Monday, November 30, 2009

Mister Pip - post I

Only just started this and already you get the feeling it is going to be a clever interweaving detailing how fictional characters and the power of the written word can sustain people in extreme circumstances.

The villagers of a community that exists by the sea are introduced to the world of Dickens and Great expectations via the last remaining white man who has stayed behind after the miners left. In the face of a civil war the small seaside community gathers round the school as the focal point to rebuild the community and inside Pop Eye, an englishman far from home, introduces them to the world of Victorian England.

In some respects it feels like a cross over with a cinematic experience because so far it could easily have been the first 10 minutes of a film. See if the rest manages to keep that going.

More tomorrow...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

bookmark of the week

As thoughts start to turn to Christmas and candlelight carol services it reminds me of a long held ambition to go to a carol service at a large cathedral to enjoy the sort of experience that has been going on for hundreds of years. I'm yet to do it but if I was then Canterbury cathedral would be a very good choice.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Murder at the Savoy - post II

Although this book might not have the pace of some of the earlier Beck books you have to admire the confidence that the authors have in opening up the cast of characters. Some people would rely on the main detective and a sidekick, think Morse, but here there are a handful of police officers that are fleshed out enough to be able to carry the story on their own.

If anything in this book Beck takes a background role as the foot work is done by others and the breakthrough comes collectively. This is one of those stories that is perhaps on the cusp of not only finishing the series with the last four books but feels like that because it is describing a country on the edge of change.

The constant references to the heat are not just there to paint the scene but also provide an indication of a growing friction created by change. The forces of conservatism are being attacked by the youthful led demands for change in the 60s.

The fact a thriller can convey such socio and political information without interrupting or spoiling the main story is testament to the writing ability of Sjowall and Wahloo. This leaves you wanting to crack on with the seventh book in the series.

A review will follow soon...

Friday, November 27, 2009

Murder at the Savoy - post I

Every reader has a guilty pleasure, a book that although it isn't Tolstoy fills them with joy, and in my case the genre best able to deliver that quick hit of intense reading pleasure is the thriller.

Being slightly more specific about it the police procedurals, following the case through the lens of the police activity, when done well can be gripping. Two of the masters are husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo and with their creation of Martin Beck they take you onto the streets of Sweden in the 1960s and into police stations in Stockholm and Malmo.

The crime tends to take place early on and then the rest of the book is spent following Beck and his colleagues as they try to fathom the often unfathomable and bring the case to a conclusion.

This is no different with a prominent business man shot in a hotel, the Savoy dining room, by a gun man who then jumps out of an open window into the hot summer night and disappears.

From that starting point, with no clear witness statements the police have to start the hunt for a killer.

More tomorrow....

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Howards End is on the Landing - post II

Avoiding the risk of repetition the other point to make about Howards End is the way chapters are used to group together genres or authors. A personal library is rarely an A to Z listing by rather has grown organically with books either lumped together on the basis of date purchased or in the case of Hill by type and author.

The result is that you get chapters which become almost short stories in themselves as she tells of her meetings, friendships and the influences of writers that she has known and this makes it both easy to digest the numerous book titles bein recommended but also gives you pause for thought to examine the way your own books have been selected and your feelings towards them.

Although as Powell had one of his characters saying "books do furnish a room" there is also an emotional dimension to why they are on the shelves in the first place and that is something Hill oozes and reminds you not to forget when thinking, caring and reading your own library.

A review will follow soon...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Howards End is on the Landing - post I

At first coming across this book you half wonder what on earth it will be like between the covers. A year of reading conjures up certain ideas. The most obvious of course is the idea of a chronological 'january, february etc etc' but it is done in such a wonderfully engaging way the best description is of sitting in on a conversation.

But this is not just a conversation with some one who owns a lot of books but can tell you about the reasons for those books being in her home and the stories behind them. So this becomes a memoir, a celebration of literature but also a chance to talk about the oddities of publishing - the small books issued for Christmas and rarely read.

Hill is well travelled in the literary world but has a great ability to lay out the joy of reading so that anyone who shares even one tenth of her enthusiasm finds themselves nodding along and taking inspiration from her library.

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Man in the Dark - post II

In a way the story about the parallel world and the war is just a metaphor for feelings of disorientation and grief. You realise that after that story is snuffed out as the author lies in the dark talking to his granddaughter this really is a book about loss and perhaps if anything it is slightly over complicated.

The start makes it feel like some author meets creation Vonnegut number and has a slight feel of De Lillo but then the second part, divided only in terms of my reading and not formally, is more of a personal tale of coming to terms with loss.

As the main character retells the story of his life and the love for his wife with all of his mistakes and the granddaughter tells of her grief for a love killed in Iraq the idea of what happens to those that are left behind is the big one Auster is grappling with.

Just as with Incredible Loud and extremely Close follows the story of someone pulling the loose ends of a tragedy in the death of a father in 9/11 together this is similar.

After the twin towers fell the sense of loss, anger, disorientation and grief can only be imagined. In the second half of this book Auster manages to get close but perhaps The Falling Man edges it.

A review will follow soon...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Man in the Dark - post I

In some ways reading this makes you think of Kurt Vonnegut purely in the idea that an author might co-exist in the same world as their creation. But that’s where the similarities end.

The mention of 9/11 and the war in Iraq makes you think of the war on terror and there are themes of war and death but also about the breakdown of relationships. As August Brill lies away in the dark at night and writes his stories of an American civil war in his head he is conscious of being below his daughter and granddaughter who have moved in with him following ones divorce and the others bereavement.

He starts to sketch out a world where the US has fallen apart because of the refusal by some states to back the president. The states unravel and a war begins. Caught in the middle is a New York magician Owen Brick who finds himself in a world where the twin towers have not fallen but where he is expected to travel between two parallel worlds to stop the war by killing Brill.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, November 22, 2009

bookmark of the week

No doubt this would get me a few pounds on ebay but this promotional bookmark for the last in the series of Harry potter is not only colourful but not as tacky as some promotional things can be.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justifed Sinner - post II

The idea of the Confessions being found in a grave and then sent for reading and publication to a publisher in Edinburgh is a device that has been used again and again by those looking to use a literary device that distances the voice from the present.

Hogg uses it with masterly skill to allow Robert to speak beyond the grave to paint a picture of a young man manipulated because of his ignorance and religious arrogance. The idea that God could condone killing sinners is one that takes its time to work through Robert’s mind, but with the shape-shifting friend Gil-Martin, who he becomes to rely on more and more, it is an idea that finally takes hold.

Once it takes hold those that get in the way of the plans of the pair to enact some sort of revenge on George and his family are destroyed or die through heart break and despair. There are times when Robert seems to be aware he has made some sort of pact with a dangerous individual but by convincing himself his friend is the Tsar of Russia he allows himself to get in deeper.

By the time the scales have fallen from his eyes and he is aware of the reality it is too late and his attempts to escape the devil lead him ultimately into despair and death.

The postscript about the attempts of the narrator and friends to verify the events of the confession has a creepy realism to it that would influence other Gothic style writers.

A book that for its time was a masterpiece and one that in 2009 still has the ability to shock, disturb and entertain.

A review will follow soon...

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justifed Sinner - post I

This book was kindly sent to me with an accompanying note describing it as one of the most important works in literature. I have to start this post by confessing no previous reading of this book but within a very short number of paragraphs you are under Hoggs’s spell of great writing but also a wonderful imagination.

What amazes you about the book is the time this story of angels, devils and demons was written. This would have been put together when presumably to write some of the things about good and evil was sailing very close to the wind. Not just because the readership would have been a lot more devout and would recognise a world where demons existed but also because the church, which held more power in the early 1800s, was not a lame target to aim for.

In a book of two parts, The Editor’s Narrative then the Confessions, it makes sense to split the reading into two parts.

The Editor’s Narrative sets up a story of two brothers brought up in different households with very different spiritual values.

The Wringhim brothers, George and Robert, are on the one hand a non-religious man into leisure and self-satisfaction and the other as a result of growing up under the director mentorship of a very religious man comes out as some sort of pseudo-monk come evangelical.

He sets his heart at destroying his brother’s world and starts innocently enough but ends with murder. Quite why he does all these actions is not quite clear but you suspect the influence of devilry.

A world of wealth and religious piety is painted so clearly by Hogg that you can walk round the world he paints with great ease. Although the idea of devils and angels might seem slightly alien to a modern readership you are never in any doubt about the belief held by Robert or those around him.

More tomorrow...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Explorers of the New Century - post II

Although there is humour here, although it’s dark, maybe it’s me but this story conjured up images of a more gruesome and political nature than perhaps is intended. The theory of transportation and the slavery of Mules also has echoes of the holocaust. Maybe that’s just a self projection onto it.

In other regards the novel, which is well written, raises questions about exploration and just why people risked their lives to go to places like the Antarctic. Was it simply to do it or was there an ulterior motive about hoping to find something there. Just as the Spanish found their Aztec gold did the other unknown areas of the globe keep similar secrets?

There is a moment when suddenly things become clear and the relationship between the explorers and mules is explained. Have to admit I didn’t see that coming and that was enjoyable.

A review will follow at some point…

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Picking up the pace

So many reviews need to be done but I’m on a rich vein of reading at the moment. All the fears that this would be a year of disappointment on the reading front are potentially being over turned. Still got some reading to do to get to where I want to be at the end of the year but it is suddenly looking much more achievable.

This week is going to be crucial. Plans on paper at least are to get through at least three more books before the end of the week. Hopefully it can be done and then it’s past the 60 barrier and onwards towards 70.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Explorers of the new century - post I

Compared to something like the exhaustive and historical study that I once waded through by Roland Huntford that charted the story of Scott and Amundsen comparing their different approaches to finding the South Pole this book is much more consumable and done with a great deal more humour.

It starts with the feeling of being a tale of arctic explorers with two missions to find the point of farthest away. The British mission is headed by a public figure, the celebrated explorer Johns, in a race with what you assume is the Norwegian team staffed with professionals that are ahead because they landed first.

This is a study of characters under strain. The British and the Norwegians have their class systems going with stars and tent sleeping systems making sure people know exactly where they are. They have their tents and food being carried by mules with the pack given as much attention as the men.

There are moments of black humour as they both make mistakes and hit the river at roughly the same time causing excitement and errors. The race is finely poised but the real question is quite what is it they hope to find when they reach their destination.

More tomorrow…

Monday, November 16, 2009

Legend of a Suicide - post II

Relating the story would spoil the enjoyment of the book for those that had not been lucky enough to read it.

What you can safely say is that Vann sets out to make sure you think about the consequences of suicide for those that are left behind. Particularly those that simply cannot understand what led someone to take that decision.

What unravels is perhaps not just the selfishness, the constant desperation to fulfil personal needs in the search for an elusive happiness but also a complete lack of empathy and understanding with those around the individual.

Those left look for reasons, trigger points that set off the slide towards the end and could torture themselves doing it because trying to de-pick the brain of someone that is not thinking rationally.

A review will follow soon…

Sunday, November 15, 2009

bookmark of the week

Warrenville public library is always a good source of bookmarks and this is one that I have had knocking around for a while. Aimed at those younger readers that need reminding what it is all about it encouraged them to get fired up about reading and get into what is a wonderfully rewarding activity.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Legend of a Suicide - post I

This book comes with a fair weight of expectation. Most of the bloggers I follow that have read it have raved about it and the folks at the publishers have been gushing ever since they opened the box and first laid eyes on the cover art.

So you start with not quite an open mind but one prepared to be wowed and Vann doesn’t disappoint. I have seen some people describe it almost as a collection of short stories and it has that feel it also has a memoir type mood as the author goes back relatively briefly over the life of the father before the moment when he decides to opt for suicide.

The consequences for those he leaves behind in terms of the first wife are covered in detail and some backwards storyline also brings things relatively up to date with the second failed marriage. So you have read the first couple of chapters and learnt that a restless dentist in Alaska ended up going through a couple of marriages, ran from the tax man and loved hunting and fishing before deciding to end his life on a boat out at sea with just his brother for company.

Suicide is such a difficult subject and quite where the story will go next is perhaps the moment when Vann changes direction. You could have expected a delve into a sob story of how the son went looking for a father relationship to try and put some concrete into what are misty memories. But Vann sets up a fictional story of the same father and son being alone in the wilderness in the wilds of Alaska.

In those conditions there is nowhere to hide yet the father continues to wrap himself in his own problems and doesn’t seem to notice the needs or suffering of the son. They say that suicide is selfish and certainly in this section of the book the father is selfish to the extent that you are rooting for the son Roy and wishing he could escape the one on one time with his suicidal father.

More Monday...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Lost Hearts and Other Chilling Tales

The other chiller that finished the week was this collection of stories by M R James. In their own way each are different although they share a tone of voice, a storyteller at the hearth, and are all equally memorable.

Old documents found by the narrator and accounts of strange events picked up in conversation are used to unfold stories that while perhaps in their time were more terrifying still have the power to disturb.

The idea of whistling for the wind and then almost being killed by a figure made up of supernatural energy and clothing goes into your mind along with the perfectly described activities at 1am each night in the haunted dolls house.

Perhaps it is the idea that most of those involved in the stories are creators of their own doom by deliberately setting out to court danger by provoking the magic and legends of the past is the one over arching theme. The traveller to Sweden is warned not to hang around the tomb of the old Count Magnus but can’t resist even if it means terror.

Having now discovered James he is set to become part of the fabric of autumn for this reader as his stories both enthral and provoke thought making their life far longer than the time it takes to read the printed letters off the page.

A review will follow soon...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

We Have Always Lived in the Castle - post II

Greed as it usually does smashes the world of the Blackwood sisters as their cousin Charles comes to try and rob them blind and steal as much as he can to restore his own fortunes. Of course he hides that ambition but the reader can clearly see that the naive girls are sitting ducks for their ruthless relative.

Without wanting to give away the ending the point that this book makes very well is that fear is often in the mind of those imagining the crimes and the horror. Collective fear is the danger here not poison most of the time. In some ways it reminds you of To Kill a Mockingbird the way the children demonise what they don’t understand. Here it is an entire village bar a couple of people.

There is also a complex relationship between the sisters that Jackson manages to convey in very few pages. Constance is perhaps the last real Blackwood victim here as she is taken to the moon by her dreamy sister and kept there.

The crowd scenes when it borders on developing into a lynch mob leave you in no doubt that ignorance and anger can be chilling when left in the wrong hands.

A review will follow soon...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

We Have Always Lived in the Castle - post I

The Times recently had a week when it gave away a series of ‘chillers’ clearly designed to appeal to readers looking for something a little bit spooky as the darkness draws in. Among the books there are a couple that are going to be read this week.

The first is We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Things start with a creepy girl wandering through a village where she and her family are clearly feared and as a result are taunted. Through the explanations and experiences of Mary Blackwood it is possible to draw out the family history of the Blackwoods and their once proud position in the neighbourhood.

When you do find out why the family is so feared, through the case of a mass poisoning, and the remaining members Mary and her sister Constance and their Uncle Julian live a very isolated existence in their grand old home.

Although acquitted of the crime of killing her family Constance is unable to leave her home through fear of the unknown and Julian has dedicated his last few years to writing and documenting the events in minute detail on the last day of the family. There detachment and isolation from the world is so complete that apart from the occasional interruption you assume they could stay in that state for a long period.

More tomorrow....

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Wolf Hall - post VIII

The book enters its final phase with Cromwell trying to reason with the unreasonable and some of the last big figures of that part of Henry’s reign biting the dust after feeling the hangman’s noose.

The way that mantel has weaved the politics of the period providing a gentle history lesson as well as being able to describe the Tudor world of London and beyond is masterly. That as well as the strength of the story comes through as the lasting memory of a book that perhaps is slightly too long but is rarely a chore to read.

A review will follow soon…

Monday, November 09, 2009

Wolf Hall - post VII

Cromwell makes himself invaluable to King Henry by making it possible for him to dump Katherine and make Anne his Queen but as a result the schism with Rome intensifies.

On the one side are those keen to shake off the shackles of the Pope and on the other those loyal to the ideas emanating from Rome and backed by the Emperor. Cromwell manages to identify his enemies wisely and divides and faces them using the law to highlight even further those who would not swear allegiance to the King.

On a personal note he seems to be facing loneliness as his children marry and depart and the damp and the rain that seems to hug the Thames starts to depress the tireless lawyer and fighter.

More tomorrow…

Saturday, November 07, 2009

book review - The Drought - JG Ballard

“…he now felt that the white deck of the river was carrying them all in the opposite direction, forward into zones of time future where the unresolved residues of the past would appear smoothed and rounded, muffled by the detritus of time, like images in a clouded mirror. Perhaps these residues were the sole elements contained in the future, and would have the bizarre and fragmented quality of the debris through which he was now walking. None the less they would all be merged and resolved in the soft dust of the drained bed.”

There is something very clever about describing a world without location and time because your imagination fills in the blanks. This could be America and it could be in ten years time. What really matters is that underneath the apocalyptic drought there is the ability to chart how human beings in a great position of stress react to the calamity.

Some seem to go into denial, the majority scramble to the coast and to the sea in search of water and others take an observational position, like the main character Dr Charles Ransom, waiting to see how things develop and waiting to see how they will react personally to those changes.

The breakdown of society is one of Ballard’s big themes but cast that on top of a world in acute stress caused by a lack of water and it brings out the extremes in people.

The basic premise is that industrial waste has been pumped into the oceans and turned into some sort of plastic film that prevents evaporation and the usual formation of rain clouds.

Ransom is living aptly in a house boat beached on the banks of an ever dwindling lake with the cars going across the highway heading towards the coast and the fisherman and pleasure boats slowly grinding to a halt. His ex-wife works in the town for the police and it is a journey to his former marital home that spreads out the canvas and introduces some more characters including the strange but rich character who lives in a hou8se with constant beaming lights at the top of the hill.

Just like the architect figure Royal in High Rise the rich maverick refuses to leave the town and sits in his white house making plans and hoarding the water in his swimming pool. Assisted by his unhinged sister and the village idiot he remains even as the fishermen start to hunt down people and the religious leader gives up and heads to the coast.

Ransom is finally driven out himself and travelling with an odd collection of characters that represent some of the varying degrees of possible reactions to the drought he heads for the coast. Once there a sort of hell with barbed wire, guns and the army between the masses and the sea awaits. Tensions rise and finally the tide of human anger and desperation washes away the barriers.

Skip forward and Ransom has been reunited with his wide and is living a hand to mouth existence in a world dominated by religious groups that have settled on the salt covered shoreline.

Going back to the town of the past Ransom faces up to a world where madness reigns. The lack of authority has provided the owner of the white house with a chance to rule in a town where the main enemies are the roaming fishermen. Ransom seems to have given up and becomes part of the court of the water king until it falls apart.

The reader is challenged to think about how they would react in a similar situation. Do you run for the coast, do you stay? And regardless of what you do how long could you keep sane in a world where all the perspectives are changing.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Wolf Hall - post VI

Cromwell continues to ascend with the King seeing him on an almost daily basis but the old campaigner continues to keep an eye on a wide spectrum of activities. The politics of the court can be lethal with be-headings, burning at the stake for heritics and the prospect of the tower for those that get it wrong.

With Cromwell at the centre Mantel weaves in stories of Tyndale and his fight to get the bible into the hands of the masses in English, the strain with Rome and the demand from Henry for a divorce from Katherine as well as the financial state of the kingdom.

Cromwell knows that he is walking a dangerous line but seems to make the right allies and has a growing court of his own able to extend his hand and reach even when he is not there himself. As a literary character he is shaping up to be quite something.

More next week…

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Wolf Hall - post V

The more you get into this book the more you find yourself liking Thomas Cromwell. He has a mixture of morality and bravery that not only appeal to the King but help him stand out from the herd of those trying to save their own skins.

Cromwell starts to become more important to the King’s mistress Anne and as a result his standing within the group of courtiers that surround the court changes. He has the foresight, partly because of the beatings he took as a child, to sense the danger and manages to chart a course through his enemies.

What Mantel does, which is also successful, is clothe some of the names of history like More and Latimer in flesh and bones giving you a cast of characters that has depth.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Wolf Hall - post IV

As Cromwell gets closer to the king you start to appreciate how his character stands out from the general sycophants that surround the monarch. He is not only able to quote the bible and knows his law but he also comes from a background that is from the rough side so he has that element of threat and danger.

He also has loyalty and he remains a supporter of Wolsey long after the cardinal has been shipped away to the North and fights his corner with the King at risk of personal loss of position and influence.

What makes this book enjoyable are the one liners, usually Cromwell’s thoughts, that are thrown in with some providing a laugh and others provoking deeper thoughts. The device of narrating Cromwell’s thoughts as he sits alone but also as he deals with other characters is a clever one that works.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

book review - The Red House - A A Milne

"Can I help?" said Antony politely.

"Something's happened," said Cayley. He was breathing quickly. "I heard a shot--it sounded like a shot--I was in the library. A loud bang—I didn't know what it was. And the door's locked." He rattled the handle again, and shook it. "Open the door!" he cried. "I say, Mark, what is it? Open the door!"

When you think of A A Milne you of course picture Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin et al. What you don’t think of is a detective novel and a well crafted whodunit. But the Red House is exactly that.

I was lucky enough to win a Vintage competition to receive books each month for a year and this was the first one that came through the letterbox.

It might show its age because of the 1930s dialogue and some of the social conventions about class but that aside it is a gentle and thoroughly though through detective story.

The twist, and Milne displays with references plenty of knowledge of the genre and the importance of the twist, is that the detective in this case is a novice. Anthony is to a degree playing with the idea of being a sleuth when he turns up and is one of the key witnesses to the moment when a crime is discovered. With a great deal of logic he picks apart the case and raises some fundamental questions about what actually happened in the locked room.

Against a backdrop of a weekend at a country house a tale of jealously mixed in with a few chips on shoulders and revenge are mixed into a lethal combination.

Anthony picks his way through the different relationships and by deliberately taking an independent line is able to crack the case.

Milne clearly knows a great deal about detective fiction with references to Sherlock Holmes but makes sure his additional to the whodunit canon is done with a great deal of respect. He puts in just the right mix of suspense, drama and humour to make this an enjoyable read.

If one of the tests of a book is whether or not you would want to read another by the same author then this passes because you would be quite happy to read on about the adventures of the aspiring detective.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Wolf Hall - post III

What starts to make this book a much more compelling read than you expect when you first start is the emergence of the character of Thomas Cromwell. With his master and protector Cardinal Wolsey out of favour and unable to see King Henry it provides a chance for Cromwell to act as a go between and emerge as an independent figure.

That independence is strengthened by the plague-fuelled demise of his wife and two daughters leaving him alone in an emotional way.

What starts to emerge is a political battle that could either help create or destroy Cromwell and that drives you on because you want to see how things develop.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, November 01, 2009

bookmark of the week

To start things off for November a little reminder of last night and Halloween with this bookmark inspired by the Funny Bones book. Not all things that go bump in the night need scare you witless.