The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe 1968 Pub. Black Swan ISBN 9780552993661
Ken Kesey, The Pranksters, hippies, LSD and the rest. A perennial classic, but one that I would have enjoyed much more if I’d read it 30 years ago. I got two thirds of the way through, just about struggling on my knees through the kool-aid acid test itself, before giving up. This is something I never do – the last time I put a book down before the end was Laurence Sterne’s ….Tristram Shandy, and I fully intend to start it again – but I’m afraid Tom Wolfe just got boring when Kesey ran off to Mexico and I totally ceased to care what he or his followers did from there.
Flesh and Blood by Michèle Roberts 1994 Pub. Virago ISBN 1860491308
Fifteen short “stories” make up this novel, each one a mini masterpiece. Sometimes reminiscent of Angela Carter, Michele Roberts has really impressed me with this book, and I will be on the lookout for more of her writing. It was such a joy to read the words, that it hardly matters that I struggle to find a way to describe this book. The tales kind of lead into one another, and sometimes a character is revisited, but I have little idea of just what it’s all about. The best I can come up with is this….a young woman, having had a confusing and not altogether loving upbringing, is desperately hoping for a happier future. There’s a flavour of magical realism here, a tentative look at androgeny there, family relations, female sexuality and a sprinkling of flirtatiousness.
In the first chapter, called Fred, the main character claims to have killed her mother. As we move on, Fred uses fantasy and fairytales to help make sense of her circumstance. Later chapters go someway to exploring the mother/daughter relationship, though there are fathers, sons and lovers too. In the final chapter we meet Fred/dy again as she reveals she will soon be a mother herself. It’s an intriguing book, and one that I’ve found harder to write about than any other on these pages. It’s like feeling your stomach is full while not being able to remember what you’ve eaten.
The Railway Man by Eric Lomax 1995 Pub. Vintage ISBN 9780099583844
Born near Edinburgh shortly after WW1 had gasped it’s last, Eric Lomax found an escape from the strict acadaemia of his school on the railways around his home. He was fascinated by steam engines and all the paraphernalia associated with them, and spent as much free time as he could at stations, sidings and yards. Not exactly a trainspotter – they came later with their pads, pens and parkas – Lomax describes it as “something like love”; with their coal furnaces and billowing steam, the magnificent engines seemed almost alive. How grimly ironic that the author should find himself, just a few short years later, contributing to the construction of the most expensive (in terms of human lives) railway ever built.
Enlisting as a Signalman in 1939, Lomax sailed for Bombay in 1941 and was soon deployed in Singapore to defend the Malay peninsular from the encroaching Japanese Imperial Army. Readers who lived through or have studied WW11 will know that the fate of military personnel in Singapore took a distastrous turn, and many thousands ended up as prisoners of the Japanese. Of these, the majority were transported North to the Thai town of Kanchanburi, where the Japanese were attempting to build a railway through the mountains to Burma. If successful, this would cement their place as rulers of all Asia.
What follows is Eric Lomax’s gripping but harrowing account of his next few years as a prisoner of war, experiencing terror and torture on a regular basis and coming near to death on several occasions. Finally freed from Changi prison back in Singapore at the tail end of 1945, Lomax started a long process of recovery and rehabilitation. He was 26 years old and had experienced armed warfare, near starvation, torture, beatings, disease and immense cruelty, as well as incredible camaraderie and strength of character among his co-captives. Eventually Lomax describes the incredible chain of events which led to him meeting up with a former tormentor, and the extraordinary and heart-rending descriptions of how he turned his feelings of hate and revenge into forgiveness and understanding.
Eric Lomax died in 2012 at the age of 91, just months before his memoirs were brought to the big screen in a blockbuster starring Jeremy Irving, Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. This is a book which brought me to tears on more than one occasion. Remembrance Day is almost upon us; this year it is the survivors and victims of the Thai-Burma Railway and Outtram and Changi Prisons in Singapore who will be foremost in my thoughts.
Sadler’s Birthday by Rose Tremain 1976 Pub. Vintage ISBN 9780099284376
Born as the 19th century turned into the 20th, Jack Sadler didn’t have the best of starts. With no father present, Jack is brought up by his mother and grandfather. When his grandfather dies, Jack and his mother, Annie, go to live with “Milord”; Annie becomes a maid, while Jack is begrudgingly allowed to stay in the house as long as he makes himself unobtrusive. But as soon as he turns fourteen, Jack is forced to leave school and his mother to take up a position in another grand house and earn his own keep.
In 1939 Jack becomes butler in the home of a retired army colonel and his wife. We first meet Jack at the age of seventy six give or take a day or two, and he is still living at the colonel’s house, albeit under very different circumstances. The novel takes the form of a series of Jack’s memories across the decades, interspersed with descriptions of his current circumstance. It is really a most beautifully written book (her first novel) by one of my favourite authors, and at times quite saddening and shocking.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 2013 Pub. 4thEstate ISBN 9780007356348
At the start of this novel, Ifemelu and her peers, including her beloved Obinze, are at high school, all dreaming of their futures at university and beyond. Some, the offspring of the nouveau riche in Nigeria’s booming economy, are planning to study in America or England; anything to escape the military dictatorship. But for others financial restrictions and family constraints will keep them close to home. Eventually, after the frustrations of local university where the teachers are more often than not on strike, Ifem manages to enrol at an American university and begins a new life. However the land of the free does not offer the same freedoms to all, and for the first time Ifem becomes aware of the race issue and the realities of life when you are other than the majority. The complexities of U.S. society reveal themselves to her as she begins to see how African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, poverty-stricken whites and non-American blacks all fit in the strata below white Americans.
After fifteen years of mixed fortunes, Ifem decides to return to Nigeria where she remakes the acquaintance of several school friends, including, eventually, the great love of her adolescence, Obinze.
This was a gripping novel with a powerful love story, but also a most insightful look at race and racism in the 21st century. Adichie has a special gift of making us really feel each moment of her characters’ internal pain and joy. Her other novels are Purple Hibiscus which I’ve read, and Half of a Yellow Sun which is on my to read pile. Ifem’s blog The Small Redemptions of Lagos is on WordPress.
If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes 1945 Pub Serpent’s Tail ISBN 9781846687389
Robert Jones has a good education behind him, a steady relationship with a loving, “high yellow” girl, a responsible position at a busy ship yard and a new car. All of these are surprising considering this is Los Angeles in the 1940s, and Robert is reminded on a daily basis just how tenuous is his grasp on all these aspects of his life. As racism rears its ugly head whenever he leaves his home, and especially at work, Robert fights a constant internal battle with his angry responses to the injustices he witnesses day in, day out.
As Robert lurches from one near catastrophe to the next, this is nail-biting reading indeed. A sense of foreboding engulfs the reader from the beginning, and more often than not it is Robert’s girlfriend Alice’s voice of reason that keeps him from himself. Just when the reader thinks that he’s going to overcome his problems and find some peace in his life, the carpet is pulled out from under Robert’s feet.
Seventy years on, I would like to believe that we have moved beyond this type of discrimination. Alas, it is still all too evident, albeit under different disguises. There is nothing polite about this novel; the American poet, Ishmael Reed said it better than I ever could….“Youthful, insulting, risky, brash, bad-assed, revolutionary, violent and struts about as if to say, here come cocky Chester Himes, you litterateurs, and I hope you don’t like it.”
The Believers by Zoë Heller 2008 Pub Penguin ISBN 9780141024677
Joel Litvinoff is a hero; radical lawyer and saviour of the left, Joel has represented virtually every ethnic, political or religious minority in the USA against oppression, tyranny and war-mongering. When he suffers a life-changing stroke, his family is forced to look more deeply and honestly than they ever have before, at what they really believe in. Although from the outside they seem to be a family united by their common belief in freedom, peace and equality, below the surface are deep resentments and differences. It takes a medical crisis for them all to look at what really matters to themselves as individuals, and ultimately to accept that their father truly lived by his beliefs albeit in a rather secretive manner. Toxic Audrey, the English wife with a reputation for outspokenness; Rosa, the eldest daughter disillusioned with socialism; Karla, the unhappily married sister who is not allowed to forget she is overweight; Lenny, the adopted son with a drug problem. In one way or another, all of them will find new ways of being and new ways to believe what they each need and desire their lives to be, and one way or another they find the peace that has ever been the elusive foundation of the family. When the inevitable happens, and Joel finally passes away after a long, drawn-out stay at the hospital, Audrey seizes her opportunity to make a triumphant stand and preserve her husband’s stellar image for all time.
This is a beautifully written book, and although it tries to deal with almost too many issues, it seems to work. I also rate Zoë Heller’s previous novel, Notes on a Scandal, and look forward to future publications.
The Rotter’s Club by Jonathan Coe 2001 Pub. Penguin ISBN 9780140294668
1970s-set coming of age novel. The woodchip cover of this book was irresistible! Benjamin Trotter attends a boys’ grammar school in Birmingham, where his days are filled with literature, progressive rock and day-dreaming about the unattainable Cicely from the neighbouring girls’ school. Brought up in an area where a large percentage of youngsters will end up working at the local Longbridge car plant (the home of such British classics as Austin, MG and Rover), as do their parents, workplace politics, union activity and strikes are run-of -the-mill. I definitely felt an affinity with these characters as I also lived my teenage years in the 1970s; it seems like a simpler time, but this is no rose-tinted, sentimental memoir. While there were many laugh-out-loud moments, not the least of which describes younger brother Peter’s rendition of The Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK, there is also heartbreak and anguish for Benjamin and several of his classmates, including the effects of the bombing of a pub by the IRA (a real event). As Benjamin finds his spiritual side after a particularly timely “miracle”, the reader really starts to empathise with his vulnerability, and is wholeheartedly rooting for him by the time he is sitting his A levels.
I’m not quite sure if I like the device used at the beginning and end of the book which sees two of the adult offspring of Benjamin’s peers discussing their parents’ pasts. A sequel to this book, The Closed Circle, was published in 2004.
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan 2012 Pub. Vintage ISBN 9780099578789
* * *
1972, London. Britain is in the midst of the Cold War, energy supplies are running low, MI5 has started (reluctantly) to recruit women; women who know they have zero chance of any meaningful promotion prospects. Just before Serena graduates from Cambridge with a disappointing 3rd in Mathematics, she is introduced to Tony Canning, middle aged don and erstwhile secret agent. They start a passionate affair during which Tony grooms Serena for a post in the Secret Service. Somewhat surprisingly, Serena is accepted into the lowly echelons of MI5 and so begins a drudgingly, seemingly pointless life of typing reports, passing memos and filing. Amidst the beginnings of an office flirtation, Serena is finally offered a task that she can get her teeth into. In an effort to promote anti-communist writing, the service is looking to support financially a number of journalists, poets and novellists; it had worked with George Orwell – funding was provided to have Animal Farm translated and published world wide.
Serena is sent to sign up an unknown but promising author; someone who needs financial support and has shown the right kind of sympathy for artistic freedom overseas. She arrives at Sussex University and meets with English professor Tom Haley, a budding author who had written some half-decent short stories, but was by no means comfortably off. With a generous pension, Haley’s career takes off with unnerving speed and the two of them begin an intense relationship, but Serena’s deceit is always in the back of her mind. How far will she let things go before the truth comes out?
This book was a pleasure to read; a good mix of tension, intrigue, sex and the banalities of everyday working life, with a surprising twist at the end.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent 2013 Pub. Picador ISBN 9781447233176
In early 1830, Agnes Magnúsdóttir became the last person beheaded in Iceland for murder. She had been found guilty of the slaughter in cold blood of her former lover and employer, and subsequently took her place in Icelandic legend as an evil and dangerous murderess, almost certainly involved in dark sorcery and witchcraft. So you can imagine how the farming family at Kornsá reacted when given the news, in the summer of 1829, that Agnes would be lodged with them until arrangements were made for her execution.
In 2002, 17-year-old Australian Hannah Kent spent a year in Iceland on an exchange programme. “It felt like the edge of the world.” During her time there she came across the story of Agnes and was immediately intrigued. When, 8 years later, she had to choose a subject for an historical novel to be part of her PhD, she instinctively knew it would be Agnes’s story.
Meticulously and extensively researched, this novel builds on the bones of documented evidence to convey a complete picture of life in Iceland 150 years ago; the landscape, the weather and how they both dictated everyday life and culture. Cleverly woven into the novel are really clear descriptions of farming methods, the layout of the home, materials used for building, clothing and cooking; I found this all quite fascinating. For instance, I have learnt that fish skin was used to stretch across windows in the absence of glass, angelica was used to ease lung complaints, the northern lights herald bad weather……. I really enjoyed this book, and found it hard to put down once I’d got into it. As it’s narrated by various different characters, the reader is able to piece together a more complete version of events. It’s not sentimental in any way, but still managed to break my heart. I hear the film version is in pre-production and will star Jennifer Lawrence.
The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter 1977 Pub. Virago ISBN 9780860683414
Arriving in an America teetering on the edge of all-out civil war, a young graduate from England encounters much more than he had anticipated. In the chaos of New York, Evelyn’s university post fails to materialise, and he lives life in an underworld of violence, overwhelming panic, and rats more prevalent than humans. Falling under the spell of a young dancer, Evelyn begins an intense affair, although the girl, Leilah, soon begins to bore him. Their affair ends disastrously, bringing about the next stage of Evelyn’s adventure. Driving away from New York and hoping to leave the anarchy behind him, Evelyn discovers the true extent of the unrest as he travels south to California. Various captures and escapes later, it is a very different person who eventually casts adrift in a small boat on the last page, hoping to reach a safe haven.
Evelyn’s first captors are a group of women who imprison him, forcibly perform a sex change operation, then rehabillitate Evelyn as Eve. This is probably as a punishment for his misogynistic ways in the city. When Eve learns of the plan to impregnate her with her own sperm (forcibly extracted in a pre-op ritual), she flees into the desert only to be recaptured by an even more scary and unpredictable bunch of women and their one-legged patriarch. It is on a raid with this group that Eve comes face to face with Tristessa, a legendary actress and Evelyn’s childhood heroine, a woman to whom there is more than meets the eye.
The horrors keep on coming in experiences rich with symbolism and mythology, all narrated with the almost detached voice of Eve, almost as if she is witnessing proceedings but not quite part of them. While I loved the language of Angela Carter and was often awed by the construction of some of her sentences and paragraphs, I didn’t really feel for any of the characters and this wasn’t a book that I enjoyed hugely. I’m sure it was meant to be an uncomfortable read, dealing as it does with incredibly difficult and complex issues like race, gender and sexual politics. I would say that this feels like a novel written before its time and that it is probably unlike any novel you or I have read before.
Harvest by Jim Crace 2013 Pub. Picador ISBN 9780330445665
Walter Thirsk is still looked on as an outsider in the hamlet where he took up residence many years ago. His dark hair amongst a community of blondes will always mark him as other. In this nameless hamlet in a nameless county of England in what I’m guessing is the 17th century, life continues as it always has; the oxen are harnessed to the plough, the cows are milked, the barley and wheat are sown and reaped, everyone plays their part and knows their place. Over the course of a few days, the presence of strangers brings about disquiet, mistrust and eventually disaster in this previously peaceful rural idyll.
On the first page of the novel a thin wisp of smoke where no smoke should be is a portent for the future, and when a change in lifestyle is threatened, discontent quickly smoulders and erupts as a full-blown inferno, both metaphorically and literally, by the end. The imminent change involves a transformation of the land with fences and hedges to enable the introduction of new livestock – sheep. As this would make the vast majority of residents redundant almost immediately, they are faced with the prospect of relocation and uncertainty. As Walter reveals more of the hamlet’s customs and way of life, the reader begins to understand how fear can make us behave in unpredictable and uncharacteristic ways. The gentle and lyrical voice of Walter Thirsk in contrast to the brooding malevolence and mindless violence of some other characters is a scary reminder of the darker side of England’s social history.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride 2013 Pub. Faber ISBN 9780571317165 MY TOP PICK OF 2014
This is a hard book; difficult too. It is written as a stream of conciousness, possibly unconciousness aswell; thoughts belonging to a nameless girl who we see growing up from a pre-teen to a university student. None of the other players has a name either: there’s “you”, the brother with a brain tumour; “she”, the well-meaning but misguided parent too hung up on religion to notice what’s happening to her daughter; “he”, the abusive uncle without the moral strength to stay away;”she”, the flat-mate on a similar road to destruction as her roomie. Not immediately knowing who is being discussed on any page is the difficult bit – you need to be fully focussed and tuned in at all times to follow the narrative.
The book is advertised as the story of a girl growing up with a brother who has a brain tumour, and yes she is and he does, but the main story here is about the car crash of this girl’s life since she was first sexually abused as a thirteen year old. This is the hard bit. It is with a heavy heart that I pick up the book every evening and replace it on the bedside table half an hour later, each day with more desperate feelings as I watch this girl’s world implode in slow motion.
It took 9 years for a publisher to finally take on this book. It has since won The Goldsmith’s Prize (an award associated with creative daring), The Kerry Group Prize for an Irish novel and The Baileys Prize for women writers. There is nothing conventional about this novel. It begins with a toddler, vaguely aware that her brother is being operated on, in broken toddler speak (or so I thought). As the pages turn and the children grow older the writing continues its fragmented style. Towards the end when there really is no hope left I realised that there is no other way this story could be told. There is no rhythm or flow, no lyrical cadence; all is jagged, spiky and abrupt as befits the subject. I was unsure at first if this is a brilliant book, a work of genius or an unsuccessful experiment. I’m now totally sure it is the first two. Any book that can bring forth so many tears must be exceptional. I am exhausted.
When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguru 2000 Pub. Faber ISBN 9780571205165
Young Christopher Banks has an enchanted childhood in the International Settlement of Shanghai with his beautiful parents, house servants, and Akira, his best friend, right next door. Out of the blue, his father goes missing, and shortly after that, he’s told that his mother has also disappeared. Christopher is dispatched to England to live with an unknown aunt, and so begins the next stage of his life, one with a generous allowance, public school and old boys’ networks. But Christopher has a yearning to return to Shanghai to discover the truth surrounding his boyhood trauma and the fragmented memories which still haunt him. Arriving just before the outbreak of WW2, Christopher finds a Shanghai under siege by the Japanese army, although the expat community is still behaving as if nothing has changed.
I felt that Christopher Banks is almost as naive when he returns to Shanghai as he was when he left as a ten year old boy. It’s as if he feels the world revolves around him, much as it did when he was the privileged English boy with an ammah and a maid running around after him. Here are the Chinese under siege from an invading power, and an Englishman is expecting everyone to help him find the parents he was separated from twenty years previous. I think it’s obvious to the reader that the happy end he’s expecting is really not going to happen. Christopher continues to amaze with the bizarre decision to run off with a married woman, and then to hook up with a wounded Japanese soldier almost on the front line of hostilities.
Despite my frustrations with the protagonist, I didn’t feel any animosity towards him; I felt desperately sorry for him really, that the terrible things that happened in his childhood continue to have serious repercussions in his life. Beautifully written, of course, as you would expect from the masterful Ishiguro, the reader is fully immersed in the story and gains a fuller understanding of the horrors of war and its effects on the lives of ordinary people.
The Red House by Mark Haddon 2012 Pub. Vintage ISBN 9780099570165
After the death of their mother, sister and brother Angela and Richard, virtual strangers for twenty years or so, have planned to share a holiday cottage near Hereford with their respective spouses and offspring. All are having grave misgivings as they travel to the Welsh border; all except 17-year-old Alex who thinks maybe this is his chance to impress his new step-cousin, Melissa.
What unfurls is possibly the most excruciating week in each individual’s life, while they are forced to face their shortcomings, weaknesses, mistakes and, yes, reality. For brother and sister Richard and Angela, they need to come to terms with the deaths of their parents and also reevaluate some of their childhood memories which may not be as straightforwardly black or white as they seemed. Richard is also forced to face his own mortality and the fact that his wife had a life before she met him. Teenage girls Daisy and Melissa are both forced to see themselves as others see them; something that affects them in wildly different ways. Dominic, with the catalyst of both his sons, must act decisively to make a positive change to his own sense of responsibilty and therefore to his whole family.
There are soaring ups and crashing downs during the week as you might expect when two families are forced into close proximity for any length of time, and ghosts from the past start to make their presence felt. I think readers will see something of themselves or their own families in this book whether they want to or not. It feels like a family drama with a happy ending, but there is actually little in the way of sugar coating here. Both families leave the holiday cottage feeling a new love and affection for the other, but both will have numerous internal problems to sort out once they return to their normal lives.
I found this a fairly absorbing book, full of authentic voices and acutely observed. Mark Haddon’s other books are The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time which I’ve read (and it’s excellent), A Spot of Bother (which is on my shelf waiting to be read) and a volume of poetry, The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea.
The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch 1987 Pub. Penguin ISBN 9780140104707
While students at Oxford, a group of friends with radical political ideas commissions one of their number to write a book which will be a new philosophy for a new society, a new Marxist theory. Now in middle age and having financially supported the writer of the book through all those years, a devastating occurrence which is personal to all of them causes the brotherhood to question the whole situation. All except the writer have felt their political beliefs diluted and become more conventional over the years, and start to question their unwavering support for a radical thesis.
Virtually every character is tortured by love: unrequitted; loss of; forbidden; unwanted. It’s hard to see that things are going to turn out well for anyone.
This is a challenging read, not least because it is 600 pages (of small print) long. Murdoch’s writing demands total focus with long, complicated sentences full of clauses and subordinate clauses making some passages rather long-winded. Frankly I can do without extensive details about exactly what various characters are wearing and in what hues. Having said that, it is a totally gripping tale full of believable characters with extreme emotions. The descriptions of self-doubt, wild imagination and almost pschotic perceptions are brilliant; even the seemingly most stable and level-headed in the group are fighting an inner turmoil.
By the end of the book I was quite exhausted having spent so much time inside the heads of such indecisive souls as Gerard, Rose and Lily and watched their thought processes lurch wildly from place to place and back to the beginning. There are an awful lot of what ifs in the minds of the Brotherhood’s members; everyone feeling guilt and responsibility for the tragic death of one of their number, but despite my earlier fears, everyone, thanks in part to a grey parrot and a lucky snail, seems to have found their own peace by the end of the book. I’m looking on it as Iris Murdoch’s forerunner to Richard Curtis’ “Four Weddings and a Funeral”; a serious and perhaps revolutionary tale of former Oxford scholars, “Four Funerals and a Wedding”.
Sick to the back teeth of the volume, intensity and frequency of sexist harassment she was subjected to in normal life, Laura Bates set up a project online which she named Everyday Sexism which gave women a place to share their experiences of sexism and the strength to shout back against it. She was overwhelmed and devastated with the floods of accounts which poured in; accounts of all the negative things that girls and women have had to put up with on a daily basis for their whole lives (or at least until they become “invisible” after about 55). From toys which teach girls how to be good little housewives, to teachers who do nothing to stop girls shying away from maths and science at school, from wolfwhistles on the street to gropings on public transport, from the Mail Online’s close examination of every aspect of women’s appearance and behaviour to women being blamed for their own rape, this book shows us in detail just how unequal our society really is.
You may think women have achieved equality, but any woman who has been passed over for a job because she’s at an age when she might possibly start a family at some point in the near future, or any woman who has been told she has no sense of humour when she disapproves of men at work commenting on the bodies of their female co-workers, or any woman who has had to think about changing her route home to avoid a building site or deserted alley for fear of what she might experience there……(the stories are many, varied and seemingly endless), will tell you different. Sexism is still alive and well and it’s everywhere and everyday.
Amongst chapters detailing experiences of women in politics, in public places, at work and in the media, the most heartbreaking sections for me were about girls and their stories from the home and the learning environment. Here we learn that girls as young as five are already dissatisfied with their bodies and their looks, that girls as young as fourteen are asking for surgical procedures to enlarge their breasts and that really, in many cases, by the time they finish GCSEs at the age of sixteen, girls already believe that the worlds of engineering, science, politics and others are not really suited to them. The constant drip-drip of sexism in their lives, being told how girls should behave, has severely restricted their ambition and their future.
This book should be standard text in all schools. I hope I can persuade my seventeen year old son to read it, or at least the chapters relating to girls in education, before he goes away to university next year. And I hope that more people will speak out against sexism wherever they come across it, whether it is directed at themselves or at a complete stranger. Frankly, if you are not against sexism, then you must be for it, and that would be very, very sad indeed.
The further adventures of Robert Merivel from Tremain’s brilliant Restoration. Now in his late fifties, Merivel has mellowed into his role as sole parent of the bright and lovely, Margaret. She, however, more and more frequently seeks the companionship of friends her own age and embarks on a lengthy trip to exotic Cornwall with a well-to-do neighbouring family. At a complete loss, Merivel sets off on his own adventure across the channel to France and the royal palace of Versailles where he hopes to make himself indispensible to the roi himself.
True to form, Merivel gets into all kinds of scrapes including a face to face encounter with an angry giraffe, and another with a desolate bear, before he is forced to return to England and the most desperate time of his life so far. Merivel has certainly endeared himself to the reader by this point. He is a far better person than the shallow and vain fop we met at the beginning of Restoration, and I for one had grown quite fond of our by now middle aged protagonist. Merivel is led by his heart all too often, and his lust often gets the better of his reasoning, but underneath it all there is a man who really does care about the people he loves, and will sacrifice almost everything to see them happy. Though seeking the counsel of the ghost of his best friend, Pearce, on many occasions, Merivel still somehow seems to blunder into disastrous situations, not all of which can be solved with money.
I was quite bereft as I finished this novel. I have actually felt like some kind of confidante as Sir Robert Merivel laid bare his soul and all its troubles; and I’ve laughed and cried with him through all that life has thrown at him. Initially bolstered with the hope that there might be a third installment, that has all but drained away, and I am left grieving. Rose Tremain is a great writer who has brought us in Merivel one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction.
This is the latest novel by one of my new favourite authors, translated from the Italian by Kylee Doust. The back cover announces the following:- WARNING! contains Satanic Cults, Intoxicated Supermodels, Olympic Athletes and Man-Eating Hippos. Ammaniti is a brilliant storyteller. His previous novels are set amongst the seedy underclasses of small-town Italy, often told from a young adult’s perspective, and all hugely enjoyable; Let the Games Begin certainly doesn’t disappoint. Written in 2009, I wonder why it took four years to reach the UK market, especially considering the success of Ammaniti’s previous works.
Our two protagonists couldn’t be more different. Fabrizio Ciba is possibly the most egocentric male in modern European literature, a novellist and TV personality; Saverio Moneta is a hen-pecked furniture salesman and leader of a satanic cult with a membership of four (including himself). When a multi-millionaire country-boy-made-good hosts a party on a grand scale in his own personal safari park in Rome, both characters are keen to attend, but for wildly differing reasons. Ciba would like to prove himself as a modern day F.Scott Fitgerald, a writer of genius who lived a life of wonderful parties amongst beautiful women who adored him. Moneta wants worldwide fame and notoriety as the perpetrator of the most heinous crime of the century; the sacrifice to satan of a young virgin would fit the bill, but even better would be the ritual murder of a mega popstar. When songstress, Larita, is announced as the entertainment at the party of the year, Moneta somewhat myopically, sees his chance to elevate The Wilde Beasts of Abaddon to legendary status, perhaps even outdoing The Children of the Apocalypse, Italy’s no.1 demonic society and the Beasts’ main rivals.
What follows is the stuff of our worst nightmares: the decadence of celebrity; rampaging elephants; catacombs inhabited by ex-athletes with superhuman strength; hungry crocodiles; a lovelorn Zombie; horse tranquiliser; haute couture jodhpurs and quite a bit of destruction and even death. But such is Ammaniti’s mastery, that all of this craziness seems perfectly feasible, possible and even probable. It is one of the most enjoyable satires on the excesses of modern life that I have read for a long time, and I look forward to discovering more from this exciting author.
This is the first novel by Nigerian-born Buchi Emecheta, and although it does not say so, I think it’s probably semi-autobiographical. Set in the late sixties or early seventies, it tells the story of Adah, a single mother with five small children, and her struggle to maintain some independence while working, studying and being a full-time parent in London. Having been comfortably off and well-educated in Nigeria, Adah finds herself living “in the ditch”, her term for the poverty and helplessness that she and most of her neighbours in the Mansions flats find themselves in. Adah has to overcome her fierce pride and accept a helping hand to get out of the ditch or else sink under forever.
Forty years after its publication, the themes of this novel still ring true today. The poorest and most vulnerable in society are still forced to live in the worst housing where damp and lack of insulation mean their heating costs are sky high and their children suffer from respiratory disease. Claimants of state welfare benefits are still expected to spend long hours waiting at government agencies, or waiting at home for long hours for government agents to visit and assess them. As Adah found out, when you are told to expect a visit from someone on whom your economic future depends, anytime between 10am and 3pm, you can bet your bottom dollar the knock on the door will come at 2.45pm just as you need to set off to fetch the children from school.
Despite the crushing poverty and filthy condition of the tenement building in which she is housed, Adah grows to love her community, mainly made up of other women and their children in a similar position to her. The neighbours all look out for each other, and when they are eventually re-housed, Adah is almost lothe to leave, knowing that the bonds of friendship and cooperation will be tested. This is a slim volume at only 135 pages long, but has an awful lot to tell us about love, loyalty, ambition and determination.
Andrew Martin, a professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, has made a hugely important discovery (something to do with prime numbers); within hours he has been knocked off by an alien envoy from a planet of maths geniuses, worried that this particular human has knowledge that could threaten their future. The professor’s body is occupied by an alien – it’s mission to ensure that no-one else knows anything about the professor’s breakthrough; if he finds that word has got out, he must be ruthless in the annihilation of all involved. (I am referring to the alien as he, though I have no knowledge of this being the case. As he is currently occupying the body of a male human, I’ll continue with he) Initially repulsed by the humans, largely because of the preconceptions he has that they live only for violence and money, the fake professor takes up his predecessor’s place in the family home and tries to complete his detective work without exposing his true identity. When he starts to get an understanding of the true human condition, initially through music and poetry and then via strange feelings in the presence of his wife, things begin to get rather complicated for the alien. As he starts to realise that there is more to the humans than he has been led to believe and actually starts to love some of them, he is coming under increasing pressure from mission control, the “hosts”, to finish his deadly deeds and return home. Some difficult choices need to be made.
This was a book which received an awful lot of hype on social media here in the UK, but has not quite fulfilled my expectations. I think the general idea is that we humans may have messed up nearly everything on this planet, but there are plenty of positives for us to feel good about. Sadly, in my eyes, this is just not enough to redeem us. So we love some of our fellow humans, we have peanut butter, Emily Dickinson and The Beach Boys; but rather than bask in the warmth of these (and a few more) extenuating factors, which is what I think readers will be doing, we need to face the fact that the aliens were pretty accurate in their initial assessment of us. Could prime numbers be the answer? Probably not.
I think what really irritated me was the huge list of Advice for a Human which the alien leaves on the screen of his teenage son‘s computer before he walks out of his life. Somehow in the space of a few weeks on earth, the alien has supposedly amassed a lifetime’s wisdom about life and how to live it. This, at number 92, is probably true in itself, but how could the alien, who was a surrogate “father” of one for a few weeks, have come to this conclusion?….If you have children and love one more than another, work at it. They will know, even if it’s by a single atom less. A single atom is all you need to make a very big explosion. I think Matt Haig has given us a list full of great advice, but I just don’t think it was right to put it in this place in this novel in this context. The alien has made an error in the publication of this novel. It’s more than likely just an oversight, but the book is 1.5cm too wide! Dead giveaway.
Felt by many to be Cather’s finest novel, A Lost Lady is set in Sweet Water, a small town situated at the confluence of two important railroads of Western Plains, USA. The lady in question is Marian Forrester, the young, beautiful and charismatic wife of a much older railroad man. Universally loved by the townsfolk, Mrs Forrester holds a particular charm for the men she comes into contact with, one of whom is Niel Herbert, the principal narrator who has known her since his childhood. Bit by bit the gilded image of her which he has created in his mind starts to show signs of tarnishing. Mrs Forrester is judged throughout the book in relation to the men in her life. She is a married woman and everyone knows their place around her. However, when she becomes a widow all that changes and she is at once a dangerous character; a danger to herself and those who spend time with her. It seems that she will fall victim to an opportunistic man, but Marian Forrester is made of sterner stuff and eventually steers her life into a new and even more prosperous direction. It seems that her late husband was right when he said that the things we dream about the most will come to pass…more or less.
We never get an in-depth character study of Mrs Forrester; it is, rather, a portrait, leaving the reader to embellish at will. At the same time, there is no doubt that Mrs Forrester is the one we care about; the other characters are just extras, and their perception of her is next to irrelevant. I found this a very interesting concept. Mrs Forrester’s story is told through the eyes of the men around her, each of whom forms his own impressions from his limited view. It seems that in the end her story remains very much her own and in her own control. Willa Cather ‘s style is quite sparse, but rather like Hemingway a brief description of a small gesture or a nuance can tell us so much more than a hundred superfluous words. This is very, very good.
For the first few pages the reader is on a disorienting ride through the corridors of a mental hospital and the streets of Edwardian London, swapping seemingly at random. Then the story hooks you and starts to reel you in. Soon after that you start to realise that this is something extaordinary.
It’s 1971 and Dr. Zack Busner takes up his new position in a vast London psychiatric hospital. Intrigued by one of the elderly inmates, Audrey Dearth, Busner discovers that she was one of many victims of the encephalitis lethargica virus which was active around the end of the first World War. It was a worldwide epidemic which killed an estimated one million people, leaving millions more with its after effects. The virus attacked the brain stem; symptoms include a sore throat, high temperature and involuntary muscular spasms. Of the patients who survived, it’s estimated that up to a third suffered a relapse after one to five years; either way, they were left like statues, motionless and speechless.
Tragically, these effects were largely misunderstood by the medical profession, and many sufferers were later admitted to asylums as they were unresponsive or virtually comatose. By the time Busner has the idea to treat these “enkie” patients with high doses of L DOPA, developed to treat Parkinson’s Disease, they have been institutionalised for 40 years or more. The results are staggering. The text is constantly jumping back and forth in time keeping the reader on his or her toes and demanding complete focus. Whether in the trenches of France or the streets of London, 1916, 1971 or the 21st Century, this is a gripping book which tells the compelling and moving story of young lives tragically changed forever, and an innovator who attempted to remedy a huge error. There are no chapters dividing this book into chunks; the years and decades merge together on virtually every page. Indeed, there are very few paragraph breaks. It’s a constant stream of the thoughts and memories of several characters; it’s up to the reader to sort them all out.
The final pages see an aging Busner revisiting his former place of work, now newly developed into a residential and leisure complex. As he tours the building he once knew so well, we learn the almost unbearably sad outcome of his experimental programme of the 70s. This is not an easy book, but I do believe it is brilliant. This book was shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize, eventually losing out to The Illuminaries (which is also in my to read pile).
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai 2013 Pub. Orion ISBN 9780297870913
The girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban. Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has endured a seemingly never-ending series of tragedy and misfortune. The Nation’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, died less than a year after Pakistan’s independence from India, and there has been more than a fair share of civil and military unrest, natural and unnatural disasters, misrule and corruption since then. Despite all this, Malala Yousafzai spent a happy childhood in the Swat Valley in Northern Pakistan, believing it to be paradise on earth with its snow-capped mountains, crystal clear rivers and bountiful fruit orchards. Being born into a culture where sons are prized and daughters are expected to spend their lives in the home serving their menfolk, Malala was exceptionally lucky to have an educated father who believed his daughter was equally deserving of an education. (Bizarrely, there was not the same sentiment concerning his wife, who didn’t learn to read until they had been married for over a decade).
The first chapters of the book take us through a tribal, cultural, political and folk history of Pakistan, peppered with some charming anecdotes from Malala’s extended family life. Even before she had reached double figures, Malala was already keenly aware of many inequalites in the life she witnessed all around her, not only in education, but also poverty and sexual politics. Her father had run his own school since before Malala was born, and became involved in local politics and community issues. Malala would often accompany him to meetings or eavesdrop on his political discussions with village elders at their home, and so grew up with a sense of purpose; to make her land a place where everyone was given the same opportunity to learn and improve. Malala and her father became quite well-known in Swat and Pakistan for speaking out against the Taliban and in favour of girls’ education. Malala wrote a blog for BBC Urdu under an assumed name, entitled Life Under the Taliban, as well as giving numerous interviews in Pakistan’s media and even travelling outside her beloved Swat for the first time to campaign in Karachi and Islamabad. She caught the attention of the foreign media too, and was nominated for several prizes including the Pakistan National Peace Prize and National Peace Award for Youth (which she won) and the International Children’s Peace Prize (which she didn’t but simply being nominated for it by Archbishop Desmond Tutu was honour enough). It goes without saying that none of this activity went down well with the Taliban, who were beginning to pick off the Yousafzai’s associates one by one. Unfortunately, around the time that Malala reached the age of thirteen, an age when the vast majority of Swat girls would have already finished their education (possibly even married), the Taliban had exerted their influence across the region, seducing the people into handing over their wealth to provide arms for a holy war. Freedoms were quickly whittled away, culminating in the forced closure of all girls’ schools.
There’s an awful lot going on in this book, and compared to the lives of children here in England, Malala had had a wealth of experience, good and bad, before the fateful day soon after her fifteenth birthday when she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman while travelling home on the school bus with her classmates. What a spectacularly cowardly act. I don’t want to relate the entire story here, as I feel this is a book worth reading and especially worth recommending to our teens. I work in a school and think our pupils’ eyes would be opened by this story of a girl so passionate about her education that she was willing to risk her life to campaign for everyone’s right to the same. The book is written by Malala herself, with Christina Lamb, a foreign correspondent with The Times who has reported on Pakistan and Afghanistan since 1987 and been named Britain’s Foreign Correspondent of the Year five times. Seen through a child’s eyes, the story manages to convey the magic that Malala felt in the beautiful surroundings of rural Pakistan. I had to keep reminding myself that this story starts at the very end of the nineties; it often felt like we were in another century altogether.
Comprising two novellas, Morpho Eugenia and The Conjugial Angel, both set in the nineteenth century. I absolutely loved Possession and The Children’s Book by the same author, and am really looking forward to immersing myself in this. Morpho Eugenia is a butterfly found in South America; this particular one is in a small glass case with its mate, a pin piercing the body of each. The specimens have been gathered by the young Victorian adventurer, William Adamson, and sent back to England to become part of the extensive collection of Harald Alabaster. After a decade of studies in the tropical forests of Brazil, Adamson survives murder threats and shipwreck to arrive penniless at the home of his patron, Alabaster. Once there he is given the job of cataloguing and arranging Alabaster’s large collection of botanical and zoological items. Before long, however, Adamson has become obsessed with the collector’s eldest daughter, Eugenia, and convinces himself that he will die if he doesn’t have her. This was a great read with a couple of twists at the end, and a fascinating lesson in entomology. I loved how the loose ends were all tied off most satisfactorily at the end.
The Conjugial Angel concerns the beliefs of the philosopher, Swedenborg, that a loving married couple will be forever joined, even after one has died, and that the deceased partner, in the form of a “half” angel, will await his or her beloved in the afterlife until such time as they will be reunited and form a complete “conjugial” angel. Half a dozen characters, variously married, single and widowed, gather for a seance, receive messages from beyond and try to make sense of their love lives, through the medium of Tennyson’s verse. I got slightly bored with the love triangle story, and rather frustrated with Emily Tennyson who seemed not to realise that the real love story was between her brother and her fiancée, but she came good in the end and stood by her actual huband and not the boy she barely knew and may have married if he hadn’t died. Again, a happy ending (for most) which brought a smile to my face.
By the author of the 1992 novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, translated from the Danish by Barbara Haveland. On a bright summer morning, members at a London Yacht Club watch an incoming yacht while enjoying their breakfast. The surviving crew, a lone hunched figure in a grey overcoat, seems to be taking a very casual approach to the task ahead. Minutes later the onlookers witness the overcoat-clad figure leap onto the harbour then disappear as the yacht, in a screech of splintering wood, destroys a small fleet of vessels moored there. You may imagine this is a somewhat inexperienced and/or reckless sailor and you would be right; it is, in fact, an ape. This is proving to be a most unusual but engrossing and entertaining read. I haven’t really warmed to any of the characters so far; none of them seem like real people at all, so scant is their development. Madelene, the woman in the title, lives only to please her husband sexually, and seems to need vast quantities of alcohol simply to exist. After the ape, belonging to a species hitherto undiscovered by man, mysteriously arrives at her home, supposedly as a project of her zoologist husband, Madelene embarks on some ill-planned sleuthing with the vague idea that she will liberate the unfortunate animal.
I started to enjoy the book a lot more when Madelene stops drinking about halfway through. Against all odds, her plan to release the captive ape comes off, but not necessarily quite as she had planned. The book makes us think carefully about our role in animal conservation and experimentation, bringing to mind another infamous beast who fell in love with a woman, aka King Kong. I wasn’t entirely happy with the narrative; sometimes the writing had a flow and purpose, but sometimes I just felt confused. The final twelve or so pages were quite thrilling and a bolt out of the blue, but overall just a little bit disappointing. P.S. My favourite part of this read was the sudden realisation that the “accident”, in which three (human) crew members were swept from the yacht into the Thames in the opening paragraphs, was all part of the grand plan and not an accident at all.
Arriving in New South Wales in 1806 with his wife and children, William Thornhill feels he has been given the harshest possible punishment; his life here seems worse than death itself. Transported to the far flung reaches of the British Empire for an as yet undisclosed crime, Thornhill has to learn how to survive in this inhospitable and terrifying land. I’ve always had a special interest in Australian history, having been born in Adelaide to immigrant parents. I arrived in Britain at the age of two and have been here ever since. The brilliant The Fatal Shore by the late Robert Hughes is one of the best books I’ve read; it details the history of the transportation of British convicts to Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Secret River is the fictional account of one Londoner and his family, stricken by poverty, hunger and more bad luck than is fair to afflict one family with. After being caught stealing a few lengths of timber, Thornhill is sentenced to hang. Through the fierce love of his wife, Sal, and the scribing skills of a fellow inmate, letters are written to beg for clemency on the grounds of Thornhill’s previous lawful character and the number of dependants who rely on him. As if by a miracle, the death sentence is transmuted to one of transportation, and furthermore, Sal and their son are also found pasage on the ship. Having previously been a waterman, ferrying people and produce on the River Thames, on his arrival in Australia, Thornhill is found work in the busy harbour at Sydney, and he soon begins to hear stories of others who have been given their freedom and gone on to make their fortunes in the boundless beauty of New South Wales. It is not until he and his family arrive in the stunning wilderness of the Hawkesbury River that they discover just how hard it will be to fit the square peg of their way of life into the round hole of existing native culture.
The final heartbreaking chapters document the brutality of the British settlers fuelled by their arrogance and belief in some pre-destined entitlement. Things all turn out well for Thornhill and his clan, but he is forever haunted by the aboriginal people whose lifestyle he and the other colonialists wrecked in the most despicable ways. The Secret River is a beautifully written account of some of the most shameful chapters in the history of the British Empire. It was as hard to put down as it was painful to read.
‘The greatest novel you’ve never read’ Sunday Times.
In 1910, at the tender age of 19, William Stoner enrols at the brand new College of Agriculture, part of the University of Missouri. His father’s initiative, the plan is that young Stoner will learn new, modern methods to get the most out of the dry, hard land on which his parents scrape a living. A compulsory short course in English Literature in his first year proves to be the greatest challenge of Stoner’s existence so far, but by the end of that year he has dropped out of Agricultural studies and enrolled full-time in philosophy, history and literature. It seems that one day while studying a Shakespeare sonnet, it all just clicked. So begins Stoner’s new life; a life of academia, great sorrow and also great joy. After graduating, Stoner begins to instruct freshmen in English while studying for his masters degree, eventually becoming a full-time teacher of classical literature.
There are several major milestones in Stoner’s life; his disastrous marriage, fatherhood, falling in love and his enforced retirement. To any outsider, it would seem to be a boring and conventional existence, but Stoner is no ordinary man and I believe that, though he would not often be remembered amongst his colleagues and acquaintances, his life was remarkable in many ways. In early middle age, Stoner becomes obsessed with questions about the worthiness of his life and whether his accumulation of learning really altered anything. Then Katherine Driscoll enters his life and all doubts are put aside.
This is a rather beautiful novel, suffused with the grace and serenity of another era. We follow Stoner from his freshman year at university in 1910 until his untimely and swift demise in the early 1950s; but most of the problems and frustrations in his life are exactly those troubling individuals and families today. We see Stoner struggling for independence from his parents, overcoming the financial pressures of setting up home and home ownership, trying to keep his family together, being victimised at work and coming to terms with his final medical diagnosis. These are all realities facing human beings every day, but they are never recorded in our history books. I cannot improve on Nick Hornby’s comment on the back cover; he has hit the nail firmly and squarely on the head….
“A brilliant, beautiful, inexorably sad, wise, and elegant novel”
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