I’m Moving…

Dear Readers,

I’ve decided to move this blog to my own domain!

The name will remain the same,
but the new address for Annabel’s House of Books is:

http://www.annabookbel.net

It will take some time twiddling about with the site to get it how I want it and I’ve lost a few comments in the transfer (apologies if one of them was yours), but it is live NOW!

It will mean a lot to me if you’d travel over there with me.

I really hope that you’ll subscribe to the new blog too (and update your links).

THANK YOU!

 

A modern take on Jeeves & Wooster

Wake up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames

wake up sirJonathan Ames is apparently a bit of a cult author in the USA – as novelist, essayist, columnist, storyteller and creator of a sitcom for HBO called Bored to Death. I’d not heard of him before, but was piqued by the premise of his 2004 novel Wake up, Sir! which has recently been published in the UK and is an unashamed contemporary tribute to Wodehouse.

Alan Blair is a thirty-year-old American writer with one book under his belt and is struggling to get started with his difficult second one. He is a drinker, single, Jewish and full of neuroses, sexual, mental – you name it he suffers from it. He lives in Manhattan sponging on his beloved Aunt and ghastly Uncle, but having come into some money via an inheritance, he employs a personal valet to look after him. Said valet just happens to be called Jeeves.

…I went into the kitchen and Jeeves was there, beaming in at the precise moment that I made my entrance, which he’s very good at. He’s always appearing and disintegrating and reappearing just when the stage directions call for him.

Now I come to think of it, given the Star Trek analogy, there is a Vulcan quality to Jeeves, matching the unemotional Mr Spock always looking after Jim Kirk, isn’t there?

Even with the assistance of Jeeves, Alan can’t stop drinking and his relations have had enough. Tough love is required – they offer him rehab or eviction. Alan has already decided to take off for a writing retreat so chooses the latter option and goes to bed worrying.

I started rubbing the bony center of my nose, which I always rub when things have gone badly. Then midway through this nose massage, I heard a slight aspiration – Jeeves, like humidity, had accumulated on my left. Jeeves, I think, is closely related to water. They say we’re all 50 percent H2O but Jeeves is probably 90 percent. Jeeves and water seep in everywhere, no stopping them, like this underground lake that starts in Long Island, I’m told, and then pops up in Connecticut. So Jeeves spilled over from his lair, the bedroom next to mine, and was now standing alongside me, like mist on a mirror.

Blair and Jeeves set off for an upstate Jewish spa town Sharon Springs and arrive only to find it mostly boarded up, the bathhouse abandoned and ruined. Alan, drunk as usual, manages to get beaten up badly after a disastrous phone call to a number in a lavatory stall! However, they discover that in Saratoga nearby, there is a proper artist and writer’s retreat called the Rose Colony, and they have a vacancy. It would be the ideal place for Alan to dry out and get on with his writing …

We’re now halfway through the book, and so far it had been an entertaining slog with not enough happening, but once we’re through the gates of the Rose Colony the pace picks up and we finally meet a bunch of characters that are just as crazy as Blair himself. Blair is communing with novelist Alan Tinkle and his whisky bottle (falling off the wagon afresh each day). Tinkle is telling him all about his particular problem of overstimulation:

“Along with heavy drinking, I do preventative masturbation four or five times a day so that I can go out in public.”

This all sounded oddly familiar. Then I reassured myself: I might have shared some of his symptoms, but that can be said for most psychiatric illnesses.

“Why do you think this has happened to you?” I asked. “Maybe you should see Oliver Sacks. It could be neurological. Like the man who thought his wife was a cocktail waitress.”

“I don’t get any sex. That’s my problem. I’m thirty-one; I haven’t had sex in nine years.”

What could I say to comfort him? Nine years was a terribly long time. One hardly goes nine years without doing most things, except maybe trips to the Far East. …

It soon becomes clear that sex is high on everyone’s mind at the Rose Colony. Alan himself falls for an artist called Ava, who has a magnificent nose. They eventually succumb and there is a drawn out and often cringeworthy, but occasionally hilarious, sex scene:

The robe opened up. She was naked.
I put my hand on her full, fat breast. Then I put my hand under her breast. Nobody had enjoyed weighing something as much since Archimedes.

Alan manages to get into scrape after scrape, upsetting most of the residents and staff including the enigmatic giant Dr Hibben, the colony’s director. Thank goodness for Jeeves whose ubiquity will always save the day.

Jeeves-and-Wooster

Fry & Laurie as Jeeves & Wooster from the ITV adaptation

Although the character of Jeeves in this novel could have been lifted straight from Wodehouse, that of Alan Blair is, while remaining true to Bertie Wooster’s essential nature, a little different.  Like Bertie, he is the narrator of the tale, and he shares Wooster’s dandyish tendencies and naive refusal to grow up for instance. However, he is pathetic in his alcoholism and you can’t help but feel sympathy for him in his desire to deal with his condition, which is something I have rarely felt for the buffoonish Wooster. I loved the way that Jeeves is able to insinuate himself into any situation without anyone noticing. Indeed, in another review of this book in Quadrapheme web magazine, the reviewer wonders whether Jeeves might be a figment of Blair’s imagination? Upon reflection, that seems entirely possible!  (It didn’t stop me picturing Stephen Fry as Jeeves all the way though).

I did feel that this book took far too long to get going, we don’t reach the Rose Colony, scene of most of the comedy and bawdiness, until halfway through its 334 pages – by comparison, the Wodehouse-inspired Charlie Mortdecai books (well the first two, see here) are at least as racy, consistently funny and all over inside 200 pages.  Although not actually as filthy as I’d imagined reading the publicity, I enjoyed Ames’s creation which is more polished than mere pastiche, I just wish the first half had been compressed. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames (2004, pub Pushkin Press, 2015) paperback original, 334 pages.

It’s a break-up novel…

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

10798418Daniel Handler, best-known as the author of the Lemony Snicket series of books for children has also written several novels for adults; I reviewed one of them – Adverbs here. Like Lemony Snicket, Adverbs was quirky and full of off-beat humour. Why We Broke Up is a little different in style. It’s still quirky, but its humour is more ironic and very bittersweet – it is, after all, a break-up story.

It sits firmly in crossover territory – being published in the UK under Egmont’s YA imprint, Electric Monkey, but is actually a sophisticated tale that teens and adults can enjoy alike. Each chapter is prefixed by a colour illustration by Maira Kalman and these are equally quirky and fit the novel’s style perfectly. One last bonus is that on the inside cover – instead of publicity puffs from other authors and celebs, there are short paragraph teenaged break-up stories from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Brian Selznick, David Levithan and Holly Black – some of the cream of current YA writers – a neat touch. This is backed up by a Tumblr blog where readers can share their own break-up stories.

Why We Broke Up is the story of the short-lived relationship between Min Green and Ed Slaterton, as told by Min. It starts:

Dear Ed,
In a sec you’ll hear a thunk. At your front door, the one nobody uses. […]
The thunk is the box, Ed. This is what I am leaving you. […] Every last souvenir of the love we had, the prizes and the debris of this relationship, like the glitter in the gutter when the parade has passed, all the everything and whatnot kicked to the curb. I’m dumping the whole box back into your life, Ed, every item of you and me. I’m dumping this box on your porch, Ed, but it is you, Ed, who is getting dumped.

She’s not bitter at all then?!  They meet at a party, not the usual type of one Ed goes to. He’s a jock, one of the stars of the basketball team – he only goes to non-jock parties when they lose.

– and then you asked me my name. I told you it was Min, short for Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom, because my dad was getting his master’s when I was born, and that, don’t even ask, no you couldn’t, only my grandmother could call me Minnie because, she told me and I imitated her voice, she loved me the best of anyone.

You said your name was Ed. Like I might not know that. I asked you how you lost.

“Don’t,” you said. “If I have to tell you how we lost, it will hurt all of my feelings.”

I liked that, all of my feelings. “Every last one?” I asked. “Really?”

“Well,” you said, and took a sip, “I might have one or two left. I might still have a feeling.”

I had a feeling too. Of course you told me anyway, Ed, because you’re a boy, how you lost the game.

We then go on to work our way through the box with Min explaining each item’s significance chronologically. The first item is a movie ticket from their first date. Min is an arts student and an aficionado of old movies. She and Ed go to see Greta in the Wild, which stars the beautiful, young Lottie Carson. As first dates go it’s a success and Ed is amazed by this quirky ‘different’ girl who persuades him that an old black and white film is the business! He indulges Min who is convinced that an old lady who goes to see all these vintage films is Lottie Carson herself – and this becomes a bit of an obsession for Min which escalates throughout the novel.

Romance blossoms for Min and Ed, despite Min’s BF Al and Ed’s older sister Joan knowing it’ll never work. Geeks and Jocks just aren’t really made for each other – they’re too ‘different’. Min has a go at watching basketball practice along with all the other jock’s girlfriends who seem happy to be bored out of their brains on the benches – it’s so obviously not her and naturally, Al feels ignored missing their after-school chats.

It works for a while though…

I loved this novel. Its monologue style reminded me of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (review here). They may share a High School setting, but Why We Broke Up is a good old-fashioned romance, it’s not issue-led like TPOBAW, although that is one of my favourite novels of this type. The added mystery over Lottie Carson gives Why We Broke Up all the side-plot it needs although that was rather over-extended. It was, however, a relief to read compared with all the dark Issue lit on the YA shelves these days. It’ll make a great movie …

Sophisticated, tender, bittersweet, quirky, funny – this is a YA/Crossover novel to savour and enjoy. (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (2012), illus Maira Kalman. Paperback (Jun 2015) Electric Monkey, 368 pages.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, paperback.

Closer to Turgenev…

A theatrically based ramble for you today…

Yesterday I went to the theatre in London to see Patrick Marber’s new adaptation of Turgenev’s comedy of manners A Month in the Country.  Marber’s version takes place over a shorter period, so is called Three Days in the Country. I’ll come back to the play itself later.

I decided to make the most of my travelcard by going into London some hours earlier and doing something touristy.  I thought about going up the Shard – but it’s over £30, so I shall save that for another day. Instead I went to the Museum of London near St Paul’s which was free and has a nice display of Victorian shopfronts, but – more relevant to my evening’s entertainment I went to nearby Postman’s Park…

P1020551 (1024x610)Just yards away from the Museum, this hidden gem of a garden by St Botolph’s Church was apparently named for its popularity as a lunch spot for local post office workers. It’s a special place because it has a section full of memorial plaques to local heroes who died saving others, and it’s hard not be be moved by the stories on the tiles.

P1020554 (800x439) Postman’s Park plays a large part in Patrick Marber’s play Closer and I was lucky enough to see its first run at the NT’s smallest theatre, the Cottesloe, in 1997. An intimate four-hander about sexual politics, it starred Clive Owen, Ciaran Hinds, Sally Dexter and Liza Walker as Alice – a young woman obsessed with the park.  Owen went on to also star in the film (2004) but swapped parts; (Jude Law, Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman completed the good-looking quartet this time). In Scene 12, Larry and Anna meet in the park:

P1020555 (800x422)

Larry: …It’s like putting flowers at the roadside. People need to remember. It makes things seem less – random. Actually, I hate this memorial.
Anna: Why?
Larry: It’s the sentimental act of a Victoria philanthropist: remember the dead, forget the living.
Anna: You’re a pompous bastard.
Larry: And you are an incurable romantic.

I sat there in the dappled sunshine for a while after taking my photographs and people watched – from bemused tourists to workers late-lunching and chatting, it was very pleasant.

Then off to the Southbank by bus for a change – better view and not as hot as the underground. Once there I perused the second hand books underneath Waterloo Bridge (I bought one book only), went into the BFI (British Film Institute) and its shop,  had some streetfood and a Mr Whippy ice-cream for tea, and again indulged in people watching by the riverside, before going into the National Theatre, where my pre-Theatre drink was a cup of tea.P1020562 (1024x624)

Finally to Three Days in the Country – adapted by Patrick Marber after Turgenev. I couldn’t believe my luck at getting a ticket for the first night of the previews – i.e. the first public performance – and it already felt run-in. In the first scene Rakitin has arrived at the country estate of his childhood friend, summoned there by Arkady’s wife Natalya… Rakitin is telling Natalya about his recent stay with the Krinitsyns:
Marber 3 days

Rakitin: The Krinitsyns are young, beautiful, married a year … and they want to kill each other. By next spring their mutual loathing will have blossomed. By winter their marriage will have frozen. And then they’ll have some children.
Natalya: How did you pass the time?
Rakitin: We drank.
Natalya: You explored the limits of country life.
Rakitin: And then I received your letter. Why did you send for me?
Natalya: I don’t remember
Rakitin: You wrote, ‘I’m in despair, please come at once.’
Natalya: You should’ve ignored me.
Rakitin: You know I can’t.
Natalya: Ignore me!

This short extract from the first act really sets the scene, and Rakitin’s first utterances got great laughs. Rakitin is the urbane wit and resentful admirer; Natalya is a bored housewife who is looking elsewhere. You know there will be misunderstandings to come, especially once you meet Belayaev, the new young tutor for Natalya’s son! Add in Vera, their seventeen year old ward whose heart is ready to be won, assorted friends, hangers-on and servants and the set-up is complete.

Marber’s new version instantly seemed very Chekhovian. However, it wasn’t until I checked dates that I found that Turgenev wrote it forty years before Chekhov, so Chekhov is Turgenevian!

This production featured many familiar faces from theatre and TV, but its two stars are John Simm as Rakitin, and Mark Gatiss as Shpigelsky, the local Doctor and main comic part. Both were fine – and Gatiss had one memorable scene which brought the house down in laughter when, on the point of proposing to  Lizaveta, he gets down on one knee only to rick his back; (Lizaveta is Arkady’s mother’s companion, played by Debra Gillett in Julia McKenzie mode).  Simm’s character was less physical and had to win you over with wit and pathos – done with ‘Master’-ly success I thought.  Amanda Drew as Natalya was suitably needy throughout and the supporting cast gave great value.

One funny incident occurred when Vera’s elderly suitor Bolshintsov had to drop his cane and it slid off the edge of the stage into the audience. The cane was gently edged back onto the stage and when Bolshintsov as played by Nigel Betts next appeared, he scooped it up so naturally without stopping his speech, he got a little ripple of applause.

Three Days… was set in period, but the staging was quite modern. There was one constant backdrop and almost the entire cast were visible the whole time, sitting motionless on chairs around the central staging area when not in scene. You could see into the wings too, with props ready and waiting and the pianist providing occasional incidental music – laying bare the workings and exposing the heart of the stage – and this is a play all about hearts!

Although already polished, I can see that once settled into its run, Three Days in the Country will be a big summer hit. Highly recommended if you can get a ticket.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Three Days in the Country: An Unfaithful Version Play text by Patrick Marber after Turgenev. Pub July 2015, Faber & Faber. Paperback 112 pages.
Closer (Methuen Student Editions) Play text by Patrick Marber. Paperback.
Closer [DVD] [2004] [2005]

What did I read pre-blog?

I’ve been doing some maintenance on my master spreadsheet. It contains a record of every book I’ve read since 2007 and some from earlier. I used to write capsule reviews on it – I was able to refer back to my one on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle just the other day during Shirley Jackson Reading Week so they do come in useful!  Once I started my blog in September 2008 I stopped recording notes in this way – but I thought it would be nice to revisit my archives and share a few of these mini-reviews with you now and then, so here are a pair from earlier in 2008 …

A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews

Feast of SnakesThe annual rattlesnake round-up in Mystic, Georgia bears no relation to ‘whacking day’ in The Simpsons at all. When the thousands turn-up to take part and watch, by the day of the actual hunt, you know it’ll have all gone horribly wrong. Throw a handful of good ‘ol boys and their women, moonshine and whisky, fighting dogs, diamondbacks and the return of the prodigal cheerleader queen into the mix and you have a heady brew that will burst its bottle in a flash. At the centre of this is Joe Lon Mackey, a former footballer who didn’t get the grades to go to further. Stuck in a trailer with his fading wife, two babies, and with nothing to do except mind his father’s liquor store, he misses his former girl – Berenice the cheerleader and finds himself taking it out on everyone …

It’s tragedy in the making, and the writing is brutal, visceral, yet not without a wicked sense of humour in the caricature of the characters. No words are wasted in this cinematic novel of murder and mayhem, and the tension builds and builds until it finally explodes in an stunning ending that shakes you to the core.

9/10  (July 2008)

NOW: I do so love a bit of Southern Gothic. I shall have to re-read this one!

* * * * *

The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

end of mr yThis ambitious novel is hard to pin down – a sort of post-modern psychodrama with Gothic overtones involving philosophy, quantum physics, mind-melding and time-travel. It’s an attractively produced book with striking covers and brilliant black page edges – does it live up to the design? Well partially – mainly because at 502 pages in the edition I read it is rather sprawling…

The main plot about a lost book, which contains the recipe for mind & time travel, and is said to curse all who read, it is top notch. Ariel, the heroine, is a sparky and independent post-doc student, yet is needy and always broke. The bad guys are suitable threatening, and Ariel gets the help she needs in the right times and places to resolve matters.

Yet interspersed with the action are myriad philosophical discussions about deconstruction (c.f. Derrida) and quantum mechanics, which while very interesting, do slow things down significantly. Their purpose as I see it is to posit a deconstructivist framework in which mind/time travel ‘could work’ using the wave-particle duality – in that everything exists as waves until you look for something and then it is pinned down in time/place. (I’m glad I have a basic grounding in the subject so wasn’t put off by it).

A novel that requires serious concentration – it took me a week to read, which is slow for me, but is no less enjoyable for that!

8.5/10 (June 2008)

NOW: Derrida? I don’t remember this part of the book at all and I’m not really up on dead French philosophers. I’d also never write a phrase like ‘posit a deconstructivist framework’ now – would I?!   I am, however, looking forward to reading Thomas’s new novel The Seed Collectors very much indeed.

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To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews, pub 1998, Scribner. Paperback 188 pages.
The End Of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas, pub 2007, Canongate. Paperback, 512 pages.

It’s a love / hate thang …

The Martian by Andy Weir

martianOne square in my Book Bingo card is ‘Hated by someone you know’.

That one was so easy to fill, for a few weeks ago my pal Simon Savidge tried to read The Martian and he ended up not finishing it when something in it tipped him over the edge: “That was it, I was done and frankly utterly furious. I threw the book across the room and gave up.” he said.

I’ve been meaning to read The Martian ever since it first came out – and I LOVED IT! It’s the perfect example of a ‘Marmite book’ and shows how different we all are as readers, and how the world would be very boring if we all liked the same things.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit that:

a) It’s not great literature;
b) It’s very nerdy;
c) The level of humour is at best ‘undergraduate’ (cf Seth MacFarlane’s tanker of a novel last year);
d) The women are token;
e) The dialogue is pure cheese!

BUT … it does have one helluva basic plot.

Mark Watney is assumed dead when an accident occurs before the Ares 4 Mission is set to leave Mars and return to Earth. They leave without him, not knowing he’s alive. How long can Mark survive? How can he let Earth know that he’s still there when all communications are broken? Will they come and get him before he dies?

So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m fu**ed.

The novel starts with just Mark telling us about his predicament in daily log entries – in detail. It’s lucky that he was the mission’s engineer, for he is a resourceful chap. Not only can he calculate his needs, he is able to juryrig equipment to make it work. His other specialty is botany – and he is able to make the sterile Mars soil fertile through the application of poo to grow the experimental seed potatoes they brought with them. In short he’s able to get air, water and food sorted to give him extra months of survival time. Now time to turn his attention to getting back in contact with Earth…

Eventually, someone on Earth (a young scientist called ‘Mindy’ – yes!) watching the satellites spots things happening on Mars – they can see that the mission’s abandoned rovers have moved. This starts the parallel NASA strand as they go to work to see what’s feasible and ultimately if they can rescue him.

That’s enough plot. I’m guessing that many of you will have seen the marvelous films Apollo 13 or Gravity; some of you may also remember Marooned (from 1969, made before Apollo 13 flew). You know the score – a book like The Martian is unlikely to take a philosophical turn like John Carpenter’s 1974 film Dark Star or the daddy of them all – 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it is perfectly predictable how it will end – it’s the getting there that provides the excitement.

Weir’s narrator does describe all the science and engineering he’s doing as he goes along at great length. To be honest, you don’t have to understand it, you just need to appreciate that he’s able to do something to improve his situation, you can skim the detail. Weir has clearly done his research for the science felt very plausible on the whole, although I wouldn’t like to have to mess around with hydrazine (N2H4, a highly unstable and flammable compound) the way he does – but needs must.

There are plenty of running jokes in Watney’s log entries. He has the contents of the Hermes crew’s personal downloads to watch and listen to, comprising mission commander Lewis’s disco music pplus lots of 70s TV series like The Dukes of Hazzard, he also has plenty of Agatha Christie novels to read. He takes the piss out of his erstwhile crewmate’s media choices constantly, laddishly – it helps keep him sane.

Where the novel is less successful is the parallel strand back home at NASA. This is hackneyed and full of stereotypical characters – no elegant vision of the Mission Control backroom from Apollo 13 here. We also get very little feel for the crew who left him behind, I’d have liked to get to know them better. The Martian was initially self-published chapter by chapter on the author’s blog before it got picked up and became a hit.

You have to remember this is a thriller in a SF setting, once we’ve got over the initial tech stuff – it does pick up the pace nicely, until everything happens rather too fast at the end – a common thriller trope (I hesitate to say common thriller fault, because sometimes you just want it to be over, so you can breathe again – whether in relief, horror or whatever.

The Martian film What was clear from the start was that The Martian would make a brilliant movie – and would you believe it, Ridley Scott thought so too. Matt Damon as Mark will be hitting our screens in late autumn.  Looking at the all-star casting, it’s clear that they are going to big up the parts of the Hermes crew, and particularly the two women (yes, the mission commander and IT officer are both women in the book too).  Jessica Chastain (Lewis) and Kate Mara (Johanssen) will surely demand more than the cameo they get in the novel.  Kristen Wiig will play Annie (NASA’s West Wing CJ equivalent); Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels will be amongst the NASA team on the ground too.

Yes, I expect I will be going to see it!

So, Simon and other friends who didn’t like it, my feet are firmly in the other camp.  For me, although it wasn’t perfect, it was plausible-ish, huge fun and a good thriller.  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Martianby Andy Weir. (2014) Del Rey, paperback, 384 pages.

 

Shirley Jackson Reading Week

Shirley-Jackson-Reading-WeekIt’s Shirley Jackson Reading Week – hosted by Simon, Jenny and Ana. I had been planning just to scan the posts as my pile of books I must read (e.g. Anthony Powell) is rather large, but what hey! Why not read a book too? It’s not as if I didn’t have a Shirley Jackson novel ready and waiting on my shelves thanks to Simon who reviewed several of hers for the first issue of Shiny New Books.

I’m not entirely new to Shirley Jackson, having read and loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle – which I read pre-blog in 2008. I have consulted back to my master spreadsheet to see what notes I made about it then…

MerricatA creepy tale of a big house where the two Blackwood sisters, Constance and Merricat, live with their old uncle. The local villagers treat them with suspicion and hate, after six of the Blackwood family died one night from poisoning. Constance was tried and found innocent. The sisters and Uncle Julian try to live quietly in their mausoleum; Constance tends the garden, Uncle Julian sees to his papers, and the beloved Merricat patrols and protects the estate with ritual and amulets. However, one day cousin Charles arrives – and life will never be the same after that.

This short novel is an excellent exercise in paranoia, the whole ‘did she didn’t she’ question over the poisoning, the villagers’ suspicion (and jealousy, for the Blackwoods are not short of a penny, although they don’t flaunt it at all), and then the catalyst that arrives to upset everything. A very intense read and beautifully crafted tale. (10/10)

I read it in a Penguin Deluxe paperback produced for the USA. Love that cover.

But which did I choose to read this time?

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

sundial-195x300In one sentence The Sundial is a comedy about an upper class family who all hate each other thrust into a, to quote Private Fraser from Dad’s Army “We’re doomed!”, situation with Armageddon coming at the end of August. After the paranoia of WHALITC above, I hadn’t quite expected The Sundial, which preceded it by a few years to be so funny – it was absolutely hilarious!

It starts off with the Halloran family returning from Lionel’s funeral. The huge house they live in having reverted to Lionel’s parents. Even in the first paragraphs, the extent of there being no love lost between the Old Mrs Halloran and the Young Mrs Halloran, her daughter Fancy and the others is clear:

Young Mrs Halloran, looking after her mother-in-law, said without hope, “Maybe she will drop dead on the doorstep. Fancy, dear, would you like to see Granny drop dead on the doorstep?”  […]

“I am going to pray for it as long as I live,” said young Mrs Halloran, folding her hands together devoutly.
“Shall I push her?” Fancy asked. “Like she pushed my daddy?”

As for Mrs Halloran herself, when asked by her invalid husband Richard:

“Did you marry me for my father’s money?”

“Well, that, and the house.”

Over the next few pages we are also introduced to Aunt Fanny (Richard’s spinster sister); Essex – the house librarian and Miss Ogilvie – Fancy’s governess, and the scene is set for constant bickering between the lot of them. Now that she is in charge of the house again, Mrs Halloran decides to let Essex and Miss Ogilvie go, and tells them so. However, an event happens (and we’re still in the first chapter), that will change everything…

Fancy and Aunt Fanny are walking in the further reaches of the garden. Fancy runs off and Aunt Fanny is temporarily lost and panics, but eventually finds her way to the huge sundial – in the middle of the front lawn and inscribed with the words “WHAT IS THIS WORLD?” – only to be faced with an apparition of her own long-dead father who tells her that the end of the world is coming and that only those in the house will survive. She makes it back inside and faints.

“The experiment with humanity is at an end,” Aunt Fanny said.
“Splendid,” Mrs Halloran said. “I was getting very tired of all of them.”
“The imbalance of the universe is being corrected. Dislocations have been adjusted. Harmony is to be restored, inperfections erased.”

The strangest thing is that Mrs Halloran decides to take Aunt Fanny’s ramblings seriously. She senses the opportunity for a real powerplay with herself as Queen Bee.

At this point, Jackson injects some new characters into the narrative. Mrs Willow and her two daughters, ‘friends’ of Mrs Halloran. Then Gloria, the daughter of a cousin turns up unexpectedly. With all this upheaval Essex and Miss Ogilvie are given a reprieve, (for of course Essex will have to be one of the sires of the new race after the apocalypse).

More new characters appear – amongst them we meet the Misses Devonshire who run a shop in the village; Edna’s True Believers who believe that aliens will be landing at the end of August, and the household acquires another male ‘the captain’, who is obviously not, but plays along with everything. Aunt Fanny sets about provisioning the house, meaning that the library has to be converted to a storeroom – and they burn the books – criminal! They discover that Gloria can see ‘visions’ in an oiled mirror and these confirm what is to happen…

You all know the story of Chicken Licken who believed the sky was going to fall on his head? It’s a much-loved tale that Disney had adapted in 1943 in an animated short made for the purpose of discrediting Nazism, his version having the moral of don’t believe everything you read. Jackson may well have been influenced by that with Aunt Fanny as Chicken Licken and Mrs Halloran the unscrupulous and manipulative fox. But, in the late 1950s the Cold War was really ramping up. In the timeline of the Cold War, in 1957 the US strategic air command was put on 24/7 alert against pre-emptive strike from Soviet ICBMs (not stood down until 1991!), and in November that year a report urged Eisenhower to review defense capabilities and build fallout shelters for US citizens. Aunt Fanny’s bunker mentality is well to the fore here.

Jackson takes all these elements of Gothic melodrama and puts them in a pressure cooker which will eventually explode in a brilliantly conceived ending. The humour, as we’ve seen, is often wickedly dark and the old Mrs Halloran is positively Machiavellian in her plans – I don’t think I’ve ever read such a funny apocalyptic novel.

My only quibble is that during the first third or so, I found it hard to keep up with who was who. Apart from some periods of extended description of the house and garden, the novel is almost all dialogue, and you have to keep your wits about you to know who said what, especially as Jackson is free and easy toggling between the formal names and Christian names of most of the characters or leaving the dialogue unfettered by not noting who said it. This confusion only increased whenever new ones were introduced, but the pace of the drama keeps you going.

Ultimately I preferred WHALITC, but The Sundial is also mighty fine (9.5/10) and, if the world were to end at the end of August, I’ll have had a good time that weekend at Jamie Oliver’s and Alex James’s Big Feastival so can go out on a high!!!

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin Modern Classics), paperback, 176 pages.
The Sundial (Penguin Modern Classics), paperback, 240 pages.

Shiny Linkiness

SNB logo tinyThe sixth issue of Shiny New Books came out last Thursday. As always it’s packed full of goodies from the latest bestsellers to hidden gems that need more publicity.This issue, I only reviewed three books, two non-fiction and one fiction, so I shall indulgently point you in their direction here. Please do click through to see the full reviews (and I hope once there you’ll find more to interest you).

I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers

i saw a manYou may remember that earlier this year I had a bit of a fangirl moment with the handsome Welshman at the Faber Fiction Showcase. It was finally time to read the book, (carefully given my unique inscription from him) and I really enjoyed it. The story of three men and how bereavement and grief affects their lives, it has a thriller-ish feel to the plot, but has a style that owes much to Sheers’ poetic side.

Read the full review here.

Instrumental by James Rhodes

instrumental james rhodes A memoir of ‘music, medication and madness’, this is not for the faint-hearted, and had me in tears regularly all the way through. Classical pianist Rhodes was terribly abused as a child and this book spares no punches in telling us what happened and the consequences that still affect his life today. However, it’s not all bad, for Rhodes has a mission to interest younger generations in classical music and its power to transcend the horrors of life; it saved his. Powerful and shocking, yet hopeful too.

Read the full review here.

Spirals in Time by Helen Scales/

Spirals-in-Time-small-440x704 I love to read popular science books, but rarely venture into the natural world. To find a book that is so much more than just a biological survey of a particular animal group was a joy, for Helen Scales’s book on seashells also explores their place in culture and mythology, and she has some amazing stories to tell there – from their use as currency to the Victorian collectors and the harvesting of the elusive ‘sea-silk’. These all run alongside the marine biology of the shell-forming molluscs. Told with wit and wonder, it’s fab.

Read the full review here.

A strong new voice…

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris

Young GodI bought this short novel on Elle’s recommendation after she responded to my post about the number of male authors I tend to read (that post in itself was a response to hers on the same subject). Young God is the debut novel by a young American author and the minute Elle told me that it was like Winter’s Bone but more so, I had to investigate – and indeed a quote from Daniel Woodrell tops the list on the back cover.  Sold!

It starts as it means to continue:

NIKKI IS ALL TO HELL. A boy jumps off the cliff in front of her. She peers over the edge, watching him go.

‘Nikki.’
‘How far down is it?’
‘Like a hundred feet,’ Wesley says.
Wesley squats near her feet. He wants to stick his dick in her. Nikki yanks tight all the bows of her bikini, hot pink. It used to be Mama’s. Now Mama’s too old to wear it. Nikki has been thirteen forever.

There is a technique to jumping. Nikki manages it, but her Mama, jealous of her, doesn’t. She slips and dies, smashed on the rocks. Nikki is left with her Mama’s pervy boyfriend Wesley, who gets his way with her. Her response is to steal his bag of pills and car and drive off in search of her real father.

In her mouth his name is shiny and bitter like a licked coin.
‘Coy Hawkins’
It rings out.

As you might expect, in this trailer park world in Appalachia, this is going from one bad situation into another. Coy has been a drug dealer, he used to be the ‘biggest coke dealer in the county’, but currently he’s just a pimp, living in a trailer with Angel whom he rents out. He also has a young son, Levi, by Crystal who lives down the road. Levi is always out on his bike, watching.

Nikki stays. Angel is hostile to her, her father is not bothered, although grateful for Wesley’s pills. Life carries on in the trailer and once Nikki finds out that Coy is just a pimp, she is disappointed – he used to be someone. Somehow, she stirs a paternal urge to impress in him and he attacks another pimp for her.

This is the start of a new relationship between Nikki and her father, steeped in drugs and prostitution. Nikki learns the value of being an underage virgin and tries to recruit a girl from the children’s home. You can tell it’s going to descend into a new level of hell – but will Nikki survive?

My word! This novel, once started, doesn’t let go. The language is very coarse, the violence and sex is very nasty, the poverty is extreme. It’s everything you might expect from a tale of poor white trailer-trash folk, but it goes beyond cliché to become something else entirely. You can’t ‘like’ any of the characters, but you have to respect that they have no other way out. Nikki has such strength, you have to admire her for it, as you do Ree in Winter’s Bone. Nikki has a harder edge though, honed by years of abuse, neglect and periods in the children’s home.

Nikki’s story is told in short chapters, sort of vignettes – some only a line or two long, others stretching to a couple of pages. Soon, you recognise that the white space around the shorter ones will usually signal a major moment, be it in thought, deed or conversation. The author never attempts to make us like or judge Nikki, she just tells it like it is in a triumph of understatement.  Brutal, sparse and shocking, this coming of age novel is maybe the darkest one I’ve ever read – but I loved it. You don’t have to take my word for it either, see what Eimear McBride thought of it in the Guardian here(10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Young God by Katherine Faw Morris. Pub Granta 2014. Paperback, 208 pages.

Annabel’s Shelves: C is for …

Soulless by Gail Carriger

Print
Well after the disappointment of my first try of Calvino, I had another go at filling the first ‘C’ slot in my Annabel’s Shelves project. And I was delighted to find an author that kept me so entertained – I romped through this book, the first in Gail Carriger‘s ‘Parasol Protectorate’ series, and will look forward to reading the others in due course.

The lazy way to describe this book would be to compare it with others – a Victorian steampunk Sookie Stackhouse, or, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters with added vampires and werewolves. This novel has all of the above – a Victorian setting, vampires and werewolves, it’s really funny and sexy too, but it was the promise of steampunk themes that really lured me in. For those less familiar with steampunk – it is a SF trope that introduces technology into a 19th century setting, but typically steam-powered; although only coined as a sub-genre itself in the 1980s, it owes its roots to H.G.Wells and Jules Verne.

Miss Alexia Tarabotti is on the shelf at 25. She inherited her Mediterranean looks from her father, an Italian, dead, and her mother only pays attention to her two younger and paler half-sisters. She also has no soul. What’s a girl to do?

As the novel starts Alexia is having about to have a snack in an ante-room at a ball when she is attacked by a vampire. This vampire is obviously new, and a ‘rove’ (not part of a hive) and doesn’t know the etiquette. Alexia accidentally kills him with her wooden stake hairpin. The Queen sends the head of the BUR, Bureau of Unnatural Registry, Lord Maccon to investigate. Maccon is a real hunk, rich too, and a werewolf. There is a sexual tension between the two each time they meet – which will be lots over the course of the novel.

It turns out that vampires and werewolves are disappearing all over the place, and new unaffiliated ones appearing. It also appears that whoever is behind all of this has found out Alexia’s secret – that she has no soul. Reputedly, she can negate paranormal powers by touching someone – and they’re out to get her! Maccon assigns her guards around the clock; she confides in her best friend Lord Akeldama – a really gay and old Rococo dandy of a vampire.

Lord Akeldama never drank anything but champagne. Well, that is to say, except when he was drinking blood. He was reputed to have once said that the best drink in existence was a blending of the two, a mix her referred to fondly as a Pink Slurp.

Alexia gets summoned to a meeting by the queen of the Westminster vampire hive – she is desperate to find out what’s going on in her parish. Maccon, hearing of other disappearances around the Home Counties, sends his second in command, Professor Lyall to investigate.  Meanwhile, Alexia meets a possible marriage prospect – an American scientist, Mr MacDougall, who is researching ways to measure souls. Alexia keeps her own status a secret.

We have the set up of the will they-won’t they romance between Alexia and Maccon (no prizes for guessing the result) amidst the adventure of solving the mystery of the disappearing/appearing vamps and lupes plus mad scientists. Once the initial setting up is done, the novel gallops pell-mell to its conclusion.

My only quibble was that we don’t find out how Alexia became soulless – we are just presented with it and its effects.  I hope we find out more in subsequent outings. The presentation of Britain as a progressive, forward-thinking country for accepting paranormal personages into society (provided they are registered) as opposed to America where they are not accepted at all was interesting. Queen Victoria is behind it, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Prince Albert is a vampire or something. This novel was great fun!  (8/10)

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D comes next…

Not so many to choose from on my shelves – but the new to me authors include:

  • Don DeLillo
  • Joan Didion
  • E.L. Doctorow
  • Helen Dunmore
  • Sarah Dunant
  • Nell Dunn
  • Joe Dunthorne
  • Lawrence Durrell
  • Jeremy Dyson (of Compton Vasey fame).

I have multiple titles by all of the above on the shelves. Suggestions welcome.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK via affiliate link, please click below:
Soulless: Book 1 of The Parasol Protectorateby Gail Carriger, 2009. Orbit paperback, 299 pages.