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The-Plague-Charmer

As the image above shows, this book is another historical fiction novel by the author of Company of Liars, which I read and enjoyed a while ago. It wasn’t a great book but it was an enjoyable enough read, earning a decent four star review here. I was expecting something similarly entertaining and comfortable reading. Nothing too challenging.

And that is what this book offers.

Unlike Liars, which roams across England, The Plague Charmer takes place in a single village of Porlock Weir in Exmoor and the overseeing castle of Porlock Manor in 1361. A village and manor under threat from the onset of the plague and the change in focus to that isolated, tethered, claustrophobic atmosphere was an effective change. The horror of Sara and her family, locked up in their cottage to see whether any had contracted the plague – a genuinely horrific and, I am sure, historically accurate account – was a microcosm of the whole country.

Unfortunately, unlike Liars, it eschews the single narrative voice in favour of leaping – sometimes wildly and unpredictably – between a range of different narrators, sometimes only touching on one narrator for a couple of pages before launching into a  different point of view. We see multiple narrators: Sara, the wife whose family are ravaged by the plague and who watches her husband die and her sons flee; Luke, her son; Will, the dwarf cast out from the Manor and an outcast from the village – a character who owes a debt to George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister; Matilda, the devout, pious hypocrite; Lady Pavia, a dowager widow fleeing the plague in the Manor; Lady Christina, a disgraced young bride with a son born – somewhat inconveniently – less than nine months after her marriage. The novel, similarly, bounces between different ideas: the historical horrors of the plague; the supernatural threat of Janiveer, the mysterious woman who was rescued from the sea on the day of the eclipse in the opening chapters; the threat of religious extremism and cult.

Altogether, I was underwhelmed by the novel. None of the characters were particularly likeable and the writing was neither crafted nor subtle. Maitland never gives the reader time to settle into the voice of one character before changing again and again; and whole tracts of the novel – Luke and Hob’s story for example – were simply rather tedious and dull and not compensated for by the more tightly written final section.

Maitland does seem very historically convincing in the small details – the idea behind the character Will, the artificial dwarf, is an abhorrent concept, the comprachicos of Victor Hugo’ The Man Who Laughs – but was far less successful in this book than in the earlier Liars.

 

It being March, the CILIP Carnegie Medal Shortlist has been announced and I’m embarking on the ritual of trying to read them.

This year, the list is:

For various reasons – Ofsted, toddler, family visits – I’ve not been able to add reviews recently and am about to try to catch-up. Once again.

As an aide memoir to myself, to you – and a short cut to adding photos later, the books I’m yet to review are:

Autumn by Ali Smith: gorgeous, transformational, not (as advertised) a post-Brexit novel.

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The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden: a dark and wintry Russian fairytale mythic novel.

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Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett, a re-read of my favourite and first Pratchett.

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The Boy In the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen, a young adult apocalyptic novel.

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We Are All Made Of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen: a young adult family saga.

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The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland, an historical fantasy novel.

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I do enjoy Tana French. Her writing style is simultaneously lyrical and languid, full of synaethesia; and, at the same time, credible and realistic.

And this, her second novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series, is a delight!

I love the way that it follows seamlessly on the heels of In The Woods and Operation Vestal – the investigation into Katy Devlin’s death in thst debut novel – was a ghostly presence throughout. But French switched narrators from the unreliable and, for me, uncredited Rob Ryan to his erstwhile partner, Cassie Maddox. 

And a small detail dropped into In The Woods becomes a critical plot point here: Maddock had worked in Undercover before she had transferred to Murder. In this novel, she is brought back to being undercover when the corpse of a girl who looks exactly like her is discovered. It is improbable. It stretches our willingness to suspend disbelief a little – but then French’s books always have that touch of the otherworldly about them anyway. She’s not wedded to the purely credible and mundane, which sets her apart from many crime writers. And as the dead girl was using an identity – Lexie Maddison – which Cassie had invented to go undercover with, her old boss Frank Mackey was called in and, through him, Cassie was brought in to go undercover as the dead girl. It’s nice to see Mackey again: a slightly clichéd to-hell-with-the-rules detective who bulldozer his way into the investigation, just as he does in The Secret Place.

The dead are often a very visceral lyn solid ground point in a detective novel: they are static, they are probed and opened up and explored. Here, Lexie Maddison is as ephemeral as the wind and as fluid as water: we only see her once before Cassie steps into her shoes and we unravel hints of an intriguing mercurial – and probably damaged – character. Impossible to grasp or to capture, flowing through the fingers of each character who tries.

And when Cassie does pick up Lexie’s life, we are introduced to another of French’s trademarks: an impenetrably close group of friends with whom the dead girl had been living and who Cassie has to infiltrate. Just like the cliques of girls in The Secret Place, the depiction of Lexie’s friends – Abby, Rafe, Daniel and Justin – is thrilling and enticing and unreal and so tempting. Living with each other in Daniel’s inherited manorial house, distant from both the local village and other students at Trinity College, they are impossibly and intimidatingly close. 

The other vast character in the novel – perhaps the biggest and most significant character – is Whitethorn House itself. The house in which Lexie and her friends live. It breathes and moves and speaks just as much as any other character. And its fate is perhaps more tragic than those of any of the others. The house is part-commune, part-home, part-sylvan fantasy, part-fairy tale castle and part-fortress and it looms over the whole novel carrying it’s own tragic and toxic history.

And when a writer like French has a character tell us that he heard a dead girl’s voice coming from the house, I’m less likely to dismiss it than with other writers.

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Once again, a deliciously striking cover for Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, and the most recent entry into the Hogarth Shakespeare Project… and the first in the project that I’ve read.

Now, I have a confession to make before going much further: I’ve never really got Margaret Atwood. I’ve wanted to; I’ve tried to. I really have. The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Blind Assassin, The Heart Goes Last… I’ve found them all daunting and I’m not usually daunted by books. Maybe daunting isn’t the right work. I’ve just never got into them however hard I’ve tried.

But this one, I actually really loved!

A re-invention of The Tempest, Hag-Seed is set in Makeshiweg, Canada where Prospero is re-imagined as Felix, the director of a local theatre festival, usurped by the Machiavellian machinations of a deliciously corporate Tony, an act which similarly de-rails his plans for a production of The Tempest. And within that circularity is encapsulated a taste of the delightful self-referentiality of the novel: theatres and productions and prisons and revisions and re-versions of the play multiply dizzyingly. Felix seemed perpetually with one-foot in the play: even before the villainous firing, he had lost his wife and named his daughter Miranda.

And Miranda is the heart of this novel: unlike Prospero’s daughter, Felix lost his own child and conjures her up as a memory which elides into an hallucination and slips into ghostliness through the novel. Simultaneously present and absent. Desperately clung to by Felix. Student and teacher.

Despite the ridiculous over-the-top caricature which Felix can become

His Ariel, he’d decided, would be played by a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments. His Caliban would be a scabby street person – black or maybe Native – and a paraplegic as well, pushing himself around the stage on an oversized skateboard.

Atwood truly creates empathy and real pain in his oh-too-real experience of his grief as a father. At times, it feels touched by Hamlet rather than just The Tempest.

Felix slinks into a self-imposed exile following his firing and spends twelve years following the evil Tony’s rise to government and slowly plotting his revenge, a revenge which requires the Fletcher Correctional Facility to achieve via a Shakespeare Literacy Programme in which the inmates perform a Shakespeare play each year. As Tony and his cronies circulate and plan to visit Fletcher, Felix uses The Tempest as a tool with which to exact his revenge in a dark and drug-fuelled finale.

Personally, I preferred the build-up and rehearsal to the actual performance of the play and the enactment of the revenge. I loved the way that the inmates who were Felix’s cast toned down the self-indulgent theatricality of his original ideas and added rap, cynicism, kitsch and machismo to his re-invented re-invention. The actress Anne-Marie – a feisty and cool kick-ass dancer who can hold her own in the prison – becomes his Miranda; his Miranda becomes his Ariel.

At heart, the novel is an achingly painful and beautiful farewell from a father to his memories of his daughter and an ownership of grief. The final farewell genuinely brought tears to the eyes.

Other entries to the Hogarth Shakespeare Project include Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew). I look forward to picking these up and, when they’re released, Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear to come.

 

 

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Some books need more of an exercise in imagination than others. A bigger suspension of disbelief.

An unborn narrator, for example, is one such.

And not just unborn in a metaphorical sense but literally foetal.

The narrator of McEwan’s most recent book – recently serialised on Radio 4 – is a third-trimester Hamlet, set in modern London, recounting his mother’s and uncle’s attempts to usurp his father. And once you’ve created such an unconventional narrator, I suppose it makes complete sense – once your reader has abandoned that much disbelief – to make him very articulate, learned and astute. McEwan tosses in the occasional nod to Radio 4 podcasts as an explanation for the narrator’s knowledge, but – to be honest – who needs it? It’s a talking foetus; why not an articulate one?

It is a particularly intriguing notion for me at the moment. However indulgently and self-consciously artificially written, the concept of a vivid and thoughtful interiority of the foetus drives home to me: my own three-year old is smart, clever and manipulative but, for reasons so far unknown, not talking. I am, perhaps, therefore, already conditioned to see and cherish the interior life of the silent. To let the silent child speak to me in her own way.

And it is more than just a writerly frolic and unnecessarily facetious twist. It does shine a light on Hamlet’s twisted and fluid relationship with his own mother Gertrude in Shakespeare’s play – or Trudy in McEwan’s novel – and it shifts that relationship to the centre of the action, and makes her a knowing co-conspirator with the dullard Claude. And their relationship is brilliantly serpentine and mutually destructive, leaving the reader never quite sure who is taking advantage of whom.

Of course, McEwan’s Hamlet – like many of McEwan’s characters and stories and novels such as On Chesil Beach and In Between The Sheets – looks at the coarseness of sexuality in the face… quite literally in this case:

Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose. By this late stage, they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls…. Wall of Death! On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence….

Here I am, in the front stalls, awkwardly seated upside down. This is a minimal production, bleakly modern, a two-hander. The lights are full on and here comes Claude. It’s himself, not my mother, he intends to undress. He neatly folds his clothes across a chair. His nakedness is as unstartling as an accountant’s suit…. And my mother? On the bed, between the sheets, partly dressed, wholly attentive, with ready hums and sympathetic nods. Known only to me, under the bedclothes, a forefinger curls over her modest clitoral snood and rests a half-inch inside her. This finger she gently rocks as she conceded everything and offers up her soul.

Like those other novels, this coarseness is both repulsive and hilarious and poignant all at the same time. Deeply unsettling and thoroughly engaging at the same time.

The novel works on a range of levels: it is an intriguing thriller as well as an exploration of the death of love as well as a reimagining of Shakespeare.

And I enjoyed it immensely.

 

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This certainly has a distinctive and gorgeous cover on it, which has graced the window front of local bookshops for weeks!

But they do say that you shouldn’t just a book etc etc etc …

The book is narrated by Isabella, a young girl on the island of Joya, who has been brought up on her father’s stories and myths in the years following her brother and mother’s deaths. The world Hargrave creates is intriguing: there is a nineteenth century feel to the world, and perhaps a colonial setting with the almost omnipotent Governor; yet familiar names are rendered differently with passing references to Amrica, Afrik and India. References which must, perforce, be passing as the island appears to be cut off and isolated from the rest of the world; and indeed Isabella’s town of Gromera cut off and isolated from the rest of the island. This isolation makes Isabella’s father’s occupation of cartographer particularly redundant, but the idea of maps and of creating charts and of knowing our place in the world is a redolent one.

Hargraves does move the plot along at a rattling pace and I wasn’t sure that it quite worked in the first half of the book: a girl, Cata, is found dead; a curfew imposed; a public act of violence; and Isabella’s best friend, Lupe, runs into the forbidden and forgotten rest of the island to seek the killer. Isabella, inevitably, gets included in the expedition mounted to rescue her and embarks on a voyage into the interior, somewhat unnecessarily dressing as a boy to do so.

Hints are dropped that there is something dark occurring on the island: songbirds have fled it; livestock run into the sea and drown; marks beside Cata’s body are apparently huge gouges in the earth, suggesting that those responsible for her death may not be human. But these hints are dropped in and undeveloped; the world is undeveloped; the characters and their relationships felt undeveloped and I wasn’t sure whether I was truly engaged or not.

In hindsight, however, this is more of a fairy tale, myth or an allegory than a novel. And stories and myths of the family and community are told and retold throughout the novel, particularly the story of Arinta. The mythography – for wont of a better word – within it was much stronger than the characterisation or the psychology or the world building. In fact, Isabella is explicitly following in the steps of one of her father’s legends as she descends towards what may – or may not – be a fire demon at the heart of the island. And that light-touch characterisation actually helps to create the mythic and allegorical feel of the book.

The novel – or series – that I feel bears most comparison to this one is Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. In both books, the main character is thrust into a fantastical world through the discovery of an horrific death; in both books, there are monsters. But Riggs’ hollows were described and clearly depicted and lost much of their power as a result; Hargraves’ tibicenas remained clothed in shadows and smoke even after we encountered them.

Hargraves created something more by giving us less. And I feel that the books will remain with me and I’ll reflect on it for longer than Riggs’.

In short, I am not surprised by the fact that it has been longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal for 2017.

 

It’s surprising how coincidences happen sometimes.

I mean, it’s no surprise that there’s been a lot of crime and detective fiction in my reading list recently: it’s basically research! But there’s also been a lot of Shakespeare in it!

Ali Shaw’s The Trees isn’t – I don’t think – based on Shakespeare but there are resonances and echoes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream through it. The whisperers in their enigmatic and invisible presence stir memories of Puck and Robin Goodfellow, or perhaps the fairies, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mote and Mustardseed, tending on the creature on the throne as if they were an Oberon. And the trees’ own confusion of season recalled the lines

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.

And now, I’m listening to Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a modern revisiting of The Tempest for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, where Prospero has become Felix, the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival usurped by his assistant following the deaths of his wife in childbirth and then his daughter Miranda.

And alongside that, I have picked up Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, thinking from the blurb that it was more of a murder mystery – until, that is, I read the prologue and kicked myself for not recognising perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most potent quotations

“I could be bounded in a nut shell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

How could I not have recognised that?!

Here, Hamlet is indeed bounded in a nutshell: he is a (somewhat precocious) unborn foetus two weeks from birth listening to – and narrating – it requires a serious suspension of disbelief – his mother’s and uncle’s plans to murder his father. Just on a small note, what McEwan does with the names is delightful: Gertrude (a name which teenagers usually mocks) becomes quite beguiling as a Trudy; Claudius (which has classical connotation) is modernised to Claude which, phonologically, conjures up the image of a clod of earth, which fits delightfully with the scarily unimaginative and dull-witted would-be murderer.

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How can you review a book like this?

I mean, seriously?

It was just so incredibly sweet and heart-warming and just delightful and you can’t review that, just enjoy it!

The book is set in Paris and follows a few weeks in the life of Guylain Vignolles, a lover of books whose job is to operate a book-pulping machine, the dreaded Zerstor 500. The descriptions of the Zerstor as a hulking, malignant beast are wonderfully grotesque.

In itself that dynamic is deliciously poignant but the cast of characters which populate the few pages of the novel (less than 100) are a little two-dimensional, almost to the point of caricature: Yvon, the security guard who only speaks in Alexandrine rhyming couplets, whose poetic remonstrations with rude delivery drivers was wonderful; the brutal Brunner, desperate to be the one who turns the machine on; the corpulent Kowalski, overseeing the operation from his “glazed eyrie”; Giuseppe, the victim of an accident at work in which his legs had been caught in the Zerstor and lost; and, of course,  Rouget de Lisle, the goldfish. These characters are not fleshed out fully – there’s no space to do so – and they don’t quite reach the grotesque proportions of a caricature. They do give the novel a heightened feel to it.

Guylain is so horrified by the destruction which he is a part of that, every day, he rescues any pages that have survived the machine and reads them aloud on the train to work the next day. A process which might have led to his being incarcerated but which in fact endears him to the crowd of commuters with whom he shares the carriage.

One of many memorable moments is when Guylain, invited to read in an retirement home, surrounded by dozens of pensioners, launches into his reading only to discover that it is pornographic.

One day, he discovers a memory stick abandoned on the train and, when he reads it, he falls in love with the woman, Julie, who has written the words. And so begins a quest to find her.

This book was a Waterstones read of the month for May and it is wonderful.

It’s not challenging. If I’m honest, I don’t think it does “champion the power of literature” as such – sorry to the Sunday Times. But in a world fed on a diet of the brutal, the venal and the superficial, this book is a refreshing and wholesome change where respect, friendship and courtesy are – if it’s not too strong a word – championed.

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Hmm mmmmmm.

Some books I’m glad I read before reading any reviews. What would I have learned? It’s set in the Stone Age. Instantly, I’d be put off. I’d be imagining Raquel Welsh in a fur bikini – not a bad thing in itself – and all the other nonsense from one Million Years BC or Ice Age. Or Clan of the Cave Bear which I just couldn’t get into when I tried (admittedly years ago).

And Gift Of Stones is so much more than that! Beautiful and evocative. And lyrical in its careful and sparse prose.

Crace – and I’ve only read one other by him, the Man Booker nominated Harvest which I reviewed in February 2014 – seems to be drawn to the ends of eras: Harvest focused on the end of the agrarian period of English history with the Enclosure Acts; here, the focus is on the end of the Stone Age and the arrival of the Bronze Age. The devastation of a community before the sweeping tide of history.

The plot itself is remarkably economical: a boy from a village which crafts flint tools is injured and loses an arm. Being unable to work flint with one arm, he becomes restless and wanders away from the village one day, meeting a woman and her daughter on the heath. Each time he leaves the village, he returns with exotic tales of ships and seas and heaths and geese and women. On one occasion, he brings the woman and child back with him.

There’s also a wonderful symmetry to the book which opens and closes with an arrow shot by a horseman.

I also find that it’s the mark of a great book – as opposed to a good read perhaps – that I end up photographing passages and posting them on Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook. And this book has a lot of quotable material in it! And, as the main character- the father of the narrator – is a story teller, many of them are focused on the craft of storytelling itself.

I mean, we could start with this one

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Why tell the truth when lies are more amusing, when lies can make the listener shake her head and laugh – and cough – and roll her eyes? People are like stone. You strike them right, they open up like shells.

Or perhaps

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Salute the liars – they can make the real world disappear and a fresh world take its place.

Or maybe

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The paradox is this – we do love lies. The truth is dull and half asleep. But lies are nimble spirited, alive. And lying is a craft.

And if lying is a craft, Jim Crace is an experienced and wonderful master craftsman!