Archive for December, 2013

Worst Reads of 2013

Posted: December 30, 2013 in Uncategorized

I suppose to have not enjoyed three books all year isn’t too bad…

The Book Lover's Musings

So this is the corollary of the post 2013 in books. Not the best books I’ve read this year but the worst.

Those books you read and think

Well, that’s a week I’ll never get back again.

Or those books you finish with a “meh” sound as you reach for the next.

Or those you finish, look at and and file next to Twilight on the “Too Embarrassing Even To Give Away” shelf.

These books don’t need promoting, just a health warning! Click on the book names to read my reviews of them. If you think they deserve it. Or you have too much time on your hands.

So first and definitely least enjoyable book of the year: The Shakespeare Curse by J. L. Carrell. Do you like Shakespeare? Or thrillers? Or characters? Or a plot? If you answered yes to any of these, this is not…

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Well, that was a quick read!

I was browsing various book lists with a view to spending some Christmas money and The Guardian’s Independent Bookshop review of 2013 cropped up with this book.

It is, at heart, a romance novel which is certainly not a usual genre for me. The main character, Don Tillsen in a genetics professor; he is searching for a wife; an entirely unsuitable woman, in this case the eponymous Rosie, crosses his path.

The predictable course of such novels progresses: obstacles appear; problems are overcome; wrong turns are taken… The predictable solution occurs.

What drew me to the book were two factors: firstly, I wanted a change from the rather horror and fantasy based reading that I’ve been in recently; and secondly the main protagonist, Don, has Aspergers and Autistic Spectrum traits. As my daughter also has such traits, and I teach many children who display them too, I was interested.

In fact, the review from The Guardian had mentioned a customer’s comment that

all teachers should be made to read it to give them a better understanding of students with this syndrome. Another customer has simply told us that is the only book that has made her laugh out loud all year.

I’m not quite sure how successful the portrayal of Don Tillman was. He didn’t seem to encounter as many difficulties and problems as a true ASD or OCD or Bipolar sufferer might and those he did encounter seemed to be overcome with relative ease in comparison. These are serious, deeply difficult and life-threatening conditions which rip apart families and they were treated – in my humble opinion – just a tad lightly and light heartedly.

And there was a familiarity to the structure of the story: Don Tillman could have stepped from the the script of The Big Bang Theory, sharing many traits of Sheldon Cooper; his best friend Gene, equally, could have come from How I Met Your Mother being an almost carbon copy of Barney Stinson. Having a teenage bit at home for whom both these generic American sitcoms (even on the third, sixth, twentieth re-run) is compulsory, unless I put my foot down to watch The Great British Bake Off, this is familiar but somewhat two-dimensional territory.

There were some opportunities for genuinely painful moment – Gene’s open marriage and it’s impact on his wife for example – which were only tangentially touched on. Maybe that’s a reflection of Don’s single mindedness but, as a reader, I would have been more interested in exploring that.

However, it was a decent read: entertaining, funny in places, sweet. It’s ending was predictable and just a little too easy somehow but I did care about the characters and wanted them to be together.

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2013 in books

Posted: December 28, 2013 in Uncategorized

My pick of books from those I’ve read in 2013

The Book Lover's Musings

2013 drags itself damply and limply to an end this week. Unlike Dr Who, whose Matt Smith incarnation went out on Christmas Day with a bang, the final days of 2013 remind me of the lines from Eliot

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Anyway, I thought that I would bring the year to a close with a review of 2013 in books. And, to preface, this is books read by me in 2013 rather than written in 2013. There are still some 2013 books I’ve not got round to reading yet: The Luminaries and Jim Crace’s Harvest among them.

So. Here goes.

Top of my list is the Man Booker shortlisted A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

20131228-074227.jpg Utterly compelling and intriguing narrative voices, engaging…

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It’s a strange thing with books. You can start one – particularly a lengthy one like this – and things get in the way of you finishing it. That’s not the strange thing. That – I imagine – is familiar. Maybe you put it down because work has become hectic or your baby is born and you think I’ll come back to it in a couple of days but you end up never quite having the time. That happened with me and The Twelve, the second in Cronin’s The Passage trilogy. But the strange thing that I mentioned at the beginning if this paragraph is that, however long I leave a book for, once I’ve picked it up again, it’s all just there! No re-reading needed. It’s as if I open a door and step back into their world without a pause. Like Narnia. So picking up The Twelve again, I stepped back through into Cronin’s world.

And it is a dark and twisted world: humanity has been almost wiped out by the vampiric virals from The Passage (for my review of which, see here) and little pockets are all that is left. In The Passage, those pockets were struggling to survive; in The Twelve, they’re starting to fight back and this gives the sequel a very different feel to the original. Our main characters have become militarised. It is, perhaps, analogous to the different tone of Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens. For me, personally, I was significantly more engaged by the characters in the first book: their relations were more complex, more human and more credible.

Amy Harper Bellafonte – The Girl From Nowhere – injected with the virus which produced the vampires as a child but somehow retaining her humanity – a single character connecting the time before and the time after – was such a massively evocative and engaging character in The Passage that I felt almost cheated by her demotion in this sequel. She became almost a secondary character until the finale.

Her role is almost taken by Lawrence Grey, the janitor who was taken by Zero when he escaped; and by Anthony Carter, the one innocent man among the twelve convicts who were originally infected. We see Grey in the aftermath of the Twelve’s escape forming a bond with Lila Kyle – Brad Wolgast’s mentally unstable estranged wife – but eventually captured by Horace Guilder. The relationship between Grey and Kyle was quite affecting as Kyle retreats from the horrors around her into a fantasy world. Both characters were engagingly vulnerable but the extensive and exhaustive prolongation of her fantasy did start to become tedious.

What I did like was the reversal of the antagonists: the eponymous twelve themselves were fairly distant and abstract with, literally, a walk-on part. The real antagonist was Horace Guilder: capturing Grey and assuming the role of Lila Kyle’s husband, he realises that Grey’s blood can keep him alive. Grey is, therefore, imprisoned and farmed for his blood for a century.

Guilder becomes a collaborator with the virals – thanks to Lila’s warped sense of reality, his ability to manipulate her and her ability to control the virals – and founder of The Homeland. The Homeland is a city-state run on a quasi-religious totalitarian basis, capturing free humans to use as slave labour in concentration camp conditions. The true horrors are committed here by humans against humans: maltreatment, a feedlot of virals to feed dissidents and insurgents to (taking the place of the gas chambers), torture, rape and the farming of bodily fluids from men, women and children. Cronin did succeed in creating an intriguing antagonist in Guilder: he is simultaneously demonic and ridiculous; totalitarian and impotent; a true grotesque.

In all, this book felt like a bridge between the first and last books on the trilogy. It almost felt as if the mechanics of the virals – that each of the Twelve governed a massive pod of virals who they had turned and who could be destroyed en masseby killing the appropriate member of the Twelve who had sired them – was too cumbersome. It would have needed perhaps one book for each of the Twelve and become really repetitive! So Cronin used this book to simultaneously build up Zero as the ultimate antagonist and dispatch the other Twelve. I would be interested to know whether the original plan was for three of twelve books….

The prose of The Twelve also seemed to me more prosaic, less varied and less lyrical than The Passage.

Was this a good novel? Yes, of course it was! The world and the characters in particular are engaging and interesting. I find the religious parallels at best a tad contrived and occasionally uncomfortable. And yes I am looking forward to a showdown between Lish, Amy (and perhaps Carter) with Zero – previously known as Tim Fanning and the first to be infected in the wilds of Bolivia in The Passage.

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You can’t go wrong with Pratchett: he never fails to offer up decent stories with a sparkle of wit, a smattering of engaging characters and a bucketload of humanity – in all its various forms and species!

And Raising Steam continues the pattern: here, Ankh-Morpork’s journey towards modernity is quite literally driven by the arrival of Dick Simnel and his new steam locomotive, Iron Girder. The timeline of the story is pretty lengthy: long enough to establish the railway from scratch, allow the scoundrel Moist Von Lipwig to negotiate numerous land rights (Coalition Government HS2, take notes please) and the railway to be built. The pace of the writing never lets up though as we follow Moist on various missions to further the railway with his goblin – sidekick seems too lowly – confederate? co-conspirator? – friend? – Of The Twilight The Darkness.

There is a secondary plot behind the drive to build the railway: Dwarvish fundamentalist grags rise up to attack the clacks towers (a Discworld equivalent of the Internet), the train and eventually overthrow their own King whilst he is abroad. The two plots then coincide as the train endeavours to return the King to his homeland as swiftly as possible over half finished tracks and impossibly weak bridges. Again, Moist Von Lipwig’s ingenuity and charm – unsurprisingly – succeed to return the King.

Moist is not my personal favourite character in the Discworld series: a little too arrogant, a little too smug; and a tad lacking in scoundrelliness personally. I find him to be a spin doctor rather than a cad or even a rogue. I like more rogue! Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great comic invention, just not my favourite as a protagonist.

However, there was a lovely counterpoint between Moist’s spin doctorishness and Dick Simnel: blunt, honest, disarming. Listening to this as an audiobook, the was a slightly northern slightly Yorkshire accent attributed to him which made him a little Wallace and Gromit which may not have been so apparent reading it. The moments with the press where Moist sees Dick pinned down by sly questioning and he rushes to intervene only to find that Dick was more than capable of both reading the subtext of the question, recognising the danger and turning it back on the questioner were lovely!

The main character here, however, is probably Iron Girder herself. The adoration that the people of Ankh-Morpork give her, the tinkering and polishing that Dick Simnel and his apprentices and goblins do to her and her constant upgradings give her a character of her own. Powered by what is referred to throughout as living steam, Iron Girder does become alive in Moist’s eyes to the point where he wonders what she thinks about Dick acquiring a girlfriend. An important question, really, as Iron Girder had previously defended herself from a saboteur dwarf by vaporising him with her steam!

As always with Pratchett, this book does question the whole idea of what life is and, fundamentally, celebrates life in all its forms.

A great, wry, hugely enjoyable read.

Adlestrop

Yes, I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas

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This is just gorgeous: one of the most anthologised poems in the world which usually turns me right off but so beautifully enigmatic and poignant and elegant. And terribly British.

It was only recently I learned that Thomas’ wife was actually with him and opposite him on this journey and “unwonted” stop. You’d never know! Yes, Thomas may have remembered Adlestrop but he’s completely excised his wife from that memory!

The remembrance is what makes the poem so poignant: barely anything of the world being described exists any more: the steam train has been eclipsed; the railway line shut down; the serenity of that world destroyed by two world wars; the last weeks before Thomas enlisted.

There’s a lovely insight into a very troubled mind here: Thomas’ passivity on the train and lack of comprehension at the stop; his discomfort amongst the other passengers. The short sentences, enjambment and caesurae in the first two stanzas suddenly give way to a beautiful recitation of the unfolding landscape in an undulating and almost religious litany. I may not be able to picture half the plants he cites but I am entranced by the recitation! And in the middle of this luscious countryside the trilling of the blackbird.

The word that I think is at the heart of this poem is the “mistier” of the final stanza: the enigmatic nature of these echoing songs, reportedly from far further afield than Thomas could ever have actually heard, is captured in the synaesthesia of the adjective.

Somewhere in here is a very British, sublime moment: quiet, understated and exceptionally beautiful. May we all share a moment like this!

Intertextuality is a strange idea.

It’s reasonable and intuitive that texts refer both backwards and forwards within themselves: how many stories and tales begin and end at the same place and setting? Detective fiction is built on the importance of small early details turning into clues to be resolved later. Anton Chekov went so far as to call it a rule:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

As a reader, we’d say that the presence of the gun prefigures its later use. These references are what semioticians might call horizontal.

But the books we read are littered with what the same semioticians might describe as vertical references: references to other preceding texts. Every reference to any pastoral idyll echoes a range of poetry dating back to the Garden of Eden. Learned scholars might say something like

Intertextuality refers to far more than the ‘influences’ of writers on each other. For structuralists, language has powers which not only exceed individual control but also determine subjectivity.

This intertextuality stuff, to those of us who are just readers is, to my mind, anything that reminds us of any other text or style of writing. At its most superficial, it’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle or an in-joke; at its most abstruse, it can inhibit understanding. T. S. Eliot can fall within both these at the same time!

The most obvious example of intertextuality would be a quotation deliberately inserted by the writer. Susan Hill does this at the end of her opening chapter: Kipps recalls but cannot identify the lines

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

The quotation is from Hamlet and brings to mind the tortuous family relations within Denmark and the rottenness that ensues. It therefore deepens and prefigures the equally tortuous relations within the Drablow family, especially those between mother and child.

The fact of the quotation, however, itself recalls the quotation from Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Marinerthat Dr Frankenstein is put in mind of after his creature rises:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

As Kipps’ quote introduces key themes, so does Frankenstein’s. And the use of quotations by both characters highlights parallels between them: they are both rational beings catapulted into a world that is not susceptible to legal or scientific scrutiny.

This is not the only parallel with Frankenstein: the opening chapter consists of a ghost story competition, reminiscent of the creation story of Mary Shelley’s invention of Frankenstein; the tales of

“uninhibited castles and of ivy-clad monastery ruins by moonlight, of locked inner rooms and secret dungeons, dank charnel houses and overgrown graveyards”

recounts almost every Gothic trope and cliche including the charnel houses in which Viktor Frankenstein found his “materials”. Even the very framing narrative of older Kipps recalls both the framing narratives of Captain Walton in Frankenstein and of Lockwood in Wuthering Heights.

The entirety of the chapter A Journey North appears to me to be an homage to Dracula: Kipps and Harker are both solicitors clerks heading out of London and into increasingly uncivilised and dangerous terrains, albeit one heading north and the other east; both travel by train (and the train and it’s timetables become so important to Dracula); the carriages, which were originally “as cosy and enclosed as some lamplight study” that becomes nothing more than a “cold tomb of a railway carriage”, recalling the coffins in which Dracula travels.

The In The Nursery chapter introduces the reader to the rhythmic “Bump bump. Bump bump. Bump bump” which is later revealed to be the rocking chair. But the rhythm clearly echoes that of the Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe. Even the title of the chapter Whistle And I’ll Come To You apes the title if M R James’ Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad. The graveyard and monastery around Eel Marsh House cause a wry dismissal of Romantic poetry whilst the house itself reminds Kipps and the reader of “the house of poor Miss Havisham” from Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Brontë, Shelley, Stoker, Dickens, Shakespeare, James, Poe. As well as John Clare and Walter Scott and Victorian novels and Romantic poetry in general. Epistolary narratives embedded in a first person narrative embedded within a framing narrative.

The book – the text – is as haunted by these writers as Kipps is himself! And is that not the point – or at least a point? That there is no such thing as a present without a history behind it? No such thing as a now devoid of then? Nothing original in the world, only old patterns re-worked? This is what those aforementioned semioticians might cite to challenge the entire concept of authorship: is this in any sense Hill’s story more than Shelley’s or Dickens’?

Kipps himself falls into the authorial fallacy: his belief that discovering Jennet Drablow’s story will somehow appease her ghost, “solve” her story as if it were some rational puzzle to demystify and control is shown in the horrific final chapter to be tragically wrong. And it’s a mistake he repeats as he attempts to tame her again in re-telling the tale to us! The stage version of the book delves further into this fallacy: the attempt to rationalise Jennet Drablow out of existence actually summons her into the theatre itself, unleashing her on the director and the audience.

I’ve enjoyed various Susan Hill novels: The Woman in Black and The Little Stranger in particular and so it was that I was looking forward to picking up on the Simon Serrailler crime series which I hadn’t come across before. In honesty, I picked up A Question of Identity first which is the seventh in the series first and then – before starting that one – picked up Various Haunts Of Men to see where the series started.

This is a delightfully and unashamedly British crime novel. It’s not even set in London but in the leafy Cathedral town of Lafferton to which our main protagonist, Freya Graffham, has retreated after escaping a difficult marriage.

The town of Lafferton is familiar and comforting but I was expecting and hoping for something more from it somehow. More character; more presence; more atmosphere. The Hill and its brooding Wern Stones and its various dog walkers, joggers and cyclists was lovely: knowing how ritualised such people are with a strange balance between icy aloofness and civil courtesy, Hill created these encounters effectively. I, personally, would have liked the cathedral itself to have had a more prominent role, looming over or protecting the city. We visit it occasionally and glimpse it through windows but I’d have liked to have felt it.

There are some elements that jar a little too. The neighbouring village of Starly, in which had bloomed a New Age community of acupuncturists and psychic healers, hypnotherapists and a psychic surgeon did not strike me as a realistic community and the alternative therapies sub-plot was not resolved. In fact some very significant issues – and the concurrent efforts put into both the writing and reading – were left just hanging. Completely. Perhaps Hill – who I know is a very competent and careful writer, a narrative craftswoman – has left these threads to be picked up in the subsequent book or books. But, judging this as a standalone novel, I felt just a little cheated. Other themes were similarly touched upon, I suspect, to be revisited later: the relationship between Simon Serrailler’s parents; the absent third triplet; his relationship with women.

In terms of plot, the novel revolves around the disappearance of a number of women (and a man and a dog). It’s not until halfway through that these disappearances are even confirmed as anything suspicious and the novel does span a period of perhaps six months.

It was a pleasant change that Hill eschewed the current vogue of hyper-violent death and torture described in intimate and graphic detail. Even when death does occur, Hill is discrete and the violence is minimal and implicit.

It is true that the killer is fairly easy to predict here. From about half way through. But I don’t think that was the point of the novel: it is that very British thing, a character-driven novel. Simon Serrailler, the eponymous character of the series, is only really seen through the prism of other people’s eyes: Graffham’s or his sister, Cat Deerbon’s. He therefore remained distant and enigmatic and we only really heard his voice a couple of times in the final pages. He was charming without being a charmer; he broke hearts but was no womaniser; he was cool and controlled but still passionate and inspired passion in others.

This was not a breath taking book but it was a good read and a solid introduction to an intriguing set of characters. There are obvious parallels with Morse or Midsomer Murders but Lafferton and it’s collection of sympathetic and eccentric and enigmatic characters are distinctive.

Will I continue the series?

There’s certainly enough there to intrigue me enough to keep going!

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