Thursday, January 31, 2008

Wise Children - post IV

The last few pages of this book are a joyous romp as the past mixes with the present at the birthday party. Almost every character appears apart from the couple that have genuinely died.

Having someone reach 100 years old with their mental facilities and health reasonably intact is one thing but for a couple of twins to both get there is odd. By the end of this book the pleasure that comes from reading it is that apart from a couple of characters - grandma and Cyn - almost nobody ever dies.

The same people keep coming back through the story and the leads Dora and Nora are there till the bitter end surrounded by the Hazard family and their various offspring and spouses. Surprise after surprise is sprung, accompanied by trumpets and TV cameras. But in the end you turn the final page with a smile on your face and a feeling that family is what you make it and a wise child is one that understands the limitations as well as the love that can be offered by their father.

A review will follow soon...

Lunchtime read: The Heart-Keeper

The relationship between Dorothy and Lewis is largely left unsaid but there are a few facts that point at least to the emotions that the young man is experiencing. For a start despite getting a job as an actor he remains as a lodger in her home. Then there are the jealous looks he throws her way when she goes out with her boyfriend Paul. Finally, there is the way he tries to buy her with gifts like a Rolls Royce.

But what starts to emerge as a possible problem is the decision by Lewis to go and sign for a Hollywood big shot. That night Lewis goes out and does not return and the same big shot producer he has signed for turns up dead in a gay brothel. Dorothy doesn’t suspect him for a second but the reader does.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Wise Children - post III

The world of Nora and Dora is one that is enchanting but works better when they are together. The moment they start to drift apart, as they do in Hollywood, they lose something of their personalities.

At the cause of the distance between them are men with Nora involved seriously with an Italian named Tony while Dora is ending her involvement with a drunken Irishman who is the same age as her uncle Perry.

The hollowness of Hollywood starts to eat away at Dora and she yearns to go back to the house in Brixton and get back into that life. But Nora is not as keen to leave and there comes a point at which the relationship between the twins could see them go their different ways.

It all ends in farce with both sisters avoiding marriage by an inch and being dragged back to London with their grandma leading the way. Things are then interrupted by the war with grandma being killed by a bomb and the sisters being left more or less on their own.

That is until their father's first wife becomes wheel chair bound and penniless and the twins take pity on her and ask her to move in with them. The Hazzard family starts to fall apart and the sisters age and become left in a house with memories and not many visitors after Perry dies and the gulf between them and their natural father seems to be wider than ever.

But of course they have his 100th birthday to go to. But before that there is a chance to dress up and roll back the years.

More tomorrow...

Lunchtime read: The Heart-Keeper - post II

It is quite good reading Wise Children and The Heart-Keeper at the same time because they both describe the world of Hollywood. In the case of Sagan it is the world of the screen writer Dorothy but the sense of a hollow world tinged with insincerity comes across in both books.

For Dorothy it is the moment when she is told that her second husband Frank has died. The man, who she still felt very fondly for, had spiralled into alcoholism after their marriage ended and he was supported by Dorothy even after they split.

She turns for sympathy to her house guest Lewis rather than her current boyfriend Paul. He decides that he wants to carry on living with her but wants to get a job so she sets up a screen test and a career in the movies beckons for the brooding young artist.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Wise Children - post II

When this book starts its like being dragged into the memories of an old dear who is telling you about her life over a cup of afternoon tea. The complex family of twins Dora and Nora is confusing but continually reinforced by coincidence and the important presence of their uncle.

If the first chapter was about setting the scene in their home in Brixton bringing it into the present with the suicide of Tiffany then the second chapter goes back into their past. It covers the development of the double act that became The Chance Girls and the showbiz career of Dora and Nora. It also charts the start of the love lives with Nora a lot more prepared to seize love by the horns. Dora gets her fair share of romantic involvement.

Finally the twins are introduced to their father who at first denies them but then later gives them a break into the glitz of the West End and tolerates them as much as he appears to tolerate anyone – which is not a great deal.

This story weaves you not only back through the lives of the two sisters but back in time. This takes you a trip through 1930s London with trams, hampers and day trips to Brighton where cabbies fall in love with the people they are driving. There are also secretive homosexuals, the bright lights of Hollywood and music hall stars that perform to packed houses.

You forget that this is all building up to the 100th birthday of their father but before then there will be some more enjoyable reminiscing.

More tomorrow…

Print is dead

An interesting book turned up in the office today to be reviewed. Print is Dead Books in Our Digital Age by Jeff Gomez looks like it is going to be an interesting read.

The first comment to make, made by several colleagues as well, is why it turned up in the form of a hardback book. Surely if Print is Dead this should have been a digital book?

Well of course it would have lost some impact that way. Still looks like it is going to be provocative and so I’ll post thoughts and a review on it in the next few weeks.

Lunchtime read: The Heart-Keeper - post I

Francoise Sagan is a writer capable of delivering haunting romantic tales that focus on just a couple of characters but extend beyond that small circle of people.

The reason is that the themes of her stories are universal – love, jealously and the urge to possess someone that is thinking of moving away from you.

This story starts with a 45 year-old Hollywood script writer. Sagan draws attention to the age of the main female character several times to underline the fact she is not a young woman and comes with a degree of experience.

Things start with Dorothy speeding along with Paul on the way to a sexual rendezvous that is interrupted after a young man on LSD jumps out in front of their car.

Dorothy decides to let Lewis, the young man with a handsome face, come and stay with her upsetting Paul who points out quite reasonably that she knows nothing about him.

More tomorrow…

Monday, January 28, 2008

Fire Down Below - post I

Apologies all over the place today. Working from home denied me the opportunity to do any major reading and the concept of a lunch hour also disappears when you work through.

The other problem is juggling several books at once. Ambitiously, I took the option to start the third in the Golding trilogy so here are some thoughts on that. Tomorrow will get back into Wise Children and start a lunchtime read book for this week.

The most obvious comment to make after the opening couple of chapters is to wonder what on earth the point of the summary was at the end of part two, Close Quarters. Those few pages indicated that the voyage was successful in terms of getting to the destination and despite the loss of the main mast the ship did not sink.

So you half expect this book to start with the main character Edmund Talbot detailing the work he is doing helping the governor run one of the far flung parts of the British Empire. But things start almost exactly where they left off. There is something reassuring about the old characters but you do wonder where it is going. Bearing in mind how slow the second book took to get going you wonder if this is more of the same. Probably not but it is not the start that was expected.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, January 27, 2008

book review: On Chesil Beach

This is one of those books that builds and builds and then delivers a climax that was nowhere near what you were expecting. The same could be said for the characters Edward and Florence in this novella by Ian McEwan.

Both main characters are paralysed with fear of the sexual act. The difference between them is that when it comes to the crunch on their wedding night he can get it up and start to get into the mood but she cannot. In a classic example of the dangers of not communicating she keeps her fears to herself and then gets into position where she has to try to explain something almost impossible.

His feelings are hurt by the reaction to his premature ejaculation and he becomes angry at her decision to run away down the beach. He dresses and goes after her - a move she both anticipates but then angers at because she has walked a good couple of miles by the time he catches up with her.

In one crucial conversation where misunderstanding about fear, love and lust leads them to both boil over their marriage crumbles away. By this point you have stuck with the weaving in of the back-story with the build up to the disaster that happens on the marriage bed. You realise they love each other and are soul mates in a way that most people only ever dream of.

So you are left wondering what happens next. Reading this as a man the expectation was that Edward would swallow his pride and goes and beg forgiveness after his anger cooled down. You might also have expected a similar move from Florence who said some hurtful things but could have pleaded that it was all to do with the heat of the moment.

But instead having played the wedding evening in almost slow motion McEwan then presses the fast forward button and life starts whizzing by with Edward heading into his forties, sixties and old age. For some readers this is probably where the feeling of an unsatisfactory ending creeps in. It happens quickly and it happens easily.

Just as in the telling the back-story McEwan stresses that these two characters might never have met if a different corner had been turned and another decision taken now fate works the other way. Now regardless of the opportunities, and there are presumably several, Florence and Edward do not run into each other again and as the years go by the chance of reconciliation is missed completely. There is a scene where Florence looks out for Edward at a concert she performs and remembers the promise he made many years before to be there but that is the only hint that she might have gone back to him. For Edward’s part his life drifts and you sense the missed opportunities that would have come if he had a life with Florence. With age comes wisdom and he realises that those words on the beach did not mean what he took them to mean and he should have been more patient.

It would have been interesting to see them meet again after the years of absence but that lingering thought for what might have been is exactly the one McEwan wants to leave you with. In that sense although the fast forwarding at the end could have been slowed a bit the book works and you leave it determined to listen more and speak less in an argument concerning love.

Version read – Vintage paperback

bookmark of the week

My brother kindly sent me this bookmark after he visited the home of Washington Irving writer of the legendary Sleepy Hollow. It is a very traditional bookmark and along with the first day cover he kindly sent made a great little set. The reason for posting now is not only that they were uncovered in a little bit of a tidy up but also because it seems appropriate with Johnny Depp being everywhere at the moment. The amount of publicity for Sweeny Todd is at its height right now. But he was also fantastic in Sleepy Hollow, another Tim Burton film. Of course without Irving that film would have not been made and Mr Depp would not have been so famous so it all ties in together with the choice of bookmark of the week.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Amis the target

If there is a personality and a theme of the weekend it has to be Martin Amis and the debate he has caused with his book The Second Plane. By all accounts the book is a collection of essays and short stories collecting together the thoughts Amis has on the currewnt war againt terror. He was on the BBC news, the Newsnight Review and then an odd story about how much he is being paid per hour to teach at Manchester University appeared in The Times today.

Amis is of course allowed to put down on paper his thoughts about his feelings towards those who would blow innocent women, men and children up in the name of some religious cause. Okay so he might have a track record of being rather isolated because let’s face it he is hardly the most loveable character. But as Jeanette Winterson said last night on Newsnight he has shown that it is possible to think in print and as a result it is an important book.

You might not like what someone is saying or thinking but the cornerstone of a free society is that they get their chance to say it and then with freedom in turn the debate can ensue.

Does make you wonder how long The Times sat on the story about his salary until waiting until Amis was back in the spotlight to offer up the scoop.

Wise Children - post I

Having never read any Angela Carter before it was on reputation alone this was picked up on a recent trawl through a local charity shop. Some other bloggers have read some of her short story collections and recommended her so this was not a complete unknown.

But stepping into the world of Dora and Nora, two 75 year-old twin sisters, and the strange world of their home in Brixton is a real experience. The narrative flows as if spoken to you by a 75 year-old and you can hear the voice and imagine a captured hour on a bus journey or waiting in some hospital waiting room with this history coming at you.

What makes it get your attention though is that this is not just about the life of the two sisters, who were musical hall stars with their singing and dancing. But the story of their extended family and the events of the past link through to the present. Their father, who has always denied his parentage, is celebrating his 100th birthday – the same day they are celebrating their 75th - and the twins are invited. But before they go their stepbrother manages to upset their goddaughter enough to lead her to suicide. The world of the two sisters has never been more exciting but you feel that things are building up to the party and there will be some sort of dreadful event or full stop added to the pages of the family history.

More from this on Monday…

Friday, January 25, 2008

Lunchtime read: Memories of My Melancholy Whores

Wow almost missed this. Almost forgot to post this last bit on this week's lunchtime read:

The downside for the poor old 90 year-old who has fallen head over heels for a young virgin whore is that with love comes jealousy. So when he gets it into his head that she has been with someone else and returns to him after an absence with make-up and jewels he vows never to see her again.

Friends advise him to grasp what happiness he can before his time runs out. So he finally swallows his jealousy and requests to see the girl again. After a life spent sleeping with women and avoiding commitment he has finally fallen in love. His columns for the newspaper reflect his position and he is seen in the odd light of almost being a love poet.

In the end he goes back to the girl with the words of the madam ringing in his ears that the young virgin is in love with the old man – who she has barely spent anytime awake with or said a word to. They have spent their hours with him talking to her, as she lies next to him asleep and providing her with gifts. But he has never taken what is arguably his by right – he has after all met the terms and conditions and paid. His love seems to be more genuine because it is non-sexual.

The morale seems to be that love can come to those who have given up looking or expecting it. There is also something to be said for age. A mad fool is an old fool. But is he so made if he finally finds contentment? Could anyone really understand what has happened to him?

A review will follow soon

Thursday, January 24, 2008

book review - tough, tough, toys for tough, tough boys

If there is a theme that runs through this collection of short stories then it has to be drugs. Will Self is a writer that comes with a reputation and he does not shy away from writing difficult stories that have the potential to shock and disturb.

Anyone in any doubt as to what is in store knows pretty quickly what is coming with the first story about two brothers selling crack. There are the inevitable observations about addiction, desperation and the ugliness of wasting thousands on drugs. But there is also a psychological dimension to it that is drawn out in some of the other stories.

By setting the main character in the role of a shrink the thought process about addiction is seen from a different angle. The drugs are never particularly criticised but just shown to destroy minds and lives and fool those who believe they are in control of them that it is the other way round.

There are also tales that have a ghoulish twist with a man deciding he would rather be with insects than his girlfriend in Flytopia. Her decision to go into the spare room, which has become a breeding room for the flies is fatal. They had only just requested more meat to breed on. Those final paragraphs will stick with you.

Even when there is humour, in the case of the story of the little toddler who is speaking business German, it is done with such darkness it is hard to laugh.

But then again a lot of this is designed to stick with you. There are some phrases that are so well put together you can almost imagine Self laughing to himself with satisfaction. Describing the England fans going home from work to the terraces to see the match referring to terraced houses is one example but there are many throughout the book.

What this collection oozes is confidence. This has been written by a writer that knows they have great ability and the language as a result is rich, where it could have been bland, and the stories are risky where they could have been safe. The result is not always comfortable and it is quite provocative but isn’t this what fiction is meant to do? Surely it is meant to take you into dark places you might avoid and it makes you think and that is always a positive.

Version read - Penguin paperback

Lunchtime read: Memories of My Melancholy Whores

For a 90 year-old that might be suspected of knowing better it is a slightly odd development to have him fall in love with the virgin prostitute.

She can barely read and write and always sleeps in the bed rather than talk and entertain him sexually but she still gets the love from the old man whether she wants it or not. They settle into a pattern with him coming to the brothel at the same time every night and sleeping with her before leaving early in the morning.

He starts to bring things to spruce the room up and make it an extension of his own home while they are together. He is advised to marry the girl and you sense he is seriously thinking about it. But maybe the ritual and the location of the brothel are just as important as the girl herself?

More tomorrow…

book review - Close Quarters

This is the second book in the Passage to the Sea trilogy and it starts with William Golding having his hero Edmund Talbot admitting that he does not know what to write about.

If the first volume was about the short life on board of the reverend Colley then this second volume starts suffering from a hangover from the parson’s death. The end of the parson leaves a vacuum that is not immediately filled. Talbot looks for inspiration from the second most powerful officer on board Lieutenant Summers but after a while there us a limit to the depth of that personality.

What saves the book from straggling off into nowhere is the bringing together of the boat Talbot is on with another English ship. After initially panicking that it is a French vessel and the nerves and adrenalin that pumps as it comes into sight the reality is that it is British and brings news of peace. For Talbot it also brings him into close quarters with a girl he falls head over heels in love with.

He tries to stay with her but a series of knocks on the head leaves him cabin bound when the boats split apart and Talbot and company are then left at the mercy of the waves. With the ship damaged the rest of the focus of the book deals with the dual problems of Talbot’s jealousy fuelled love for the girl he met and the fear gripping most of the ship about sinking.

In the end the story is wrapped up quickly because Talbot confesses locking his journal away to ensure it survives if he drowns so he provides a speedy summary of what happened until they docked safely.

This is a book that has the feel of being a second in a trilogy and presumably lays down some characters that are going to become important in the concluding part of the story. It drifts along and it feels almost as if it is a book you have no connection with. But slowly but surely by the time the end is near and the crew and passengers are gripped with fear about sinking the description of the situation of the boat has you wanting to read until the end.

But the conclusion, which is and feels tacked on, makes you hungry for the conclusion but almost happy to dispense with Close Quarters. At this stage it is hard to say how important it will be when looking back over the three books, but it lacks the central story that dominates Rites of Passage and fails to work on an emotional level in quite the same way as the first book, which described in chilling detail the humiliation of Colley.

But as the final paragraphs promise it is a taster that will indeed lead onto the final part of the trilogy, Fire Down Below.

Version read – Faber & Faber paperback

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Road to Calvary - post II

There is a point at which two officers who were acquaintances before the war come across each other in the middle of a battle and one remarks to the other: “It’s a small world isn’t it?” He could just as easily have added “and one full of coincidences” because they pervade the story.

Mind you that is not a criticism because this is classic stuff where the lives of a handful of key characters are intertwined and just as someone gives up hope the a stranger comes over the hill and a long lost love is returned.

With the marriage of Katia in ruins after Dasha made her admit her infidelity with the poet Bessonov one sister heads for Paris and the other to her father. But after some letters from Katia their father tells Dasha to go and see her husband Nikolai Ivanovich and tell him to go and fetch her.

She slays the temptation in the form of Bessonov, who is also in the Crimea, and meets the lover of her life Ivan Telegin who informs her that he is going off to fight in the war.

He heads off and the years pass by with Dasha working as a nurse in Moscow living with her brother in law. Finally Katia returns and they are all together. But the marriage is still clearly over and Katia falls for an officer who heads off to join the fight against the Germans and Austrians. Even Nikolai Ivanovich is called up.

Bessonov, who is a shadow of his former self, heads off to join the red cross workers at the front. He bids farewell by chance to Dasha in Moscow and then in a scene that sums up the futility of war and the hideous element of chance the poet is killed by a deserter. There is no motive other than fear for the crime and the poet is left for dead at the edge of a forest.

Meanwhile, Telegin escapes and heads back to the Russian lines and then after being rescued heads for Dasha. He meets her and her happiness returns.

It might seem to be a bit nineteenth century in feel but it is enjoyable reading and between the lines there is a fair amount of criticism of the Tsarist regime but also the Russians themselves who are prone to irrational aggression and driven by selfishness.

There is one great quote that sums up the pre-revolution problems expressed by Katia’s husband Nikolai Ivanovich:

“I saw that our life was all wrong; that this incessant pleasure-seeking would end some day in an explosion of despair.”

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Memories of My Melancholy Whores

Having failed to mark his 90th birthday with the virgin prostitute the journalist and bachelor starts to get a little bit introspective and decides to resign from his job as a columnist.

Having written in an old fashioned style the newspaper is not too keen to lose him because he has gone from being fashionable, despised and finally back to respected and appreciated.

The mistress of the whore house phones him up and offers the girl again as a birthday gift and after initially opting to turn her down the man accepts the offer and starts to get himself ready for round two.

There are some wonderful comments here about the way fashions come round and what can seem antiquated will return to popularity as long as it remains true to itself.

More tomorrow…

Muted by fear

This is one of the few blog postings I have made that does not have a great deal to do with books. The reason why I wanted to write was because my head is so full of thoughts it seemed like a cathartic exercise to get something down on paper.

Why do managers always assume that they can move people around like pieces on a chess board and then wonder why there is a dip in morale and a negative response? Why is it that whenever some short-sighted plan is unveiled we all bite our tongues and keep quiet for fear of losing our jobs by shouting out the obvious – this is all nonsense?

It is because most of us live in a strait-jacketed world where fear of losing income is the prime motivator for not only having a life of drugery but one of compromise. Brave people stand up and tell those in charge that what they plan to do is nonsense. But brave people rarely exist outside of the artificial world of the film studio and the author’s mind.

Whatever happens with the ‘will it or won’t it be a recession’ it is already being used as an excuse to make the lives of good people a misery. I just wish I wasn’t trapped along with everyone else in the grip of the need for a salary and had the guts to be able to do something about it…

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A bad day

It has been a very strange and horrible day at work today with some good people being made redundant. I have read some more Road to Calvary but my head is spinning about the injustice of things so posting a comment hasn’t come naturally. Hopefully my head will be calmer tomorrow and I can catch up.

Lunchtime read: Memories of My Melancholy Whores

The slim novellas by Gabriel Garcia Marquez are always good for a lunchtime read. They rake you to a different world almost instantly. Plus they usually have a tight story concerning an aspect of love that are not confined to the first stages in teenage years.

This story concerns a 90 year old bachelor who has decided that to celebrate his birthday he is going to go to the whore house and sleep with a virgin. He has never slept with a woman he did not pay and has had hundreds of encounters in his lifetime.

But as he gets older it is the powerful allure of not only proving to himself that he still has the ability but also the attraction of virgin territory that motivates his call to the brothel and his request.

It is fulfilled in the shape of a 14 year-old girl who is waiting for him asleep in the room. He leaves her sleeping and gets ready but she resists him by carrying on sleeping so he lies next to her and hears the midnight chime and the dawn of his 90th birthday.

More tomorrow…

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Road to Calvary - post I

This is one of those books that are the literary equivalent of going on a hike up a mountain. With 600 odd pages lying ahead and small type on a small side margined layout it is clear that this is going to be slow going.

As a result it seems sensible to split the book into the three parts that Tolstoy does with the first part introducing you to the world of two sisters living in Saint Petersburg in 1914.

Russia is a country full of opposing voices and characters like Rasputin running around soiling the reputation of the Tsar. Everyone has a view of what should be introduced to change the country and although hardly any agree on the way the future should look they all agree on the need for change.

Against the back drop of political meetings where the white middle and upper classes tentatively mix with the working class there are two sisters that are part of that world. Katrina and Dasha are moving with the times hosting and attending meetings where dangerous ideas are aired.

At one of the meetings the brooding but clearly influential poet is on the stage and he mentions to Dasha that he visited her sister’s home for one of the salons she held. Katrina fell under the poet’s spell and imperils her marriage by sleeping with the man who then threw her to one side having fulfilled his curiosity with her.

Dasha finds out about the affair and demands that her sister reveals it to her husband thereby ending the marriage. The sisters split apart with Dasha finishing her exams and heading back to her father's flat and her sister going to Paris.

Then Arch Duke Ferdinand is shot and the pause before the start of the First World War starts. All Dasha can think about is the man she met in St Petersburg who also shared her trip to the Volga to see her father. She is in love but he seems so far away.

A great tale of love and loss with the different characters being built up to overlap at various stages later on.

more tomorrow...

Lunchtime read: tough, tough toys for tough, tough boys

It seems appropriate that this collection of short stories ends with the characters introduced in the first story reappearing.

The Nonce Prize
This time the roles are reversed and the cool headed Danny has become a crack addict with his cleaned up brother running the business. Things go from bad to worse for Danny as the Jamaican drug boss he double crossed touches down in London wanting revenge. Expecting him to be killed Danny is treated to something much worse being framed by two sex offenders with a dead boy who has been murdered and abused.

Danny is locked up in the nonce wing with the other sex offenders and tries to get moved and is encouraged by the governor to do something with himself. He joins a creative writing class and enters the writing prize but is beaten in the end by someone less talented. he is told to try again next year.

There is of course the usual theme of drugs but there are another couple of observations here that stick with you. There is the feeling that writing can open the mind of those that might have no thoughts previously to be a writer; but equally the critics can be blind to talent and reward those without the gift.

A review will follow soon..

Sunday, January 20, 2008

bookmark of the week

Boldly deciding to drive into London on Saturday was rewarded with the discovery in the Tintin shop of this great magnetic bookmark. It is drawn by Herge and shows off another couple of his characters to celebrate the versatility of the cartoonist who had his centenary last year.

I originally had mixed feelings about magnetic bookmarks but they are useful to have tucked away in a pocket or a bag and so slowly but surely I have come round to appreciating them.

Another collecting weakness

Having confessed to liking bookmarks maybe now is the time to reveal a long lost stamp collection. Something stirred when the publicity came out showing off the stamps to celebrate James Bond. It's going to be hard to resist clicking onto the Royal Mail website...

Saturday, January 19, 2008

On Chesil Beach - post II

The second half of this novella doesn’t quite go in the direction you expect. The build up to the sexual act on their weeding eve has been countered with the back story of how Edward and Florence fell in love.

It is clear that the music loving Florence has found her soul mate in Edward and they plan to live happily ever after if she can just get over her worries and clammed up fears of sex. For Edward, a typical man, he expects to carry out his duty and get some pleasure out of it. He knows that Florence is very slow at coming to anything sexual but expects that as it is their wedding night she will allow him to at least consummate the marriage.

His biggest fear is premature ejaculation and ironically that occurs because Florence boldly touches him setting off a reaction he cannot stop. But that is when things fall apart because she runs from the room after being disgusted at the ejaculation over her body and heads for the beach.

Edward is clearly angry and humiliated at what has happened and after a while puts on his clothes and heads along the beach to find her. With her fears in the open it also liberates her anger and Florence wounds Edward and in a few critical sentences their marriage falls apart and she runs off to go home and he heads back to an empty honeymoon suite. He fails to understand her fears and her wish for patience.

That turn of events might not have been the one you were expecting but then with most of us pre-programmed for a happy ending you read on waiting for the reconciliation. But McEwan has other ideas and with Edward’s life on fast forward he skips through the next forty years leaving you in no doubt that those critical moments on Chesil Beach haunted him for the rest of his life and the love he lost was the most powerful he had ever known.

A review will follow soon…

Friday, January 18, 2008

On Chesil Beach - Post I

With a couple of his books under the belt and the fact that his name is everywhere it seemed like a good idea to bring things up-to-date and read Ian McEwan’s latest book.

Without going into too much detail the prospect of intimate relations with my wife on my wedding night never filled me with dread. When it came to the moment the problem was just staying awake – after a full couple of days preparing and then getting married. However for the husband and wife in this story that is far from the case.

It harks back to a different age when sex was a taboo subject for some people and the idea of participating in the act filled some people with dread.

The story moves like waves coming and going from the present to the past as McEwan weaves a story around how Florence and Edward are on honeymoon, met, fell in love and got married. The elephant in the room, to use a phrase, is that at the end of the lovely meal they are enjoying in the hotel overlooking the path down to Chesil beach in Dorset they will of course have to consummate their marriage.

Both husband and wife are scared of the idea but Florence more so. She takes the odd decision to appear to initiate the move from the dining table to the bedroom so that her husband will not detect her fear. Meanwhile he is starting to allow his primal desires to kick in and you sense that as the story comes back from revealing how and where they met and the bedroom looms large again, that there will be some sort of showdown.

The writing is fluid and easy to consume even if it is initially a bit disappointing that this is going to be focused on the sexual act. But the description of their lives, location and motivation is handled so simply that you picture it all without ever realising the picture has been painted so well for you/

The second half will be posted about over the weekend…

Children's must read book lists

One of the people I work with who has responsibility for blogs gave the advice that if you want to get people interested come up with a list. That mantra seems to have been taken to heart by more than just bloggers with Channel 4 dedicating a chunk of its scheduling to programmes about lists and the newspapers doing the same.

So it was no surprise that the Telegraph ran a story about the books children should read, sparked off by an article by Michael Morpurgo. Of course any concerned parent would click on and check which ones they had on their bookshelves. Plus those academics or opinionated readers would keep the letters pages and forums ticking over with the usual responses about “how could you have missed off?” and add their recommendations.

Getting children reading anything is a positive result so those looking for inspiration or for a chance to add their own recommendations to the list can click onto the paper’s online debate here.

Lunchtime read: tough, tough toys for tough, tough boys

Stories about the inner workings of the mind are filtered through the kaleidoscopic influences of drugs, lust and alcohol in Self’s writing. He manages to give a straight forward looking character a hidden chemical fuelled depth that makes it possible to warp perceptions. So you end up with cars the length of a city block, giants and doll sized women and drivers merging into their cars.

Tough, tough toys for tough, tough boys
A drug and drink fuelled Cracker like psychiatrist who specialises in helping the Police work out the motivations of lunatics is driving from Orkney to London. Slumped in his car, which becomes an extension of him, Bill cruises through winding windswept roads. Bill makes the decision to pick up a hitch hiker and in the miles and hours it takes to take the alcoholic loser to Glasgow Bill interrogates the passenger but is never asked anything about himself.

He leaves the hitchhiker and starts wondering more and more about a comment he made about the latter’s passion for getting drunk and sitting on large Tonka toys. He had been explaining to Bill how he sailed down the main street in Glasgow when the psychiatrist interrupted to quote at him the Tonka advertising strap line and this book’s title. That shuts up his passenger and as he drives off after dropping him off Bill muses on the fact that the qualities he frowned on in his passenger are exactly the same he has.

Design Faults in the Volvo 760 Turbo: A Manual
There are some great lines in this about England supporters going home to support the club on their own TV terraces. But it is also pretty confusing trying to work out what is reality and what is exaggerated dream. A simple case of adultery becomes dangerous for the owner of the Volvo after he starts to associate the name of the car with the act of sex with his mistress. He turns to a friend he has who runs a Volvo garage for help. But the friend, who always psychoanalyses the owner of the car rather than the fault in the engine, is about to climb into bed with the Volvo’s owner.

It is a clever twist with the car being the trigger that links the adultery of both husband and wife. But it is shrouded again in that mist of exaggerated imagery that I guess you either love or hate.

Final story to come maybe tomorrow…

Thursday, January 17, 2008

book review - Rites of Passage

If there is one thing most people know about William Golding it is about his ability to describe in words the moment when a crowd turns ugly and someone is destroyed either physically or mentally.

One of the things you remember about Lord of the Flies apart from the conch and the island home of the boys is the demise of Piggy who is bullied to his death. There is a similar figure here in the first part of the Pssage of the Sea trilogy with the parson Colley. He becomes the focus of the book but it takes a while to get there.

The story is told through the journal entries of Edmund Talbot who is going to Australia to take up some sort of government service and has connections with some powerful backers in the form of his godfather. Talbot joins the crew of on a ship that is sailing around not too long after nelson because we are still at war with the French. That would date it at around the early 19th century when it was still the age of sail and Britain ruled the waves.

The book settles down with Talbot becoming the eyes you see the world through with him meeting other passengers and importantly the captain. Because he enrages the captain, who likes passengers never to come near him, the naval warrior decides to exert his power over the crew by picking on the parson. The captain has a pathological hatred of the clergy believing himself to have been robbed out of his inheritance by one.

With the captain’s blessing the parson becomes an open target for abuse and things come to a head when he appears ramshackled and drunk on the deck and is led away to his cabin in disgrace. No one can tempt him out to talk and he slowly withers away refusing food and drink and dies on an evening when the captain has ironically invited some guests, including Talbot into his cabin for dinner.

The captain is forced to thaw because of the announcement of Talbot of his journal, which will be sent to his godfather, with the implied threat that the bullying will be revealed to a wider audience. The captain calls for agreement that Colley died from a low fever and Talbot is forced to go along with that conclusion.

But the last third of the book is taken up with Talbot printed ad verbatim the words that Colley had put down in a letter to his sister. When compared to the facts that start to emerge from the inquest following the death of the parson it creates a heart-rendering account through the eyes of an innocent bullying victim.

Colley is naïve but that is his only real fault along with maybe his dogged persistence to serve the Lord by demanding services are held. He is humiliated by the sailors and the other passengers and is finally exploited when drunk and a sailor performs an act of oral sex on him, the act the forces him to do die with shame.

This is powerful writing and for anyone who has ever considered joining in when someone is being taunted and humiliated then this should make them think long and hard about what it does to the victim of the bullying.

Version read - Faber & Faber paperback

Lunchtime read: tough, tough toys for tough, tough boys

Most of the literature you will read is written with an eye on being as realistic as possible. Authors no doubt view the exercise of travelling into a character’s mind as innovative enough. But then there are writers like Self who produce stuff that borders on the fantasy because it seems to have little relation to real life.

The result is that you can be disturbed as logic is warped and the laws of physics bent out of all order but it is a different type of writing and worth reading – although I’m not sure I would opt for this style on a regular basis.

Caring, Sharing
Human beings seem to grow up in farms together and then leave to join the world accompanied by a 14 foot emotos that have a non sexual relationship with them by mother them through life. Frightened of sexual contact, commitment and almost any conversation the humans wander round only managing to sleep on a cocktail of nerve numbing drugs.

The irony is of course that the emoto’s, who are portrayed as non-smoking, non-drinking and non-sexual teddy bear type creatures, have a secret life. They have a level of innocent cynicism (if such a thing can exist) about their owners and look on them with pity.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Close Quarters - post III

The ship does become the main focus of the last third of the book. But it never becomes as full a character as the ships in the world of Patrick O’Brien do. The reason for that is no matter where he goes on the boat life on board is always seen through the landlubber eyes of the main character Talbot.

The result is both good and bad. The bad is that sometimes it is difficult to visualise where he is. But on the positive side the panic that sweeps the ship when it looks like it might break up and sink is more believable because Talbot does not have the instinctive knowledge to know for sure whether he will sink or not.

The love sick and increasingly isolated aristocrat moons about the place dreaming about the young girl he has left behind on the other ship. He manages to annoy most of his fellow passengers and has been nicknamed ‘Lord’ by the sailors who don’t have much time for him.

He seems largely unaware and in a series of odd encounters with the ship’s carpenter, purser and its officers is made aware the ship is in real danger of breaking up. He is seen as a link between the passengers and the captain but after his servant Wheeler chooses to kill himself Talbot makes his third move into the officers quarters. There he makes the decision to lock his journal in a watertight box just in case the ship sinks. As a result there is a postscript that is clearly written after he has reached land acting as a partial conclusion and a lead-in for the final part of the trilogy.

A review will follow soon…

Lunchtime read: tough, tough toys for tough, tough boys

Some of these stories feel a bit like one of the M. Night Shyamalan films when you know a twist is coming and spend most of your time working out what it could be. The result is that you end up not really concentrating on the story but try to out fox Self by getting the twist before it becomes clear.

A Story for Europe
The perfect son seems to be a gibbering monster at two and half and in a world where his mother cannot reach out and relate to him. They look for answers and in the end resort to taking him to a child psychologist. Meanwhile in Germany a well regarded business man starts to have some sort of breakdown and in the end a chance encounter with a German doctor at the psychology clinic determines that the young boy is speaking business German. Meanwhile the business German speaking doctor has a stroke and can only speak two and half year old gibberish.

On the dust jacket this tale is described as being hilarious. Wouldn’t quite go that far and of course because you know a twist is coming the minute the German business man is introduced.

Dave Too
The story starts with a man leaving a session with his doctor and then meeting his best friend in the café. In the café are three Dave’s and then everyone he meets is called Dave, including his girlfriend who has chosen to change her name by Deed Poll to Davina. The psychiatrist informs his patient that life could be so much easier if he only decided to take the plunge and change his name to Dave.

This story works better because it makes you think of a potential twist around the medical and not something as simple as the name. Ironically I thought that this was funnier than the Story for Europe, although of course the idea is potentially just as disturbing.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: tough, tough toys for tough, tough boys

Some of these stories feel a bit like one of the M. Night Shyamalan films when you know a twist is coming and spend most of your time working out what it could be. The result is that you end up not really concentrating on the story but try to out fox Self by getting the twist before it becomes clear.

A Story for Europe
The perfect son seems to be a gibbering monster at two and half and in a world where his mother cannot reach out and relate to him. They look for answers and in the end resort to taking him to a child psychologist. Meanwhile in Germany a well regarded business man starts to have some sort of breakdown and in the end a chance encounter with a German doctor at the psychology clinic determines that the young boy is speaking business German. Meanwhile the business German speaking doctor has a stroke and can only speak two and half year old gibberish.

On the dust jacket this tale is described as being hilarious. Wouldn’t quite go that far and of course because you know a twist is coming the minute the German business man is introduced.

Dave Too
The story starts with a man leaving a session with his doctor and then meeting his best friend in the café. In the café are three Dave’s and then everyone he meets is called Dave, including his girlfriend who has chosen to change her name by Deed Poll to Davina. The psychiatrist informs his patient that life could be so much easier if he only decided to take the plunge and change his name to Dave.

This story works better because it makes you think of a potential twist around the medical and not something as simple as the name. Ironically I thought that this was funnier than the Story for Europe, although of course the idea is potentially just as disturbing.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Close Quarters - post II

If the first book was all about hate, humiliation and regret. Then the second book is about love and peace with the narrator falling head over heels for a young woman while the entire crew celebrates peace against France.

The peace is announced by a fellow English boat that is heading to India. Because the wind has dropped to almost nothing the boats pull up aside each other and the captain and Talbot are invited to lunch with the fellow captain Sir Henry and Lady Somerset. They introduce their protégée who wows Talbot who is still suffering from a head wound gained firstly in a storm and then again as he volunteered to fight on the gun deck when the crew thought the advancing English ship was in fact French.

For most of the time Talbot is suffering from concussion and he seems to forget himself on regular occasions becoming over familiar with the captain and the officers and then declaring love to a girl he has known for just a few hours. But he becomes determined to get the girl transferred to his cabin.

That night the two boats lie alongside each other before being parted as the wind returns and Talbot finally collapses and is sent to bed. When he awakes the boat with Sir Henry, Lady Somerset and the girl have gone and the story then returns to more mundane matters like life and death as the crew struggle against storms without much of their sails.

Where the story goes from here is not quite clear unless as you suspect slightly the young woman did indeed get transferred to his cabin and no one has yet told him about it? We shall see tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: tough, tough toys for tough, tough boys

Discussing things at a meeting this morning I mentioned in passing to someone that I was reading Will Self. "Doesn't he annoy you?" was the question I was asked and maybe after just two stories it is unfair to comment. But to a certain degree he does. The language can be aggressive and the stories dark.

Anything to do with insects gets compared to the great Kafka and this at least does not go down a route of having a character transform. Instead John becomes able to communicate with the insects that have previously been making his hot summer life hell. He starts to enjoy a life in Flytopia, where he can co-exist with the insects. The punch comes at the end though as his partner returns and heads for the spare room, which has become a maggot breeding ground on rotten meat. As she walks in she is engulfed by the insects that had been half-heartedly promised more meat by John.

Reading this reminds me of the experience of reading Irvine Welsh in that here is an author confident in his own ability but keen to set out to shock. The world he creates and invites the reader into are dark, unpleasant and capable of leaving a disturbing imprint on the mind. That can be both good and depending on your mood unwelcome.

More tomorrow...

Monday, January 14, 2008

Close Quarters - post I

It is not compulsory to go from book one to book two in a trilogy but it was close to hand and so seemed like a natural choice. If Rites of Passage was about the story of the demise of the parson Colley then it is not quite clear what Close Quarters is about.

Talbot the narrator is still on his voyage to Australia and things start to get slowly back to normal after the death of the parson. In a bid to make his journal, which is now purely for personal consumption not for his Godfather’s eyes, interesting he searches for a hero. He settles on Summers and opens up to him about his ambitions to make it in politics but before their relationship develops the weather intervenes.

A storm smashes into the ship and a drunk officer who has left an apprentice on duty is pulled before the captain and faces certain court martial once back on dry land. Talbot who tried to help in the crisis is knocked down by a rope end and is semi-conscious for quite a while and spends the next few days half-cut with not too much sympathy for his injuries.

The weather is the cause again of the main excitement as a boat draws near. The boat prepares for a battle with the French and the excitement and fear is palpable. But when the boat finally draws alongside it appears to be English with the news that the war against Napoleon and the French is over.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: tough, tough toys for tough, tough boys

One of the resolutions made this year was to try to read more modern fiction but to do so without ending up getting frustrated. The inevitable consequence of treading carefully is that you stick to a well-beaten path. So the choice for this week on one level is daring for someone sometimes stuck in a 19th or early 20th century literary landscape but is also relatively safe.

Will Self is a well known writer and journalist and this collection of short stories looked like being perfect lunchtime reading. It was only half way through the first story it occurred to me that it might also have the sort of story content that will put you off your food.

The rock of crack as big as the Ritz
The first story about someone finding a natural seam of crack in their basement contains a few thoughts about the power of addiction and the wisdom of remaining aloof from its grip. Danny sells drugs but he never indulges in them providing him with a combination guaranteed to make him money. His brother on the other hand cannot resist and ends up at the end of the story sharing a desperate hit with one of his customers.

The references seem genuine and the language of drugs believable. Something else no doubt completely different coming from the collection tomorrow…

Sunday, January 13, 2008

bookmark of the week

One of the benefits of living on the edge of London is that occasionally you can go into the City and see some of the sights. Having booked it ages ago the family popped into town to see the Terracotta Army exhibition at the British Museum. The exhibition was packed and it reminded me of the Tutankhamen exhibition at the O2 in that there was not that much there. Of course the figures were impressive but there wasn’t much else apart from the figures in the centre of the exhibition and the crowds made it impossible almost to see what other bits and pieces were there.

Glad I went but it seems to be that the more the hype about an exhibition then the more chances there are of not a great deal being there. Plus with bronze bookmarks on sale at £8.99 it seemed rather off to be expected to pay more than a book just to get a bookmark. Still at one of the museum’s other shops this much cheaper bookmark was available.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

book review - The Cement Garden

Sometimes authors choose to allude to a case of cause and effect and in other cases the results become the content of the novel. Ian McEwan chooses to show the consequences of the death of both parents to a family of four, all at various ages under 19.

The first to go is the father, who is remote and not particularly missed after he keels over with a heart attack while laying out a cement path in the garden. The family gravitates around the mother but she is ill and starts to head downhill. Even before she dies each of the children have had some character quirks outlined. The main focus, Jack, starts to lose interest in hygiene and social relationships and his much younger brother Tom toys with the idea of becoming a girl. The mother is ironically not that strong a character. She doesn't say a great deal and for the last few weeks of her life she is bedbound. But her death removes any pretence that the family can carry on as normal.

Once the mother dies the cracks, both literal and metaphorical appear and the house, with its cement filled garden, becomes cut off from reality in almost every sense of the word. The cement is used to bury the mother in a trunk in the cellar. Finally there is an entrant from the outside worlds in the form of the eldest girl’s boyfriend. He discovers the secret in the cellar and in the end, after catching jack and his sister involved in incest, calls in social services to end the situation.

But before Derek makes the call to get other people involved with the family things have really fallen apart. Tom has started dressing as a girl and then entered a baby phase. Sue the next in age lives in the pages of her diary, which she addresses to her mother. Jack drifts through the day never knowing the time or washing and Julie plays at being the mother but has a tendency to revert to being immature.

Without the support and the moral guidelines of the mother the children quickly lose routine, self-responsibility and any motivation for interacting with the world and the prospect of returning to school at the end of the holidays is dismissed by Jack.

The final scene has been brewing and in some ways is over done in that you almost don’t need to see where the logical conclusion of their world goes without boundaries. What you have to give McEwan credit for is the ability to create a sense of place. The summer heat and the strangeness of the large house with the corpse in the cellar is something you can picture very clearly. Of the few McEwan books I have managed to read it is always this sense of place that is brilliantly done and it is the same here. The story might not always be comfortable to read and the way of showing how the grief is impacting the children sometimes feel too much but it does leave you thinking and that is a positive.

Version read - Vintage paperback

Friday, January 11, 2008

Rites of Passage - post IV

Lord of the Flies is one of those books that you are made to read at school and all you can usually remember is the conch and poor old Piggy. With the demise of the parson Colley in Rites of Passage it is clear that Golding is in a field of his own when it comes to writing about bullying.

It is not just a case of school ground stuff, although it does seem to be no better than that, but describes how groups can turn and lives can be destroyed. In this case the poor parson, who has been bullied by the captain for something out of his control – the later man’s hatred of men of the cloth – faces something much worse. Because the captain has allowed a climate of hate to build up against Colley it is almost inevitable on a hot slow moving ship that it will spill over. When it does it destroys poor old Colley. Not only does he get drunk but then allows himself to be given oral sex by a sailor who he had been struggling to control his emotions over. The recollection of the events after he sobers up literally kills the parson. He decides to die in his cabin rather than remerge and seek some sort of forgiveness.

All this becomes clear after the event though. Using a literary device of Talbot printing Colley’s private latter to his sister the full sorry side of Colley’s story comes out. The final sad details emerge after an investigation and the free comments of the sailors involved.

The first book ends with the voyage still going on but a stage in it complete. The death of Colley – an innocent out of his depth – stirs some people to look at their own behaviour. From a reader’s perspective it makes you think about how cruel people, including yourself can be, and you make a secret resolve never to be one of those watching and laughing when a Colley type figure is overwhelmed by public cruelty.

A review will follow soon…

Lunchtime read: The Cement Garden

After reading the conclusion of The Cement Garden along with Castle in the Forest last year I have come to the conclusion that I am a prude. I understand the way that crude sexual acts can be used to deliberately provoke a reaction in the reader, but that doesn’t mean you have to like them.

The finale of the Cement Garden sees an act of incest that is clumsy but reasonably graphic. Of course it symbolises the complete breakdown not just of authority but morality of the four orphans. But is also leaves you wondering why it is necessary to spell it out so clearly when paraphrasing or mentioning it in passing would have done just as well.

At the end you hear the slamming of car doors and the people heading towards the door and you know that the end of the summer has resulted in the end of their freedom. Derek, Julie’s boyfriend might have been the catalyst but the result probably would have been the same anyway.

You feel some sympathy but also a fair amount of horror at what has happened to the teenagers in the wake of their parent’s death.

A review will follow soon…

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Lunchtime read: The Cement Garden

Trying to sum up today’s reading is not easy. The main development seems to be the way that the family pull together only to then split apart under the dual influences of Julies boyfriend and Tom’s odd way of grieving.

In the first instance Derek, a snooker player with a flash car, turns up and adds more flesh to the life that the newly smoking Julie is leading beyond the house. Jack doesn’t like him but Sue is okay about the entry of a stranger into their odd world.

The youngest child Tom however starts to dress as a girl. Something he had joked about when his mother was alive no becomes awkwardly real. Then he seems to move on from that phase, partly because he is hit out of it, and starts to regress to become a baby.

It is clear to see that the children are each crippled in their own way by grief and the weight of being orphans and McEwan manages to inform you of their pain without the characters themselves being able to do a great deal about it.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

book review - The White Lioness

This is the third book in the Kurt Wallander series by Swedish writer Henning Mankell. The first book Faceless Killers had a gripping story; tightness created by a rural Swedish geography and was a great read. The second book started to go a bit into the world of fantasy with Wallander fighting against Latvian corrupt police officers in Dogs of Riga.

The third again decides to stretch the horizon beyond Sweden. This time the target is South Africa and Mandela has just been released and political turmoil is expected. The story on paper works with Sweden being used as a training ground for an assassin that has been hired by white extremists to shoot Mandela. The problem is that the distance between the world of Wallander and the world of South African politics is too far.

As a result where the book works is when the story centres on Wallander and his battle with the KGB agent training the assassin in Sweden. The problem though is that this again starts to become fanciful and Wallander starts to break most of the rules and try to solve the crime in his own way with almost disastrous consequences.

There is nothing wrong with stretching imagination, after all isn’t that what fiction is all about, but when it comes to a police thriller you have to believe that what you are reading is possible. Whether it is Holmes, Morse or the other Swedish detective Martin Beck you want to believe that the actions of the hero are based broadly on truth. Here with guns going off, grenades being thrown into flats and bars and crazy Russians it is hard to stick with it.

Ultimately that was my problem. This was meant to be enjoyable but because it failed to make me believe in it then it started not to be enjoyable. Let’s not write the series off but for now I am going to take a break and head back towards some more established classic fiction.

Version read – Vintage paperback

Rites of Passage - post III

This story starts to move into the tragic-comic with the socially pious narrator Mr Talbot partly to blame for the death of the parson. Despite the consequences of his actions being partially spelt put to him by the officer Summers Talbot manages to fail to see quite how he is to blame until he reads the parsons letter meant for his sister.

Knowing about the existence of the journal being kept by Talbot that is going to be shown to his influential connections the captain tries to make sure he gets a favourable report and invites the aristocrat to dinner. During the awkward encounter the guests are informed that the parson, who had been refusing to come out of his cabin or eat and drink, has died.

The next set of pages are then used to show the letter that the parson has written to his sister but decided not to send. In the letter a completely different point of view on the voyage is given and it is a tragic tale of a man’s slide into depression and eventually suicidal thoughts.

Despite the relatively limited number of pages left it is still hard to see where this book is going and quite what the point it is trying to make other than the one about bullying and the consequences of social snobbery.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Cement Garden

The idea that a death of a parent can be kept secret starts to become core to the story. As a result of being orphaned the children start to fall apart leaving food to go off and their routine to fall apart.

The battle for supremacy continues between the eldest children but the disintegration of the family unit, which comes together briefly when the mother is buried in concrete in the cellar, soon drifts apart again.

It is hard to like the main voice, Jack, not just because he is a loner but because he seems to deliberately set himself apart from the world. As a piece of fiction that gives a description of a 15 year old attitude it is accurate.

What should be interesting is the pattern the family fall into once the school holidays end and the grief has started to ease.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Rites of Passage - post II

This is quickly becoming a book about class with the narrator to blame for several problems connected with it.

The first problem is that by effectively blackmailing the captain into talking to him by dropping his connections the ship’s captain feels undermined. As a result in an attempt to reassert his authority the captain demolishes the parson. In a scene of drunken breakdown the parson disgraces himself and then takes to his bunk and will not move – even to use the facilities.

On the other front the lieutenant who has risen up from the ranks from the a common sailor is offended when it is pointed out to him that you can never leave your past behind. That comment clearly rankles and there is a scene later on when the narrator is confronted with a need to explain and justify the remark.

The book runs along smoothly but you cannot make up your mind quite what category this falls into. Is it a comedy? It certainly has its comic moments. Is it a social commentary on the British class system at the time of the Empire and within touching distance of the era of Nelson? It does display the sort of people travelling to discover a new life.

Maybe the ambition of Golding will become clearer in the next couple of day’s reading.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Cement Garden

There is always a hint of the incestuous with the close knit family with Jack the main character being aroused at the sight of any substantial quantity of his sister’s body. But over hanging the family is the slow decline of the mother who becomes bedridden and then finally dies.

For Jack and his elder sister Julie the question with their mother’s death becomes one of control. Who will now run the family and be in a position to give orders? Jack was told by his mother it would be a task for both of them but that message was never passed on before her death.

Meanwhile the teenager becomes isolated and unkempt being ashamed of his acne and of his lack of friendships, even in his own family.

More tomorrow…

Monday, January 07, 2008

Something to argue about...

Whenever lists are produced it always produces fodder for numerous arguments. So The Times no doubt will have a fair few letters in next Saturday's edition and on its Book site in response to its list of the best post-war British authors.

For those who did not see it here is the top twenty:
1. Philip Larkin                             11. C.S. Lewis
2. George Orwell                          12. Iris Murdoch
3. William Golding                       13. Salman Rushdie
4. Ted Hughes                                14. Ian Fleming
5. Doris Lessing                             15. Jan Morris
6. J. R. R. Tolkien                          16. Roald Dahl
7. V. S. Naipaul                               17. Anthony Burgess
8. Muriel Spark                              18. Mervyn Peake
9. Kingsley Amis                             19. Martin Amis
10. Angela Carter                            20. Anthony Powell

Rites of Passage - post I

At the weekend The Times book section listed the top 50 post-war British Authors. It was a pretty comprehensive list and each author had a recommended text. In third place was William Golding and the little summary recommended his To The Ends of the Earth: A Sea Trilogy. I have had the trilogy on the shelf for ages and never got round to reading it. Well that is not quite fair. When it was made into a television series it rather put me off but now that is a distant memory and with the Times prompting it seemed a good time to tuck into the first book.

The idea of the text is that it is a diary being written by a man heading off to Australia for three or four years in service of the British Empire for consumption by his sponsor His Lordship. The first 100 pages at times seem like a farce as the unsuspecting narrator manages to upset the captain, insult one of the other female passengers and falls victim to the money making schemes of the man charged to look after him.

But there starts to be some sort of success and he soon starts to make friendships and ends up being the olive branch that brings back into circulation the vicar who has been banned by the captain. He also has an encounter with the best looking female on board but no sooner having had a tryst in his cabin with her he starts to regret it.

The world of the ship is alien to him and no matter how much he walks about it and requests tours of below decks he can only see it through land based eyes. The idea of segregated society and Sunday services marks him out as someone alien to the world of the seas rather than the reformer he prefers to see himself as.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Cement Garden

In its attempt to try and summarise the noughties so far the Guardian put together a series of articles in one of its issues last week to encapsulate the last seven years. When it came to looking back over literature one of the main conclusions was that these last few years have been dominated by Ian McEwan.

Having read Saturday last year and before that a few years ago Enduring Love and enjoyed the former much more than the latter it seemed like a good idea to expand the knowledge of this writer.

The Cement Garden has an almost Norman Mailer feel to it with its content including equal doses of death and masturbation. It also echoes the family theme that ran through Caste in the Forest. But there is more of an Englishness to it so the characters are awkwardly self-aware with the four children and the family unit being very natural.

The father orders 15 bags of cement to cover the front, side and back of the house in concrete. He has been warned off heavy labour because of a heart attack but he cannot resist working with his eldest son to start laying a path. He drops dead and leaves two daughters and two brothers left with a mother who is also dying. There are clearly tensions in the family, not just because of the death but because of the problems caused by adolescence.

The future looks bleak for the children. More tomorrow…

Sunday, January 06, 2008

bookmark of the week

With the exhibition only being a few minutes down the road I finally took the decision to visit the Tutankhamun And the Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibition at the 02 Dome in Greenwich. The tickets were expensive and the gift shop extortionate – this bookmark was £2.95 or just shy of $6. The exhibition itself was airy and rather stretched out making it no doubt feel bigger than it actually needed to be. On the positive side it did tell a story about the background to the emergence of Tutankhamun that was mostly fresh information for me and most of the other visitors but on the downside the exhibits from the Tutankhamun era were not as extensive as you expected and instead of the legendary death mask this golden coffinette for the viscera of King Tut was the main highlight, which is shown on the bookmark.

Beautiful things from an amazing period of history but maybe it should have been handled by a proper museum rather than housed in a palace of entertainment.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

book review - The Road

The Road is one of those books that gets talked about over a hot dog at a friends barbeque or in the pub. For most people I spoke to it was the first time they had come across Cormac McCarthy and the Pulitzer Prize and the critic’s recommendations wowed them. But one friend persuaded me to read McCarthy before the paperback of The Road came out so there was an odd route to The Road.

But it was a route worth commenting on because without reading No Country for Old Men and the Border Trilogy it would have left me at a distinct disadvantage. There are several things it takes time getting used to with McCarthy. The first is the lack of quote marks and the lack of chapter headings. The second is that you become acquainted not only with his themes – a dying age and the end of the cowboys – but also with his ability to deliver shocking violence.

Come to this without any of that understanding and it might well have forced some people off. I know of at least one person who did not stick with it and that is a shame because this is exactly what great fiction is all about. It is epic in its ambition to paint a picture of a world that is post apocalyptic and its last few inhabitants. It is focused in its characterisation basing almost the entire book on the relationship of a father and son. Plus it is clear in its message – kill the planet and something dreadful awaits us all.

The story is on the one hand quite simple with a father and son walking the road to the coast, a couple of hundred miles, dragging all they can in a cart. They search for food and other tools on the way, risking running into other survivors in the process. They stumble across a group of cannibals and almost become victims to them. But the wariness the father has all the time leads them finally to the coast. There the end comes for the father as he dies of some sort of tuberculosis type condition leaving the boy to the care of another family.

Throughout there are musings on God – does one exist in that sort of world – the past and crucially life and death. If there is nothing but death eventually then why not end it now – a choice taken by the boy’s mother. At the end of The Road you are left with numerous questions. It is surely for that reason that this book has been so highly regarded. In a world where global warming and nuclear weapons – just two ways both long and short – that we could destroy ourselves, dominate the headlines few things make you think as much as this. By painting a vivid picture of what it could be like if it all goes wrong this book should sound the alarm for all of us.

Version read – Picador paperback

Friday, January 04, 2008

The White Lioness - post VI

This has been a bit of a hangover from 2007 and so it is with some sense of relief that it has finally come to a conclusion.

The thriller ends with some bravery in style with Wallander the hero sliding into depression after solving an international crime. Part of the problem is that the crime was too big for the humble Swedish policeman and he never realised how much he did to foil a plot to kill Mandela.

This is an incredibly political book and although the message is a worthy one it does make that mistake of preaching sometimes. There is a postscript where Mankell makes the point that the period in South Africa before the first free elections was one of major insecurity. The problem is that reading this book now it is all a bit historic and we know what happened with Mandela so the sense of tension is lost slightly. The other problem is that towards the end there are a series of mistakes that are meant to add to the tension but after a while become slightly irritating.

I’m not sure if I would read the next book in the series. Maybe, but I’m going to take a break from this type of fiction for a while and head back to something old and something Russian.

A review will follow shortly…

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The White Lioness - post V

The humble Swedish policeman gets his man and nails the ex-KGB agent ending his personal terror. The interesting move is that the terror is ended for Wallander with sixty odd pages to go until the story climaxes presumably taking the narrative back to South Africa.

The pace in these pages is impressive. But the problem is that the events are highly charged with emotion because Wallander’s daughter is involved. After her escape the detective actually uses some of his skills to track down the Russian killer but there is far too much jumping around without much Holmes type detection to back it all up.

As you might be able to tell this book has not been quite the experience I expected and following this you are tempted to drink down some Dostoyevsky as some sort of classical remedy.

Last chunk should come tomorrow…

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Book review - The Black Madonna

The moment when Doris Lessing stepped out of a cab and had a microphone stuck under her nose to get her reaction to winning the Nobel Prize was a classic piece of television. She seemed to be indifferent and it was only on a follow-up interview on Newsnight that the achievement seemed to have started to sink in. For me the name Lessing was one that had never really been bleeping on the radar so the prize and the coverage had the result of putting it in my mind. It also helped that my local library put together all of her books promoting them.

The Black Madonna is a collection of short stories with the title story going first. They all have the same thing in common being set against a colonial background but they cover different issues.

Some of the stand out stories concern the gap between the whites and the blacks and the discovery that the later has pride and justifiable resentment. The girl who wanders into the native village describes wonderfully the feeling of alienation that the natives must feel back in her world. Then there is the cook who heals a boy but refuses to share the secret with the scientist that hopes to exploit it to make a fortune. There is a great ability to lift the curtain and show you on the other side.

Lessing manages to use a few pages to deal with racial, class and sexual issues that other writers might have resorted to acres of print to get the same message across. Her character portraits are deep but never overpowering and there is often an autobiographical feel to it with the leading characters being young girls.

In some ways the world that Lessing describes is a world that has gone much like that Kipling but there is a difference. Her stories comment on the world she describes and the characters show the ugliness and gap between those who believe they are masters and those who have to play the role of servants. The reality is that those who serve are the real masters of the land they live on and their continued existence and often silence is a protest rather than an acceptance of slavery.

Would this give you a desire to read more Lessing? It would but it would also provide you with an indication of where she is coming from. It is not that often you come across a voice that is so well defined and so clearly feminine. Most of these stories reserve the insight into the racial colonial world to girls and women. That is something that might make me read more because there is a style here that is distinctive. But as suspected this collection of short stories is an ideal starting point.

The White Lioness - post IV

This book is something I had planned to get through last year but it has dragged on a bit. It has quickly come down to a simple chase between two men to be the first to kill the other. On the side of good is Kurt Wallander and facing the policeman is the crazed ex-KGB officer who shoots in the back of the head for fun.

The political story line about an assassination of Nelson Mandela continues to rumble on in the background but this is more about the cat and mouse game in Sweden. Maybe it would have been better if it had simply stayed that way and limited the horizon rather than to try and make it some sort of international thriller. The story would have felt more believable and the Swedish landscape given more of a chance to feature.

Still there is enough pace about the writing to make you want to find out about what Wallander does next and by page 400 his daughter has been taken hostage. Maybe his father will start to show more respect for his policeman son if he can solve this crime?

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The year of the book?

One of the highlights of last year was joining a library. It was not the first time I had been a member of a library and have usually had a card since a young boy. But moving around London in the last few years denied me the motivation to settle down enough to get a library card. That changed this year and it has been a great source of not only books but also occasionally advice.

With that in mind it seemed a great shame to read The Independent’s article about the closure of so many libraries this year. It seems that investment is lacking. But part of the problem must also be the identity crisis that most libraries seem to be going through. Are these temples of learning that are open to all? Or are they cheap alternatives to Internet cafes and Blockbuster film rental stores? No doubt there is a happy balance between the two but even my local library seems to fall on the wrong side of that tightrope.

Let’s hope that if the government is serious about 2008 being the year of the book that the investment in libraries, and in particular providing books for the public, will improve this year.

A year of reading - part two

In the second part of my review of the books consumed this year there has to be a mention for a couple of authors in particular that provoked a frenzy of reading activity.

J.D Salinger
Starting with Catcher in the Rye, which was everything you expected it to be with the teenage anti-hero, there was enough about the style to provoke a delve into the short story collections. The creation of the Glass family, which seemed so genuinely biographical, is something that weaves throughout his other books. Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters both expanded on the family history. The pivotal event, apart from the family being involved in a popular radio series as children is the suicide of the eldest son Seymour. That event stirs his brother Buddy to be the voice of the narrator that looks for clues to the suicide and catalogues the impact on the siblings.

Cormac McCarthy
One of the great things about loving books is that it can lead to interesting conversations with friends. One of mine led to an exchange with a McCarthy loving friend. I didn’t act on his enthusiasm until half way through the year and then tackled No Country for Old Men and the Border Trilogy. Those four books, which concentrated on the changing nature of Texas and the mystery of the Mexican border, were the perfect preparation for The Road. Probably my favourite book of the year, The Road is able to take the idea of a dying world to its logical conclusion. Once there all that is left is love, hope and a fading respect for some of the traditions of the past.

Crime fighters
Thrillers have always been a source of relaxation and there were some great surprises. The Swedish husband and wife team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo managed to grip you with Roseanna and introduce a ten book series following the exploits of Martin Beck. As the year ended the first two had been read and Father Christmas had delivered the third. Henning Mankell, another Swedish author, looked like delivering the same quality with Faceless Killers but his next two books, the third of which I am still wading through, failed to deliver. Arthur Conan Doyle provided the holiday reading in Switzerland as I visited the falls where Holmes had fought with Moriarty.

British humour
Times gone by, a gentler age, were easily discovered leafing through the pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat and the Lord Elmsworth stories by P.G. Wodehouse. Although none of the above provided many laugh out loud moments they all threw open a window into the past when it was possible to get into a farcical scrape and still come out of it having kept the reputation of the upper classes intact.

Short stories
One of the pleasures, and occasional chores, of 2007 was being ambitious enough to fill each lunch hour with novellas or collections of short stories. Some of the best were provided by Rudyard Kipling who produced colonial tales that showed his ability as a writer. The same colonial background was used by Doris Lessing in The Black Madonna. But one of the masters of the short story genre, Edgar Allan Poe, provided a selection of stories that often seemed far removed from real life. Some of the most memorable include The Fall of the House of Usher and Murder in the Rue Morgue. There are little pockets of supporters for short stories and whenever they pipe up Anton Chekhov is often used as an example and he also provided some powerful food for thought during lunch hours.

Books read 2008

1. The White Lioness by Henning Mankell
2. The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan
3. Rites of Passage by William Golding
4. Close Quarters by William Golding
5. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
6. Tough, tough toys for tough, tough boys by Will Self
7. Memories of my Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
8. Wise Children by Angela Carter
9. The Heart-Keeper by Francoise Sagan
10. Fire Down Below by William Golding
11. Strait is the Gate by Andre Gide
12. Then We came to the End by Joshua Ferris
13. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
14. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday
15. Helena by Evelyn Waugh
16. The Road to Calvary by Alexei Tolstoy
17. A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell
18. House of Meetings by Martin Amis
19. Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau
20. A Buyer's Market by Anthony Powell
21. The Man on the Balcony by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
22. The Acceptance World by Anthony Powell
23. At Lady Molly's by Anthony Powell
24. The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks
25. Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh
26. What's Become of Waring? by Anthony Powell
27. Casanova's Chinese Restaurant by Anthony Powell
28. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
29. Officers and Gentlemen by Evelyn Waugh
30. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other stories by Robert Louis Stevenson
31. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
32. The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark
33. The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
34. A Void by Georges Perec
35. The Kindly Ones by Anthony Powell
36. Shakespeare by Bill Bryson
37. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
38. Venusberg by Anthony Powell
39. Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
40. Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks
41. Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
42. The Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy
43. The Valley of Bones by Anthony Powell
44. The Soldier's Art by Anthony Powell
45. Unconditional Surrender by Evelyn Waugh
46. Wier of Hermiston by Robert Louis Stevenson
47. spies by Michael Frayn
48. Pincher Martin by William Golding
49. The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkein
50. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
51. Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
52. Penguin Lost by Andrey Kurkov
53. The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
54. The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
55. The President's Last Love by Andrey Kurkov
56. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
57. The Unfree French by Richard Vinen
58. The Military Philosophers by Anthony Powell
59. Books do Furnish a Room by Anthony Powell
60. Temporary Kings by Anthony Powell
61. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
62. Hearing Secret Harmonies by Anthony Powell
63. A Dog's Heart by Mikhail Bulagov
64. The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
65. The Free Fishers by John Buchan
66. The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulagov
67. The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts
68. All in the Mind by Alistair Campbell
69. A Cab at the Door by V.S. Pritchett
70. The Friend of Madame Maigret by Georges Simenon
71. A Dead Man's Memoir (A Theatrical Novel) by Mikhail Bulgakov
72. Lines of Fate by Mark Kharitonov
73. The Fire Engine that Disappeared by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
74. Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling
75. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami