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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 31 January 2020

"Hyperion" by Dan Simmons

It seems to me that there are two sorts of sci fi. There is the sort typified by the novels of John Wyndham in which ordinary people battle against problems caused by a technological disruption to their otherwise normal world be it everyone going blind and triffids, or the invention of anti-ageing materials, or a village filled with alien, telepathic children. The War of the Worlds or The Invisible Man by HG Wells is this sort of sci fi. At the other end of the sci fi spectrum is the sort of story in which you are invited to admire the fertility of the author's imagination as he invents, and describes in infinitesimal detail, a different world. Fantasy novels such as Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman are also of this genre. The danger is that while the author is busy 'world-building' the characters are ignored.

The Hegemony is a federation of worlds colonised by humans; they have an ominpresent internet, starships, and the ability to teleport between Hegemony worlds using 'farcasting'. The technology is supported by the AI core, androids who were Hegemony slaves until they seceded several centuries ago and now provide independent services. The Ousters are relatively technologically backward but fearsome warriors who have been involved in the genocidal destruction of Hegemony worlds. Furthermore, some human-colonised worlds seek to stay independent of the Hegemony, despite the advantages offered (mostly of commercial exploitation).

Hyperion is structured after Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. A group of seven pilgrims (and a baby) travel to the planet of Hyperion to visit the Time Tombs from which a monster called the Shrike has been unleahed who, like Grendel's Dam on Beowulf, is terrorising the human colonists. The group, who include a Consul, a priest, a soldier, a female private detective, a poet, a scholar and a Templar, as representatives and stereotypes, each have to tell a tale on the journey; each of these tales explains the connection between the pilgrim and Hyperion and provide the motive for the pilgrim to undertake a pilgrimage from which, notoriously, no one returns (especially in a time like the present when the Ouster are fighting the Hegemony for control of the planet). The background to the tales is the journey to the Time Tombs but the bulk of the story is the six (one pilgrim disappears before telling his tale) stories. Thus the novel as a whole is unresolved and it becomes more like a collection of six novellas. I suppose I will have to read the sequel to discover what happens.

I have to acknowledge that the imagination of the author is stunning. He is not just describing a world but a universe. The various different modes of transport (starships, treeships, farcasting, ships that work by wind, cable cars, trams, dirigibles, skimships) compete with the different religions and differing societal structures and the variety of geological and metereolgical conditions found on different plants, and the ways in which different branches of the human race remember Old World before the Big Mistake.

The author's descriptive powers are immense:

  • An ancient, flat bottom tow with five barges lashed around it like ragged children clinging to their tired mother’ skirts.” (C1; The Priest’s Tale)
  • The Shrike Church’s central temple was part awe-inspiring cathedral, part Gothic joke with its fluid,buttressed curves of stone permabonded to its whiskered-alloy skeleton, part Escher print with its tricks of perspective and impossible angles, part Boschian nightmare with its tunnel entrances, hidden chambers, dark gardens, and forbidden sections.” (C2)

The description of the Shrike’s multibladed interruption into the soldier’s sexual congress with his fantasy lover Moneta, complete with “metal teeth click shut in a steel vagina, missing his glans by a moist millimeter” (C 2; The Soldier’s Tale) echoes the sexual violence of Naked Lunch by William Burroughs.

He can be funny, sometimes bitingly so:
  • “Del appeared to be thinking, wrestling with the concept. He was overmatched.” (C1; The Priest’s Tale)
  • Firing squads had been busy day and night settling ancient theological disputes.” (C 2; The Soldier’s Tale) 
  • I also liked the cybergeek's description of the non-virtual world as “slow time

Sometimes he is insightful:
  • I felt bad about not getting to know young Hoyt better. He seems a decent sort, all proper catechism and bright eyes. It's no fault of youngsters like him that the Church is in its final days. It's just that his brand of happy naivete can do nothing to arrest that slide into oblivion which the Church seems destined for.” (C1; The Priest’s Tale)
  • No book is ever finished, merely abandoned.” (C3; The Poet’s Tale)
  • In twentieth-century Old Earth, a fast food chain took dead cow meat, fried it in grease, added carcinogens, wrapped it in petroleum-based foam, and sold nine hundred billion units. Human beings. Go figure.” (C3; The Poet’s Tale)
  • The unthinking hubris of a race which dared to murder its homeworld through sheer arrogance.” (C3; The Poet’s Tale)
  • Anticlimax is, of course, the warp and way of things. Real life seldom structures a decent denouement.” (C3; The Poet’s Tale)
  • A man whose idea of epic adventure is speaking to a class without his notes.” (C 4)
  • When you’ve spent thirty years entering rooms filled with strangers you feel less pressure than when you've had only half that number of years of experience. You know what the room and the people in it probably hold for you and you go looking for it. If it's not there, you sense it earlier and leave to go about your business.” (C 6; The Consul’s Tale)
  • Barbarians, we call them, while all the while we cling to our Web like Visigoths crouching in the ruins of Rome's faded glory and proclaim ourselves civilized.” (C6; The Consul’s Tale)

But.“In the end, my friends, it is character which wins or loses immortality upon the vellum.” (C3; The Poet’s Tale) Perhaps I might read the sequel just to see what happens in the second half of this unfinished adventure. But I don't really care whether any of the characters, except perhaps the unspeaking baby, survives. And I ought to care.

January 2020; 473 pages

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

"One False Move" by Robert Goddard

Joe is a genius, capable of beating the best computer at the game of Go. As such he is in demand: by the gaming company who want to develop even better games, by the Secret Services who want to improve their spying techniques, and by the money-laundering he already works for. Double cross and double double cross abound as the worlds of high commerce, criminality and espionage collide in this latest Goddard thriller.

Goddard's hallmark is delving into historical mysteries whose repercussions ripple into the present with deadly effects but at least one of the historical roots (the death of Joe's father) is an orphaned trail. The world of Go is a bit of a mystery, too.

Fast paced: I read it in under two days.

Some great moments:

  • "The labyrinth without the thread."
  • "Doesn't digging just get you in a hole?"
  • "A few days? That's our permanently rolling horizon now."

Goddard books reviewed in this blog include:

January 2020; 370 pages

Monday, 27 January 2020

"The Road Home" by Rose Tremain

There are some books that you read and think, oh yes, good book. And you put them on the shelves or give them away. And then months later you are still recalling moments from the book and thinking: yes. This is that sort of book. I'm not sure I was that impressed when I first read it but, when I look back, I am impressed.

Lev, from Eastern Europe, travels to Britain in hope of employment. He experiences homelessness, a mugging, unemployment, exploitation, but also kindness and generosity. He works delivering leaflets, washing up and preparing vegetables in a restaurant, and asparagus picking in Suffolk. He misses his dead wife and the daughter he had to leave at home, he falls in love and is betrayed, he gets a promotion and the sack, and he encounters classical music and modern theatre in equally horrendous experiences.

Tremain is on the top of her form. The characters are perfect and the shambling 'two steps forward, one step back' progress of Lev is a masterpiece of plotting. It seems that his life is a muddle but Tremain juxtaposes triumph and disaster perfectly to keep the story moving. Anne Tyler's A Patchwork Planet put triumph and disaster in adjacent sentences; Tremain doesn't quite achieve this extreme but the disaster at the end of chapter 17 becomes hope within ten pages of chapter 18.

The characters each play an important part in this rags to riches story. The mythic Rudi, left at home, is a siren call of the unquenched spirit; Sophie is a siren of another kind, using sex to lure Lev onto a rock on which he is very nearly wrecked; Lydia, the coach companion, whose own odyssey is equally difficult as Lev's, can be relied upon to provide great advice; Christy, the drunken Irish landlord, is the man whom Lev redeems. This novel has been carefully constructed and yet each character has utterly real strengths and weaknesses which make them genuinely three-dimensional. Every story that Tremain tells in this book is told with honesty and empathy.

This book includes many great moments. Here are a few:

  • "His mother appeared ghostly, as though, in the race through life, she was an entrant nobody had seen and who crept in last, always last, with worry in her eyes." (C 3)
  • "Twenty-first-century man is a dog, he thought, a vile, raunchy dog, with its teeth bared and its cock purple and hard and strands of stinking drool falling from its greedy mouth." (C 4)
  • "Christmas. Lev saw how it advertised itself on every street and seemed to preoccupy every mind. He saw its daze and worry everywhere in people's eyes ... a coming ordeal - an armada of sufferings." (C 9)
  • "love-making like theirs was a war - with two winning sides." (C 12)
  • "a bureaucracy in which lying was still the chosen means of communication." (C 12)
  • "this was not mere innocent chatter that thrummed and trilled round him, carelessly thrown out; it was a studiously composed symphony of talk, a performance of conversation, which presupposed some silent, admiring audience, mute in the shadows." (C 14)
  • "Your menu for Wednesday. Wickedly lovely free-range chicken breasts ... Chef's fantastic fish gratin with zero bones and non-crap crumb ... Creme brulee jacked by Chef from a recipe at GK Ashe." (C 22)

January 2020; 365 pages

Books by Tremain reviewed in this blog include:

Sunday, 26 January 2020

"A Patchwork Planet" by Anne Tyler

Barnaby is the bad boy of the family. He had a criminal past and a failed marriage, he lives in a basement, and he works as an odd job man. He regularly has impulses to be rude, or inappropriate, or to pry into other people's private lives. Turning thirty, he thinks he is aimless and drifting, neither good nor successful. But he knows that he is a man who can be trusted and others see him as very caring and compassionate.

This novel rambles through a year in Barnaby's life. He muddles through his relationship with his daughter, living with her mother and step-father, and he muddles through a new and deepening relationship with Sophia, and he doesn't see that co-worker Martine has fallen for him.

The book has little plot as such. We see how Barnaby copes when he is accused of stealing from one of his clients. He tries hard to save money to repay his mother the debt she is always moaning about. He sells his car and buys, with Martine, a half share in a truck. He is unfaithful to his girlfriend. This is real life in all its mess and tangling. It is summarised when Barnaby sees the patchwork quilt that one of his elderly clients has finally finished: "Planet Earth ... was makeshift and haphazard, clumsily cobbled together, overlapping and crowded and likely to fall to pieces at any moment ... it was sort of pretty, in an offbeat, unexpected way." (C 14)

But if it doesn't have a plot that doesn't mean that it is not gripping. The book opens with Barnaby trailing Sophia on the train from Baltimore to Philadelphia carrying a sealed packet that she has been n by a stranger with a hard luck tale. The half way point is marked by triumph, as Barnaby realises he loves Sophia, and instantly (the very next sentence) Barnaby is accused of theft. He has a really bad Monday, down in the dumps, ending with a sexual mistake, and this is immediately followed by the most life-affirming Tuesday. It is fast-paced and gripping and oh so real.

"Finally, you're just with who you're with. You've signed on with her, put in half a century with her, grown to know her as well as you know yourself or even better, and she's become the right person. Or the only person, might be more to the point." (C 11)

Other great moments:

  • "The symphony on the stereo was building louder and louder, ending and ending forever. It reminded me of some huge, frantic animal crashing around the bars of its cage." (C 4)
  • "The girls I hung out with in those days were more body mates than soul mates." (C 4)
  • "My angel seemed to be more of the nagging kind." (C 4)
  • "You can't get much more predictable than a children's ballet recital." (C 6)
  • "Wish I could rearrange my life so I'd never have to deal anymore with another human being." (C 6)
  • "Isn't it ridiculous ... how even in the face of death it still matters that the price of oranges has gone up" (C 7)
  • "Learned to read so young, he used to check in the child development books to see how he ought to be acting." (C 7)
  • "I barely grunted when she made some comment on the scenery. ... It seemed I was my difficult, unappreciative self again. For all the good it did, I might as well not have bothered with my epiphany in the park." (C 11)
  • "I remember reflecting on the bizarreness of jail as a punishment - like sending someone to his room, really." (C 13)

This is a portrait of life written with warmth and wonder. It has empathy and sympathy and it resonates with all those who discover that the easiest way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans. This is the triumph of flawed humanity, an everyman masterpiece. Brilliant!

January 2020; 288 pages

Other great Anne Tyler books reviewed in this blog:

Saturday, 25 January 2020

"The Pleasures of Eliza Lynch" by Anne Enright

This novel is based on the real biography of Eliza Lynch, an Irish-born Parisian courtesan who became the mistress of the heir to the dictatorship of Paraguay.

The book's prose is as verdant and multilayered as a rain forest; it has the same sense of death and decay overwhelming burgeoning life.

There is a prologue and an epilogue but the bulk of the book is written in four parts. In each of these the first half involves Eliza narrating a portion of her riverboat trip into Paraguay and the second half involves a Scottish doctor who accompanied her narrating the events of her sixteen year 'rule' in Paraguay as consort of the dictator.

I felt the pace flagged a little in the second half of the book.

Inevitably it is compared with Marquez because of the South American connection. Also, GGM specialises in great starts (eg in Chronicle of a Death Foretold) and Enright has a memorable first line: "Francisco Solano Lopez put his penis inside Eliza Lynch on a lovely spring day in Paris, in 1854." There's a hook.

Although all the chapters in the main part of the book are named after a foodstuff, one of the repeated themes is the idea that stories, biographies and lives have threads that are woven with other peopls' stories, biographies and lives. For instance:

  • "They were the kind of people who attracted stories - not to mention bias, rumours, lies, rage: the whole tangle pulled into a knot by time, made Gordian by history." (A Fish)
  • "Every time the threads of their lives crossed, they snarled into a knot." (Part Two: Truffles)
  • "The picture of the Fates was, he thought, quite just - their big shears cutting the threads of a man's life - because what the world feels like when a man dies, even at a distance, is an unravelling." (Part Two: Truffles)

Other great moments:

  • "He seems such an unbending, abstemious little man, but I sense the longing in him to give in and live as other people might." (Part One: A Melon)
  • "I say there is no point in being rich if you do not know what money is. ... He says that if you know what money is, then you are not rich." (Part One: A Melon)
  • "Asuncion ... is made, as every other town is made, of casual encounters and minor conspiracies; of friendliness to strangers and small, ancient irritations between friends.  ... it is made, as every other town is made, out of talk." (Part One: A Melon)
  • "Railway lines snaked out into the countryside, the rails slapped down one after the other; gathering speed, like a woman who knits faster to finish before she runs out of wool." (Part One, Asparagus)
  • "The hat brims, he says, are all that is left of Francia, the first Dictator, who required the entire country to wear hats so they could be doffed when he passed. Over the years, the hats fell apart, but the brims remain. It is a way of telling the people they are governed." (Part Three: Champagne)
  • "Everyone in Voltaire has a buttock lopped off and it is always the one on the left. At least the women do. Not one of them left double by the end." (Part Three: Champagne)

January 2020; 230 pages

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

"Georgy Girl" by Margaret Forster

This little known book became more famous as a film (starring Lynn Redgrave as Georgy and Alan Bates as Jos with James Mason as Mr James and the gorgeous Charlotte Rampling as Meredith) and even more famous as a song by the Seekers.

It is sSet in the early to mid 1960s: the Beatles are mentioned but abortion still seems illegal. Georgy is abig girl who thinbks herself ugly; at 28 she has never had a boyfriend while her flatmate, manipulative Meredith has many, the latest being Jos. Mr James, who employs Georgy's parents as valet and cook and who, being childless, has put Georgy through boarding school, seemss to be the only person to truly appreciate the inner Georgy: he offers her a contract as his mistress (six months, then one months notice). At the same time Meredith tells Jos that she is pregnant and Jos marries her to stop her having an abortion (though Meredith reveals she has already 'destroyed' two previous pregnancies by Jos. At this point Jos and Georgy start having sex. Then Meredith has the baby.

An interesting variation on the love triangle, with an original if slightly predictable conclusion.

The style is very typical of its time; both it and the social milieu described seem to belong more to the 1950s than the 1960s. The prose is fascinatingly staccato. In terms of plot, the turning points (Jos and Georgy having love and Meredith having the baby followed by the first row between Jos and Georgy) are bunched up between the 44% and 48% mark, just before half way. The final act begins at about the 70% mark.

Creative writers are told to beware of 'headhopping': jumping from one person's point of view to another's but Forster moves from character to character with abandon (as does Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway when the stream of consciousness is passed from character to character with the aplomb of a tag team wrestler).

Some great moments:

  • "If he and Meredith went for a meal, it was to stoke themselves up before bed; if they went to a club of some kind and danced, it was a limbering up process before the real business of the evening began. Even a picture would be carefully chosen to act as an aphrodisiac. Without the end product, none of these pastimes was attractive." (C 2)
  • "There is no point at all in us getting married when I know nothing about you except things I don't like." (C 2)
  • "His whole life had been dedicated to a mere man and not someone unique." (C 3)
  • "You don't go around in this life showing your feelings. It does no bloody good at all. You pretend even to yourself and then you feel better." (C 3)
  • "The flesh around it hung in slack folds like a sail from which the wind has suddenly been taken away." (C 4)
  • "It just wasn't true  that to have and to lose, or give up, was worse than never having at all." (C 8)

An interesting read. January 2020; 170 pages

Sunday, 19 January 2020

"The Prince who would be King" by Sarah Fraser

This is the biography of Prince Henry (1594 - 1612), eldest son of King James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland) who died as Crown Prince and Prince of Wales at the age of 17 before fulfilling any of the promise he showed (though "he could be bumptious and immature at times"; C 20). His death led to the succession of his younger brother Charles as King Charles I.

As with many biographies, it is of most interest because of the other people who were around at the time. Prince Henry's coterie included:

  • Thomas Coryat: a traveller and travel writer who introduced the fork to England and the word umbrella; he died in India and is memorialised by Robin Lloyd-Jones in the unjustly forgotten novel Lord of the Dance), 
  • Sir Thomas Chaloner: who was friends with alchemist and magician John Dee and discovered alum on his Yorkshire estate and exploited it
  • Thomas Harriot, Henry's tutor, who as scientist and mathematician advanced navigation, created a phonetic alphabet for the Algonquin tribes he encountered in North Carolina while visiting Sir Walter Raleigh's ill-fated Roanoke colony , discovered Snell's Law before Snell, developed algebraic symbols, and used a telescope to observe sunspots
  • George Chapman who dedicated his translation of the Iliad to Prince Henry
  • Cornelius Drebbel who later went on to test the world's first submarine in the Thames
  • Ben Jonson who wrote a number of masques for Henry and also wrote plays such as the Catiline which criticised the "giants of the earth" who "asset-strip the whole earth for their personal gain" (C 24)

Memorable moments:

  • Quoting James I & VI: "The highest bench is the sliddriest to sit upon" (C 4)
  • "Extreme Calvinism and the idea of a contractual, not absolute, monarchy often went hand in hand." (C 5)
  • "Tacitus ... concluded that men in positions of power must exercise Stoical self-control ... [but] what Stoics thought of as their own moral constancy might lead to a high-minded fanaticism and an even worse tyranny" (C 16)
  • "How could the people enjoy their liberties when they were left too poor to act?" (C 24)
  • "Yearning to soar above the grey compromises necessary to everyday life, he was a glory-hunting young man. He risked developing the affliction of visionaries and heroes, who can become inhuman in the pursuit of their vision." (C 29)

This was a well-written history whose short chapters kept the pace up. It cast light upon an era about which I was unfamiliar but which is just as interesting as any other time and deserves my further study.

January 2020; 266 pages

Friday, 17 January 2020

"My name is Lucy Barton" by Elizabeth Strout

This starts with a simple story about a woman in a hospital bed in New York whose mother comes to see her. They talk about the people they have known. The narrator grew up in tremendous poverty; at first the family lived in a garage.

At some point the narrator becomes a writer and, in an early writing class, she shows the beginnings of this story to her writing teacher who says (almost exactly at the half way mark, as if this is the perfect fulcrum around which the tale is to be told): "This is a story of a man [the narrator's father] who has been tortured every day of his life for the things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter's hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone's marriage going bad, she doesn't even know it, doesn't even know that's what she's doing. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly."

The writing teacher encourages the narrator to be honest. But this is problematic because this is also a story about abuse. But the abuse is never detailed. We get the feeling that there might have been something that happened in the first half of the book but these are only vague suspicions. At the half way mark the writing teacher confirms these. But then the narrator dodges the bullet. We know about her husband dressing up in female clothing and parading through their village; this is a family secret she has told only to her husband. Is this, and the subsequent bullying of the brother, the abuse? But later, when her mother tells her about a man who had a breakdown and then walked around the house masturbating, the narrator says: "I had never before heard ...of this Thing - as I called it to myself - happening as it had happened in our home." Two pages later she talks of "the disgust I had had for him [her father] most of my life" and when her father dies her response is "Daddy, stop it! Stop it, Daddy!" But the clearest indication that something happened is one night when she is with her mother in the hospital and her mother touches her foot through the sheet: "I squeezed my eyes shut - Don't you fucking cry you little idiot - and I squeezed my leg so hard I almost could not believe how much it hurt. Then it was over." This sounds like a relived experience of abuse and the next morning the doctor notices the mark on her leg but doesn't say anything. The trouble is that these clues really don't tell us very much about the abuse she suffered and who inflicted it upon her. So I'm not sure how much the writing teacher's advice about honesty was heeded.

The book is unusual in the extent to which it talks directly to the reader and the way it rambles, reminding me a little of The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford.

Great moments:
  • "I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived" which is to some extend how she meets her writing teacher so this seems to be a metaphor for writing helping us to cope with the darkness. 
  • "In spite of my plenitude, I was lonely. Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me."
  • "It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it's the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down."
  • "It has been my experience throughout life that the people who have been given the most by our government - education, food, rent subsidies - are the ones who are most apt to find fault with the whole idea of government.
  • "The women only took little steps while the men danced with much commotion."

Books by Elizabeth Strout reviewed in this blog include:

January 2020; 191 pages

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

"Dragons of Autumn Twilight" by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

This is the first of the DragonLance Chronicles. It is a fantasy novel in which a group of companions gather at an inn and then travel on a quest, first to protect a magical stick, then to acquire some disks, and finally to defeat a dragonlord in his fortress. 

So far, so Tolkien. We have the full cast here. The companions include a half-elf, a dwarf, a Knight, and a mage. And a kender, who is the classic thief from the Dungeons and Dragons games. Their early adventures invole a forest where the dead walk, unicorns, centaurs and flying horses. And dragonmen who turn to stone and then dust when stabbed, and evil hobgoblins and a giant slug.

My favourite characters were the dwarf, who was grumpy, a delightful and forgetful mage who repeatedly accused trees of attacking him, and the kender who couldn't help helping himself to the possessions of others and was the epitome of an ADHD child. The other characters were cliches, fulfilling stereotypical roles.

In the second half of the book other characters seemed to be added according to the needs of the plot. When love interest flags, add a barmaid and a long-lost lover. When you need a traitor add two characters so we aren't sure which it will be.

There was a cataclysmic scene when all seemed hopeless but by then I was past caring.

The best thing about it was that there were sometimes flashes of humour.

  • "If every man wearing red robes  was a magician, this country'd be overrun with rabbits." (B2 C2)

Other good moments:

  • "Why is it ... that you are called half-elf and not half-man?" (B1 C7)
  • "Our lives are measured not by gain but by giving." (B1 C11)
  • "The silver moon and the red cast twin shadows that made things seen from the corner of the eye unreal and distorted." (B1 C16)
  • "It was a good plan ... and probably worth about as much as smoke on the wind." (B1 C17)
  • "Well, I'll be an ogre's hind end." (B1 C17) It amused me that the dwarf's curse should be so prissy.
  • "It's too dark a night to walk with your eyes closed." (B2 C7)

January 2020; 369 pages

Monday, 6 January 2020

"The Family Way" by Tony Parsons

A book about women and babies by a man is a little unusual.

Cat looked after her sisters. Jessica and Megan, from the age of 12 when her mother left for another man and her soap actor father was simply never around much. Now they are all grown up. Jessica, who had an abortion when she was sixteen, is a housewife trying desperately and somewhat grimly with car-salesman husband Paulo to have a baby. Meanwhile the youngest, Megan, is a trainee GP who gets pregnant after a one-night stand with Australian dive-instructor Kirk. Cat has a relationship with older divorced karate instructor Rory who can't have any more children after having a vasectomy shortly before his wife got pregnant by another man and left him.

From this set up the story evolves. Will IVF deliver for Paulo and Jessica? How will Megan balance work and childcare as a single mother ... or will Kirk return to her? Will Cat decide to have children and, if she does, can she persuade Rory to go through fatherhood all over again?

A book that is rooted in reality.

But there is a lot of story to get through. Each baby takes nine months (if all goes well) to hatch. It was also contrived (and it felt a little contrived) so that we could explore the full range of possibilities. Thus, Paulo's brother Michael who already has a wife and baby feels excluded from the mother-daughter relationship and so begins an affair with receptionist Ginger. Someone has to have a miscarriage. One baby is born prematurely. Adoption and abortion are explored. Men are unreliable for every possible reason. We have to discover the realities of doctoring to the underclass, multiple sclerosis and the life of an actor. This is a broad canvas and as a result Parsons often has to tell rather than show; sweeping brushstrokes are needed. He is telling a story and so his characters sometimes feel like puppets of the plot. It was breadth and I wanted a little more depth. In this respect it reminded me a little of Victoria Hislop's The Thread.

But it was well told and I turned the pages over quickly.

Some great moments:

  • "Nobody sets out to be a single parent." (C 1)
  • "Family life meant nothing in the fridge, a mother gone, Jessica crying and baby Megan squawking for 'bis-quits, bis-quits'. Family life was their father away working, the au pair shagging some new boy out in the potting shed and not a bloody bis-quit in the house." (C 1)
  • "She used to drive him crazy. Now he acted as though sex was an exam he hadn't prepared for." (C 1)
  • "The terrible knowledge that she had been born to give birth in her turn, and that she might never fulfil that destiny." (C 4)
  • "They were already lost in the banal materialism of their TV show. Big cars, white mansions, bikini-clad babes by the pool. At least we dreamed of freedom, Cat thought. When did the dreams of children become the same as the dreams of middle-aged men?" (C 6)
  • "This was the womaniser's  bitterly ironic fate - to be the father of an adored, beautiful baby girl." (C 15)
  • "Nothing puts you in touch with your mortality like having a kid. The future belongs to her, not you." (C 18)
Plot structure: beware of spoilers:

  • 25%: Megan goes for an abortion but decides against it.
  • 50%: Jessica and Paulo buy a big new house and give up on trying to have a baby; Kirk meets Megan again
  • 75%: Cat, new pregnant, leaves her job; Megan and Kirk decide to go abroad; Jessica and Paulo visit an orphanage in China
  • 90%: Paulo loses his business; Cat reconnects with Rory; Megan leaves Kirk to return to London

January 2020; 359 pages

Parsons also wrote Stories We Could Tell, a tale of three young male rock and roll journalists and their entwined adventures on the night that Elvis died: I enjoyed this rather more perhaps because the of tightness of narrative required by setting the whole story on a single night.

Friday, 3 January 2020

"Cityboy" by Geraint Anderson

Perhaps a memoir, perhaps a roman a clef, Cityboy recounts the progress of a young man who started working for a bank in the City of London in 1996, became arrogant, hedonistic and wealthy, fuelling his success with a cocaine addiction and enormous amounts of alcohol, while understanding that he was nothing more than a gambler in a casino whose stake was supplied by others. It is a classic Faustian tale (it starts: “Everybody sells their soul to the devil ... I just decided that I'd get a damn good price for mine.” C 1) except that the narrator manages to escape the hell into which he has fallen. 

He is scathing about his (now former) profession. He and his colleagues lie and cheat and break almost all of the rules; he suggests that it is the system which both allows and encourages arrogance and recklessness and the easing of regulations has led directly to the market crashes. He concludes:
  • Money as the one true God and the Gospel according to Adam Smith became the only one that anyone now listens to.” (C 5)
  • Capitalist economies can only survive if they grow and that requires people to be dissatisfied because only people desperate for material betterment will buy that flashier car or that smarter jacket ... The trick is to make people as unhappy about themselves as possible so that they strive to spend the cash in the false hope that it will make me happy and sexy.” (C 5)
  • Our masters have successfully employed clever propaganda to feed our pathetic obsession with celebrities and so distract us from unjustifiable wars and hideous unfairness of our socio-economic system.” (C 5)
  • We live in a superficial bling bling society that is neither happy nor peaceful.” (C 5)
Yet, throughout, even while describing in remorseless detail his drug habit, his exploitation of friends and women, and his appalling lack of any sort of professional standards, one still roots for him. He is a lad and his misdemeanours are told to the accompaniment of laddish (sometimes nakedly sexist, if one is allowed that adverb in that context) laddish banter:
  • Stress will kill you quicker than a rabbit gets fucked.” (C 1)
  • To say I made a tit of myself would be to insult mammary glands across this planet.” (C 1)
  • Body from Baywatch but face from Crimewatch.” (C 2)
  • The chances of that happening are somewhere between slim and none, and as far as I can see slim left town a long time ago.” (C 2)
  • I didn't just look (and feel) like the living dead; I looked like the dead dead.” (C 3)
These are a very few samples from an enormous potential selection. There are many times when 'laddish' becomes uncomfortably misogynist. And yet ... he portrays himself as flawed but better than others; most importantly, he is the one who analyses the game he is playing as fundamentally destructive to the players and to the economy and the hard-earned pennies of the people who allow these greedy fools to play with their money. Perhaps his epiphany comes when he visits a prison in Bolivia: “In San Pedro money could literally buy you anything, but a lack of it meant you had nowhere to sleep and that you could lose your life at the drop of a hat. It was an existence entirely dictated by unmitigated market forces. There was no welfare state or NHS diluting true ‘dog eat dog’ capitalism here. It was the ultimate untainted capitalist state where the law of the jungle ruled ... and it was horrific. They were four murders a month and anyone without cash lived in a state of constant fear. ... It seemed to me that the elites of Western societies had cleverly ensured that the states we live in had the bare minimum of support mechanisms in place. They had done this so that capitalism would thrive, ensuring that their privileged life continued, but it was also not so unremittingly harsh that an underclass existed with so little hope that they would attempt mass insurrection.” (C 6)

Other great moments:
  • I was talking about some really important stuff like how great I was and he was refusing to participate in this extremely interesting discussion. In fact, he was banging on about some fairly pointless subject - something about how fabulous he was or some such nonsense.” (C 5) The self-obsession of those who have been snorting cocaine
  • They say you make your own luck but sometimes you ain't got nothing to do with it.” (C 6)
  • Watching corpulent buffoons wearing appalling sports jackets actually believing that the fit young totty they’re chatting to at dreadful clubs in Soho with interested in anything other than their wedge would be humorous were is not so tragic.” (C 1)
  • “In the country of the blind drunk, the one-eyed trouser snake is king.” (C 7)

January 2020; 419 pages

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

"An Awfully Big Adventure" by Beryl Bainbridge

Stella, a troubled but immensely innocent girl, gets an unpaid internship in a repertory theatre. She falls in love with the director, Meredith though the reader can see he is gay and therefore unavailable; most of the other men want to shag Stella. As the season progresses from play to pantomime (Peter Pan) Stella seems to prove a catalyst for disaster, even death. She loses her virginity but never her innocence (there is a hilarious scene in a cinema with a newspaper reporter in which he gets her to masturbate him and she hasn't a clue what bis going on). Throughout, Stella tells the truth, not understanding that what she is saying may have a destructive effect on the hearer.

One of the brilliant things about Bainbridge is that, in the context of a straightforward narrative, she can add layers of meaning. For example:
  • As for Cleopatra, she was an uneducated girl and deluded if she thought Caesar gave a pig's bonnet for her. It was Anthony whom she had enslaved, never Caesar. To Caesar all women were the same. There was always another one around the next pyramid.” (C 6) This is a wonderful metaphor for what is going on with Stella herself. 
  • A woman came up with a red balloon and asked him to autograph it, and he took out a fountain pen and commenced a squeaky signature. The balloon burst as he scrawled the last letter. The woman said it didn't matter. They both hunted through the debris on the floor to find that shriveled scrap bearing his name.” (C 10)
Bainbridge is also an expert at saying things which we know are important but whose importance we can't realise until later. For example, every so often she telephones her mother; these conversations always end with “Mother said the usual things.” It is not until the very end that we understand what those things are.I suppose this is a type of foreshadowing, although it is more obtrusive than that. It creates questions in the reader's mind - 'what's this all about?' - which make one want to read on further. It is a type of hook except it doesn't only happen at the start of the book. It reminded me a little of the way that Ford Madox Ford in The Good Soldier used unreliable narration to keep one guessing. 

There are moments of pitch-perfect description:
  • There were purple weeds blowing through the stonework of the smashed tower hanging in giddy steps beneath the sky. Uncle Vernon called it an eyesore ... She’d argued that the church was a monument, and that the shattered tower was a ladder climbing from the past to the future.” (C 2)
  • The flower-seller who kept a stall in the mouth of the granite arch leading to the subterranean tunnel into the street was bent over, dunking tulips in a galvanized bucket. Passing beneath the arch the children felt the slope beneath them and tumbled into a trot, the echoes of their stamping feet sending the pigeons plummeting from their perches. When the birds spewed out of the darkness the flower-seller flapped her great shawl like a matador to ward them off; they broke formation, circling the massive clock stopped at ten to ten, floundering upwards towards the whirling sky framed in the shards of glass set in the iron ribs of the shattered roof.” (C 4) Not a word out of place. 
  • They looked both sly and exhilarated, as though they were off to some party that would end in tears.” (C 5)
This book has many links to the J M Barrie play Peter Pan:
  • The title is taken from a line spoken by Peter when, trapped on a rock with the tide rising and unable to fly he speculates that "death will be an awfully big adventure." There are several deaths in the book.
  • The production of Peter Pan takes up the action for the second half of the book
  • There are a number of occasions when working in a theatre is contrasted with working in a bank. Mr Darling in the Peter Pan stories was a bank clerk. 
  • On a metaphorical level, Peter Pan is about a boy who refuses to grow up and Stella, the lead character, is a girl who preserves naive innocence despite the many piratical and reptilian men around her.

Other great moments:
  • He hadn't forgotten her histrionics following the removal of the half-basin on the landing. She had accused him of mutilating her past, of ripping out her memories. He’d had to bite on his tongue to stop himself from blurting out that in her case this was all to the good. There were worse things than the disappearance of basins. It had brought home to him how unreliable history was, in that the story, by definition, was always one-sided.” (C 1)
  • She had combed her hair so often in anticipation she imagined it had grown thinner.” (C 3)
  • A Soprano with legs that wouldn't have disgraced a piano stool.” (C 3)
  • St Ives and a woman he swore was his Auntie from Cardiff were discovered in matching pyjamas, he in the top and she in the bottoms.” (C 3)
  • You don't mention fat for nothing.” (C 3)
  • It was astonishing to Stella how fondly men remembered their darkest hours.” (C 3)
  • Penetration, from what she had gathered from library books, was inescapably painful unless one had played a lot of tennis or ridden stallions, and she hadn't done either.” (C 3)
  • She was the sort of girl who, if there had been a meadow handy, would have been out there in a flash picking cowslips.” (C 4)
  • I don't mind confessing that after a few honeymoon months we stalled more times then we took off.” (C 6)
  • She pondered on the differences in men's and women's clothing. Trousers, she now realised, were so designed not because their wearers had funny legs but because men were constantly worried that an essential part of them might have gone missing. They wanted instant access, just to make sure things were in place. What was more puzzling was why they needed everyone else to check as well.” (C 6)
  • The reporter ... shoved a handkerchief at her. She wondered whether she had been sniffing; it was true she had the beginnings of a cold. Suddenly he let out a huge sigh, as though the air was being forced out of him. He seemed to grow smaller; certainly his thingummyjig shrunk. almost at once he fell into a doze. She was left holding a jelly baby of shrivelled skin, her fingers glued together, webbed by a sticky emission.” (C 6)
  • Keeley said girls were unreasonable because they weren't any good at sport - they hadn't learnt any rules.” (C 9)
  • I can't eat when I'm with you ... I'd be sick. It's a compliment really.” (C 9)
  • In the end everyone expected a return on love, demanded a rebate of gratitude or respect. It was no different from collecting the deposit on lemonade bottles.” (C 10)
This was a superb read but I feel that I have missed many layers in this first read through. This is clearly a book to which I must return.

December 2019; 198 pages

Other brilliant Bainbridge books reviewed in this blog: