Too little too late?

All That Follows
 by Jim Crace

It’s 2024 and the eve of jazzman Lennie Less’ 50th birthday.   Leonard is on a break from sax-playing – he has a frozen shoulder. Sitting in front of the telly, he hears about a siege in a town not so far away, then he sees a photo of the hostage-taker;  it’s a figure from his past.  It’s Maxie – Maxim Lermontov!  What’s he to do? Leonard used to aspire to be  radical like Maxie, back in their student days when Dubya was in the White House, but he never went through with it.  This time, rather than ring the police and tell them about Maxie, Leonard sets off to visit the siegeand bumps into Maxie’s estranged daughter; this is the start of getting himself into some serious hot water, which is compounded by him not being truthful with his own wife Francine.

Read the blurb of this novel and you’d think it was a thriller – which may make your heart sink, for esteemed literary authors don’t have a great record when they turn their hand to thrillerdom.   However, All that follows  only has some thriller elements, at heart it is really a novel of mid-life crisis.

Leonard is very good at talking himself out of things, the only time he lets his heart really rule his head is when he’s playing sax.  Like jazz hero Coltrane, he likes going off-piste in his improvisations…

These are the moments – the blacksmithing, the bleats – that most please and terrify Leonard, the moments of abandonment when he can sense the audience shifting and disbanding. He fancies he can see the flash of watches being checked. Certainly he can see how many in the audience are on the edges of their seats and how many more are slumped, looking at their fingernails or fidgeting. He knows he is offending many pairs of ears. They’ve come for those cool and moodily bluesy countermelodies that have made the quartet celebrated, not for the restless, heated, cranked-up overloads. But still he has to carry on, he has to nag at them, because he won’t be satisfied until he has lost and possibly offended himself.

The rest of the time, apart from a real hardline health-food diet, he takes the path of least resistance in life, and being around all day is driving him into being very passive.  It’s affecting his relationship with Francine too, which is already under pressure over the absence of her daughter Celandine.  But seeing Maxie makes him want to do something spontaneous and rebellious before he’s 50 – it just doesn’t turn out quite the way he anticipated it.  Having just had a certain big birthday myself, I was very pre-occupied with it looming, so I did sympathise with Leonard more than I expected to, and I did like Francine’s strength of character in particular.

I’ve read two other Crace books that I really enjoyed;  Arcadia and Signals of Distress are both better than this novel, however All that follows is not bad – just not quite as good as the others. (6.5/10, I received this book from the Amazon Vine programme).

To read more, John Self at Asylum has written an excellent in depth review and an author interview with Crace.

More modern vampires

Fledgling by Octavia E Butler.

Fledgling was the last choice for the season of the ‘Not the TV Book Group’, and the lively discussion was hosted by Kim at Reading Matters.

Published shortly before the author died, Fledgling is another different and slightly SF take on the vampire novel. Shori looks like a twelve year old black girl, but is actually a genetically engineered 53 year old vampire – as long as she covers up, she can go about in daylight. She awakes injured in the woods with amnesia and once she kills and heals, goes in search of her family with the help of her ‘first’, a man who stops to help her and ends up being her symbiont. They discover that her family has been wiped out, and go in search of other of her kind. Luckily they end up finding a friendly ‘Ina’ group, for that’s her race’s real name, and they initiate her into their ways. It becomes clear that her family were murdered by other Ina, and the novel takes on a courtroom mode as Shori tries to prove their guilt.

This is a novel of big themes – race, sex and fitting in dominate. It’s written to shock – Shori is a sexual being but her body’s young appearance makes it really awkward for us to read.  One thing that came through for me in the discussions was the subtle master / slave relationship between the Ina and their ‘families’ of symbionts – who once bonded to their Ina cannot live without them.

Although I enjoyed reading the book, ultimately it underwhelmed as the author did far too much explaining about the Ina, telling us in too much detail rather than showing. This reduced the immediacy of the otherwise sophisticated plot and also made for some plodding dialogue.  Once Shori found her friends, the quasi-courtroom setting made the last section drag too.  This being Butler’s last book, I have no idea whether it is typical, but do happen to have ‘Parable of the sower’ which has more of a SF sound on my TBR pile to read some time. (6.5/10, I bought this book).

Gaskella’s Midweek Miscellany #11

With the nice weather we’ve been having, I was musing about taking some cushions and a book out into the garden, but then thought again.  I just can’t concentrate on reading a book outside.  I’d be too distracted, listening to the birds, admiring the flowers, being hay-fevery, being on bug patrol, thinking ‘I need to mow the lawn/do more weeding/scoop the duckweed from the pond/insert your own gardening task here’.   I could go to the park, but then I’d be people, dog and cloud-watching.  

Ironically, indoors, as long as I’m snug on the sofa or in bed, I can read through anything – the radio or telly is often/usually on in the background.   I also can’t read in cars, buses or coaches due to car-sickness headaches (get’s me out of navigating duties!), but trains and planes are fine, I can turn off surrounding stimuli there and read too. 

Do you have places or situations where you just can’t read?

* * * * *

I haven’t told you about any new books that have arrived at Gaskell Towers this month, here are some of them. If you persevere to the bottom, I also have a giveaway for you!   So, from the top …

Seeking Whom he may Devour by Fred Vargas. I’ve yet to read any of her off-beat existentialist French crime novels – but looking forward to getting started.
Genesis by Bernard Beckett – a YA novel about philosophy and artificial intelligence (has a great cover with a robot apple too).
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa – sounds brilliant and DGR loved it.
Love and Summer – now out in paperback, this will be my first William Trevor read.
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E Pearson. Another YA novel – girl wakes from a coma …
Peace by Richard Bausch. I’ve heard good things about this wartime story.
The Book of Disquiet (Serpent’s Tail Classics) by Fernando Pessoa. Looks intriguing but I’ve Paperback Reader has described it as ‘a Portuguese Ulysses’ – but it’s nowhere near as long.
Botticelli Secret, The by Marina Fiorato. A comfort read historical author of mine – her latest. Based on Botticelli’s wonderful painting ‘Primavera’.
Affair of the Mutilated Mink, The (Burford Family Mysteries 2) by James Anderson. Billed as Christie meets Sayers with a dash of Wodehouse. Could be fun.
The Middle Mind: Why Consumer Culture is Turning Us into the Living Dead by Curtis White. Charity shop find – I couldn’t resist given the title, and cover full of zombies, but it is a halfway serious look at the dumbing down of culture apparently.
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. One of Nymeth’s all-time faves I gather, which has been on my wishlist for some time too.
Tony and Susan by Austin Wright – just looked totally intriguing!
The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan. A comedy set in the 1960s as told by Maf – the dog that Frank Sinatra gave to Marilyn Monro. I enjoyed Me Cheeta: The Autobiography so this could be fun too.
The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno. Jackie loved this one – I’m sure I will too.

* * * * *

Which brings me to my giveaway

For no sooner had I received a copy of The Great Perhaps
for my birthday, than an ARC arrived. So I will give the ARC away – I’ll send anywhere, but will have to send surface outside Europe due to weight/cost.  Just leave your name in the comments and I’ll make the draw on Sunday evening.

A delightfully quirky children’s adventure

The problem with getting into your forties and beyond is that you inevitably need reading glasses.  I managed to lose mine for a whole day this weekend, but luckily I found them this morning – phew!  So yesterday I had to read with my old glasses (which are now perfect for computer work, but no good for small type).  I had to find something with bigger print to read, hence I picked out this book for children aged around 7+ from my daughter’s bookcase.

Hugo Pepper by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell

My daughter and I are big fans of Chris Riddell’s Ottoline books. Indeed I’m a fan of Riddell’s wonderfully quirky and intricate illustrations in general – he currently does the Literary Review front cover each month (see right), and designed the cover for The Graveyard Book amongst others.  He has a very particular style, and his girl faces in particular are fab in an Alice in Wonderland meets Wednesday Addams sort of way with their high foreheads and intelligent stares.   So while I was familiar with him, I’d not yet read any of his collaborations with Paul Stewart, of which there are a growing number, including the bestselling Edge Chronicles.

Hugo Pepper is the third in another series called Far Flung Adventures, and it was an absolute delight.  The babe in arms Hugo was found in a crashed sledge by snowmen, who then left him on the doorstep of a reindeer herder couple in the Far North, who adopt him and bring him up.  Although he loves them dearly, when he’s about ten years old, the discovery of his parents’ wrecked sled leads him to seek his home. So he sets off on an adventure, eventually arriving in Firefly Square.  There he meets a whole group of family friends who are under siege from the new evil editor of the town newspaper which used to be edited by Hugo’s grandfather. It is now publishing scurrilous attacks on his friends to drive them out of town…

We meet weird and wonderful characters in this adventure – walking Mermaids, Lighthousekeepers, Pirates, Artisan tea-blenders and carpetweavers, a one-eared cat and lots of big footed snowmen.  If you like Lemony Snicket, you’ll definitely enjoy this tale and its illustrations; and if I’m honest, I’d love to read the rest of this series and more by this pair – even with my normal glasses!  (9/10) We bought this book.

A Promising Pair from Peirene Press

Peirene Press, named after a Greek nymph who turned into a water spring which was drunk by poets for inspiration, is a new publishing house specialising in contemporary European literature in translation. I was lucky enough to win a copy of their first novel from Librarything, and was offered a copy of their second by Meike who runs the company, so I’ve read them together. Both books are short and beautifully produced, making reading them a pleasure.

Beside the Sea

by Véronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter.

A single mother takes her two young children to the seaside for the first time. Sounds nice doesn’t it, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  It’s a budget outing – they arrive late at night on the coach in a dark little town where it’s raining cats and dogs. The hotel is sleazy; they’re given a grotty room on the top floor and there’s no lift.  So, they try to make the best of a bad thing.  The threesome do go onto the beach, but it’s still bad weather; they go to a café for hot chocolate, but the clientele aren’t friendly at all; then later they go to the funfair, and the boys go on the dodgems until they’re sick.

Narrated by the mother, we feel for her plight straight away. It’s obvious she’s virtually penniless and there’s no mention of her children’s father.  We discover she has no front teeth, and would normally be medicated – she is in a bad place mentally, but one thing shines through – she does love her boys.

In a way, I was thankful that this novel is short.  It’s so intense and bleak, building up the portrait of this damaged woman who lives for her boys, and you sense that there are more shocks to come. I won’t say more.  The translation excellently captures the mother’s voice, and you really feel sympathy for the mother and her sons.

I had one niggle – the boys are called Kevin and Stan – very English names – were they changed for the translation?  This just didn’t make it seem very French to me.  Wherever the setting though, it was an extremely thought-provoking and uncomfortable read that will stay with you. For other reviews see Dovegreyreader, Savidge Reads, A Common Reader.  (8/10) I received this book from Librarything.

Stone in a Landslide

by Maria Barbal translated by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell.

Maria Barbal is one of the most influential Catalan authors. This successful short novel was published in 1985, and has only now been translated into English.  It is the story of one woman’s life and love.

Conxa is a Catalan peasant. At the age of thirteen, she leaves her family to live with her aunt who has no children.  She works hard and earns her place in their family yet still knows no life outside of the cluster of villages, and only sees her own family at the festivals.  A few years later she meets Jaume, a builder rather than farmer, and they fall in love.  They remain living with her aunt, for Jaume works mostly away, but soon start raising their own family. The years pass, lives continue then the Spanish Civil War intervenes leading to tragedy. Conxa survives it all into old age and is able to rejoice in her children’s own families.

Despite being a mere 126 pages, this is a masterful portrait of a rural life in the Pyrenees.  It’s subsistence living, each family struggling to get by with their few fields, but it’s a good life for those that are lucky enough to find a soul-mate like Conxa. This is a story of strong characters, dominated by Conxa and Jaume of course whose love story shines through the hardships. The passage of time just flows by without any unnecessary explanations, and all too soon I reached the last page.  A hugely enjoyable read.  (9/10) Book kindly supplied by the publisher – thank  you.

I shall look forward to future Peirene publications – to paraphrase the Masterchef slogan, contemporary European literature doesn’t get better than this!

How does a book choose you?

I was browsing in my fave local indie bookshop the other day … looking at all the new arrivals.  Then I got into a conversation about what makes you pick up a book – or rather, what is it that makes a book cry Pick me! Pick me!   

There are some obvious factors:

  • In particular, I’m a sucker for a gorgeous cover.  I succumbed to the lure of the  hardback of Barbara Trapido’s new novel Sex and Stravinsky without a second glance – no waiting for the paperback.
  • Ditto for a quality production – good quality paper and covers, nice endpapers etc.
  • The ‘BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime’ sticker on The Still Point by Amy Sackville (which I reviewed here) confirmed the promise of the lovely cover.
  • A great quote from a respected publication or author helps too – “Little Women on Mushrooms” – New York Times – makes Alice Hoffman’s latest, The Story Sisters sound irresistible!
  • Then it is a huge help if you’ve heard something positive too – be it a good review in the weekend papers, or (increasingly important for me) a recommendation from fellow bloggers and friends.
  • Then there are favourite subjects and settings – Venice, (plus Italy in general), Russia, Dystopias and Fairytale elements all tick the boxes for me.
  • I do read the blurbs, but I only flick through a couple of pages of the book to see how the words fall on the page, reading no more than a sentence or two usually.

So what makes me less likely to pick up a book?

  • I admit it, I’m shallow!  Unless I’ve heard good things, a boring or poorly designed cover is a no-no.
  • I also admit, I can be a bit of a booksnob at times – if it’s a genre I don’t normally read, romance (sorry!), for instance, I won’t look at it either, that goes the same for cover quotes from the tabloids.
  • A friend says he only has to see the words ‘studied creative writing’ now in a new author biog and he loses interest instantly.

I think it all boils down to gut instinct in the end – well, that and the feeling I get sometimes that you don’t choose books, they choose you …

Russian echoes of Waiting for Godot

The Concert Ticket by Olga Grushin

The story in this wonderful novel was inspired by a real event – that of the eighty year old Stravinsky returning to Russia in a ‘for one night only’ comeback concert; the queue for tickets started a whole year before.

Set in an unnamed Russian city some time during the height of the totalitarian regime, the streets abound with kiosks selling various goods.  When Anna discovers a new kiosk with a queue already forming, despite it being shut and there’s no indication of what it will sell, she bags her place, and thus begins a marathon that will involve her entire family. Anna is a school teacher, her husband Sergei is a frustrated professional musician who was assigned to play the tuba after the ‘change’, and student son Alexander helps out too. Rumours spread that the tickets will be for a special concert featuring an exiled composer, and each member of the family dreams of what they’d do if they got the ticket.

The line develops its own life, becoming a complex social structure, with myriad families all holding their allotted place – all taking shifts in waiting to get the single ticket per place. One of its members wonders what’s really going on …

‘All I’m saying is, it’s a very efficient way of disposing of people’s time, don’t you see? Thousands of us, some waiting for stockings, others for symphonies. But what if there aren’t any stockings, what if there aren’t any symphonies, so to speak? What if all of this is just a means to keep the masses occupied and hopeful – a cheap solution to the problem of time?’
‘Wait, does this idiot seriously believe that the State is maintaining a system of phony kiosks just so we waste our time waiting for things that don’t exist?
‘No, no, I’m not claiming that’s how it is, I’m only saying it philosophically. Like a metaphor, a metaphor of life, do you understand?’
‘Well, metaphor or not, this smells of subversion to me. You’d do well to keep your voice down – ‘

Waiting in the line becomes an obsession for all of them. Their jobs suffer, they don’t talk to each other any more except to arrange shift patterns. They begin to display all the traits of addicts – the line is their life now, their neighbours in the queue replace their families; the line is the only place were hope still lives. Whiling the hours away in the line is preferable to anything else. There is much philosophising about time and Sergei muses with himself and his neighbours in the line …

‘Here’s a question for you: Does waiting make time move faster, or slower?’
‘Slower of course. Everyone knows that time flies when you’re happy, but when you’re waiting, each moment crawls by.’
(Each moment, they say. Ah, but moments are akin to snowflakes, no two alike. Some extend back like powerful microscopes, zeroing their light on some spot in the past, until the recollection, bright, enlarged, is spread for your contemplation as if under glass. Others remind you of that curiously unpleasant mathematical paradox, that hapless runner trying to reach point B from point A in eternal increments of half the remaining distance, doomed never to attive at his destination, the units of time sliding one out of another life endless smaller compartments hidden in larger ones, again and again and again, suspending time in an agony of futile anticipation. Then, of course, there are others, light and enjoyable, fleet and indistinct like dreams, like delightful whooshes down a slide in some forgotten park, like so many of their moments spent waiting, spent daydreaming, here – if they but knew it. Here, then, is a better question for you: If you’re happy when you’re waiting, what happens to time then?)
‘Me, I just can’t help wondering – we’ve given up almost a year of our lives for one or two hours of enjoyment. Is it worth it?’

I really loved this book. It felt so authentic – well the author is Russian; she perfectly captures the dreary lives of people just trying to get by under the regime but always dreaming of better things – and we get to live their hopes and aspirations with them. Like Vladimir and Estragon, Beckett’s two tramps in Waiting for Godot, the waiting is what they do best, with the lure of things happening tomorrow.

I definitely want to read Grushin’s first book, The Dream Life of Sukhanov having read this fantastic novel. (9.5/10) I bought this book.

N.B. This book has also been published with a different title – ‘The Line’ outside the UK.

Catching up with Persephone Reading Week.

Last week was Persephone Reading Week which has been hosted by Claire and Verity.  As well as visiting the Persephone bookshop, I did manage to read one of their titles, but didn’t manage to blog about it last week. So here I am a week late – my choice was one of the Persephone top-selling titles:

Little Boy Lost by Marganita Laski.

Imagine you only ever saw your baby boy just the once, then war intervened and your family was split.  This happens to Hilary Wainwright, who goes to war leaving his wife and new baby in Paris to follow on, but they never do as the Nazis take Paris. Lisa later dies working for the resistance and the baby disappears.  Five years later Hilary returns to find out what happened to his child – a colleague Pierre has found a likely candidate in a Catholic orphanage in a little town some way from Paris – but is this child really little John?

I won’t tell you any more of the plot, suffice to say that it is a tear-jerker, but it also got me doing the bookish equivalent of shouting at the telly – yes!  Although you naturally have huge sympathy for his situation, Hilary is an intellectual who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and is always too quick to find everyone’s little failings, while neglecting to see his own. He also dismisses Winnie the Pooh!

‘I don’t know any stories about little saints,’ said Hilary, trying hard to remember what he himself had enjoyed when he was five. I have a horrible feeling it was Winnie the Pooh, he thought, but I’m damned if I’m going to introduce any child to that type of whimsicality. He started to wonder how far a parent could be justified in refusing to allow his child pictures or writings that he as an adult must condemn on aesthetic grounds – and was recalled by Jean pulling at his sleeve and urging, ‘Please do begin.’

The depiction of life immediately after the war in France is gripping, indeed the book was originally published in 1949.  The little town in which Hilary finds himself is not only grey and decrepit, but also full of resentment between its inhabitants – some were ‘collaborateurs’.  The black market is thriving, and at the town’s remaining rather nasty hotel, anything is available – at a price.  It’s not a nice place, but makes for a totally gripping read.  (8/10, I bought this book).

Gaskella’s Midweek Miscellany #10

I’ve not been very active on the blogging front the past week – but I have had other things on my mind. I had a one of those big birthdays with a zero on the end this weekend, and surprised myself by being rather pre-occupied with it. I really didn’t care when I was forty, but this next one got under my skin a bit. So I’ve decided that I shall not get wound up by birthdays any more by reverting to being 36 for as long as I can get away with it!

As it happened though, I had the most marvellous weekend. Firstly, I got to meet loads of lovely book-bloggers at our get-together in Bloomsbury – arguably the literary heart of London. It was so nice to put faces to names. A special thanks to everyone for not getting fed up with me for saying it was my birthday(!), and to SimonT for organising the event. We’re already talking about another one, possibly in Oxford later in the year, and we’re researching venues …

Some of us met up at the Persephone bookshop first which was a great way of celebrating the tail end of Persephone Reading Week which has been hosted by Claire and Verity.  I bought three titles, Miss Ranskill comes home by Barbara Euphan Todd; The Hopkins Manuscript by R C Sherriff; and Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple.  I did actually manage to read a Persephone book last week too – my review of Little Boy Lost by Marganita Laski will follow eventually.


My real birthday treat came on Sunday though, when OH took me and daughter Juliet together with best friends Sue & Neil to Raymond Blanc’s pad which happens to be less than thirty minutes away from us.  Sunday lunch at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons was a wonderful experience, (that I hope to repeat when OH is *0 too, if not sooner). Us grown-ups ordered the full ten course Menu Découverte. I can honestly say that although I’m notoriously picky with food, I ate all but a couple of mouthfuls it was that delicious – I even ate the duck liver terrine, which came with toasted brioche, ginger cream and lemon marmalade – a brilliant combination.

My veal with asparagus, caramelised shallot and garlic cream

The food was exquisitely presented and by the end of the afternoon we were comfortably full, not to mention slightly sozzled. I also got a birthday candle on my last pudding (of three) with a sugarwork  Happy Birthday plaque which they boxed up for me as a souvenir – very subtle.

Juliet’s children’s menu was also lovely including pan-fried fish and chips wrapped in an Asterix comic.  She got taken into the kitchen (with me too of course) to choose her ice-creams for pudding which was a real treat – I recognised the chef who served her from M.Blanc’s recent TV series.   There was a big bronze head and torso of Raymond surveying his kitchens just inside the door too.  By the way I can recommend Raymond’s memoir A taste of my life, which I reviewed back here.

Service was attentive and unobtrusive, although our waiter was a real laugh; the sofas in the lounge before and after were suitably squashy – and Alastair from The Restaurant was in there too.  Afterwards we walked in the gardens which will be wonderful once in full bloom and the vegetables are well underway. To end on a bookish note, there were bronze statues everywhere including this one.

I feel very lucky to have had such a wonderful weekend, with friends both old and new.

Living without your ABC

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

This was our book group’s choice for April into May. This one was my suggestion – I read it ages ago, then it popped into my mind after a blog post discussed it a month or two ago (sorry I can’t remember whose blog to credit it).  After last month’s choice (reviewed here), we were after something a bit more quirky…

A quick resumé: Nollop is a small island nation off the USA, where the inhabitants revere their founder, the man who devised the famous pangram ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ which is emblazoned on his statue in the town square. One day, a letter falls off the statue, z, and this plunges the community into disarray. The Council decide that Nollop is sending them a message to do without that letter in their lives, and issues edicts to all inhabitants not to use it any more and destroy all things containing the letter. Offenders will be punished – two counts and you have a choice of stocks or a lashing; three counts and you’re out – banished. This hitherto tranquil island quickly descends into a totalitarian state, and even with just one letter lost, the cruel punishments are meted out and banishments start to happen. Then more letters begin to fall with increasing consequences …

The entire book is written in letters, mainly between relations Ella and Tassie who live in Nollop’s two communities, which are not linked by telephone. Nollopians are fond of linguistics and routinely use quite elaborate language anyway, but as the letters are removed, it becomes more and more complex, they have to become more and more inventive.

I had expected this book to have been a real marmite book – for our book group to either love or hate it. However, everyone enjoyed it, although admittedly to different levels.  All enjoyed the linguistic machinations, and Miles spent ages trying to make his own pangrams! I found it shocking how fast the society degraded, finding the punishments very severe – but as one of our group retorted, with tongue firmly in cheek, ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’!  At this time of political limbo in the UK, it made us all laugh.  Censorship was another issue – most of the books had to go instantly – absolutely terrible! 

This was a good book group choice. Quirky and quick with plenty of talking points.  (7/10, I bought this book.)  For another review read Nymeth’s here.