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