Ali Shaw & The Abingdon Writers Group

Last night I went to a meeting of the Abingdon Writers Group to which they’d invited author Ali Shaw to speak, and opened it up to non-members as part of the 2012 Abingdon Arts Festival. First we heard from several members of the group who talked about their experiences, the benefits of having a support group of other writers to critique their work and egg them on; we heard about some of their successes too which have been notable for a young group.  If you’d like to find out more do click through to the link above.

In the second half of the evening Ali Shaw gave a reading from his fab new novel The Man Who Rained (my review here). He chose a lovely passage where Finn (the man who rains) shows Elsa canaries made from sunbeams – magical!

Ali talked a bit about his two novels and their inspirations. A vision of glass feet came to him on an escalator in Reading as the initial thought behind his first book The Girl with Glass Feet (my review here).  That book was steeped in the fairy-tale traditions of Hans Christian Andersen.

The Man Who Rained draws its themes from folklore rather than fairytale which is full of “capricious weather characters” and the devil in all his guises. Ali told us how he had wanted to think about a time where the weather was more elemental in people’s life, and to bring that feeling into a contemporary setting.

He mentioned how he sees his books which, for anyone who hasn’t read him have a strong natural magic element, as general fiction – glad that there is an increasing blurring of genres these days, so that more books that would have been pigeonholed as fantasy gaining a general readership.  He mentioned The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey as an example, (my review here).  However, he added rather mischieviously, everything goes back to folklore and fairytale.

His third novel has just been delivered to his agent. It’s about a forest which grows overnight, and a man who has to find his wife in a world transformed by the primal power of nature.  Powerful images indeed – sounds fantastic!

He also talked about how he writes, how the best ideas come from the back of his brain, and how he doesn’t plan out his novels before he starts.  He encouraged the writers group, comparing its function to that of his Creative Writing MA, and urged them to keep writing and use the group.

Then he signed books, and I was delighted that he remembered me from his previous visit to Abingdon and my blog posts on his books.  Nice guy, great writer and lovely books too.

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To explore the books mentioned above at Amazon UK, click below:
The Man Who Rained by Ali Shaw
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Who is John Wayne? Who killed Susan? Does it matter?

Newton’s Swing by Chris Paling

Chris Paling has written nine novels, but it’s taken those nine to get some real recognition via being chosen as one of Fiction Uncovered’s 2011 crop of the best authors you haven’t read yet with his book Nimrod’s Shadow.

That book is in my TBR pile, but I discovered I already had an earlier one of his novels Newton’s Swing , which was published in 2000, so I decided to read that first.

Susan lies dead on her bed, shot in the side.  Her husband John, has dialled 911, but is shocked and confused, and is unsure what to do. Rewind a decade…

John Wayne is an Englishman, an ad-man working in New York who finds ‘the world is split between those that make a joke about my name, and those who don’t’.  Naturally, he prefers those who don’t.  He works for Angel, head of the agency, who is famed for his ‘parties’, where no-one goes by their own name. ‘That way even if the girls get hurt, reputations stay safe.’ John meets a beautiful art dealer, Susan, (whom Angel knows as Leona), and despite the instant hatred between John and her best friend Angela, they become a couple and have a son, Jordan.

John tells his story through his relationships with friends, colleagues and family. Flicking back and forward through the years, contrasting episodes from his life with Susan to the fall-out of her murder, and the re-building of the bond with his son, and eventually auditioning replacements for Susan.

John is racked with grief, guilt, self-doubt.  Eventually someone is jailed for Susan’s murder, but you never feel that they got the right man.  All the way through as we negotiate life’s quagmire with John,  there are moments when you think you know what happened, but then again …

Wayne is a complex character, an outsider who somehow manages to fit in, but not completely. ‘Susan’s world had a secret door to it. A few people had the key: Angela, a couple of other women, Jordan, perhaps another man. Not me.’  All of them have something to hide, yet it is obvious that he and Susan did have something, but they connected on another wavelength entirely.

Written in a taut and sparing style, I was drawn from the beginning into John’s world. Regardless of whether I trusted his memory or not, I wanted him to come out of his internalising of Susan’s death, and to really get to know his son.  There is some humour and light, but John’s story is serious, a little cold and aloof and an absolutely compelling read.  I’m going to have to read a lot more of Paling’s books if they’re this good. (9.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Newton’s Swing by Chris Paling. Vintage paperback, 240 pages.
Nimrod’s Shadow by Chris Paling.

A brilliantly entertaining “Not a Sherlock Holmes” novel…

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R King

Novels which adopt other authors’ characters can be a bit hit or miss – I think I was the only person who thoroughly enjoyed PD James’s Pride & Prejudice sequel. With the benefit of hindsight, I totally saw it as a continuation of the TV series though, rather than P&P the novel.  So, not having read any of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories properly, I possibly wouldn’t have picked this book up.  I was lucky enough, however, to win a copy from Shelf Love’s blogiversary giveaway last year, and given the BBC’s huge (and justified) success with Sherlock, it was finally time to see what someone else could do with Holmes.  Jenny and Teresa both loved it, friends of mine have read and loved it, so I had high hopes.

Let me get this straight at the start: this is not a Sherlock Holmes novel. Mary Russell tells the story.  Holmes gets second billing, and there are minor supporting performances from Mrs Hudson, Dr Watson, Mycroft Holmes and Inspector Lestrade too.

Mary, at the story’s start in 1915, is just fifteen herself.  Recently orphaned, she is chafing under the guardianship of her penny-pinching aunt, and one morning out walking on the Sussex downs to escape her argumentative relative, she stumbles upon a man whom at first she mistakes for a tramp.  He has been observing bees, and puts her in her place, but mistakes her for a boy.  So insults traded, she reveals her plaits, and then finally realises who she is sparring with – ‘A Legend.’ Holmes has been impressed by the sparky, gawky girl who knows her own mind, and invites her join him for tea.  Thus begins Mary Russell’s apprenticeship to the greatest detective who ever lived, who is not quite ready to retire fully yet.

The opening chapters follow Mary’s education by Holmes, and soon she is off to Oxford as a bluestocking.  Oxford suits her, and she keeps in touch with her mentor.  Visiting back home, she finds that the partnership has its first case which easily solved.  A subsequent visit provides a more substantial challenge which will put Russell in some real danger, in the rescue of the kidnapped daughter of an American senator.  But this is nothing compared with what is to come, when a bomber targets Holmes and Russell and they must solve the crime to save their lives…

Mary & Holmes’s adventures are, first and foremost, great page-turning fun. There’s scarcely time to breathe, so packed is the book with adventure, disguises, deduction, detection, observation, acting, logic, forensics, body language, code-breaking and more – all the tools of the great detective are at Mary’s disposal, and luckily for her, she has been a great pupil for that will save her life again and again.  Blessed with a boyish physique, Mary is the kind of heroine that will throw herself into the game, she’s certainly not afraid to get her hands dirty.

I’ve already admitted that I don’t know the true Holmes well, but by cleverly setting the books after the end of Doyle’s stories and into the start of Holmes’s wind-down into retirement, King gets some leeway to play with. Ditto with the period – starting in 1915, we’re already into WWI, and attitudes to women are having to change, so having a female apprentice is not such an unusual thing.  It’s fair to say, that Holmes would never strike me as a man to accept retirement easily, and having a young person about will help keep him young at heart.  Mary fits seamlessly into Holmes’s circle, even though she is so young.  At first she fits in like a favoured niece, but as she matures into a young woman, this semi-familial bond changes into something more affectionate, and despite the age-gap, you sense a deepening bond …   (9/10)

Thank you to Jenny and Teresa for introducing me to this cracking good read.  I definitely want to read more in the series – there are currently 10, with an 11th to come.  Even more it makes me want to read some of Doyle’s originals to get the real measure of the man who is Sherlock Holmes.

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I received my copy as a gift. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (Mary Russell Mystery 01) by Laurie R King (Allison & Busby paperback, 448 pages).
Sherlock – Series 1 and 2 Box Set [DVD]

Cosy Weirdness in Whitby

Never the Brideand Something Borrowed by Paul Magrs

Just before I started this blog, I read a book that gave me a sustained bout of chuckling all the way through. On the face of it, Never the Bride was a cosy mystery set in Whitby, with two old ladies doing the sleuthing… But underneath it’s a rather different animal.

B&B owner Brenda and her friend Effie seek a quiet life  in Whitby, but when weird things start happening, they can’t resist investigating. What ensues is a wonderfully Gothic black comedy featuring mysterious makeovers, aliens on the run, the Christmas Hotel where it is always Noel, and the even more mysterious Mr Alucard, not to mention our heroine Brenda – who is not what she seems.

This book was an absolute delight from page one, a gently hilarious and quirky tale full of weird and wacky adventures for the not quite OAPs Brenda and Effie. The nods to Frankenstein, Dracula, The War of the Worlds and other classic novels of that ilk fit perfectly with the otherworldlyness of Whitby – which is obviously a hotbed for paranormal activity!   I gave it 10/10.

So why did it take me so long to read the next book in the series Something Borrowed?  After all, there are now three further titles in the series. When I read start reading a series and really love the first book, I’m always slightly afraid that the second novel won’t live up to the first.

It was like meeting old friends, I needn’t have worried. Of course this time I knew Brenda’s secret…

Above all I felt that I was fitting in at last. I was happily inconspicuous. A little tall, perhaps. I am a heavy-set woman, with undistinguished features. My hands are rather large. I tend to keep them out of the way, and try nto to gesticulate when I speak. My accent is difficult to pin down, for I have lived in many different towns and counties. I slather my face in thick make-up, so that it always has a slightly unnatural hue to it. Not out of vanity, you understand. I look more like someone covering something up than I do someone deliberately flaunting herself. I hear people wonder: burns? Scars?

It’s not long before trouble finds Brenda and Effie though. Someone is writing poison pen letters, and then Jessie the Zombie Womanzee is causing problems. Enter on the scene the ghost-hunting Professor Henry Cleavis, who causes Brenda to re-live a previous life. Dare she let herself love him after all these years?

It’s not necessary to have read the first book to enjoy this one. Magrs cunningly integrates most of the necessary back-story without seeming repetitive to familiar readers; you’d be missing a treat if you didn’t read Never the Bride though. The first book was more episodic in nature, involving Brenda and Effie in a series of adventures. The arc of the second again involves several plots, but rather than being sequential, they’re woven together into a whole which makes for a more satisfying story overall.

The most important thing is how you can’t help but really care for Brenda and Effie.  They’re chalk and cheese, but make a wonderful partnership.  Big, lumpen, Brenda has a heart of gold, and is kind and gentle, whereas Effie is nosy and petite and can be quite sharp with it, but the two women have forged a strong bond of sisterhood.

These novels transcend categorisation – They’re hilarious; they’re an affectionate spoof on all things paranormal and Gothic horror, yet with a small town cosy crime sensibility featuring two of the most lovable amateur sleuths you’ll ever find. Overall, these books have such a sense of fun, that I definitely won’t wait so long before I read the next one, and Magrs gives some hints of what is to come too.  (9.5/10)

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I bought my copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Never the Brideand Something Borrowed by Paul Magrs.

Bottling Things Up, or Bottling Out?

A couple of weeks ago, Simon at Savidge Reads chose three books he was going to read before his imminent thirtieth birthday, (and he asked for more recommendations for forty books to read before he is forty.) One of the three was based on a suggestion of mine that he give the late Dame Beryl Bainbridge a go. So, when he chose The Bottle Factory Outing, which is one of hers I haven’t read, I said that I’d readalong too. If you head on over to Savidge Reads today, you can see what he thought of it. Meanwhile, here’s my review …

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The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

The late Dame Beryl’s third novel, like much of her early output is semi-autobiographical; apparently she actually worked in a bottle factory after her her divorce in the late 1950s, so I imagine that when she came to write The Bottle Factory Outing  in 1974, she knew what she was talking about.

Freda and Brenda are two young women, with seemingly only their youth in common.  Freda is a large brassy blonde with a personality to match and aspirations to act. In contrast, Brenda is dark and rather passive, but has run away to London from her drunken farmer husband, and ended up being adopted by Brenda.  The girls share a bedsit in North London, and a large double-bed – with a bolster down the middle!

They work at the bottle factory which is run and otherwise staffed by Italians apart from Patrick, the Irish van driver.  The girls stick the labels on the wine and the men operate the bottling plant. Freda has the hots for trainee manager Vittorio; he is engaged to an Italian girl, but Freda hopes she can persuade him otherwise.  Brenda, meanwhile, has to fight off the advances and fumblings of Mr Rossi. Little do the men realise the effect that introducing two English girls into the factory will have on the whole place!

Freda has persuaded Mr Paganotti the factory owner, whom we never meet, that they should have an employee outing. She’s made the arrangements; they’ll go to a stately home by mini-coach and have a picnic, with plenty of wine.  Brenda doesn’t really want to go, but there’s no way she can escape – Freda won’t let her!  From the moment the troops gather on the appointed morning (not a work day, note), and the coach doesn’t turn up, you just know it’s going to go horribly wrong and I shan’t say any more…

This novel may be short at 200 pages, but it’s dense in description. The two women are at the centre of it, and at first, I found it hard to distinguish between their two voices, so intertwined are their lives. Soon however, all was clear, and the humour underneath was beginning to come through, such as in the quotes below:

Freda is in a bad mood, stalking around in the room, finding everything unsatisfactory…

The room lacked character, she thought, looking critically at the yellow utility furniture and the ladies in crinolines walking in pairs across the wall-paper. There was no colour scheme – nothing matched; there was no unity of design. Every time she made some little improvement, like arranging a curtain around the washbasin near the door, it only drew attention to the cracked tiles and the yards of antiquated piping clinging in convoluted loops up the wall.

… but minutes later (on the next page), after receiving a note from Vittorio to say that he was popping round …

Why can’t life always be like this, she thought, smiling and smiling at the lovely room with its cheerful wallpaper and the gay curtain that hid the waste-pipe of the washbasin. She revolved slowly in front of the open window, the street turning with her: the shining bonnets of the cars at the kerb, the spearheads of the painted railings, the thin black trees that were bouncing in the wind.

While Vittorio conforms to the 1970s image of a typical handsome young Italian with a bit of fashion style, the other Italian workers are his opposite. Brought over from the home-country, they speak little English: they just work, drink wine, and play football. They may be small cogs, but they’re honour-bound patriots one and all.  It’s not quite the Mafia’s code of ‘Omerta’, but it’s pretty close.

Freda is undeniably a bit of a tease, but as a girl of limited means, she going to do her best to improve her lot. She also can’t understand why Brenda seems to get more attention from the men at the factory, although she’s glad that Vittorio is not one of them.  Brenda, although she’s escaped her marriage, is still repressed by it, and in a way has replaced Stanley with Freda.  Brenda isn’t good at making her feelings known, and can usually be talked, henpecked into anything, never wanting to upset the status quo.

Once they were on the outing, I couldn’t help but see Freda and Brenda as younger variations on the characters Beverly and Angela from Mike Leigh’s 1977 classic play Abigail’s Party, at which Beverly hosts a dinner party for her new neighbours and it goes deadly wrong.  Leigh’s play, and the TV staging of it, of course came after this book was written, but I saw it back then when I was 17 and it has stayed with me ever since.  It was a kitchen-sink drama relocated to the posher lounge; a comedy that you had to increasingly grit your teeth to get through, as the awfulness of what was happening revealed itself, but you couldn’t help laugh/grimace at.  There is much of this grit your teeth comedy in later stages of The Bottle Factory Outing too, and Bainbridge’s true genius is in how she resolves everything and makes us, the reader, complicit in what happens.

The Bottle Factory Outing, while I enjoyed it as the other later Bainbridge novels I have read, is sparkier and, although immaculately structured, freer in its focus which made it slightly more difficult to get into.  Like her contemporary, Muriel Spark, Beryl was an author who made every word count – there is no padding, and that is a wonderful thing.  She has definitely become a firm favourite of mine. (9/10)

Readers new to Bainbridge might prefer to start with one of her later novels which have a mature ease about the writing.  I loved The Birthday Boys about Scott of the Antarctic, Every Man for Himself about the Titanic, and An Awfully Big Adventure about a provincial production of Peter Pan, (which I read pre-blog).  I have yet to read Master Georgie, set during the Crimean War, which won the Booker Best of Beryl last year, (she was the most nominated author never to win).

An afterthought on The Bottle Factory Outing – It would make a tremendous book group choice! – In fact we’ll be reading it for our group in April…

Now I’m off to Simon’s… see you there perhaps?  He’ll be popping over here too. Ciao for now!

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge
Abigail’s Party (BBC) [1977] [DVD]

A classic adventure

The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Richard Hannay is newly returned from living in South Africa, and he’s already bored with London.  Everything seems to be happening elsewhere, especially in the Near East, and the Greek Premier, Karolides, seems to feature.  “It struck me that Albania was the sort of place that might keep a man from yawning.”  Dinner, then the music-hall and strolling home, Hannay is still bored. “I gave half-a-crown to a beggar because I saw him yawn; he was a fellow-sufferer.” 

He needs adventure, and is soon to get it when a neighbour, Scudder, ends up with a knife between his shoulder-blades after confiding in Hannay, who soon realises that a) he’ll be framed for Scudder’s murder and, b) the people who did for Scudder will be after him too. He borrows the milkman’s cap and coat and flees north to Scotland.

Thus begins a series of adventures for Hannay as he tries to evade the baddies, clear his name, and once he uncovers more of the dastardly plot, to bring to the attention of the right people in the Government.

It’s real boys-own stuff involving murder, chases by train, car and on foot, disguises, text-book villains, and also some kind people who help him – believing him to be an okay chap. However, it’s a small world, and the baddies are everywhere…

Many of the chapters are named ‘The adventure of …’ after the main characters he encounters: ‘the literary innkeeper’ in the Scottish wilds, who is only too happy to help, saying “It is all pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle.” , and ‘the radical candidate’ – a local toff campaigning to be elected, who just happened to have been at college with Hannay.

At just 113 pages in my edition, the adventure sped by with no time to rest.  It was great fun, and Hannay is a real hero. At 37, he’s a man who’s seen and done many things. He’s rugged, resourceful and totally at ease with himself. You sense that he knows how to handle a gun but he’s also clever enough to decipher codes and talk at the highest level.  What a guy!

Those familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carrol, upon reading this book, may well say ‘Cherchez la femme’, for there are no significant female characters in the book at all, and there are many other plot changes. (The current West End stage version is based on Hitchcock’s film).  The 1978 film version starring Robert Powell was closer to Buchan’s original, but still adds a strong woman character, and goes for a different climax in the ending involving Big Ben, which I remember as being rather fab!

The plot of Buchan’s novel may have a few large holes in – Why Scotland?  Why the coincidences of meeting friends out in the wilds, and stumbling upon the chief baddie’s lair?  I’ll forgive him though, as I liked Hannay too much to wonder much about these holes.  Buchan went on to write four more Hannay adventures, none of which I’ve read, but wager will be as much fun as the first.  (7.5/10)

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To explore further on Amazon, click below:
The 39 Steps by John Buchan, paperback.
The Complete Richard Hannay: “The Thirty-Nine Steps”,”Greenmantle”,”Mr Standfast”,”The Three Hostages”,”The Island of Sheep” by John Buchan, paperback omnibus.
The 39 Steps [DVD] dir Alfred Hitchcock, starring Robert Donat.
The 39 Steps [1978] [DVD] (1978), starring Robert Powell.

I bought my copy.

Penguin Blogger’s Night

I had the privilege to be invited to the second annual Penguin Blogger’s Night which happened yesterday. Having been last year, I knew it would be a great evening, and I made all the arrangements so that I could go.

It was held in the fifth floor bar at Waterstones Piccadilly – amazingly I’d never been in that particular bookshop before! It was lovely to see many familiar faces Rachel, Naomi,Hayley, David, Jess – also with hubby Chris this time, Kim, and Simon T. Luckily for us, DGR aka Lynn who I’ve only met once before for a few minutes but feel as if I’ve known her for ages, and John Self, whom I’ve not met before were there too, and it was great to talk with them too.

Of course we were really there for the free books to meet the Penguin authors and hear about their latest books, and the roll call was tremendous …

Naomi Alderman opened off the proceedings with a reading from The Liar’s Gospel, a retelling of the life and death of Jesus Christ from the pov of the Pharisees – the orthodox Jews of the time. She shocked us all with the opening pages which describe the daily sacrifice of a lamb.

Marina Lewycka then read from Various Pets Alive and Dead which promises to be a very funny novel about modern values and families.  Her extract about the day when Marcus met Doro at an anti-Vietnam rally in Grosvenor Square in the 1960s had us all chuckling.

Greg Baxter read a stunningly bleak passage from his novel The Apartment. It may have been bleak, but it was good and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

Jenny McVeigh read from her novel The Fever Tree.  Set in 1800 in the diamond mines of Africa, based on diaries from the time about a smallpox epidemic that Cecil Rhodes supressed.

Robert MacFarlane was the only non-fiction author there. His new book The Old Ways is about ancient tracks where he follows the feet of those who used them.  Just because it’s non-fiction, doesn’t mean that prose can’t be spell-binding – and his certainly was.

Amanda Hodgkinson read from the beginning of her book 22 Britannia Road, in which a Polish ‘housewife’ and her young son are travelling to Britain to be reunited with her husband after WWII ends.  I’m looking forward to reading this book very much, and had a long chat with Amanda who was lovely.

Nat Segnit had us all in fits with a reading from his debut novel Pub Walks in Underhill Country – which masquerades as a tourist guide to walking in the West Midlands, but soon gets taken over by the story of Graham Underhill and his failing marriage to Sunita.

Nell Leyshon comes from Glastonbury, and told us how she’s never got over having to move away – just five miles.  This is what happens to 15 year old Mary in 1851 when she is sent to work for the Vicar in The Colour of Milk.

Elif Shafak was by far the most beautiful woman in the room, and her lovely accented tones beguiled and then shocked us, as she read from the start of her novel Honour in which a young Kurdish woman is waiting for her brother, a murderer, to be released from prison.  Another to really look forward to reading.

Tom Bullough read from Konstantin, his third novel, set in Russia, which has a wonderful fold-out cover). It tells the story of a boy who goes on to be a great scientist – the first man to work out how man might conquer space.  Russia and space – two things guaranteed to get this book put to the top of my reading list (once the TBR double dare is over).  Tom and I got into a great chat, about being a parent and the Mabinogion amongst other things. Funnily enough, Simon S reviewed Bullough’s second novel just the other week, and I think he is going to be an author to watch.

Nikita Lalwani read from The Village, her second novel about a British team making a film about a open prison in India – a village where all the inmates are murderers.

James Kelman, the Booker Prize-winning author of How late it was, how late, was the last author to read.  Jim, as he introduced himself to me during the interval was charming and twinkly, yet the moment he began to read from Mo Said She Was Quirky, he was deadly serious and into the mindset of his main character, Helen, an ordinary young woman with whom we spend 24 hrs.

What a line-up!  I wish I’d taken more photos – but I kept forgetting.  And did I mention there was a table full of free books?  I came away with a bag full for which I’m extremely grateful.

Many thanks to Joe, Lija and all the Penguin team for organising everything. 

Book Group Report – Land of the grey

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder.

After the racy delights of Jilly Cooper’s Riders last month, we went for something completely different for our February read.

Stasiland by Anna Funder is a work of investigative journalism, chronicling the lives of some people who lived in the GDR before the Berlin Wall came down.

Funder is an Australian journalist who learned German liking ‘the sticklebrick nature of it.’  She went on to study and live in West Berlin in the 1980s where she ‘wondered long and hard what went on behind that Wall.’  She returned in the 1990s to investigate the ‘horror-romance‘ of the GDR, and what remained of it.

Taking a flat in East Berlin, she talked to both watchers and the watched, and visited the buildings of the GDR apparatus some of which have been turned into museums.  The stories of Miriam, who became an enemy of the state at just sixteen, and Frau Paul, whose sick baby had to be taken to the West and ended up separated from her for years, and Anna’s landlady Julia’s terrifying ordeal were as touching as Funder’s interviews of ex-Stasi officers were distasteful. By alternating between the two it really brings home the differences between the haves and have-nots of the East German state.

For the have-nots, everything in life is difficult.  Everything is shrouded in bureaucracy, and if you are out of favour with the State, it is doubly so. Funder tells of the occasion when Julia tried to find a job …

Julia went to the Employment Office, took a number and stood in an interminable line. She was among people who might have had similar experiences, both explicable and not, to her own. She turned to the man behind her and asked, ‘So how long have you been unemployed?’
Before he could answer an official, a square-built woman in uniform, stepped out from behind a column.
‘Miss, you are not unemployed,’ she barked.
‘Of course I’m unemployed,’ Julia said. ‘Why else would I be here?’
‘This is the Employment Office, not the Unemployment Office. You are not unemployed; you are seeking work.’
Julia wasn’t daunted. ‘I’ am seeking work,’ she said, ‘because I am unemployed.’
The woman started to shout so loudly the people in the queue hunched their shoulders. ‘I said, you are not unemployed! You are seeking work!’ and then, almost hysterically, ‘There is no unemployment in the German Democratic Republic!’

Funder has plenty of time to muse on the greyness of everything in the former GDR.  Her flat is a prime example.

In the kitchen I make coffee directly in the thermos. What surprises me about living here is that no matter how much is taken out, this linoleum palace continues to contain all the necessities for life, at the same time as it refuses to admit a single thing, either accidentally or arranged, of beauty or joy. In this, I think, it is much like East Germany itself.

The thing that came through for me, again and again, was the flatness and lack of colour in the East.  One of our group had been to North Korea, and said it too felt like that, and everything was old and broken.

There were few moments of light relief in this book, maybe with the exception of Klaus the idolised East German rock star, unknown outside his own country. Despite us all being moved by the plight of the women she interviewed, it was the machinations of the Stasi that really gripped.  When interviewing Herr Bock, a recruiter of informers for the Stasi, she interrupts to explain his comments to us, which I and most of our group found helpful.

We all felt that Funder didn’t come over as typically Australian – she did feel like someone who had got to know the German mind really well over the years. Her reportage style of writing showed us East Germany through neutral eyes, which didn’t judge, just telling it how she observed it.

A fascinating and touching book in equal measure, Stasiland did fall slightly flat for me.  As someone who doesn’t read a lot of non-fiction, and even less reportage, I found the author’s impartiality rather than her own personality coming through into the pages made it rather dry – but that’s just me.  (7/10)

Next month – The Canterbury Tales!

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder. Pub by Granta books 2003, paperback 304 pages.
I bought my copy (using my exception for Book Group reads during the TBR Double Dare).

Sunday Snippets …

I seem to have given up on my Midweek Miscellanies not having posted one since last July, but I do have a couple of snippets to post, hence ‘Sunday Snippets‘…

Firstly – a new blog I discovered this week. Jim Morphy blogs at 366 Days, 366 books, and started on Jan 1 this year. This is how he describes his blog:

At this blog, I’ll be highlighting a book a day, with each book having some kind of link to that date, be it a release date, author’s birthday, historical event, or something rather more tenuous. I’m hoping this approach will help me make connections between books and the wider world.

Do go visit this fascinating blog.

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I nearly bought The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach yesterday in the supermarket, but I’m glad I checked, for this book is already in my TBR. In fact I blogged about it here in a feature about bookish Deborahs, for it turns out that now it’s been made into a film with a different title, they’ve re-christened the book.

Of course, re-naming the book  to match the film will get Moggach many more sales, but I always wonder why they couldn’t keep the original and do a” filmed as …”.

What do you think?

Au revoir, from a rainy Oxfordshire – off to be busy now. Enjoy your Sunday…

For blacker than black, read super-noir

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Scene: A diner in Central City, Texas; it’s the early 1950s.  A man walks up to the counter to pay his bill…

The proprietor shoved back my money and laid a couple of cigars on top of it. He thanked me again for taking his son in hand.
‘He’s a different boy now, Lou,’ he said, kind of running his words together like foreigners do. ‘Stays in nights; gets along fine in school. And always he talks about you – what a good man is Deputy Lou Ford.’
‘I didn’t do anything,’ I said. ‘Just talk to him. Showed him a little interest. Anyone else could have done as much.’
‘Only you,’ he said. ‘Because you are good, you make others so.’

This is our first glimpse of Deputy Lou Ford, a respected and stalwart member of the community.  A police officer so at ease with himself and his job, that he doesn’t even carry a gun.  He has a beautiful girlfriend Amy who wants to marry him, he has a house. surely he has everything he wants?

But Lou’s outward persona is just a façade. Inside he harbours deep, dark secrets of the murderous kind. Lou is the only one left in his family.  Only he now knows the truth of what happened with his adoptive brother Mike, it killed his Dad.

Then one day, Lou gets the opportunity to avenge his brother, to get back at the man who was responsible for getting Mike pushed off a girder. The sickness that he has successfully hidden all these years bubbles up to the surface, but Lou believes that he can get away with it.  However best laid plans …

It doesn’t take many pages for us to get the measure of Lou, he’s told us his secret by page 15, and from then on in, we know how the story is going to end – but not how.  The suspense is killing!

Reading Lou’s story, I immediately wondered whether he was the prototype for Jeff Lindsay’s ‘Dexter’ (a forensic blood spatter expert who only murders criminals as an avenging force), but whereas Dexter’s sickness is channelled, Lou’s takes over.  There’s certainly no humour in Thompson’s novel either, it’s blacker than black noir through and through.

The entire novel is told by Lou. He tells us his mind, what he’s really thinking –  when outwardly, he’s the patient lawman.  Even when the net is starting to close in on him, he’s sure they can’t pin anything on him, ever deluding himself. Lou tells us, with obvious relish in the detail, about each blow he strikes in his killing spree.

Thompson’s protagonist is a nasty piece of work, the most amoral man I’ve met in a book since the last noir novel I read which was published just a few years before this one – (Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon). But Thompson’s killer is, in a way, worse than Simenon’s because he is an officer of the law!

Whereas James M Cain can lay claim to having created the biggest femme fatale in crime fiction – that is Phyllis Nirdinger in Double Indemnity, published a few years earlier, I think Jim Thompson has come very close to the ultimate male equivalent with Deputy Lou Ford, and has instilled in me a need to read more of his books, which means I have to award it (10/10).

P.S. I’ve now ordered the DVD of the 2010 film – Will report back.

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (originally published in 1952, paperback).
The Killer Inside Me [DVD]– directed by Michael Winterbottom, starring Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson.
Further noir reading & viewing:
Double Indemnityby James M Cain
Dirty Snow (New York Review Books Classics)by Georges Simenon
Darkly Dreaming Dexterby Jeff Lindsay
Dexter : Complete Season 1 [DVD]