Sunday, 25 March 2012

Review - We Had it So Good, Linda Grant

Some people believe that life consists of a series of problems with solutions, whereas others believe that there are simply situations which have their own internal life and momentum. This difference is an important one in We Had it So Good by Linda Grant. Stephen Newman is American, and an example of the first type of person, while his wife Andrea is English and an example of the second. Stephen and Andrea meet while at Oxford University, and embark on a marriage (in part of convenience) which is at the core of this book. Stephen and Andrea are very different - (“You fall for what you do not know, he figured out eventually. But you do fall: the loss of balance is the point.”) – and this allows Linda Grant to explore some very different perspectives during the course of the book.

We Had it So Good follows Stephen, Andrea and their friends Ivan and Grace from their initial meeting over a span of five decades or so. We see how their lives develop as they age, and how their initial idealism evolves (in most cases) to the inevitable compromises of middle class life in London. There is a particular focus on their relationships with their parents and children. One of the key themes of the book is how little we truly know or understand about the lives of our parents, and this is illustrated by the experiences of three successive generations.

This novel deals mainly with a certain privileged subset of English life – Oxford, London, middle class communal living, dinner parties – which some readers might find a little irritating, but the novel also ranges widely, taking in relatively poor Cuban-Jewish Los Angeles, Bosnia and Islamic terrorism. The breadth of the novel, both temporal and geographical, means that it never drags and it is never clear where it will end up. Much is made of the differences between successive generations – each generation thinks that the preceding one (or the next one) has achieved great things, while they have had great opportunities but have ultimately wasted them.

Linda Grant writes very well. I particularly enjoyed the first half of the book, where she deals with the childhood, student experiences and early adult life of the main characters, up until the end of the 1960s or so. I found the later stages of the book, which deal with the characters coming to terms with ageing and ultimately death, less convincing and engaging. This worries me a little, since the parts I enjoyed dealt with an era which I missed, while the parts I found less convincing were focused on an era I have lived through. However, most readers should find that they can identify to an extent with one of the main voices in this novel, and will be made to think by the other perspectives which are presented. Overall, an engaging family saga with serious intent.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Review - The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding by Chard Harbach is a big novel, in length and ambition. It was apparently ten years in the making, and along with a fine story it contains a considerable amount of intellectual ambition. Best to deal first, though, with a question which may well be in the mind of readers from outside the baseball-playing world – will I enjoy and understand this novel even though I know nothing about baseball? It will certainly help if you understand at least the basics of baseball – without this knowledge you can still enjoy the book, but you will undoubtedly struggle a little with some of the key sections. And those parts which deal with baseball games, especially near the climax of the story, are very well written and rather exciting.

Five main characters dominate the book. Henry Skrimshander is a preternaturally talented shortstop (the Fielder of the title) identified and mentored by Mike Schwartz, sports star and team captain of Westish College. Owen is Henry’s gay, sophisticated roommate – the academic star of the School. Guert Affenlight is the College principal and Pella his estranged daughter. Four of these characters are struggling with a sense of disillusionment and unhappiness. They are ostensibly successful and admired, used to achieving any goal they wish to, but are forced to confront failure either in their personal or social lives and have to deal with the consequences. A substantial cast of minor characters is marshaled effectively, but it is these five who are the key to the novel.

Baseball provides the sporting context of The Art of Fielding, but its literary context is provided by Herman Melville and perhaps the greatest of American novels, Moby Dick. There are numerous references, overt and more subtle, to Melville and Moby, from shared themes through to character names and other motifs. Skrimshander (an otherwise unusual name) is Norse for scrimshaw, the little objects that sailors carved out of whalebone. Guert Affenlight built his academic career on original Melville material which he discovered in the College archive while a student there. Guert and Pella have matching tattoos of the whale from Moby Dick on their left arms. The College baseball team are known as the Harpooners. I could go on and on, and no doubt there is much that I have missed – in the future scholars will, no doubt, discuss and analyse the connections and role of Moby Dick in this book.

This is a very good novel – it is by no means perfect, but I enjoyed it very much. Harbach succeeded in making me care about the characters as well as thinking about the structure and intent of the book. When they were battered, I felt their pain, and when they won through, I enjoyed their success. Life often has messy endings, and in some cases that is was happens here, but Harbach allows the possibility of a new beginning and a glimpse of redemption, unless death intervenes. Perhaps it could have been shortened a little, but The Art of Fielding deserves to do very well. It certainly has potential in the literary prize lists later this year.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Book of the Week - The Land of Decoration, Grace McCleen

The Land of Decoration is a first novel by Grace McCleen, who grew up as a member of a fundamentalist religion with little contact with the outside world. A teacher's suggestion that she apply to university changed the course of her life: association with unbelievers and further education were viewed as suspicious by her religion. She attended Oxford and lost her religious faith. Subsequently, when a long illness confined her to bed, she started to write songs and fiction. The Land of Decoration seems to draw heavily on her upbringing, as well as her imagination. She has an excellent and quirky website which highlights a number of her other interests. Reviews of the book are excellent, and signed and dated copies can be picked up now at cost (Chatto, Hardcover). I think this book may do very well – recommended.

“Judith and her father don't have much -- their house is full of dusty relics, reminders of the mother she's never known. But Judith sees the world with the clear Eyes of Faith, and where others might see rubbish, Judith sees possibility. Bullied at school, she finds solace in making a model of the Promised Land -- little people made from pipe cleaners, a sliver of moon, luminous stars and a mirror sea -- a world of wonder that Judith calls The Land of Decoration. Perhaps, she thinks, if she makes it snow indoors (using shaving foam and cotton wool and cellophane) there will be no school on Monday...

Sure enough, when Judith opens her curtains the next day, the world beyond her window has turned white. She has performed her first miracle. And that's when her troubles begin.”

Friday, 16 March 2012

Review - The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is a retelling of a fairy tale, based on a traditional Russian Story. This may not sound very exciting, but the writing is magical and the characters compelling and believable, so that as a reader I felt completely drawn into the Alaskan winter and the lives of Jack and Mabel and their friends. There are moments of great sadness but also passages which are uplifting and exciting. The author lives in Alaska, and I am sure that she is writing about an environment which she knows and understands. Because she inhabits this place, she enables the reader to inhabit it as well.

The core of the story is well known – “There once was an old man and woman who loved each other very much and were content with their life except for one great sadness – they had no children of their own”. One cold winter they build a snow girl – the girl becomes real and enters their lives. There are many versions of the traditional story, with a range of endings, so it is never quite clear until the final few pages how The Snow Child will finish. The story is a simple one, tinged with sadness, and its themes are about more than just the desire for a family. The meaning of friendship, possessiveness and letting go, the happiness that comes from a simple life, hard-lived, in close proximity to Nature.

While the events of the Snow Child are simple, they are portrayed with great skill and conviction. Enough happens, but not too much. The thoughts and motivations of the central participants are clear and understandable. They are the thoughts and emotions which we all deal with at times. Can we choose our own endings? Joy over sorrow, for instance? The reader is never quite sure, until the end, though it is clear than even when we cannot control outcomes we can still choose how we respond and how we celebrate and remember the events which take place. Only the Snow Child herself, Faina, remains a mystery, and rightly so.

This Snow Child has attracted some great reviews, and having read it I can see why. It is an example of a simple story told with great skill so that it seems fresh and new, with elements which will resonate emotionally with many readers. It is not a sentimental book - the Alaskan winter is harsh, and there is little space for softness - but there is much to savour. It grabs the emotional attention of the reader as well as the mind – one of the best books I have read this year.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Review - The Blasphemer, Nigel Farndale

A lot is happening in The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale, probably too much for my taste – a few less plot lines and a little more development of the key themes would have made for a better book. Nonetheless, this is an interesting novel with an ambitious approach which makes for a good holiday read. There are two main story lines which are interwoven. The dominant story focuses on academic Zoologist Daniel Kennedy, a prominent atheist with a television series and a developing public profile who is about to undergo a crisis in almost every area of his life. As the novel starts it seems that everything is going his way – he is on the verge of promotion to a Professorship, his television series is becoming increasingly popular and he is planning to propose to his long term partner after taking her on a surprise holiday to the Galapagos Islands. However, everything in his life is about to change – a plane will crash, his relationship with Nancy will crumble and his academic nemesis (Wetherby) will scheme to bring about his downfall.

The second narrative in The Blasphemer harks back to the first world war and focuses on the story of Daniel Kennedy’s great-grandfather and the events which befell him during and after Passchendaele. Inevitably the stories are linked and the book moves gradually to the climax of both.

One of the chief themes in The Blasphemer is the clash between atheism and religious belief. Daniel’s militant and bullish atheism is challenged by the possibility that he has seen an angel. I found it difficult to engage with this argument – Daniel’s atheism seems superficial, and the chief challenge to it implausible. It is not helped by the fact that most of the figures representing religious belief (including Wetherby) are unprincipled and in some cases downright evil – almost cartoonish. Real life is not so simple. This would have been a sufficient theme to carry a whole novel, but thrown into the mix are the nature of bravery and cowardice, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, paedophilia, heterosexual and homosexual love, academic politics and the search for the the lost alternative beginning to Mahler’s ninth symphony. Overall, I felt that this was too much. One or two fewer plots would have made for a stronger book. Having said this, parts of The Blasphemer are gripping – the airplane crash and some of the First World War scenes are particularly well done – and alone are enough to make this book worthwhile. A good novel, but not quite top notch.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Review - Stolen Souls, Stuart Neville

Stolen Souls is the third novel from Stuart Neville to feature Jack Lennon. It is set in post-conflict North of Ireland, theoretically at peace but with members of paramilitary organizations continuing with various criminal enterprises. The previous books in the series dealt mainly with the aftermath and consequences of various IRA actions, but in Stolen Souls the subject matter is different, dealing with trafficking of prostitutes by Eastern European gangsters and their collaboration with “loyalist” paramilitaries. Their activities intersect with a serial killer from a fundamentalist Protestant background, with plenty of problems for all concerned.

As you might expect from this description, the style of these books is “noir”; most of the characters are damaged or flawed, with little hope of redemption, and the prose fits this approach. Jack Lennon, as the hero of sorts, shares these characteristics, but at least is trying to do the right thing, even if the right thing is often wrong. There are emerging signs that his young daughter has visions of what is happening elsewhere, and a slowly building personal relationship continues in the background along with a few hints as to future plotlines. Several characters carry over from the previous books, and this is a series which building successfully and will no doubt continue to do so. For this reason, I would recommend starting with the first book in the series (The Twelve –published in the US as The Ghosts of Belfast) before proceeding to Collusion and finally Stolen Souls.

Stolen Souls is a good, fast paced read. The characters are convincing and there are plenty of unexpected twists on the way. The book is set predominantly in South Belfast (around Queen’s University) and in the East of the city, areas which I know well, and the atmosphere and details (as I would expect) are largely correct. There is plenty of suspense and the outcome is always in doubt until the very end. There is violence, drug use, and prostitution, but both the sex and violence are not described in an overly graphic way and Neville relies on his skill as a writer to build the tension rather than unnecessary gore to shock. This is the approach which I prefer, and requires more talent from the author. So overall, a good quick read, not requiring too much thought and to be enjoyed and admired for what it is. Definitely a series to follow for those who like this genre.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Book of the Week - The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

There are a number of interesting books out at the moment, so this may well be a busy month for reading. Just as well I will be travelling fairly extensively between now and the summer. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a first novel by Rachel Joyce, an established writer in radio land. She has written over 20 original plays for Radio 4, and dramatised both classic and new novels. She has also recently completed a period drama for BBC television. In 2007 she won the Tinniswood Award for best radio play, and has been long-listed several times for a Sony Award. Previously, she had a twenty-year career in theatre, performing leading roles for the RSC, the Royal National Theatre, The Royal Court, and Cheek by Jowl, and winning a Time Out Best Actress award. With this sort of pedigree there must be a good chance that Harold Fry will ultimately make it to the big screen as well. Rachel Joyce currently lives in Gloucestershire with her husband and four children and is working on her second novel, Perfect.

Harold Fry has been receiving a lot of advance notice and some very strong reviews are beginning to emerge. The book was also chosen as one of the Waterstone's 11 for 2012. Goldsboro Books have an exclusive signed slipcased edition, which I think is 500 copies, and this is probably the one to pick up if you do not mind a little more than the standard edition.

“When Harold Fry sets out one morning to post a letter to his dying friend Queenie he finds himself at the start of a journey that will have many beginnings, and for which he's entirely unprepared. This is a story about a huge leap of faith. It's about raw secrets tucked away behind net curtains and those moments of impulse and chance encounters that will transform us. It's about bravery and betrayal, love, loyalty and an unremarkable pair of yachting shoes. Above all, it is a book which will make your heart sing; a book about the power in how we touch each other's lives.“

Review: The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

I review most of the books I read, but generally on other sites (Curious Book Fans or Goodreads).  However, I have decided to start adding my reviews to the blog for completeness......

The Beauty of Humanity MovementThe Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb is set in Vietnam, a country which I know relatively little about. One of the strengths of the novel lies in providing an overview of recent Vietnamese history, specifically relating to the transition from a colonial state to a communist state and subsequently modernisation. In addition to providing this overview of historical events, Camilla Gibb conveys a strong sense of what it must have been like to live in Hanoi during this period, with its crowds, poverty, sights, tastes and smells – a vibrant, modern city seeking to reinvent itself after a troubled past.

The central character of the novel is Hu’ng, who has been a witness to all of these events. We meet him first as an elderly man who scrapes a living selling pho, a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, to a small band of loyal customers. (There is a lot about pho in this book – it sounds delicious and is definitely now on my “to eat” list.) Gradually it emerges that Hu’ng in the past has been closely associated with a radical group of artists and poets who were violently disbanded at the beginning of the communist era. As the novel proceeds, we learn gradually about his early and subsequent life, in particular his attempts to preserve the memory of the poet Dao and his flawed relationship with a young woman, Lan.

In parallel with this story, Maggie Ly, the daughter of one of the renegade artists, has been brought up in the US and has now returned to Hanoi as a curator, trying in her spare time to discover her father’s personal history which has been lost to her. She is aided in her search by Tu, who has been adopted by Hu’ng and views him like a grandfather.

These strands and others come together in a convincing way. The problems that arise whenever principals are put ahead of relationships is a recurrent theme. A number of the characters do this and regret what they have lost as a result, trying to reverse their decisions at a later date. However, the clock can never be turned back successfully, and what has been lost is lost forever. At first it seems as if the various strands will be neatly drawn together to a satisfying romantic conclusion, but life is more complex than this and so is this novel. Events move fast towards the end, and I had the sense of a novelist running out a time and space and seeking to draw everything to a conclusion quickly. The end was not quite up to the promise of the beginning, but overall this is an interesting novel, which gently educates about Vietnam while proving very readable.

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