Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lessons learnt in 2009

If I had to summarise the lessons learnt in what has been a frustrating year of reading they would be the following:

Avoid getting bogged down in large books. The weeks spent on Bolano’s 2666 and Mantel’s Wolf Hall did not necessarily feel as rewarding as they could have done if they have been six different books.

Avoid getting dragged into the pressure of reading certain books by a deadline. For instance the idea of reading the David Peace books the red riding quartet before the programme went off the air was foolhardy.

Don’t be afraid to leave books that are really not that enjoyable. Life is so short that to get stuck in a novel that is not providing any satisfaction seems to be a mistake.

Finally, I should read to enjoy it.

Changing the look and feel

It has been over three years since I dared to play with the blog and although limited by only basic technical skills it seemed right to have a change.

There might be a little bit more tinkering but the main changes for 2010 have been made with a move away from the dots.

Hope you approve!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

From the press: 100 ideas for reading inspiration

With an eye to the year ahead people must be basing some of their reading choices on lists. Two of the most read stories in the past 24 hours on the books section of the concern the 100 greatest books of all time. The stories date from 2002 and 2003 but clearly will provide inspiration for those looking for ideas for next year’s reading pile.

The two lists can be found here:

The top 100 books of all time

The 100 greatest novels of all time: The list

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Remembering some of the greats

At this time of year people always look back and remember the passing of some greats. There have sadly been several in the literary world this year.

One of the most notable was JG Ballard who died in April after losing a long battle with cancer. His death sparked an opportunity for a widespread appreciation of the author.

But also this year saw the passing of several other literary figures including Gordon Burn and John Updike. Often the death and the subsequent coverage spark off thoughts of reading their work. This has certainly been the case for me in regards to Ballard and if there is a moral for the year it is perhaps to try and discover some of these authors while they are still living writers.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Haunted Hotel - post III

The book ends, have no fear the twists won’t be shared, using a very clever device. The Countess writes a play – the Haunted Hotel – and it is through that we learn, or perhaps learn, the truth of what went on in the palace.

All of the necessary characters draw close to the hotel so the ending can be complete but the reader is let in on the full hand of cards when most of the characters are not. In that respect it is a satisfying end.

If you were looking to find fault, and in many ways it is perhaps just nit picking, then you might argue that the story is perhaps a bit stretched. The most interesting parts happen in the past and maybe this would have been a different book had the action focused on those moments rather than to tell them briefly towards the end.

Still in terms of the book delivering what you want, which is a creepy chiller to mirror the dark nights then this delivers.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

bookmark of the week

This believe it or not came out of a cracker pulled on Christmas Day. It is a great thing for a cracker and it makes you wonder why bookmarks are not put in them more often. It shows Father Christmas of course and will now be slid into my treasury of Christmas Stories.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Haunted Hotel - post II

With the death of Lord Montbarry the family move on and ironically one of them chooses to invest some money in a hotel which is being built in the old Venetian palace where the Lord died.

The brother who has invested is the first to arrive and is put in the room where his brother died and has a couple of sleepless nights and loses his appetite. The next to try the room is the dead man's sister who also has a strange experience dreaming terrible dreams of her dead brother. She also leaves in a hurry.

That leaves the third brother to arrive who is driven away by a death stench and finally the widow arrives to have a showdown with the ghiost of her dead husband and the fiance.

Who will see the ghost and how will it end? Collins has you guessing.

More soon...

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to you and yours may you have a great day and find lots of books under the tree with your name on them.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Tweeting anniversary

This time last year I started to use Twitter and it has been an amazing 12 months not only finding friends but discovering people with the same love of reading. Through those conversations there have been book recommendations, both positive and negative, chances to talk about authors and books.

But most of all it has been an encouragement to read more and talk about the experience and pleasure that brings with like- minded people.

If you haven’t come across me then I am here on Twitter:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Haunted Hotel - post I

The Haunted Hotel – post I

This time of year is often associated with ghost stories. The most well known if of course A Christmas Carol with the ghosts of Marley and the various tenses of Christmas visiting Scrooge. But there are other collections of spooky stories and books that seem to chime in with the dark nights and the cold.

It is perhaps no surprise that as a result the BBC has chosen to dramatise the Turn of the Screw as one of its big Christmas dramas.

But the book chosen from my shelf has been The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins. The book manages to have a refreshing style to it despite being penned in the 1880s and you are dragged into the mystery in a relatively short number of pages.

A countess, who is both described as wicked or in terms of being a victim of gossip marries a Lord who has thrown over his former fiancé for the mysterious and hated woman. But the Countess herself feels threatened by the former fiancé and even after her husband dies on a trip to Venice she still seems to believe that it is her life that is under threat.

Collins leaves the reader struggling to develop any serious sympathy for the Countess and as you suspect her brother Baron Rivar for being involved in murder it becomes harder still to come down on the side of anyone other than the former fiancé.

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hammerklavier – post II

There are moments here that you recognise – the mother distraught after a book co-written with her daughter goes missing – and can relate to. There are others that you fear are too come but in a way this book is uplifting because rather than fearing death it seems to give a message that life is there to be enjoyed and remembered and almost celebrated. You cannot recall the good times near the end if you didn’t allow yourself to have any.

But there are also warnings about the use of time. A passage about books in particular stands out as a warning that no matter how much you invest in reading and collecting the pace of progress will always out pace you.

“The world is ‘uncountable’, filled up with things, and books, and books about things. The world accumulates and books accumulate what the world accumulates and seeing on one’s table books and more books of photographs, about art and books about other books and getting ready in one’s turn to fit the world onto a page, that vile accumulation of babbling, to add to the heap of one’s own echo...”

This is a book that sinks under the skin and her thoughts about time, memory and changing relationships are ones that I suspect will come back to me again and again. Just like the Hammerklavier there is a musical rhythm to it that makes you think of Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time as well as looking for patterns, recurring themes and echoes, in your own life.

A review will follow soon...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Hammerklavier – post I

Years and years ago I went to see the play Art, for which I can only remember the scene about the friends arguing over the value of a white canvas. The Borders closing down sale, a strange feeling for a bookshop lover, had the first book by the play’s writer Yasmina Reza in the sale and so it felt like a deal that couldn’t be walked away from.

The book is a series of very short chapters which are on the themes of time, memory, life and death. Some are witty, others are sad but you move quickly through the life of someone who is not only getting older but witnessing that process happening to her parents and her own child.

The book starts with a conversation with the narrator’s dead father who struggles after a conversation with Beethoven to play one of his favourite pieces the Hammerklavier. That image sets the book up with the idea of death and memory.

More tomorrow...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

bookmark of the week

This bookmark comes from a special place. St Martin in the Fields is a large church looking out across Trafalgar Square in London. It was the place where at a Christmas party in the crypt around 14 years ago I first met my other half and a relationship started that is still going today. As a Christmas treat, and to rekindle some memories, we went there for lunch last week and although the crypt has changed a bit from when we danced all those years ago the memories are still as strong as ever.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

book review - The Last Englishman - Roland Chambers

"In Britain, his name became so identified with patriotic post-war nostalgia that to suggest, even today, that he had ever been a journalist during the Revolution is to provoke murmurs of surprise, while to add that he had worked for MI6, offered information to the Cheka and married Trotsky's secretary ensures amazed hilarity of outright disbelief."

When you hear the name Arthur Ransome you think Swallows and Amazons. What you don't think is of a well known children's writer having another life aside from the Lake District. A life that involved adventures but also a degree of bitterness that never left the writer.

When you finish the book a couple of words spring to mind, one is "selfish" and perhaps the other is "naive".

In his relationships with his first wife and daughter and most of those around him Ransome displayed a selfishness that is hard to believe. He managed to run away from his wife and daughter and head to Russia. The timing was fortuitous because it coincided with the war, collapse into revolution and then the ensuing civil war. Ransome managed to make contacts with the major players interviewing Lenin, Trotsky and a host of others in the course of his coverage for newspapers.

As a result of his almost unique position he was courted by MI6 and asked to become a source of information but his information came with a caveat that in many quarters he was seen as a Bolshevik sympathiser.

The extended trips to Russia gave Ransome a chance to escape from his wife Ivy and from his responsibilities. He managed to write a book of Russian fairy tales that sold well but his attempts to summarise a very fluid political situation were not as successful partly because events were changing too rapidly but also crucially because Ransome was not very political.

When asked to describe his politics by a senior spy catcher of his return to Britain Ransome replied “fishing” and in that respect it saved him the fate of others believed to have become treasonable communists but it also undermined his proposed history of the revolution because he simply didn’t seem to have a rounded understanding.

As a result there are inconsistencies in his telling of the historical story with his friendship with many of the leading players in the revolution blinding him perhaps to the true extent of the terror and the 1920s famine.

On the home front he leant heavily on his mother but it seems to have been a one way relationship. Likewise his abandonment and ensuing strained relationships with his own daughter are disturbing when set next to the role of friendly uncle he played with the children that inspired Swallows and Amazons.

But his bitterness even towards them for ’milking it’ shows a man who might have been able to present a wonderful world to the public but behind the written word was a man who had seen much but felt things differently to the majority of us. His bitterness in the face of what should have been joy and his anger with his daughter when a wiser man would have deployed love makes him deeply flawed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Lessons learnt this year

If I had to summarise the lessons learnt in what has been a frustrating year of reading they would be the following:

Avoid getting bogged down in large books. The weeks spent on Bolano’s 2666 and Mantel’s Wolf Hall did not necessarily feel as rewarding as they could have done if they have been six different books.

Avoid getting dragged into the pressure of reading certain books by a deadline. For instance the idea of reading the David Peace books the red riding quartet before the programme went off the air was foolhardy.

Don’t be afraid to leave books that are really not that enjoyable. Life is so short that to get stuck in a novel that is not providing any satisfaction seems to be a mistake.

Finally read to enjoy it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

book review - Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel

Getting round to writing this review has taken so long that it has almost become a mental block. Quite why I'm not sure. Possibly one reason is the length of time it took to read and the size of the book meant that it took time to filter a reaction.

But to be honest it was probably more to do with it being a consequence of the impact Wolf Hall had on my reading that has delayed this review. It simply held me back from reading other things. When a book wins a major award like the Booker the temptation perhaps is to try and read even more deeply to look for the grains of genius that made it better than the others on the shortlist.

There were others on the list I enjoyed more, with The Little Stranger and The Glass Room being two that also provoked and entertained.

But Wolf Hall is a mammoth work of historical fiction that manages to take you into the world of Henry VIII from a fresh angle. We all know about the wives and the way the King went from young stud to gout ridden obesity but this book centres on when he was at the early stages of trying to part with his first wife.

The character of Thomas Cromwell is a mixture of legal expert, diplomat, world traveller and thug all rolled into one. He manages to win the favour of the King when it seems he might well end up doing the opposite because of his loyal connection with the out of favour cardinals.

As he keeps on the right side of Henry his own fortunes grows and those in his extended family prosper under his protection. But it could always be taken away with a click of the King's fingers and that pressure eventually starts to tell on Cromwell, other courtiers and England itself.

The reasons why you remember Wolf Hall is perhaps because of the insight into the a period of henry's reign from a different angle but in some respects the story struggles to maintain your interest. As Cromwell edges closer to a death caused by old age and the wear and tear of Henry's reign you start to feel a great sense of relief with the ending.

Historical fiction is not a genre that I head for in bookshops and given the experience with this weighty tome it is not a view I will be changing in the near future.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

book review - The Glass Room - Simon Mawer

For a brief moment caught up in the excitement of the Booker Prize it seemed like a good idea to read a few of them. Reading them all was never going to happen before the prize was given because of time and money constraints but I did manage to read The Little Stranger and this book before starting the eventual winner Wolf Hall.

In many respects coming to this story after reading Eva Figes it has echoes of a Jewish family torn from their home and friends by the war. As the forces of evil draw nearer to the Czech location of the main family so does the need to escape. But they are not just leaving behind friends, family and their lives. They are also leaving behind their modern home with its glass room.

The story charts the development of the house, from an idea conceived as Viktor and Liesel honeymoon and meet an Austrian architect, to its building then finally occupation. The glass room encourages the characters that inhabit that space to be themselves and in a sense of seeing through objects it is a place where pretence drops.

The dropping of inhibitions of course leads to a fair amount of sex. In a book that starts slowly sex becomes a theme that threatens to overtake the architecture as Viktor enjoys his Viennese mistress, Liesel dabbles in a bit of Lesbianism and elsewhere most of their friends seem to be at it as well.

In a cinematic sense the characters that inhabit the house operate in the foreground but the house and the glass room are always there and the camera stays on the house allowing people to enter and leave back into the wings.

And as the years clock by the entrance and departure of characters happens with more regularity. The house remains, even through the bombs and the turn from free society to one of Stalin’s satellites. It not only remains but acts as a magnet to draw back former owners and those who remembered it in its first happy years. It provides a platform for the loose ends to be tied up as the remaining cast converge on the house.

But in terms of the wider themes you have to wonder what was being said. There is a debate about traditionalism versus modernism and the way that the house continues to produce reactions is something that would divide those who visited. Against a background of a troubled period in history it is also raising the question of whether or not modern, and you tend to think of things like V2 rockets at this point, is all good.

The glass also acts as a metaphor about transparency. Most of the characters have secrets, lies and ambitions that the glass room somehow exposes and strips back. In that space, protected by war, love continues to bloom until the end. You have to conclude that this perhaps missed out on the Booker because the story loses power after the family leave the house and the attempts to tie-up loose ends are perhaps too easily done.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

book review - Journey to Nowhere - Eva Figes

The story of what happened to the victims of Nazi Germany is one that has been told many times before from both a historical perspective as well as through personal accounts. But rarely do those stories go much past 1945 following the story of one Jewish woman who was not just exposed to the extremes of fascism but also Zionism.

Eva Figes tell not just her own story, which is dominated not just by the war but by a failed relationship with her mother, as well as the story of the maid who returned to them in London after a gap of years following the wartime departure of Eva’s family from Berlin.

The story of Edith who is a quiet woman without too much selfishness and ambition is one that serves to highlight the cruelty that can be handed out even by those wearing the mask of friendship.

Having survived barely the years of Nazi rule by luck and the kindness of others Edith is then bullied into going to Israel to start a fresh life. Once there she discovers that the victims of the Nazis are disliked, victimised again and the dream of communal happiness is a bitter illusion.

Edith returns to London to try and find refuge with her old employers. Now proud to consider themselves part of British society a reminder of the past is not welcomed by Eva’s parents. Her mother in particular shows a cruelty to a former employee reduced to complete loneliness that is also shown to her daughter. The obsession with her position in society and her unwillingness to engage with her daughter or Edith leaves a bitter taste that Eva is still dealing with.

In some respects this is not only a historical record of what happened but a living document aimed at challenging those who are blind supporters of Israel. The idea that it was a perfect place is punctured pretty quickly but Eva, in her position as a Jew, is also prepared to take on the sense that the Israeli state has of being a victim.

She has inevitably suffered for her views the insult of those keen to label her anti-Semitic. But as the tale of Edith shows clearly cruelty doesn’t have to wear a black uniform with a swastika armband for it to hurt.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Picking over the bones

One thing that anyone who regularly follows a football team will be able to tell you is that when a team is doing badly the stands lie half full but when a cup run or promotion beckons people come out of the woodwork. The chant “we were here when they were s**t” goes round on those occasions.

You felt like singing something slightly similar “I came here when the books were full price” at the vulture-fest that was the Borders closing down sale. Popping into the branch on Charing Cross Road you could barely move because of the amount of people looking for bargains. The sense was one of sadness for anyone who remembers when the store opened in a fanfare showing the future of bookshops with customers being encouraged to browse and sit and read books with coffee and take advantage of access to a great selection of US magazines.

All that was left of that experience were the empty shelves that used to house the magazines and the odd ground floor till system that meant you had to pay in the single place regardless of which floor the books came from.

Borders had its critics but with its demise and the associated Books Etc there will be fewer bookshops and that is not something to be welcomed.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

bookmark of the week

This is meant to show the time zones around the globe. It is almost impossible to read so in that respect it fails. But as a bookmark it works. Plus it boasts on the back that it is made from recycled drinks bottles so it is also a green bookmark.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

book review - The Life of Monsieur de Moliere - Mikhail Bulgakov

Bulgakov is one of my favourite authors so it was with a pleasure to pick up his biography of Moliere. Produced beautifully by One World Classics, which specialise in publishing hard to find texts from Russian authors, the look and feel wins you over straight away.

Although in many respects this is a straight forward biography, after an opening chapter that is full of invention and brilliance, there are a few things that stand out about it.

Firstly, you have to remember this is a book being written in Russia by an author who clearly adores Moliere. That fact reminds you of just how outward looking those stuck in the middle of Stalin’s USSR actually were. It is all too easy to think of the Soviet literary scene as being a closed world.

Secondly, there are clear parallels that are being drawn by Bulgakov between his own position as a writer dependant on the whim of a dictator and the French playwright who had to constantly win over the King’s favour. There are several key moments in his life and career where the role of the King is crucial to Moliere.

Thirdly, Bulgakov is also drawing your attention to the longevity of great art. As he points out to the mid-wife at the start of the book the baby turned into a man whose work is still read, performed and enjoyed long after his death. That message above all others is one that would appeal to a great writer like Bulgakov who got little appreciation in his own life time.

For those that don’t like biography and I count myself in that category, this book provides an alternative to the exhaustive day-by-day accounts. The key moments are highlighted showing how Moliere developed both artistically and personally. He managed to poke fun at aristocracy and various sections of society, including doctors, sometimes skating very close to the edge in terms of censorship.

But he managed to stick to his principles and the art he produced still speaks and many of those who barbed and blocked his success at the time have long since crumbled to dust and been forgotten by history.

Great writers live on, provide inspiration and can provide lessons for others thousands of miles away and living in a different era.

Friday, December 11, 2009

book review - The Tenth Man - Graham Greene

If you want an example of what graham Greene is all about and you are not prepared to invest the time and effort to engage with one of his longer books then this slim story will serve the purpose of introducing you to the great man.

What is on display in a relatively short and tight story about a man who has signed away his fortune to save his life and then the facing of the consequences is the characterisation and tone of voice that is there in Greene’s literature.

The tale seems relatively simple with the action kicking off in a prisoner of war camp in occupied France. Lots are drawn with the tenth man facing the shooting squad. A rich lawyer Chavel draws the lot but offers to give all of his money and his large house in the country to anyone who will take his place. This cowardly act is actually taken up by a poor man Janvier who wishes to at least die rich.

After the war Chavel heads back to his house and lives as a handy man under the same roof as Janvier’s sister and mother. They are both waiting for Chavel and are terrorised about it. When an opportunist finally comes calling it throws everything into confusion and the hate that the sister actually thought she felt turn more to forgiveness.

Chavel faces the choice to reveal his true identity or take the opportunity of having someone else take the part of the shadow that has fallen across his and the lives of the mother and sister.

As a reader you might feel you know where the book is going, so many times it feels as if you can predict the next plot development. But what makes it interesting going through the story is the ability of Greene not just to surprise but deliver such believable characters that you are prepared to go through scenes to see the reaction.

He operates with a tight cast, a shadow over hanging the whole piece as the principal character wonders if his secret will be discovered and then an ending which you could not have predicted but is well worth waiting for.

What he really writes about so acutely are human beings and their motivations and emotions. He nails it in a very short space of writing and manages to drop a backdrop that sets a mood. He can do it in the jungles of Africa, a blitzed London and again here in post-war rural France.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

book review - Everything is Illuminated - Jonathan Safran Foer

Having done things back to front and read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close first you come to the debut from Foer with a sense of expectation.

On the one hand you expect to be wowed because this won so many plaudits but on the other you know that you are about to enter a highly stylised approach to telling a story that doesn’t always make reading easy.

Sadly for me there was a feeling far too much of the latter with the story weaving in-between the present and the past as the author tries to locate the physical location of his family’s history. He has a few scraps of information left that can help direct him to a Jewish world lost forever in the Second World War. There are moments when as he discovers that last remaining Jew and some of the experiences his relatives went through when the story has the power to move you.

But unfortunately there are far too many things that are just odd and because they echo throughout the story you either like them or don’t. On top of that there is the device used where the story unfolds through a series of letters from the interpreter used by the author to help in the search.

Some of the textual and typography playing around that is evident in Incredibly Loud is here, but not in the same degree. Where my real problem came was with the jumping around in time. It prevented you from ever really getting a chance to get under the skin of a character. So the reader is left with a significant portion of each characters story to develop in their own minds.

There is a story here and perhaps the pressure was to produce something memorable and different from similar types of tracking down relative accounts. The problem is of course that you can work too hard in making it different.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

book review - The Ancient Shore - Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller

Travel journals are not a genre that has previously featured in my ‘to be read pile’. But the joys of Twitter are that you can share the enthusiasm someone has for a book then find yourself lucky enough to get if after they have finished reading it. Such was the case with this book.

The rewards of being open minded are that you can be transported into Naples without having to leave your seat. Clearly the authors, who both write chunks of the story, are in love with the City but not blindly being prepared to acknowledge the crime and disrepair.

But what they manage to do in a reasonably slim volume is provide you with a feel for Naples that you could only get from actually going there. The history is provided but crucially it is where the history impacts the present where things are concentrated. How come the great city fell into such a state and why crime is so prevalent are some of the questions that are dealt with.

In fact the second part of the book covers the experience that Steegmuller has being a victim of a snatch and grab criminal on a moped. Being dragged along the pavement after failing to release the grip on the bag he ends up in a serious state in hospital. But the experience with the witnesses, ambulance drivers and doctors is one that reaffirms the basic idea that Neapolitans are good people and the place is special.

After closing the book you realise that perhaps there is a middle way between a straight travelogue and some sort of dry guide book. The personality here is Naples and not the authors and as a result it makes the experiences they write about feel accessible to all.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

book review - The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters

In a year of reading that has included some MR James, Turn of the Screw and a ghost story at the end of the year by Wilkie Collins it was with real interest to sit down with a ghost story written by a modern writer.

Having said that Sarah Waters chose to set her story in the past in as much as post-war in a world that was changing as the aristocracy faced up to life with debts, little chance of their pain easing and a Labour government looking to support and reward the common people that had fought and suffered so much in the war.

One of these common people is Doctor Faraday who remembers the setting for the story Hundreds Hall as a child visiting with his mother who used to work as a servant in the house. Back then the house was grand but as the young Faraday found out all too well after pocketing a chunk of decoration it was crumbling.

But the main action happens much later as the doctor is in his 40ths and the house has been left to crumble with the doctor making friends with the current tenants an elderly Mrs Ayres and her son Roderick and daughter Caroline. The doctor initially enters the house to help with a maid who complains of an eeriness in the house that she believes comes from a haunting.

A relationship with the family grows from that with the doctor treating a reluctant Roderick for war wounds and developing feelings for Caroline. The problems the family face are all too physically in evidence with the house crumbling, rooms shut up and the grounds being sold off to develop a housing estate and provide funds to prop up the hall.

Roderick bears most of the brunt of the responsibility and so it is assumed that when he starts complaining of things happening and the house having it in for him that he is starting to have a breakdown. Even after his room is burnt out the doctor looks for a rational explanation and packs Roddy off to a mental home.

That leaves him with Caroline and Mrs. Ayres both of whom share his scepticism. But then things continue to happen and the question of whether or not Hundreds hall is haunted is something that cannot be ignored.

For the doctor, who by this time has developed a romantic attachment to both Caroline and the Hall, the answer is always rational. But for those living in the Hall and coping with feelings of fear and guilt over the death of a daughter and sibling the danger feels all too real.

Waters stokes the fires of this Gothic story masterly and in my humble opinion this would have been a good choice for the Booker prize. Well written and plotted it is supported by characterisation that underlines the divisions that can occur in relationships when one person refuses to believe the other.

If you are looking for a book that has the ability to send a shiver down the spine but also provoke thoughts about the state of the world for down at heel aristos after the war then this is both chiller and historically bang on the mark.

One of my favourite reads of 2009.

Monday, December 07, 2009

book review - The Crystal World - JG Ballard

Science is not one of my strong points so I'm not going to pretend by using long words that the causes of the crystallisation that sweeps the African jungle and Florida swamps is terribly clear to me.

However, the lack of complete understanding didn't detract from the enjoyment of the book because this is tapping into the usual Ballardian themes of society breaking down and the reaction of intelligent people to that collapse in social order.

As the jungle crystallises a former leper colony doctor heads back into the jungle not just to see the crystallisation process first-hand but also to reconnect with an old flame. On the boat up the river, a very Conradeque moment, the main character Dr Sanders notices another passenger, Ventress, who it becomes clear later on is on a similar mission to fight with a mine-owner for possession of his dying ex-wife.

The army is holding the line against expanding shimmering jewelled jungle but the main focus to start with is not to enter the jewelled zone but to work out just how the people on the edges of it can be liberated.

In a classic Ballardian way the choice then moves into a more crucial stage which is for the individuals to decide how they want to react to the prospect of life or death. A primeval urge seems to be driving some characters into the jungle into a world where death comes as the skin turns to crystals shimmering and glittering as the very breath it shut up inside the victim.

In a very graphical moment Sanders tries to save the life of an army officer who is crystallising by clearing his mouth by pulling off the crystals. Later on the edge of the affected zone he realises with horror his handiwork has maimed the officer ripping off his skin.

The choice for Sanders is to run, follow the example of his leprosy suffering former girlfriend and embrace the change or crystallisation. The army pulls out and the spread of the crystals continues to gather pace covering the trees and grasses in a shimmering blanket of sparkling frost.

For Sanders the pull back to the crystals and that sense of deciding to embrace the crystals is something that takes time. As a reader you are left sharing that indecision until the very end.

As you come to expect from Ballard the writing is tight, the cast selective and the attention to detail, making the whole thing plausible, is there in abundance. Personally I would run. But facing the pull of the strange lights and the impact on the mind who knows?

Just as with the Drowned World the actions of the main character cannot be logically explained. In a world that has been turned upside down perhaps the primeval instinct is over powering? Brilliantly described and Ballardian with a capital B this along with High Rise and Drowned World has to be one the books by him that is highly recommendable.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

bookmark of the week

This might not come out that well because it is dark - red and dark - but it came from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and I suspect this is a promotional bookmark for the Queens's House. A good one to add to the collection.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Chalk Circle Man - post II

Adamsberg continues to go against the expectations of his colleagues as he turns his focus on someone that no one else suspects. There is a slight sense of the odd about the chase he has for his ex-girlfriend but putting thart to one side the rest of the story stacks up well.

As the net closes on the killer the complicated reasoning for the circles and the victims is put together well. Because of Paris there is a feeling of the Maigret about this and Adamsberg is equally a loner, lacking a wife back home, when he is at work.

In terms of the best thriller test, which is would you read the next one in the series, then the answer has to be yes.

A review will follow soon...

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Chalk Circle Man - post I

Earlier this year I managed to win the rather wonderful book a month for a year competition run by Vintage. The season ticket has so far thrown up some really interesting reads none more so than The Chalk Circle man by French writer Fred Vargas.

The cover boasts the usual international bestseller tag lines and before the story starts there is the briefest of introductions to a woman who started life as an academic before becoming a best selling writer in France before going international.

Foreign penned thriller, particularly from the Nordics, are all the rage at the moment so on a commercial level you could see this slotting into the current market well. But of course the really important question is around the writing, plot and overall experience.

Everyone needs a detective and Vargas introduces the odd but likeable country man caught in the bustling City of Paris. Although Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is slow and irritates his more urban colleagues he knows how to read people and discover the source of the hatred that leads to murder.

It is Adamsberg who takes an interest in the chalk circles that are drawn across the streets of Paris at night and to the amusement of his colleagues orders them to be photographed and for the objects that are placed in the centre of the circles to be catalogued.

Sure enough just as he predicts one morning the circle contains a body and a complicated process of following the leads on the chalk circle man begins. As the first in a series you would expect the first third of the book to be setting Adamsberg up and Vargas does that but she also uses it as a chance to introduce the other main character to the reader – Paris.

More tomorrow....

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Mr Pip - post III

As the village becomes trapped in the civil war with both sides looking for a reason to inflict a bit of pain and suffering Watts and Pip take centre stage with the former assuming the fictional character's identity. That proves to be a risky strategy but one that fills Matilda with yet more evidence of how inspirational literature can make someone make extraordinary decisions.

Inspired she then goes on to make some decisions of her own that are always set against the backdrop of the touchstone that is Great Expectations. The last section of the book perhaps suffers from losing the tension on the island. All the way through the theme has been around the question of fiction and reality and perhaps searching for the truth and tying up some loose ends meets with a literary convention but it would have been more profound had it been absent.

A review will follow soon...

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Mister Pip - post II

The enigmatic character of Mr Watts starts to catch the imagination not just of the main character Matilda but also her mother who is confused and scared by the teachings of the white man.

A classic clash of ignorance and knowledge reverts to a more tangible one of God against the devil with the non-believer of Watts becoming a target for Matilda's mother. That anger spills over into theft and when the village is raided by one of the sides in the civil war the pebbled tribute that the young girl has made to Dicken's character Pip from Great expectations leads to complications.

Who is Pip is the question the fighters demand? Showing them the book would settle it but the book has gone missing. Of course the question who is Pip is the fundamental one for all of the children in the school as well as for Watts himself. Is Pip, a boy who left his roots to chase great expectations an inspiration, for Watts is the world of Pip's London an escape from the island. Who is Pip is more of a fundamental question than the one the fighter's initially pose.

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Miles behind

With the current focus being on reading the blog review posts have fallen off a cliff. Just looking at what needs to be reviewed is going to fill up most of this month. Plan to start getting some reviews later this week or from early next.

This is what is due:

The Crystal World by JG Ballard
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
The Ancient Shore by Shirley Hazzard
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
The Tenth Man by Graham Greene
The Life of Monsieur Moliere by Mikhail Bulgakov
Journey to Nowhere by Eva Figes
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Lost Hearts and Other Chilling Tales by M R James
Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
Explorers of the new century by Magnus Mills
The Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
Man in the Dark by Paul Auster
Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill
Murder at the Savoy by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

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.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween everyone. A good excuse to eat some sweets and look slightly more stupid than usual.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Chilling tales

At this time of year, with the clocks going back and the cold dark nights enveloping you as you head home from work it’s a good time to think of scary stories. One of this week’s bedtime reads has been the Virago Book of Ghost Stories. This collection of short stories has got some great ones to leave you wondering if it’s a wise idea to keep the light switched on.

One of the books that came free with The Times this week has been lost Hearts and Other Chilling Tales by M R James. Looking forward to dipping into that and some more of the Virago collection over the next few nights and weeks.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Opting for the shorter stuff

As a result of twitter this year has been one experiencing contact with a different collection of book bloggers. It has been great not only to make additions to the blog roll but also to get the views of other people.

One very interesting post, because a real valid point is being made, comes from Rob over at the Fiction Desk who asks the question whether the pressure to produce regular comments on blogs will lead more bloggers into reading novellas and short stories.

Personally I have been saying I plan to do just that partly with tongue in cheek but also because the pressure to keep reading and posting had been highlighted when you get sidelined with big books like 2666 and Wolf Hall. Perhaps next year I will be one of those following the predicted pattern set out so succinctly by the Fiction Desk.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Looking a gift horse down the throat

It has been great this week to get some free books with The Times but I’m afraid at the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth a slight complaint has to be registered.

One of the problems is that the offers, which have been running now for three weeks Monday to Friday in the paper, are never advertised in places I see them and secondly you can only get the books in select venues – large Sainsburys, WH Smiths and M&S Food. It is all too ad hoc. As a result it is very easy not only to miss a book but upset your friends by mentioning how happy you are to have got one.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Wolf Hall - post II

Right time to get back into Wolf Hall and pick up the story of Cromwell and his master Cardinal Wolsey. The Cardinal seems to be being played a bit by King Henry with the public face seeming to show scorn but privately the mission to gain some influence over the Pope continuing.

Meanwhile for Cromwell, who suffers the loss of his wife, life carries on with him being deployed aboard in a rather cack handed way to test the waters in France and further afield to find out the standing of the King and the look of the political landscape.

In a way although his relationship with the Cardinal is one that serves him well you sense that he is starting to outgrow it and as the position of Wolsey becomes slightly more uncertain Cromwell has to look to his own future ensuring he has an exit plan.

More soon...

Monday, October 26, 2009

D-Day - post II

This is one of several books that has been opened and started but not really got underway. There is no obvious excuse for that because the writing is not difficult to digest and the narrative is hardly lacking in action.

One of the problems perhaps is the names that crop up with numerous military officials weaving through the story of the D-Day landings. Luckily you can stick with the main thrust of what is happening, that was the case with reading Stalingrad, and Beevor doesn’t wait too long getting into the actual invasion.

Having reached the part where the Americans land on Omaha beach the credit has to go to Beevor for managing to weave a narrative that is both factual but in its own way as gripping as the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. We all have a rough idea of what happened but telling us, largely from the perspective of the foot soldier, is a great way of illustrating what it was like to go through the hailstorm of bullets and bravely struggle up that beach to take control of the Normandy coastline.

More soon...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

bookmark of the week

This is a magnetic Wallace and Gromit bookmark. I'm a great fan on W&G and there is something quite appealing about the merchandise. It is not too tacky.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

No boasts over book totals this year

The idea of boasting about how many books you have read might seem to be a bit crude but for those that rank the activity as their main hobby and one of their main sources of enjoyment it does matter.

As a result of technology it is possible to see very quickly just how many books you have read in a year and compare them to previous year’s lists you have made. It is also possible of course to go and do the same thing at several other blogs. That last exercise can be fairly depressing sometimes but of course we all have different demands on our time.

This year is not going to be a good one in terms of books consumed but I am starting to feel that it is a very important one in terms of reading lessons being learnt. So putting totals to one side there is still reason to smile and look forward to a positive year.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Glass Room - post V

What I might not have mentioned in all the thoughts about this book over the course of this week is just how much sex dominates. The glass room seems to be a magnet for sexual activity with doctors, yoga teachers and soldiers all being aroused to action in that space. Sex is part of life but I’m a bit of a prude and so will limit my comments on that side of the novel other than to say some of it is important for plot development and some of it isn’t. The stuff that isn’t could have ended up on the cutting room floor.

The sense of the house surviving all that has happened around it despite being made of glass is perhaps the most important image here. Something built with high design values and a determination to be different survives all that is thrown at it. In the end it is almost comical with the communist housing committee trying to decide what to do with the building. The building survives but so does its power to change people, to liberate their minds, in that space made of glass.

Anyway without giving away any endings or anything the various loose ends caused by war and the spreading out of the main characters as a result of the war are tied up. Some of it feels slightly too neat but as a reader you are grateful for things coming to a conclusion in the way that they do.

A review will follow soon....

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Glass Room - post IV

As the family leaves the house the story of the glass room is told via those that stated behind with it initially being taken over as a base for a scientific research programme with Nazi goons measuring skulls and vital statistics looking for a way of identifying Jews. But as the war switches back and forth it moves to a point where the house has been vacated and the Red Army is coming closer.

All the time the glass room and the modern architecture manage to wow the occupants whether they be Nazi’s, war beaten communists or the locals who manage to get inside to have a look around. All the time Viktor’s family struggle to leave Europe and head to Cuba on their way to America. Viktor’s affair is discovered and the marriage is shattered by the distrust. But just like the bombed windows in the glass room it remains to all intents and purposes intact.

Back at the glass house the last few friends of Viktor have been rounded up and taken to the camps and the City and the house are now under the shadow of Stalinism and another period of history begins.

More tomorrow...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Glass Room - post III

With Austria taken over by Hitler and the refugees starting to come through to the Czech Republic the Nazi threat is now just 50km from the Glass House.

As a Jew, Viktor seems to be more acutely aware of what is potentially coming in terms of hate and he starts to plan for an evacuation to Switzerland. But most of those around him seem to be acutely unaware of what will happen believing that humanity will prevail.

Faced with the reality of the refugees and for Viktor with his own mistress from Vienna standing telling her story in his living room the fear of what might happen starts to become a reality and the family plan to leave the glass room and head for the sanctuary of Switzerland. Before they go there is the opportunity for both husband and wife to be unfaithful in the house and for the memories of the glass room to become impregnated with regrets even before the house is vacated.

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Glass Room - post II

The storm clouds are gathering not just in terms of European politics, with the rise of Hitler, but also perhaps in the relationships of the key characters.

In a book that starts slowly sex becomes a theme that overtakes the architecture as Viktor enjoys his Viennese mistress, Liesel dabbles in a bit of Lesbianism and elsewhere most of their friends seem to be at it as well.

Meanwhile the glass house has been completed and stirs debate about modernism and domestic versus work spaces. The owners are happy inside and enjoy the experience of wowing their friends and neighbours.

But as Hitler comes to power and the signs of the swastikas and brown shirts spread to the edges of Viktor’s world he starts to prepare for the worst moving funds to Switzerland. The unease he feels in his relationship with the mistress is an extension of the unease many are feeling across central Europe.

More tomorrow…

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Glass Room - post I

This is another book that was in the running for the recent Booker prize and my god fortunate is to work with colleagues who care enough about contemporary literature to pop out and buy books like this they are then happy to share and pass on.

As the story starts to unfold of the Czech husband and wife and their home designed by an Austrian architect you know that things are going to get difficult because these are the inter-war years and there is already tension in the air.

However the focus of the honeymooners is to commission the Austrian architect to build their home after they meet him in Venice. They set about getting him to design what he describes as a space with a glass room that is somewhere the couple can make their own environment living in natural light.

At parts you expect Kevin McCloud to start narrating the progress of the build as the action moves to the hillside where the work will take place.

You know that the peace that exists on the hillside where their home is being constructed will not last for much longer and you are already starting to wonder what will happen to the house and the people who will live and work in it.

More tomorrow....

Sunday, October 18, 2009

bookmark of the week

Every year in the US the libraries put together a list of banned books and encourage readers not only to find out why they were banned but to explore them for themselves. This bookmark accompanied a promotion run many years ago along similar lines by the Independent. It's interesting going through the list.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

How long to prove it's worth it?

When you pick up a book it’s interesting to see how long you give it to prove its worth. I usually let things go until around 100 pages and if by then it is failing to grab you in any way you grit your teeth and start to think of the gruelling task ahead or abandonment.

I have never really abandoned a book just put it to one side and waited for the mood to come that will help me reengage with it but it is a prospect that is becoming more of an important question to consider.

The reason is that if a book has lost you then does it deserve to be read? I’d like to believe there are lessons to be learnt as a reader and a potential writer one day from every book but sometimes they can be slim in the extreme.

As the end of this year draws near and it ranks as one of those with the fewest books personally read the question of when and if to bail out on a book is one that is going to demand an answer to avoid a repeat in 2010.

Friday, October 16, 2009

maybe time for a refresh?

The look and feel of the blog hasn't changed for a couple of years and I'm thinking that maybe it's time to have a look at what the options are for improving the look and feel of it. The dots seemed to be one of the best choices available at the time but Blogger has probably improved the choices since then and made it easier to make things look more compelling.

Keep an eye on the blog in the next few weeks to see if I have the guts and the gumption to make any changes. I'd like to but we will see.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Journey to Nowhere - post III

You know when someone is angry because they become repetitive but this book starts to get to its central theme when Eva recalls the conversations she had with the old housemaid Edith about Palestine.

The lonely woman was left in Berlin at the end of the war with nothing so proved to be an easy target for the Zionists who took her away to Palestine. But the country was full of different groups that hated each other.

Figes then goes onto talk about the history of the Jewish state and her dislike of it. This is brave writing because of course as a Jew she cannot be easily shot down in flames for being anti-Semitic so presumably other charges were levelled against her. But the idea that hate is at the bottom of most of Palestine is a difficult one to get to grips with.

At the end of the way no one seemed to know what to do with the millions of displaced people that had been created as a result of the war and the holocaust. Palestine became a dumping ground that allowed other countries to consider their obligations met. It perhaps never really answered or solved the problem and as a result continues to provide debate until the present day.

A review will follow soon...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Journey to Nowhere - post II

As the relationship between Eva and the old housemaid Edith is reopened the story of what happened to those Jews that stayed in Berlin through the war is told in all its harrowing detail.

What emerges is a picture of ad hoc kindness with fellow Germans helping out. Some were motivated by kindness, others by bitterness towards the war and in the final days those looking for a good deed as a way of saving their own skin.

Eva exists in a post war world where her mother seems to have turned into a rather horrible person, Edith is a lonely figure and for Eva herself she is trying to make sense of it all.

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Life of Monsieur Moliere - post V

So this biography written by one writer with a great deal of passion and care about another comes to an end.

The role of the King is vital throughout Moliere's life with the patronage of the monarch needed on the numerous occasions where he manages to provoke the rage of various sections of the aristocracy.

But what is clearly amazing is the sheer volume of work that the playwright managed to produce. Not only that but the quality of his comedies were such that they have of course let the name Moilere live on through history.

The postscript at the end by Bulgakov is sad in that he know he will never get to Paris to see the monument of his hero. In many ways Bulgakov also had an existence dominated by a King the problem is that his was not so supportive and in the end almostr crushed the writer.

A review will come soon...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Journey to Nowhere - post I

Wolf Hall is calling me as it sits there almost shouting out ‘600 pages are not going to read themselves’. But before we get to that...

This is another book sent by a kind twitter friend and again it is not something I would normally rush out to buy. The reason is that as a reader of fiction or history the memoir tends to fall between those two categories. Having read some memoirs earlier this year a return to fiction was something more favourable.

But once you start reading this well crafted book you perhaps realise that the success of the memoir is in the telling. Eva Figes focuses on the story of a housemaid Edith and what happened to her as she lost touch with Eva’s family as they fled the Nazis.
Edith went to Palestine but then wrote asking for her old job back with the family who now lived in London. The return of Edith is a chance for Eva to tell of the years since her escape from Berlin in 1939 and the impact on her and her family.

A very honest but so lightly written account exposes her problematic relationship with her mother and the dangerous times they fled in Germany. The world of wealth and grandparents living round the corner was shattered forever. But what seems to have been true for Eva and her parents in particular is that the war never stopped.

You wait for Edith’s arrival and the rest of the story of what happened to those that escaped the holocaust to be shared.

More later this week...