Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The long list

With the Booker long list now out in the open the most obvious question is about how much it will influence the reading in the next month or two. Last year I managed to read around half of the shortlist and as a result managed to be on the right side of a 50/50 chance of having read the winner.

This year hopefully there might be the chance to read a few more of the likely contenders before the big decision. Anyway here is the list and it will be in my mind over the next few trips to the bookshop.

Peter Carey Parrot & Olivier in America (Faber and Faber)
Emma Donoghue Room (Pan MacMillan - Picador)
Helen Dunmore The Betrayal (Penguin - Fig Tree)
Damon Galgut In a Strange Room (Grove Atlantic - Atlantic Books)
Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)
Andrea Levy The Long Song (Headline Publishing Group - Headline Review)
Tom McCarthy C (Random House - Jonathan Cape)
David Mitchell The Thousand Autumns of Zacob de Zoet (Hodder & Stoughton - Sceptre)
Lisa Moore February (Random House - Chatto & Windus)
Paul Murray Skippy Dies (Penguin - Hamish Hamilton)
Rose Tremain Trespass (Random House - Chatto & Windus)
Christos Tsiolkas The Slap (Grove Atlantic - Tuskar Rock)
Alan Warner The Stars in the Bright Sky (Random House - Jonathan Cape)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Twitter comes to the rescue (thank you)

Last night my mother in law went missing. She is 71, suffers from memory problems and had gone to visit family in Exeter a long way away from her home in North London.

A coach delay and the driver's decision to miss a stop triggered a six hour absence that involved the police and put the family through hours of torment.

In that situation what you want to do more than anything is feel that you are doing something. The urge to jump into a car and drive to Exeter and drive around looking for her is a difficult one to resist because it meets the need to be active.

But when that isn't practical there turned out to be another answer and one that might just surprise those people that believe social networking is a pointless exercise in vanity and the banal.

After being given the green light by the police I called for help in the search for my mother-in-law on twitter. I watched as my call for help in locating her went ever wider and it wasn't long before someone contacted me prepared to go to the coach station and look for her. That was the very thing I wanted to do myself but in the absence of getting there a twitter contact was prepared to go and do it for me.

Here is someone who is busy minding their own business who sees the call for help and answers. Not only answers and goes to the coach station but alerts security there and then goes on a hunt round the pedestrianised shopping area to see if there are any signs there.

I didn't offer a reward it was a simple call for help and it was answered. The support and the good will with people offering ideas and assistance was staggering and even surprised the police when I mentioned it to them when they came to get further details of my missing mother-in-law.

In the end she was found and the saga had a happy ending and there are going to be plenty of lessons that this experience has taught her family.

But there is another lesson here about the power of social networking. Twitter proved that it is a way to reach out to people who care, are prepared to give up their time and energy, and it showed that when you need help there are new ways of getting support opening up.

Twitter might not have actually found her but it provided eyes that I couldn't have in the right places and it provided support in a time of trouble that you just wouldn't believe.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Finding things in books

Sometimes when you buy a book from a second hand store there is something left inside. An old shopping list or a cutting of a review that impressed the reader. In a recent buy I found an old business card acting as a bookmark in an Anthony Powell book. The reader can't have got far the card was left on page 36 but it is a little object that captures the eye and adds a certain something to the experience of buying the book.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

book review - The Opposite of Falling - Jennie Rooney

"He looked up at the two women and grinned. 'I want to show you something,' he said, and instead of pushing the valve to make the balloon descend as he should have done, he pulled it out so that there was a jump in the basket, a startling upwards tug."

If you are going to set a story in the past then your research has to be spot on if it is going to be believable. But it's a balancing act because too many facts and figures and it turns into a history essay and too little and it just won't engage the reader.

Rooney manages to walk that tightrope well here with some real characters popping up like Thomas Cook, the travel tour operator, as well the fictional creations that rub shoulders with them.

There are several strands going on here that Rooney pulls together around the theme of a moment of faith or realisation that life is there to be lived and not constrained by the past or fears stemming from previous tragedies.

For the main character Ursula Bridgewater the moment of faith comes when she rejects a marriage proposal and discovers the confidence to go it alone and dedicate her life to gaining women the vote.

For her traveling companion Sally Walker, who has witnessed her mother dying under the wheels of a coach to protect her and then been the victim of relgious bigotry, she finds the strength through finding love to speak up.

For the third character Toby O'Hara he finds the truth that explains just how much his mother cared for him and just why the legacy of flying might not be the glorious ambition he thought his father had passed onto him.

There are hidden depths to this story as well as a fair amount of information being given about not just life in Liverpool in 1862 but also the state of progress on flight in the years before the Wright brothers finally managed to crack it.

For the bored and weary Ursula as well as her companion Sally it is America, with its can-do attitude and women voting states that provides the inspiration and the context for love to flourish.

An interesting read that delivers a lesson in how to deliver a good story in a well researched setting.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of Light Boxes

If a book is going to put as much effort into presentation and typography to produce an effect on the reader that is clearly meant to differentiate it from the run of the mill then the story has to be robust enough to stand that treatment.

Too weak and it looks like a vanity project but too strong and it smacks of pretentiousness and potentially will alienate the reader.

So half way in how does Shane Jones do walking that tightrope? Pretty well. Sure it's unusual to read of the town waging war on February and fighting winter as their children disappear but it is readable and importantly you want to read on and see how it is resolved.

A review will come on completion...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Wilting in the heat

Most of my reading is done on the commute to and from work but at this time of year with the sunshine and heat it's very difficult to read. The rhythm of the train and the humidity make concentrating on the words on a page very difficult and as a result it's been hard to keep the reading pace going.

Don't get me wrong I'm able to sit on a beach or in the garden and read away in the sunshine it's just the elements combining on a hot train that make it so difficult on the commute at this time of year.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

bookshop of the week - Baggins, Rochester

This is one on an occasional series but Baggins bookshop in Rochester claims to be the largest second hand bookshop in Britain and it has a good reason to. Stacks and stacks of second hand books cover three floors - a bit of heaven!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of The Opposite of Falling

If you are going to be taken by the hand and led into the past you need to be taken there with complete confidence that the world you are reading about and imagining is right in every detail.

So far so good with The Opposite of Falling painting a picture of life in 1862 for a woman of leisure as well as an orphan being brought up by nuns. The alternating chapters, a common technique to introduce differing viewpoints, allows you to follow the lives of wealthy but bored Ursula Bridgewater and the vulnerable and orphaned Sally Walker.

Over the other side of the Atlantic the character of the flying obsessive O'Hara is also emerging. The three will eventually meet but before then there have to be some more movements by all three to get into a situation when they are in a position to collide.

So far it's fairly interesting. A review will follow on completion...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A fourth birthday

Today marks the fourth birthday of this blog. It all started four years ago after a conversation the night before with my brother who told me that rather than write things down in little notebooks I could put my thoughts and reviews of books online.

It's been a great four years with lots of reading packed in and it's also provided an opportunity to interact with a wider book reading and literature loving group of people, most of whom are in the blog roll on the right. It's been fun, hard work and occasionally let's be truthful a bit of a chore. The mojo has risen and dipped but is hovering on okay at the moment.

Thanks for reading and supporting the blog over the last four years.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

book review - Who is Mr Satoshi? - Jonathan Lee

"The motion of opening the door unsettled a lot of dust inside. I didn't know it at the time, but the dust would be the first of many things in my mother's world to be disturbed by my interference; soon nothing would remain settled, nothing would stay still."

As you close this book the word that springs to mind to describe the story is 'clever' as it is brilliantly put together but still manages to leave you with space to add your own thoughts.

You have to concentrate as the details are given over time and the story of the main character, the photographer Rob Fossick, unravels like a fern providing the background on his current drugged up to the eyeballs with anti-depressants rejection of society.

The last action of his mother before she dies is to ask him to deliver a package to Mr Satoshi and as a result she not only sets her son on a track to re-engage with the world but also on a collision course with his own mother's secrets.

But there are moments when you never think he will get there. Unable to leave his own home without panic attacks and still failing to come to terms with the death of his wife in a nighclub fire Fossick seems an unlikely candidate for a trip to find an old friend of his mother's in Japan. Although called Satoshi the hunt it on for Reggie a sweetheart of his mother who went to Japan after the end of the Second World War.

At this point Lee shows the benefits of a great deal of research into post-war Japan and the world that Reggie would have inhabited. His hunt for the man takes him to modern Japan and provides him with the chance to face his demons. A friendship with a Japanese student who is facing her own problems with a mother dying of cancer shakes Foss out of his own introspection.

But it is the challenge of unraveling the mystery of Satoshi that draws Foss out of himself and also provides distraction for his girl friend who acts as translator and grief counselor when the occasion demands it. Finding Satoshi raises as many questions as it answers but is done in a way that leaves you pondering on the answers yourself which is a great pay-off as a reader.

There are themes here that echo throughout the book and once you identify them and tap into the frequency it becomes a rewarding experience. One of the most obvious is that Foss has the agony of not being able to save his wife from fire and faces the same situation with Satoshi. But there are also echoes of the past influencing the present with people reaching the end of their lives still showing the ability to shock and shape the lives of those still living very much in the present.

The research and knowledge of Japan that Lee clearly has at his fingerprints makes this book work and produces a tale that is love story, detective novel and history book all in one.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of Who is Mr Satoshi?

What I like about the style here is the way the character and his history starts to unfurl like a slowly opening flower. You start by meeting him just at the point where his mother dies but you soon get the back story about the death of his wife, the loss of his motivation to continue to be a top photographer and his dependence on medication and aversion to crowds.

But despite his reclusive nature you can't help but like Rob Fossick and get drawn in as he discovers an old love affair between his mother and a childhood sweetheart and attempts to carry out her dying which to deliver a package to Mr Satoshi.

The ptoblem is not just going to be finding Mr Satoshi, which is a nickname for a childhood friend, but coming to terms with what delving into his mother's past will mean for his own future.

Great stuff so far and looking forward to posting a review soon on completion...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Faber Academy open day

This morning despite the heat I braved the tube and headed towards Bloomsbury to Faber & Faber's offices for an open day it was holding promoting the activities of its Academy.

In a room that overlooked the British Museum and had some welcome croissants and cool drinks the tutors of the various courses were on hand to talk about what the Academy does and to nod gently in the direction of the 10% off if you book today offer.

Sadly for me the cost of the course on learning how to write a novel was just way beyond my current means but it was good to hear about it and I met another aspiring writer and that was a great experience. May well do a one day course if the timing is right.

The one thing I will carry with me from the day are the words he said to me: "I'm tired of only being a writer in my head".

Found that inspirational and worth going up there just to hear. Now the challenge is to actually get something down on paper. As I said to him "most people worry about endings. I have a problem from the point after the introduction".

We will see what happens...

Friday, July 09, 2010

book review - Tintin and the Secret of Literature - Tom McCarthy

"Guardian of the silence at the heart of noise: as Barthes would put it, Tintin is the protector of the ultimate meaning held irretrievable in reserve; as Derrida would say, he is the avatar of the secret whose possibility guarantees the possibility of literature, the condition of this secret becomes visible. If, as sunflowers know, the secret of philosophy is literature, then what Herge's whole oeuvre, in its silent medium, knows but will not allow to be pronounced, is that the secret of literature is Tintin."

You might not automatically think of Barthes and Balzac when you read Herge's Tintin but a study of the literary connections and symbols throughout the 24 Tintin books by Tom McCarthy shows that they are there and that there is a great deal more to the Belgian reporter than first meets the eye.

Tintin has been a favorite every since I was a child and the idea that there was some literary weight in reading the Herge comic books was naturally an attractive one.

Some of what McCarthy has to say falls into the category of sounded obvious once he has put the details in front of you. For instance the family background of Herge, with his grandmother delivering two boys into the world without a father but with a rumour of royal involvement, underpins a great deal of the family, or lack of it, themes in Tintin.

The theory about the royal connection is one that is there in Haddock's past and the signs are there to make the link with Louis XIV if you are looking for them.

Then there is the question of the way that slapstick is deployed in a Buster Keaton type way with Haddock and the hapless detectives Thompson and Thomson (again why the different names? were there two fathers?).

But what sticks out from reading this book, which sometimes perhaps makes a leap or two too far, is the literary connections.

In places scenes happening on the page mirror those of great French literary works and even Jules Verne and you end up concluding that as well as being a great draughtsman and artist Herge was also quite clearly well read and able to bring some of those ideas into print. It provides you with a new found respect for the man.

McCarthy is quick to peg that respect back a notch with sections covering what happened between Herge and his other animators towards the end when the determination to maintain complete control over Tintin prevented anyone else from carrying the series on.

But overall this book, with its research on show in the bibliography, manages to convince you that you are not just switching the brain into a lower gear, the one for enjoyment, when you read Tintin but are allowing some of the influences from some of the most famous literary names to wash over you.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

So far so really good

Having completed Tom McCarthy's Tintin and the Secret of Literature that marks the 50th book read this year. Having managed only 68 last year this is very good news because it means I'm on course for a decent reading year come 31 December.

Some people read more but I'm pleased with the pace. Most of the time I can only read on the commute with the children and the demands of the home waiting when I return so it's been good to get as many read. But most importantly (it's not just abiout the numbers) I'm really enjoying it so hopefully the remaining months this year will be as satisfying.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Tintin and the Secret of Literature

This title of this book alone drew my attention. Having loved Tintin since I was a child the chance to give that passion a stamp of literacy legitimacy was very attractive.

This is a serious study that is throwing around links with heavyweight authors left, right and centre as well as drawing on previous studies of Tintin's world.

Already half way in it's safe to say that Herge was a great story teller using some of the most well know literary techniques. But he was also a complex character. His guilt over his wartime record, which consisted of him carrying on producing cartoons in an occupied Belgium for a Nazi sympathising newspaper, surface in his work for years afterwards.

So does Herge's family history. As Haddock discovers his family history in Red Rackham's Treasure there are signs that Herge himself might have dreamt of being related to royalty in his distant past.

Looking forward to the second half...a review will follow on completion.

Monday, July 05, 2010

book review - The Last Will & Testament of Senhor Da Silva Araujo - Germano Almeida

"Thus, day by day, Graca acquired a posthumous knowledge of her father that moved her deeply and it was with sorrow that she found she had devoured the entire contents of the leather briefcase."

A wealthy businessman dies leaving his business, a few houses and a reputation of being a rather aloof and eccentric character. But as he almost 200 page will is read a different picture emerges of a man unable to find the courage to marry, someone who struggles with rumors of his past and a man who lived for years with the secret of a daughter he never publicly acknowledged.

The winner is the daughter Graca who discovers the story of her father and then gets the chance to discover him through his documents. But the loser is the nephew Carlos who assumed he would inherit to find he has been left the hassle of the funeral and spent years working for a man who seems to have found it difficult to trust him and leaves him a crumbling old house.

As the story of the life of Sr. da Silva Araujo starts to fall into place it is a rather tragic tale of a person confined by his own thoughts rather than the substantive actions of others. It is often what he thinks people might say or do that moulds his actions not what they really get up to.

His inability to form relationships leaves him with a daughter that thought on the few occasions she met him that he was a dirty old man and a couple of women who came close to being his wife but never got asked. It also seems to leave him with very few friends as he has a problem trusting people and puts a value on everything.

You carry on reading about this character because of the way that his double life, if that's not too strong a description, opens up revealing a man who has a tragic existence behind his wealth. If there is one thing that you take away from this book it is perhaps the idea that life should be enjoyed at the time and of course the old adage money cannot buy you happiness.

There is also a note of warning that in a tight-knit community even the deepest secrets are common knowledge.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

bookmark of the week

This was found in a box of old books and is a great holographic shuttle bookmark. It has not got any markings that help date it or explain where it came from but it is a bit of fun that has the 1980s vibe.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Reading outdoors

One of the great joys of summer is reading outside, slipping into the magical world of a book accompanied by the sound of bird song and the heat.

So it was a magical day with the paperback and bookmark following me round as I went from one patch of lawn to another. if there was ever an interest/hobby that was perfect for outdoors it is reading and thanks to this warm spell it's been a bit similar to reading on holiday, just with less sun cream.

Hoping for more summer reading throughout the rest of July and August

Friday, July 02, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of The Last Will & Testasment of SAenhor da Silva Araujo

One way of telling a story is to have someone else do it for you. The idea of a long lost document, a letter or manuscript found and now retold via the author.

In this case it's a last will and testament that is used as the story of a successful but slightly eccentric businessman is told in a long and winding document. There are surprises in the will, including the disclosure of an illegitimate daughter and an insight into his views on wealth and spending.

But as the story, a memoir more than a will, starts to unfold there are signs that the life led by Senhor da Silva Araujo is one that no one really understood and there should be some more surprises to come.

A review follows on completion...

Thursday, July 01, 2010

book review - Beside the Sea - Veronique Olmi

"Everyone's always waiting for you to put a foot wrong, for you to fall, it's like walking on soap, yes, our lives are full of soap, that's what I think."

You know when you are reading a great writer's work when they are able to make you believe in a character totally, even if that character is a million miles away from your own position.

Veronique Olmi has produced a story that might be short but has the power of a rock being thrown into a still pool. The ripples of the story roll over you and in the end you are grateful that the book is perhaps no longer.

A single mother with two children, Stan and Kevin, heads to a hotel in a seaside town to take them on their last journey. Failed by social services, off her medication and unable to see anything other than the bad in people the story starts with the trio boarding the bus and heading off to the hotel.

The children provide a contrast between the wise in the form of the older boy Stan and the naive innocence of Kevin who is devastated that he has left his blanket behind and not taken it on the trip. Stan has been forced to grow up and fill in the cracks left by a mother unable to function in the mornings or much as a mother full stop.

Stan seems to be able to understand her but of course he can't fully. Olmi is brilliant at describing that tightrope between childish and adult understanding and stressing just when it's needed the immaturity of Stan.

But can the mother be blamed when she has been let down by a system that would rather do things by filling in forms and asking for tests rather than really listening to the person? You would expect someone to see the warning signs to read where the situation was going and to intervene.

Even at the hotel and the seaside town what strikes you is how, apart from some bored men looking for trouble, no one asks what she is doing and where they are going. The children are in ill-fitting clothing and off school but no one picks up on this.

If there is a moral from this story that I'm taking away it is perhaps that society, not just social workers, has a responsibility to look out for each other and to be braver in challenging the unusual.

This book is a great example of how if an author can understand and describe the human mind, even an extremely damaged one, then the story is not only believable but has the power to shake you deeply.