened hardback. Not sure its worth adding Poundstretcher to my regular shopping haunts but a peek every few months might be in order.

So Monday came and went with three new books added to the shelf. I knew I wouldn’t be reading these for a while since I’m still trying to finish the #20booksofsummer reading and get to read a few Viragos for All August/AllVirago month.

By Tuesday that plan was thrown a bit off course when the library called to say two of my reserved items were now available. I’d even forgotten about one of them (Don Delillo’s Zero K) since the waiting list was so long and when I looked at the blurb I was mystified when I’d even requested this. Science-based stories are not usually my thing so why had I reserved a novel about a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. In a spirit of generosity to other readers who do enjoy those kinds of stories, it was returned immediately.

Which left me with the ManBooker 2016 long listed novel All That Man Is by David Szalay. I have no intention of trying to read all 13 long listed novels before the Man Booker judges announce the shortlist on September 13. But I do like to read samples of them and read a few in full just to get a flavour of what’s in contention. This one picqued my interest because its essentially the story of nine separate individuals so can be read as a short story collection or as a novel.

Wednesday’s post brought another Man Booker title – The Many by Wyl Menmuir which is one I really, really wanted to read but couldn’t get my hands on a copy anywhere. The publishers Salt had printed only 1,000 copies initially so were rather overhwhelmed by the interest when the longlist was announced. A new print run was rushed through to satisfy the hungry appetites of readers like me….

If you’re keeping track so far you’ll have seen that it’s just midweek and already I have 5 new titles all demanding my attention. Some rapid re-thinking of the reading plan for the next few weeks ensued.

But like all the best laid plans, that too got thrown in the bin when NetGalley sent a batch of emails telling me I’d been approved for two other Man Booker Prize long listed titles: The Schooldays of Jesus by J. M Coetzee  and Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. Now I absolutely do want to read the Coetzee since the two novels I’ve read by him previously have been outstanding but having seen a review of Eileen on the Readers’ Room blog earlier today I’m not as convinced I will get on well with this.

Do Not DisturbSeven new acquisitions in four days is going some for me. But that wasn’t the end of the story because yesterday a box arrived from some kind colleagues in the USA containing – guess what? Books!

Am I complaining? No not a bit of it. I just have to get my head down and start reading through this stack and all the ones piling up on the e-reader including another of the Man Booker long listed titles Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. Expect me to be a bit quiet for a few weeks………Shhh

Last Orders by Graham Swift #Bookerprize

Last ordersLast Orders  is a tale of four men who embark on a day trip to the seaside. Actually there are five people in the car that takes them from London to Margate though one of them is not in a position to contribute much to the conversation, he being recently cremated and present only in the form of a box of his ashes.

Jack Dodds, a butcher by trade, may not be alive but he is very much the focal point of this trip. It was his dying request that his son Vince and his three best mates Ray, Lenny and Vic – scatter his ashes from the jetty at Margate where he spent his honeymoon. As they journey from Bermondsey to Margate with detours to the  Sailors’ Memorial at Chatham and Canterbury Cathedral, each of them reflects on his friendship with Jack and their own lives. Their stories are revealed in short chapters told from one or other of the characters, stories which intertwine and build gradually to a picture of men who are in denial about their lives.

There’s Ray, an insurance clerk whose wife dumped him for another man. He gets sympathy from the others because for many years he hasn’t heard from his only daughter who lives in Australia. Actually the breach is Ray’s fault – he is the one who stopped writing, unable to find a way to tell his daughter about key events in her life.

Vince, the chauffeur for the day, had a troubled relationship with Jack throughout his life. It stemmed from his resentment that he wasn’t really Jack’s son but taken in by him and his wife Amy as a baby when his own family were killed in a bombing raid during World War 2. Vince was in effect a substitute for their real child who was born severely retarded and whom Jack could never accept. As Vince grew up he railed against the presumption that he would become a butcher just like Jack. Instead he turned his hand to car mechanics, much to Jack’s dismay even though the business proved successful.

And then there’s Lenny, a fruit-and-veg stallholder who has good reason to be angry with Vince. Having got Lenny’s daughter pregnant Vince disappeared into the Army instead of doing the decent thing and marrying the girl.  It suits Lenny to blame Vince for the fact his daughter is now shacked up with a guy who is serving a prison sentence. What he doesn’t admit even to himself is how much he played a part in her unhappy life by forcing her to have a backstreet abortion.

margate

Margate: the final destination in Last Orders

All these undercurrents rise to the surface as the quartet make their circuitous pilgrimage to the coast. It’s left to Vic, an undertaker, to act the peacemaker though even he cannot prevent a standoff fight between two of the other men.  All four of these men have experienced disappointments and frustrations but they won’t admit it to themselves or to their companions. They draw a discrete veils over many events like Ray’s affair with Jack’s  wife. Only the reader can see the truth by piecing together what the men say – but even more significantly what they don’t say. For this is a novel where despite the multiplicity of voices it’s the silences that tell the real story.

In some ways Last Orders is quite a simple book about rather ordinary people, the kind you can meet every day. It’s very much a male world – Jack’s wife Amy is the only female character of note – dominated by the pub and the armed forces in which all these men served (the title Last Orders has connotations of military orders as well as Jack’s instructions). It’s a little bleak in some parts but lightened with the occasional moment of black humour when the guys became resentful they were not getting their fair share of time carrying the plastic bag containing Jack’s ashes. By the end they are beginning to look to the future and the possibilities remaining in their own lives: Ray for example thinks it’s time he visited his daughter in Australia while Amy who has visited her daughter in her institutional home every week for 50 years, decides it’s time for a parting of the ways.

It was hard to feel much connection with these characters initially because the narrator kept changing so often with only subtle changes in their speech patterns.  I found I had to keep checking the chapter headings to make sure I knew whose story was being told. But as the book progressed it became clear that this lack of clarity was by design – just as I couldn’t sort out their lives neither could each of these men. Maybe everyone of us has a jumbled life. We’re too close to it to make sense of it ourselves so we just relate the pieces and let others put it together to make a cohesion.

Footnote

Last Orders by Graham Swift is published by Picador. It won the Booker Prize in 1996 though true to form, not all the critics thought it was a good choice. One Australian professor pointed to the similarity of the plot with William Faulkner’s As I Lay DyingSwift responded to the critique by saying his book was an “echo” of Faulkner’s but nothing more.

The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester: new life for old crime #20booksof summer #crimefiction

female_detectiveFor those of us brought up to believe that Wilkie Collins wrote the first detective novel in English,  it comes as a surprise to find he was actually beaten to the post by Andrew Forrester with The Female Detective. Published in 1864, four years earlier than The Moonstone, this has now been brought back into print as part of the British Library Classic Crime series.

Forrester’s detective is a Miss Gladden or G (though that’s not her real name) who often uses the guise of a dressmaker to  unravel mysteries and track down killers. Sh’s rather shy about her identity and ambiguous about the reasons why she took up what, for a woman, would have been a highly unusual occupation.

Who am I? It can matter little who I am. It may be that I took to the trade, sufficiently comprehended in the title of this work without a word of it being read, because I had no other means of making a living; or it may be that for the work of detection I had a longing which I could not overcome. It may be that I am a widow working for my children – or I may be an unmarried woman, whose only care is herself.

Whatever her true identity, Miss G is a woman who is proud of her expertise and of the profession she adopted and fearless in her desire to right injustices.   She has embarked on writing her memoirs as a way of documenting what she considers the highlights of her  work. The Female Detective is in essence a set of short stories in which Miss G reviews cases in which she was involved plus a few that she heard about though did not personally have a role. Her motive for writing she declares is:

… to show in a small way, that the profession to which I belong is so useful that it should not be despised I am aware that the female detective may be regarded with even more aversion than her brother in profession. …  But,without going into particulars, the reader will comprehend that the woman detective has far greater opportunities than a man of intimate watching, and of keeping her eyes upon matters near which a man could not conveniently play the eavesdropper..

Most of the stories are designed to show her methods and approaches. One of them ‘The Unravelled Mystery’  struck me as being rather in the vein of Sherlock Holmes’ methods. With a minimal of information about a headless corpse found in the River Thames she makes some startling deductions about his identity and the reasons for his death. But in the opening story Tenant for Life her desire to get to the truth meant a despicable wastral got to claim a fortune and an innocent young girl was left adrift. Along the way we get some digressions and comments about the particular merits of female detectives versus male and the failings of the English police force: ‘I venture to assert that the detective forces as a body are weak; that they fail in the majority of the cases brought under their supervision.’

Ultimately I found these stories disappointing if not to say rather dull. Once I’d got beyond the novelty of the idea of a female detective and got into the cases themselves, the interest level waned significantly. I got halfway and simply decided I’d had enough.

The book isn’t entirely without merit. An introduction by Mike Ashley provides interesting context for the significance of this book – apparently there were no female police officers let alone detectives in the British force in 1864 and indeed they wouldn’t materialise for another 50 years. The Metropolitan Police Force was still rather in its infancy having been established only in 1829, Scotland Yard (the plain clothes detective branch wasn’t created until 1842) and the term detective didn’t actually pass into common usage until 1843. So by creating a protagonist with such an unusual role , Forrester was pushing the boundaries. What a pity he didn’t put as much effort into the plots of the stories related by Miss G as he clearly did in creating such an unusual figure.

Footnotes

First published in 1864, The Female Detective was written by Andrew Forrester,  the nom de plume of James Redding Ware, a writer and editor who produced books on a diverse range of subjects from card games to dreams, famous centenarians, English slang and the Isle of Wight.

The Female Detective was re-issued by The British Library in conjunction with Poisoned Pen Press.

My copy was provided by the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell [book review]

high-risingHigh Rising, Angela Thirkell’s debut novel in her Barsetshire series, was born out of adversity. Having left her husband in Australia on the pretext of taking a holiday in England, she resorted to writing chiefly through the need for money.  She went on to write a further 28 novels all set in the fictional county created initially by Anthony Trollope.

This is the only Thirkell I will ever read. I wasn’t sure even before opening it that it would be my cup of tea but I’d heard her compared favourably to Barbara Pym to whom I have taken a shine this year. Pym’s writing is however a lot more sharp and insightful than Thirkell’s and it’s that edginess I was missing here. Reading High Rising was an experience about as substantial as eating an enormous meringue;  it looks impressive but once you get your teeth into it, it dissolves into a sugary tasting nothingness.

High Rising rests on the reactions of a female author Laura Morland and her chums in a rural village when a dear friend George Knox (an author of historical biographies) acquires a new secretary. Morland and co decide the secretary Una Grey, or as they nickname her The Incubus, is a schemer who is out to get her claws into George using devious means such as poison pen notes. They set out to rescue their friend from sleepwalking into an inappropriate marriage. In parallel, there are some other budding romances that need to be nurtured and brought to a happy conclusion.

It’s all related in a light, amused tone by a narrator who exudes warmth and tenderness towards the main characters and their little foibles. Most of the time I found the gentle humour cloying though I did enjoy a few laugh aloud moments with the characterisation of Morland’s son Tony. This young boy is a force of super energy, totally absorbed in his own world and his obsession with motor railways.

‘I could get a Great Western model engine for seventeen shillings, but there is a much better LMS one for twenty-five shillings. Which do you think? ‘

‘I should think the Great Western, if it only costs seventeen shillings and the other is twenty-five’

‘Yes, but Mother you dont see. The Great Western would only pull a coal truck and one coach but the LMS would pull three coaches quite easily.’

‘Well what about the LMS one then?’

‘Yes but Mother then I’d have an LMS engine and Great Western coaches. Didn’t yiu know my coaches were all Great Western?’

‘Well Mother considering I was telling yiu all about them I thought you would know. mother which would you say?’

‘Look Tony’ said his mother,mystifying a desire to kill him, ‘there’s Mr Reid’s shop. we shall be home in a minute.’

‘But which do you think Mother? A Great Western to go with the coaches or do you think the LMS?’

And so on.  You get the picture….

His incessant chatting is only one reason why his mother’s patience is tested to the limit:

She had sent him to school at an earlier age than his brothers, partly so that he should not be an only child under petticoat government, partly, as she remarked, to break his spirit.  She fondly hoped that after a term or two at school he would find his own level, and be clouted over the head by his unappreciative contemporaries.  But not at all.  He returned from school rather more self-centred than before, talking even more, and, if possible, less interestingly.  Why the other boys hadn’t killed him, his doting mother couldn’t conceive.

I’m glad she didn’t break that spirit because as irritating as he is, he at least feels more like a real personality than anyone else in the novel. The rest didn’t engage my attention at all, even his mother with her frequent disastrous moments involving hairpins and the typewriter ribbon and her frustrations with people whose grasp of grammar is fragile, didn’t  raise much of a titter.

I know there are plenty of people who love this kind of novel, and are great fans of Thirkell. They obviously have far greater appreciation of gentle humour than I possess. I’m off in search of something more edgy; a salted caramel brownie rather than a meringue I think.

 

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