Saturday, 30 July 2011

Book #69 Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah's Key

So, I went to see Terence Mallick's The Tree Of Life on Wednesday, and one of the trailers was for Sarah's Key starring Kristin Scott Thomas, who seems to be having a remarkable second career in French films. It looked like something I would watch and then the trailer stated it was adapted from a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay so I then went and bought it after I got out of the cinema.

Sarah's Key is set in Nazi-Occupied France and on a particularly dark episode of French history called the Vel d'Hiv roundup. The Vel d'Hiv roundup involved the forced corralling of French Jews into a stadium were they were kept in degrading conditions before being deported to their deaths at Auschwitz and other camps.  

The majority of my knowledge of Nazi Occupied France comes from 'Allo! Allo!' that bizarre attempt to make both the courageous French Resistance and the sinister Nazi officers look like harmless simple minded clowns. I knew very little of actual occurrences within Nazi occupied France in the 1940's and neither does the main character of Sarah's Key, Julia Jarmond.

Julia is an American journalist who has lived in Paris for many years and is assigned to write a 60th anniversary piece on the Vel d'Hiv massacre. Alternating chapters with investigator Julia is the story of Sarah, a little girl rounded up with her family and taken to Vel d'Hiv. When they are arrested, Sarah hides her younger brother in a cupboard to protect him, intending to return for him.  As Julia uncovers more and more about Vel d'Hiv it is Sarah's story and the way in which her present links to Sarah's past that drags Julia in and refuses to let her go.

It is a very well told tale with obvious cinematic qualities. Although it is called Sarah's Key the novel is much more about Julia and the way in which people deal with the guilt of the past crimes of themselves, their family, and in this case their nation. Much is made of the fact that it was not in fact the Nazis who rounded up these people but the French Police and authorities even though most of the memorial plaques blame the Germans alone, and make no acknowledgement of the French involvement.

Julia herself has an interesting story, an American married to a Frenchman with standoffish in laws and things turning sour, but the truly affecting parts of the novel are Sarah's. Although all Holocaust stories are sickening this particular story in the way in which it is told, the events which take place and the reverberations into the future has a unique feel, like it has something new to say and contribute to the records of that sorry period of history.

It is sentimental without being mawkish and tragic without being depressing to read, I'm really glad that I stumbled upon it in this way. I loved the character of Sarah and I look forward to seeing it on the big screen. 9/10

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

This Years Man Booker announced

The Longlist for this years Man Booker has been announced and nominees are as follows :

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape - Random House)
Sebastian Barry On Canaan's Side (Faber)
Carol Birch Jamrach's Menagerie (Canongate Books)
Patrick deWitt The Sisters Brothers (Granta)
Esi Edugyan Half Blood Blues (Serpent's Tail - Profile)
Yvvette Edwards A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld)
Alan Hollinghurst The Stranger's Child (Picador - Pan Macmillan)
Stephen Kelman Pigeon English (Bloomsbury)
Patrick McGuinness The Last Hundred Days (Seren Books)
A.D. Miller Snowdrops (Atlantic)
Alison Pick Far to Go (Headline Review)
Jane Rogers The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
D.J. Taylor Derby Day (Chatto & Windus - Random House)

I'm listing them here so I can remember what else was on the original longlist after the shortlist is announced so I remember to read them too. As yet I have not read any of the books currently in with a chance at the Booker. I still haven't read Tom McCarthy's C from last years shortlist! Best get cracking!

Monday, 25 July 2011

Poem #5 They flee from me that sometime did me seek by Thomas Wyatt

July's Poem of the month I found in a poetry book I found in an Oxfam. Thomas Wyatt was born in 1503 and died in 1542, and was a trusted adviser at the Tudor Court. He is credited with introducing the sonnet to England. For some reason, i like the first verse of this poem a lot, and so chose it as July's poem.

They flee from me that sometime did me seek

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she caught me in her arms long and small,
Therewithal sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, 'Dear heart, how like you this?'

It was no dream: I lay broad waking
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of foresaking,
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Book #68 All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

All The Pretty Horses

Published to great acclaim in 1992, I had always wanted to read McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, without being particularly sure why, I just really liked the title I think.  When I decided to do the blog it was definitely put into my mental "queue" as a book I wanted to read. I am, having built it up somewhat more than a little disappointed.

John Grady Cole, a sixteen year old Texas boy on a horse ranch, is dealing with family problems, as a getaway he and his best friend Lacey Rawlins decide to ride off to Mexico for adventure and work. Whilst travelling, a younger boy Jimmy Blevins crosses their path, with a horse they suspect isn't his, he tags along, yet proves a hinderance that has far reaching consequences for all three.

If there's something to be said about this book it is that some of the descriptive prose is beautiful both about horses and the Texas and Mexico countryside. McCarthy dispenses with regular syntax structure and at one point I read what I think is the longest complete sentence in any book I've ever read.

That night he dreamt of horses on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.

So, that's a single sentence from All The Pretty Horses, long obviously, and an example of the beauty of some of the prose. Where it falls down is with the storyline, characterisation and dialogue. Ultimately the story is a good one, but it's so slowly drawn out, sleepy even. Sometimes, I found myself bored, switching off - actually lots of times. Frequently there are conversations in Spanish between John Grady and the locals but there is often no attempt to make the reader aware of the meaning of these exchanges if you speak no Spanish, leaving you feeling shut out and excluded from the narrative. Although Rawlins was probably the best drawn character, there was little to make you feel that you 'knew' these characters in terms of motivations and feelings, until near the end. I occasionally felt like you were just supposed to imagine a young Clint Eastwood in place of an actual character. In addition, Cole's affair with his bosses daughter hardly felt like a soaring romance, it hardly felt like much of anything at all. I struggled to enjoy the book or to concentrate on it, it couldn't hold my attention.

Given that this book has been so highly complimented by many, I feel as with Brideshead Revisited that perhaps I've "missed" something, mind you the praise of J.D Salinger's Catcher In The Rye has always baffled me. However, I will probably read further McCarthy, I really loved the film No Country For Old Men and have not read the book and although I've not seen the film, I hear good things about The Road.

Sadly I'm only giving this book 5/10 - it frustrated me too much to give it any higher points.   

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Book #67 Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson

Before I Go To Sleep

I read Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson over a matter of hours last night. I was sold on it by its intriguing premise. The idea of inexplicably losing massively important memories and the impact of that is something I've been pondering a lot lately. It is a psychological thriller starring a protagonist with a broken psyche. In some respects this resembles Julie Myerson's Then, also about a woman who can't remember her past, but whilst that story takes place in a post apocalyptic landscape, this story takes place as a contemporary "real world" novel.

Christine Lucas has both retrograde and anterograde amnesia, she doesn't remember most of her life but on a day to day basis will remember what is happening until she goes to sleep,when her memories will be wiped clean again and she will start from the beginning. This is, for those of you who've not seen it, precisely what happens to Lucy Whitmore in the film 50 First Dates. Unlike Lucy, who in the whimsical comedy goes to eat waffles in a pretty Hawaiian cafe each day before painting a delightful mural to the strains of the Beach Boys 'Wouldn't It Be Nice', Christine rather normally wakes up in Crouch End, and stares into the bathroom mirror at a face which is hers, yet middle aged.

Husband Ben, is her caretaker and explains everything on a daily basis before leaving for work. On the day we meet Christine, she gets a phonecall from Dr Nash - a doctor who has been treating her without Ben's knowledge for some time. He explains she is now keeping a journal to help her remember and tells her where she hides it. When she opens it, on the front page is written : DON'T TRUST BEN.

And so it begins, as we struggle alongside Christine to patch together her life story and remember the event which so badly injured her. Watson avoids making Before I Go To Sleep too much of an irritating prose Groundhog Day by using Christine's journal primarily to tell the story, she reads her journal daily, recaps herself, and then continues it. Doing this is a clever means of sidestepping what could have been a massive pitfall for a novel such as this.

It's a debut novel, and a good one, though I wonder how much inspiration was taken not merely from 50 First Dates but the 2000 Christopher Nolan film 'Memento' in which an anterograde amnesiac tries to remember what happened to his wife. It differs enough from each film being more grounded in the lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary circumstance and is a lot more realistic about the human outcomes of this kind of event. Well until the end I guess, which in a way, though a good twist is a bit of a shambles in terms of believability. I liked this book, I thought it was clever, but I  didn't think it was amazing. 7/10

Friday, 22 July 2011

Book #66 The Long Song by Andrea Levy

The Long Song

The Long Song is Andrea Levy's fifth novel following Every Light In The Whole House Burnin', Never Far From Nowhere, Fruit Of The Lemon and the critically acclaimed Small Island. It won the 2011 Walter Scott prize and was along with other titles on the blog shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. It is the first Andrea Levy novel that I have read.

The Long Song concerns the uprising of slaves in colonial Jamaica in 1831, which was known as the Baptist War, or rather it provides the backdrop to our tale, as our narrator was not caught up in it but her story, or the bulk of it, occurs at the time of this upheaval.

It is constructed in a very unusual way, using a strange form of double direct address, we are first addressed by Thomas Kinsman, a printer frustrated at his mothers attempts to tell him stories who encourages her to write them down to be printed. When the narrative changes hands she too, outright addresses her potential, unseen readership. To further complicate the narration, in her writing about her past Thomas Kinsman's mother July refers to herself in the third person, but in the "present day" part of the story she refers to herself in the first.  So there is a double authorship at work here, Andrea Levy is our author of a fictional story, and her character July is the author of her own true story.
To compound the complicated narrative, July is an unreliable narrator, not just through a lack of remembering over time but, as a willful deceit, wanting the reader to think better of her, or wanting to forget the worst of moments. At these points, the present day will interrupt the story as Thomas reads her latest pages and challenges her on their veracity.  But Thomas is not fully aware of his own mothers history, that's part of the point, so there's always a chance that some of what July tells us may not be what actually happened. Despite the tricksy narrative web Levy has weaved, it still works and proves easy to navigate.

Slavery is one of those issues like with The Great War and The Holocaust, that's so important that it continues to be written about "Lest We Forget". The United States may now have its first Black President but the big White House he lives in was built by the blood and sweat of slaves.
These are Jamaican colonial slaves working on sugar cane plantations and we begin by meeting Caroline Mortimer who has travelled to America to live on her brothers estate. As her brother John Howarth gives her the grand tour they come across Kitty and her daughter July.  The manner in which Howarth speaks of Kitty as if she were mere livestock, boasting of her leg muscles brings home the inhumanity and barbarism of the era. Caroline is then allowed to just take July from Kitty as her pet as if she were a kitten, and change her name to one which she prefers. And so July grows up in service to the white folks.

Despite it being called The Long Song it is not particularly long, coming in at just over 300 pages. The voice is authentic, but though the story is an accurate portrayal of the time, it is the kind of story that has been told many times, so even with its probable historical accuracy it can feel slightly like cliche. In terms of the 2010 Man Booker Prize I am beginning to feel that Room was the most affecting but it loses points for being exploitative in a way that The Long Song isn't. The only book I have not yet read is C by Tom McCarthy, once I have read that I can say for sure, but so far I think The Long Song may be the best book of the six. Ultimately, I liked it, it made me think of Jamaican Rum Chocolate and that's never a bad thing. I have had Small Island by Andrea Levy floating around my house for some time, and on the strength of this book will definitely give it a look 8/10

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Book #65 The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch

After my rampant enthusiasm over Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith, I was eager to read another of her novels, and I picked The Night Watch based upon the fact that a BBC drama was being broadcast this month starring Anna Maxwell Martin (Bleak House) and Claire Foy (Little Dorrit) and I have it recorded to watch.

My reaction to The Night Watch was complicated. The novel is set to begin with in 1947 London:

Viv and Helen work in an introduction bureau, what would nowadays be called a dating agency for disillusioned post war men who can't cope with the changes in womens attitudes and expectations.

Helen is involved in a relationship with writer Julia, and Viv is seeing a married man named Reggie, the two colleagues each feel embarrassed, and can't confide in one another.

Viv's brother Duncan is taken aback when he is surprised by an old acquaintance from less than salubrious circumstances, and makes tentative steps towards friendship.

Kay is living life suspended unable to readjust to ordinary life following her exciting and purposeful wartime role.

What is good about this novel is that it shines a light upon the role of women on the Home Front in the Second World War, an area that is too often overlooked in WW2 novels and dramas, and the injustice that these women were expected to "go back" to pre-war roles, after these experiences. It also highlights the curiousity of UK society at the time, war or no war. The idea that instead of an attempted suicide buying you a Section, it would perversely, in the 1940's have bought you a prison sentence. Also criminal offences worthy of prison were : conscientious objection, homosexuality and being involved in an abortion. This seems utterly barbaric in 2011, but was part of the mark of civilized society in the 1940's. If sometimes we forget how much massive social change truly occurred in 20th Century Britain, this novel brings it home well.

In certain respects, I found the novel difficult. I still hadn't warmed to it after 100 pages and felt a bit let down. It gets going when we leave 1947 and flash back first to 1944 and then to 1941 as we see our characters through the war years. I really liked the characters Kay and Viv, but I found Julia cold and couldn't bear whiny, insecure Helen. I also felt that the characters were over-connected to one another in a way, that, in a city like London doesn't ring true. Waters even forces a tenuous link between Kay and Duncan which feels completely spurious.

Although the device of telling the story backwards, beginning with 1947 and going back to 1941 is an innovative way of telling the story, it has an unexpected side-effect. By leaving our characters in 1947 and never returning to their present, it leaves all their story arcs open and unfinished. Though, what happens in certain storylines can potentially be guessed at as a "Readers Game", theres something melancholic about each characters circumstance when we leave 1947, it would have been nice to see plot resolutions there. As a side issue, I found it frankly laughable that Viv would have still entertained Reggie in 1947 given what transpired between them in 1944.  

All in all, I found the book oddly dull at times considering it takes place within the action of the war. And, I was disappointed in my first post-Fingersmith Waters book. I still intend to read other titles like Affinity and Tipping the Velvet however. I would also close this review with the warning that readers in possession of a vagina might find themselves crossing their legs uncomfortably at certain moments! 7/10

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Book #64 One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

One Good Turn 

If you have not read Case Histories, then this post contains spoilers.

I'm going to be frank and say from the off that One Good Turn was a disappointment. It isn't that the recent TV adaptation diverged from it (not much, but enough) but that largely it lacks much plausibility.

Our hero Jackson Brodie an ex soldier, ex cop and now ex private detective is living off his inheritance in France. He travels to Edinburgh to see his former client and now girlfriend Julia Land in a play of dubious quality at the Fringe.

This novels mystery surrounds Graham Hatter an outwardly respectable privately unscrupulous builder of houses similar to Redrow or Barratt. He arrives in A and E with a Russian dominatrix little to his wife's surprise.

Marty Canning, a weak dissatisfied writer whose life is dull and without excitement, is involved in a violent incident in a car park, this leads to his name becoming attached to a series of crimes, in a way that is all very unlikely.

Jackson Brodie, whilst out sightseeing finds a dead Russian girl in the water. Somehow all these people are connected, but how?

And this is essentially the issue. They are all connected or all end up connected, Jackson Brodie and Marty through the carpark incident, the Russian girls to Graham Hatter, employees of Hatter to incidents which befall both Brodie and Canning. It's just too many coincidences and too implausible.

Jackson, no longer a private eye has no reason to be where he is most of the time and even new heroine Louise Munroe tells him he's "becoming a professional witness". It's not just unlikely that he would become embroiled in all these events it's borderline impossible, statistically. It just made me roll my eyes a bit.

I hope it isn't too spoilery to say there is a crime scene near the end; but the fact that not one, not two, but three witnesses are able to walk from said crime scene without police intervention beggars total belief. I understand now why the BBC adaptation made the changes it did and consider them an improvement in terms of believability.

I now feel more certain in my belief that Atkinson or at least her publisher, regretted retiring Jackson Brodie in Case Histories. He remains charismatic, loveable and with plenty of creative mileage as a character. But, in bringing him back in such a way, without rank or reason to be involved doesn't hold water. Because Brodie admits he feels unmanned by his new elevated station in life, it would have made more sense for him to first return from France, re-establish his agency and go from there.

I will read the next two novels When Will There Be Good News? and Started Early, Took My Dog, but this will be because I like Jackson Brodie as a character; not because this novel which is ultimately disappointing and weak has induced me to do so. 6/10

Friday, 15 July 2011

Book #63 Parrot and Olivier In America by Peter Carey

Parrot and Olivier In America

Parrot and Olivier In America was a nominee for The Booker Prize alongside Room, The Long Song, In A Strange Room, C, and winner The Finkler Question. It was the first Peter Carey novel that I had read despite his previous Booker success with Oscar and Lucinda and True History Of The Kelly Gang.

It got off to such a great start and I thought it was really promising. A shadow hangs over the family life of young Olivier, and he eventually discovers that his parents narrowly escaped execution during The French Revolution. He is a pompous, petulant, sickly boy, with parents who are perpetually on edge. I was really engaged by it, and assumed that this would be a book I would enjoy....

Sadly, this proves not to be the case. The novel alternates point-of-view narratives between Olivier and his future man servant Parrot, and it was from Parrot's first chapter onward that the book began to lose me. Overall, I found the narrative verbose, uninteresting and frustrating, and in part without credibility.

There is some humour to be had when Parrot and Olivier first become a duo on account of their clear hatred of each other. And also when Olivier, due to his mother's continued infantilisation of him finds himself shackled to Parrot once they reach America having hoped to be rid of him. I wouldn't say that this small degree of humour would elevate Parrot and Olivier to the status of "comic novel" not in my eyes anyway.

More frustratingly Parrot and Olivier lacks much at all in the way of plot. Even though he is sent to America largely under a false pretext, it seems unlikely that a character such as Olivier would ever be dispatched to research criminal rehabilitative practice but so we must believe. The two seem to travel about the East Coast of America almost pointlessly.

In some respects Parrot and Olivier is a "look at" what happens when "Old World" collides with "New World" try as he might, Olivier can't reconcile his notions of the way the world should work from the point of view of a French aristocrat, to the way things do work in America. Whilst Parrot thrives, Olivier flounders. It is a comment on how the birth of America as a society served to level social class.

The sad thing is, is that a story of the world through the eyes of aristocrats a generation removed from the French Revolution is a really interesting prospect, but instead, Carey creates an examination of the "master/servant relationship" and social class in general, the likes of which has been done before and better. I felt dreadfully let down by a book which got off to such a great start.

I was recently speaking with someone on Twitter about the Booker Prize, and the level of snobbery around it, I venture to say that Parrot and Olivier in America was nominated not for its virtues but so as not to slight twice winner Peter Carey. It's just not much of a good story in the end, and I wouldn't recommend it 5/10

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Book #62 A Dance With Dragons by George R.R Martin

A Dance With Dragons

It is exceptionally, exceptionally hard to write a review of the fifth book in a saga without the use of spoilers, previously I have tried to make my 'A Song Of Ice And Fire' reviews spoiler-free but this time I'm not going to give a 100% guarantee so as they say with the football results, if you don't want to know : look away now.

It took me 2 days to read this book, all 1,034 pages of it. In actual reading time spent, I would say less than 13 hours. It is simply fantastic. Compelling. Gripping. The prologue, usually an irritating affair before we re-engage with our beloved heroes, brings forth a revelation about one of them, which gives you a squeal of fan-joy from the very outset. Then the first POV chapter brings us Tyrion, fan favourite Tyrion, and it becomes clear that what made A Feast For Crows weak was the absence of the witty, wily, dwarf. It is a pleasure to have him back.

We pick up Tyrion on the run from his discovery that his father did not in fact shit gold, now caught up in the machinations of Varys the Spider and Illyrio Mopatis, the man who harboured Viserys and Daenerys in A Game Of Thrones. He is sent on his way with a group of people on a barge, who are not he quickly gathers, who they are pretending to be. Who they are proves to be something of a thrill for the fans, at least for me, as with the revelation of the identity of young sellsword Frog. I heard some reviews say they were unhappy with the Tyrion chapters but I found them highly satisfactory. The TV series Game Of Thrones has however had the impact that I hear Peter Dinklage's dry delivery of Tyrion's dialogue everytime he speaks. But, since Emmy nominated Dinklage was perhaps the best cast actor of the bunch, this is by no means a bad thing.

Tyrion shares the main bulk of the POV chapters alongside Jon Snow and Daenerys. At Castle Black, Jon struggles with the demands that being Lord Commander place upon him, tensions grow between the wildlings and the Night's Watch. Though Jon knows he should not trust the Red Queen Melisandre, nor get involved with the events in the realm, he is manipulated into it and haunted by past actions and the thought of home. I found the Castle Black sections a bit difficult, mainly because they are over populated and a "bunch of names" without much character are hard to care about. This was also a problem but to less of a degree in Meereen where Daenerys Targaryen holds court, though as many characters wonder aloud in the book, I too wondered why she continued to remain there, fighting what is essentially a losing battle. My eventual conclusion was that, almost like in one of Tyrion's cyvasse games, Daenerys essentially remains in Meereen to move other pieces in the game of thrones into position. This, is really a weakness in Book 5, her presence there does not ring true and feels like the exposition device it most likely is, though, at the close of the novel, her POV section ends with a haunting image. 

The best bit for me about A Dance With Dragons, was its little unexpected turns. Though the book belongs to Tyrion, Jon and Daenerys, a flick of the page may bring you suddenly to a POV chapter of a character you weren't expecting to see in this book, believing them consigned solely to A Feast For Crows, both books taking place at the same time. When a chapter suddenly appeared unexpectedly featuring a beloved character, I was thrilled, and this happens more than once.

One of the more successful POV's is that of Reek, a character we have met before living a new and utterly tormented life. The characters psychological destruction, sickening exploitation and  total submission to his vile master are some of the best written parts of the book.

One of the most disappointing things for me however was that at the end of A Feast For Crows we were left with a true, true, cliffhanger. For the resolution of this cliffhanger to be done with two sentences only and for the continuation of that plot to disappear again entirely til "Next Time", was a massive disappointment and a major anticlimax. But we can't have everything I guess.

Though some may have been disappointed by the scarcity of Bran chapters, I am not their biggest fan and so was grateful for having fewer. The interaction with Reek was a nice touch though. I like the foreshadowing of what will be in the next book: it will clearly contain the mission assigned to Davos. And the epilogue was tremendous. However, what Martin has done as he did equally with a Feast For Crows is he has left us with a cliffhanger, someone is left in mortal peril: will they make it or will they die? I really hope the man doesn't make us wait 6 years to find out.

Martin is a God not just among fantasy writers but writers in general. All hail King George of Westeros 10/10

Monday, 11 July 2011

Book #61 Midnight In The Garden Of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil

Published in 1994, Midnight In The Garden Of Good and Evil chronicles the period when New York writer John Berendt lived in Savannah, Georgia and paints a portrait of the town.

In my mind Savannah conjures up Southern accents, cocktails, lovely old buildings, - a dash of Gone With The Wind. Berendt's depiction has all these things in spades. Savannah, in Berendt's depiction is a parochial and insular town which wants nothing to change and there's something quaint and appealing about that in such fast moving times.

To begin with, Berendt seeks to showcase the city through the lives of it's various inhabitants and through them portray the city as a whole. Almost a travel guide with a difference. We meet haughty Jim Williams a self made millionaire antique dealer, his next-door neighbour Lee Adler, a man though high-society is not quite as revered as he pretends to be. We enter the world of exclusive clubs, yacht clubs, golf clubs, bridge parties; everything in my mind that America's Deep South is all about. Jim Williams' Christmas party being the social highlight of the year.

We meet others too, less far up the social scale: Danny Hansford, Jim Williams' borderline psychotic handyman, partial transsexual and drag queen Chablis, a woman with a filthy mouth and some scary behaviour. Then there's Jim Odem, a highly untrustworthy loveable rogue with a succession of piano bars. 

By exploring Savannah from all these angles, we see the city through a kaleidoscope lens and it is beautiful and intriguing and deep. It makes Savannah in my mind as much a must see destination as New York or Boston. I could feel the heat and hear the crickets chirping, I wanted to be there.

Then, something happens. John gets a phonecall from Chablis. Danny Hansford has been shot and Jim Williams arrested for murder. A case of being in the right place at the right time for journalist Berendt, he begins to cover the trial for his book, as Savannah society recoils from the seedy underbelly on its very doorstep.

The story becomes very Gothic in tone as we meet Minerva, a voodoo priestess...

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil is a really evocative book and one which is compelling to read but I have to question certain aspects.   Though Jim Williams was a real person, some other names are changed and I have to question the veracity of some of Berendt's past conversations as I query his ability to recall all of them in minute detail. In some respects then this is rather a blend of fact and fictionalised summation rather than straight up non fiction. In spite of this it was nominated for several non-fiction awards including the Pulitzer.

The book spent a record 216 weeks in the New York Times Bestseller List and I think this is richly deserved. A film was later made by Clint Eastwood in which Chablis played herself, and I'm sure I will watch it sometime.

I recommend reading it in a Southern accent with a mint julep by your side. 9/10

Sunday, 10 July 2011

On Women Writers Challenge

Having done a 10 book challenge now to only read books by women I have enjoyed the experiment. I am glad that I did it because in the process I have re-discovered Ann Patchett and newly discovered Scarlett Thomas, Kate Atkinson and Sarah Waters further novels by whom I look forward to reading. I particularly look forward to reading further Sarah Waters and completing the Jackson Brodie series. I am apprehensive about Scarlett Thomas' other novels because the reactions to them are so mixed whilst Sarah Waters seems ridiculously popular. Of course there was the genuine dud Ali Smith's There But For The and I don't think I would read any further books by her. I also would refuse to agree with anyone who suggested that the book is anything better than terrible.

As for Doris Lessing, I must know her more before I can appreciate her and I must remedy this. Unfortunately, having focused so much on women writers for a time I have built up a backlog of male ones! And so the unfair balance begins again! Obviously, the fifth book in A Song Of Ice And Fire approaches and at over 1,000 pages will keep me busy for some time, but after this and the other male writers that I have queuing up, I hope to make sure the blog has balanced gender representation.

I also hope to copy this challenge by doing a run of 10 "classic" novels in the near future. Suggestions, both of female authors and classic novels welcome.  

Book #60 Alfred and Emily by Doris Lessing

Alfred and Emily

Warning : This review contains some spoilers

Alfred and Emily written by Nobel Prize for Literature winner Doris Lessing, was declared, shortly before publication to be the now 92 year old writer's final book.

Alfred and Emily is a curious blend of fiction and non-fiction the concept of which I was unaware of prior to reading. In the opening section, the first half of the book, we move from August to August beginning in 1902. Alfred Tayler gains notice at a cricket match but opts to stay within the farming community, he has a happy marriage to Betsy and they have twins. At the same cricket match was Emily McVeigh who has scandalised her father and her best friends mother by giving up a university place to become a nurse, her friend Daisy follows her. Later Emily experiences a short, unhappy marriage before becoming involved in charitable works, she maintains contact with her old community including Alfred, from time to time. The early section reminded me much of Virginia Woolf's "Between The Acts". Ordinary British people in the country enjoy summer pursuits, unaware that a World War silently approaches and will tear them apart. At least, that's what I thought was coming.

Alfred and Emily however is a "re-imagining" a guess, at how their lives would have developed without the intervention of the first World War. I read it perplexed, wondering why it didn't impact the characters at all, then suddenly realised that there was something "different" at work here, that Lessing for some reason had edited history and in her story the first World War did not happen.

Suddenly the involving story of Alfred and Emily brings you up short, you turn the page and are confronted by two short obituaries marking their deaths, with half a book left to go. Alfred and Emily are revealed to be Lessing's parents and the story, a story of what her parents lives might have been had not the war intervened, Alfred and Emily having become romantically involved in the war.

Whilst the first half of the book is a fiction, the second half is fact, little vignettes of different aspects of their lives as expats in what is now Zimbabwe and what was then Rhodesia. Their marriage is revealed to not have been entirely happy, and Doris' relationship with them, her mother in particular not always easy.

I suppose we all wonder at times about "might have beens" if we'd chosen a different university, or married a different person and I suppose we all wonder what would have happened if our parents hadn't met, one of my grandfathers for example, almost became a monk. Lessing seems to go one step further though, her story of Alfred and Emily seems almost like wish-fulfillment. Alfred has a happy marriage whilst Emily dies childless. Lessing strongly indicates that in her opinion Emily McVeigh should not have had children but in so doing wishes away her own existence, which makes the book slightly odd.

I found the Rhodesia episodes very true, I find it impossible to remember every incident that has ever happened in my whole life, and I'm only 30. I think all we ever retain are different snapshots of different eras, and the significant moments of our lives.  Although sometimes we don't realise their significance. I am sceptical of autobiographies that recall word for word every detail of their lives and Lessing doesn't do that here.

It' s a shame that I still haven't read a "proper Lessing novel" like The Grass Is Singing or The Golden Notebook, I have only read this : a fact/fiction blend and Shikasta, an experimental space novel. Therefore I feel like I must continue to reserve judgement upon her as a writer.
From what I've read in the Amazon reviews, most people preferred the non-fiction section, I however preferred the fictionalised version of Alfred and Emily. Mainly because I like the idea of alternate realities and whether something so small as not catching the train (as in 1998 film Sliding Doors)  can indeed change the world. 7/10

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Book #59 The House Of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House Of Mirth

The House Of Mirth published in 1905 tells the story of Lily Bart a young woman in society. Though young, Lily is not getting younger and must make a good match soon. Unlike other novels of this type, The House Of Mirth charts not the romances and eventual happy nuptials of Lily but her failures and social decline.

I have had some conversations with my friend Matt over my inability to like novels which feature anti-heroes rather than heroes. Is whether we like our heroes important? Does it mar the story if we do not? Even if the story offers us a glimpse behind the curtains of a different world to our experience as all novels seek to do? The House Of Mirth certainly does this being as it covers the lives of New York Society at the turn of the twentieth century. Is the fact that our characters are thoroughly vile somewhat the point? The House Of Mirth is something of a polemic against those that inhabit that society or better yet an exposure of them. My sympathies ought to have been with Lily Bart, a woman whose father was ruined and is now dead remains in those social circles out of respect for her breeding and almost out of charity. But, she's an anti-heroine, she looks imperiously down her nose at everything, from her aunt and the surroundings she has shared with her to the homes of others. Equally too, she is snobbish in society, dismissing Simon Rosedale, the man who shows most care for her as nothing but a Jew and considers herself quite above Selden's impoverished spinster cousin, again, the friend who shows her most loyalty. Even without the likes of Simon and Gerty, Lily truly ranks herself as much above the rest of her company, though discomforted when unable to match them financially.

So Lily Bart is difficult to like but so too is her circle, Bertha Dorset and Carry Fisher and Judy Trenor. On the one hand these people have these wonderful parties and social lives and are all of course so very attached to one another, and yet beneath the veneer would and do destroy each other without hesitation lest they be destroyed. The men, though seeing the deplorable behaviour of their wives do little or nothing to stand up to it, protecting their good names through terrible injustice. They are ineffectual and spineless, but will seek to take advantage of Lily's vulnerability as and when they can.

Because the book is so depressing, it gave me cause to wonder why on earth it was called The House Of Mirth. A bit of googling reveals it to come from Ecclesiastes: the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. The point being of course is that these women and their husbands by extension are obsessed with money and jewels, and dresses and having money to gamble at bridge and who is marrying whom and who is the leader of "their set", the most popular hostess. In short, they are obsessed with frivolities and are insidious, vapid, fools.

It is difficult to feel for Lily for although she wishes more than anything to be part of that set, she throws away multiple opportunities to get what she wants, and later, to get back what she has lost. And so too, comes across as terribly foolish and ultimately irritating. Because I couldn't like anyone in the story I found it difficult to enjoy the book and trudged through it almost begrudgingly. It's possible I would have abandoned it were it not for the rule that I must finish books on this challenge. From a critical perspective, this novel is probably very interesting a damning indictment of the perilous position of well-bred young women without husbands and of "polite society" of the era. Alternatively, the message seems to say, if you are a woman of no fortune marry no matter how you feel, marry a boring Percy Gryce or someone you find contemptible like Simon Rosedale or find yourself like poor Lily Bart. A warning to strike fear in the hearts of young debutantes to conform to such a world. I doubt Wharton meant the latter but in a way that's the effect. A warped "moral tale".

That said for a book essentially short, I found it an utter nightmare to read, it took me a long time; mainly because I hated the characters so badly and found the whole thing just distasteful. It does have an interesting "point" to make, but I prefer "points" that are made artfully with subtlety, so as they come to you in the midst of your absorption in the story, rather than novels that seem to solely exist in order to make such "points".

I find it difficult to know how to rate this book because I am aware of my own bias against unlikeable leads. I also found it incredibly boring for the first two thirds as I despised their company as characters. Despite this, is it a good portrait of a type of society? Yes. Is it making an interesting point? Yes. But did I enjoy it? No. So how do I rate it then? Probably for enjoyment 3/10 and for merit 7/10. However, having such a complicated reaction to a novel says something for it. Lily Bart, on the other hand, remains completely insufferable.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Book #58 Then by Julie Myerson


I've been trying to decide why there has been a recent glut of novels and films or TV shows which depict post apocalyptic scenarios. I wonder if it is because society, having left the Cold War era behind is not living with a significant reality of this kind of disaster and therefore can fearlessly explore it as a fiction, or  whether we do live in uncertain times, and novels such as these seek to exhibit and explore our fear.

It is true that the human race faces many potential threats to its survival: Will we experience alien invasion, and if we did would it be hostile? Will an unusual illness like SARS or H1N1 become an incurable global pandemic? Will a terrorist attack plunge a nation or the world into the Dark Ages?
And then of course, there's our old friend The Zombie Apocalypse, which I discussed in my review of Justin Cronin's The Passage.

In Julie Myerson's 'Then', the event which causes widespread chaos is not made clear, potentially it's an environmental disaster of the type shown in the 2004 film 'The Day After Tomorrow' and potentially it's a nuclear winter. What is known is that one day it got very hot in February, too hot, and too bright, and then things went dark and it began to snow.

Myerson's novel is unusual in that it doesn't really focus on the disaster or on multiple survivors, just really upon one female survivor whose name we don't learn until nearly the end of the book. She has sought refuge in an office block with a handful of others, but she cannot remember who she is, or why she's there. Though her companions tell her things, she forgets again, and exists in a confused fog, seeing things that aren't always there.

'Then' is a classic case of the use of an unreliable narrator; because she can't remember her own past and questions the reality of her current experience, we cannot trust her perspective. The narrative is muddled, but deliberately so, so that you realistically experience her personal sense of confusion, though this is frustrating at times. Even near the end I was unsure about whether certain characters were real or merely figments of a broken mind.

The plot takes us backwards beginning at her current location and revealing how she got there to start with, but whilst the end has good shock value and explains her current mental fragility I questioned its plausibility. Though good techniques are shown by Myerson, I felt that there was just so much more to an event like this than one woman's plight, though I suppose that in itself is the novels Unique Selling Point.

It's not hard to read and it is "a bit different" but I thought it was good not great 7/10

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Book #57 Fingersmith by Sarah Waters


It was late when I finished Ann Patchett's State Of Wonder, but, I was suffering from insomnia and decided to start Fingersmith. I didn't sleep last night. At all. I've always thought that reviewers who claimed a book kept them up all night were at best sycophantic and at worst writing pieces of wild cliches and hyperbole. And then I read Fingersmith.

Right from the start you feel not as reader but as genuine observer. The dialogue makes the voices ring clear and true in your mind. I've always loved nineteenth century literature, and Fingersmith feels like reading a cross between a Dickens and an Austen. All the rogues normally found in the works of either writer are present and correct, drawing room society, damsels in distress, low level ne'er do wells and the charming Gentleman fallen upon hard times who may not be all he seems; but Waters is able by writing in the modern era to turn things up a notch by writing about topics with a frankness unthinkable from her literary forebears.

The plot is just magnificent, a confidence trick within a confidence trick within a set of Russian Dolls. It begins with Sue: raised by scam artists who do what they must to get by, Sue is enlisted by  "Gentleman" to assist him in the ensnaring of a young lady of good fortune by posing as a lady's maid. That alone sets us off on a fascinating adventure of both guile and cruelty, but the turns that await Sue and her mistress Maud are as unexpected for the reader as they are for the characters.

It would be spoiling it to give any further information on the plot than this, I don't even really want to comment on some of the revelations that await for fear of giving some of the enjoyment away.
The story told in part by Sue and in part by Maud is charmingly done in both parts, and in the end you feel for both girls equally.

The world of nineteenth century London is revealed to be a truly sinister and hellish place for women particularly and there is a real sense of the macabre, especially when the tricks begin to pay off for the truly villainous "Gentleman"and his associates.  

I must confess that when Sarah Waters first began to gain notice, I somewhat wrote her off as somebody who was (apparently) attempting to pass off overt erotica as literature for headlines and notoriety. Sex for the sake of sex. The experience of reading Fingersmith ought to teach me once and for all to always ignore the views of The Daily Fail. The sexual elements of this novel are not only essential to both plot and characterisation, but are reflected in a tasteful and legitimately artistic way.

Sometime ago, a friend and I were in Waterstones one night when Sarah Waters made an appearance for an evening Q and A. Having not read any of her work, I was disinterested in her and it. Having just spent the last 24 hours engrossed in her novel and thrilled by every page, I must confess myself completely and utterly gutted at having missed an opportunity of meeting her, but to have met her without having read Fingersmith would be akin to meeting a hero who was yet to save you, you would have no idea just how great they would be one day, and so would not remark upon them at all. Hindsight is a great if bittersweet thing.

A new literary hero. Wonderful. Now, I need sleep. Read This Now: 10/10

Book #56 State Of Wonder by Ann Patchett

State Of Wonder

Some years ago I read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett an unusual but affecting story of a hostage scenario in a government building in an unnamed South American country. It had some beautiful prose and lingered with me afterwards. In the course of 30 years I have read so many books that I couldn't name them all, but if pressed to try I would remember Bel Canto for its strangely affecting qualities, somehow magical in the midst of crisis.

In State Of Wonder, Patchett again returns to South America but via a different route. Marina Singh works for a prestigious pharmaceutical company in Minnesota, and is engaged in an affair with her boss Mr Fox. Suddenly both their courses are changed by the shock news that their colleague Anders Eckman has died in the Amazon after being sent there on assignment by Fox.

Eckman was sent there on the trail of the aloof, imperious Annick Swenson who though employed by the company refuses to be in any way answerable to them and Singh is sent after him to establish what went wrong. What she finds there will change her forever.....

This novel has shades of Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, Theroux's Mosquito Coast and Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, the last of the three being among my favourite novels, dealing with the issues of being a 'stranger in a strange land'. Marina makes a likeable central character and the dynamic she shares with Swenson is made all the more intense by their unspoken shared past. Surrounding characters with the exception of beautifully realised deaf orphan Easter, are a little thin, it is the single minded, slightly scary Swenson, who will stop at nothing to succeed who stands out.

The book touches on some issues which are interesting but doesn't overly develop them, such as the difficult relationship between students, and teachers who seem more like Gods to their faculty; and also, the difficult decisions Western outsiders must make when deciding to intervene in a society where they do not belong. I think it's a shame that these interesting topics were not further explored.

The prose is very accessible, and, I think in this case, I liked the inconclusiveness of the ending because there were so many ways in which the lives of the characters concerned could change or stay the same. It gives the reader something to imagine, and in the act of imagining what might happen next, you discover that actually, you really care. 8/10

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Book #55 The End Of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

The End Of Mr Y

I want to say right from the start that I thought The End Of Mr Y was brilliant. As soon as I started reading it I felt like this was a book I was meant to read. To borrow a popular film quote : "It had me at hello". The protagonist Ariel Monto is an English Literature graduate, with a recent burgeoning interest in theoretical physics. This immediately struck a chord with me on a personal level. When we meet Ariel she is a Phd student at an unnamed London university with an interest in little-known 18th century author Thomas E Lumas. Lumas wrote among others a novel called The End Of Mr Y, after which our novel takes its title. The novel is rare and there are but few copies in existence, it is also rumoured to be cursed.

The first section of the book is really the novel at its best. I was taken with much of the writing, and enjoyed many individual quotes about physics and other things, for example :
I didn't go further and say that I want to know everything because of the high probability that if you know everything there'll be something to actually believe in.
 Or this description about the weather :
Monday morning and the sky is the colour of sad weddings.

Or the description of a feeling Ariel experiences :
On days like this I do not feel afraid of death or pain. I don't know if it's tiredness, the book, or even the curse, but today as I walk through this housing estate, there's a feeling inside me like the potential nuclear fission of every atom in my body: a chain reaction of energy that could take me to the limits of everything. As I walk along, I almost desire some kind of violence: to live, to die, just for the experience of it. I'm so hyped up that suddenly I want to fuck the world or be fucked by it. Yes, I want to be penetrated by the shrapnel of a million explosions. I want to see my own blood.
I don't know whether others will like these quotes, but personally I found them insightful. I could have sat here and listed many other quotes but I decided to stop at 3.

There was just a lot I liked about the opening of this book, the elusive cursed book, the academic setting and the character of Ariel herself, someone I felt I understood. I believe that detractors of this book have called it pretentious and pseudo-intellectual, but, having so recently levelled that accusation at Ali Smith's 'There But For The' I can safely say that Scarlett Thomas's 'The End Of Mr Y' bears no comparison to it. Instead, my position is that the book is incredibly intelligent and so is, clearly, its author. Where it succeeds and mightily over the former book, is that its storytelling is king. It is not a book trying to be clever, making some redundant point about society that might have been interesting ten years ago, it is actually genuinely clever. For there to be a fictional tale about a woman on a journey of discovery in a fourth dimension, a fantasy, magical realism tale; that pulls off discussions on quantum physics and philosophy, existential and otherwise, making them integral to as opposed to harming the story is a feat indeed. However, if you don't want your mind seriously taxed by difficult questions of science and existence, it would be best avoided.

The middle third is somewhat difficult bearing the similarities it did to 1980's computer games and virtual reality with shades of the 1999 film 'The Matrix'. It faltered somewhat for me in this section, though I did like the concept of "Pedesis" which is brought in at this stage.

Though I have seen criticism of the ending and expected something awful I was blown away by it. Whilst looking back near the beginning of the book after completion, I noticed a foreshadowing that I had not done on the first read. This book is ABSOLUTELY a novel which bears re-reading, not least for its philosophical and theoretical concepts which are worth further exploration. I read Paradise Lost about a year ago, and this book along with others I have read this year including Mirror, Mirror and The Vintner's Luck has clearly taken some inspiration from Milton's epic poem. I think once you've read a classic like Milton you start to see his impact everywhere. I loved the ending, loved it, and would argue down and defend it against detractors.

Responses to The End Of Mr Y are very clearly polarised and I would say that this is a book you will either fall in love with or detest, fortunately I am of the former camp. And though reader responses to Thomas's other novels 'Popco' and 'Our Tragic Universe' are equally polarised I look forward to reading them with serious enthusiasm.

For me this is a Read This: 10/10 book, but I have the objectivity to recognise that for some people this book may be the exact opposite.