Anyone for Beryl?

I’ve been inspired by a question that Simon asked his discussion post during Muriel Spark Reading Week which he co-hosted with Harriet. Simon asked “Which other authors would you recommend to the Spark fan?” and my immediate response was Beryl Bainbridge!

I’ve read just four of Bainbridge’s fifteen novels, but each one has been a joy. They are:

  • The Bottle Factory Outing – read just the other month – her 4th novel set in early 1970s London;
  • The Birthday Boys – one of her historical novels from 1991 about Scott of the Antarctic;
  • Every man for himself about the Titanic;
  • and pre-blog, An awfully big adventure, about a provincial theatre production of Peter Pan.

In my view, she is Spark’s natural inheritor, coming into her own a decade after Muriel.  She is renowned for being the most nominated author never to have won the Booker prize, having been nominated five times. In 2011, the Booker Prize Committee held a posthumous ‘Best of Beryl’ celebration, won by her novel Master Georgie, her novel set during the Crimean War.

There are loads of cracking good Bainbridge novels I’ve still to read, and I’d like to re-read some of the above too.

So – is there anyone for Beryl?
Who would like to join me in a week celebrating this brilliant British author?  

We’re going to be celebrating all things British with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee at the start of June, and London 2012 from the end of July.  I’d like to tap into that and pick a week in between.  How about Monday June 18th to Sunday June 24th.


Muriel Spark Reading Week – The Girls of Slender Means

 It’s Muriel Spark Reading Week, hosted by Simon and Harriet. Do visit their blogs to see a plethora of reviews and links to what we’ve all been reading.

I’ve not read a Spark novel since 2008 when I really enjoyed The Ballad Of Peckham Rye.  I chose another of her 1960s novels for MSRW…

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The Girls Of Slender Means(1963)

Set mainly between VE and VJ days in 1945 at the end of WWII, TGoSM follows the lives and loves of a group of young women who live in a hostel in Kensington called the ‘May of Teck Club’ after Queen Mary, the wife of George V. The story flits back and forth to before and after something big happens (which I am not going to give away, unlike some of the alternative book covers out there!). Let’s meet the main girls…

There’s Jane – a publisher’s assistant who puts great store by her ‘brain-work’ not being as thin or attractive as the others. Her boss sets her to work on potential authors to find out their weaknesses, so he can exploit them in their contracts.

Joanna is a rector’s daughter, who has moved to London to avoid her propensity for falling for curates. She gives elocution lessons in the Club, and the air is often full of her declaiming poems as she teaches.

Selina, is beautiful and, well, slender; qualities which give her many ardent admirers, whom she happily strings along and sleeps with,  with ne’er a thought about morals going through her pretty head. Indeed Selina is so slender that she is one of the few girls who can fit through the tiny window in the attic washroom to sneak out onto the roof – a secret place for assignations.

The other inhabitants of the Club are also real characters. From the three ladies in their 50s who’ve lived there forever, despite it be a Club for young ladies under thirty. There’s the warden who ‘drove a car as she would have driven a man had she possessed one.’ And there’s Dorothy …

Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of débutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think, except in terms of these phrase-ripples of hers: ‘Filthy lunch.’ ‘The most gorgeous wedding.’ ‘He actually raped her, she was amazed.’ ‘Ghastly film.’ ‘I’m desperately well, thanks, how are you?’ …
… It was some months before she was to put her hed around Jane’s door and announce, ‘Filthy luck. I’m preggers. Come to the wedding.’

I love the Sparkian bon-mot, ‘phrase ripples’.

The Club is very lively. The girls have lots of visitors in to dine, and get taken out all the time, hiring a designer dress one of the other residents in return for ration coupons, although the haggling can get a bit petty:

You can’t wear it to the Milroy. It’s been twice to the Milroy… it’s been to Quaglino’s, Selina wore it to Quags, it’s getting known all over London.

I haven’t mentioned any of the men yet. There are boyfriends, suitors and colleagues, but only one is important to the story. Nicholas Farringdon, a self-styled anarchist intellectual and poet, is trying to get published. Jane is working on him, and brings him to the Club where he falls for Selina.

The above is all told as flash-back. At the beginning of the book, Jane, who is now a journalist, is ringing round to tell everyone that Nicholas is dead, murdered in Haiti. No-one understands quite what he was doing there, as they all remember him rather differently from before ‘it’ happened. This foreshadowing brings a very dark edge to this comedy about frivolous young women trying to escape the privations enforced on them by the war.

It’s not a long novel, 142 pages in my edition. Although full of descriptive passages and dialogue, Spark is sparing in what she tells us, meting out the story in small sections, flashing back between Jane’s later conversations. There are many interjections of poetry from Joanna which punctuate the Club’s activities, all of which keep you on your toes to concentrate on where you are and with whom at any one time. I must say, I didn’t really warm to any of the characters other than Jane who does have some gumption; Spark satirises all the silly girls perfectly. Joanna, the curate’s daughter, retains an air of mystique, mainly being present as a soundtrack of poetry in the background. Having stayed in a YWCA hostel myself when I started my first job, I could understand the goings-on in the club perfectly, (’twas ever thus!).

I enjoyed but couldn’t quite love this book with its sombre undertones, unlike The Ballad of Peckham Rye which I adored and found more wickedly funny. I realise I still haven’t read her most famous book that comes between these two yet either – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – something to rectify, especially as I have a Folio edition.  (7.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

The Girls Of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. Penguin paperback.
The Ballad of Peckham Rye
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

World Book Night in Abingdon with Rachel Joyce


I spent the evening of World Book Night at Abingdon Library in the company of Rachel Joyce – the bestselling author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I read this book at the end of March and loved it – my review is here.

After reading from the novel, Rachel then talked in conversation with Alison from Transworld Books before opening up the floor to questions.

Although this is her first novel, Rachel has honed her art on radio, writing plays and adapting novels for Woman’s hour and the afternoon play on BBC Radio 4.  It was fascinating to hear her talk about writing for radio and the differences between that and writing a novel.

Her novel started out as a 45 minute radio play that she wrote for her father who was dying of cancer; sadly he never got to hear it, but it went on to win an award.

Radio plays have around 7000 words in their 45 minutes, compared with say 90,000 in a typical novel.  Each scene has to have an essential plot point to it – otherwise it’s superfluous, and each episode has to end on a hook. She kept this structure in the novel, but of course gained the freedom to expand and describe all the background and landscape that can’t be included in a short play.

The novel has a large cast of supporting characters, and Rachel explained a little about some of them from the Girl in the Garage – the catalyst for Harold’s journey who has faith, but is grounded serving burgers.  Then there are the various people who talk to Harold on his journey – you can confide in someone who’s passing through. Rachel confessed that her children and one of her dogs also appear in the book.  Later in the book, Harold becomes a bit of a cause célèbre, and a band of other pilgrims gather around him, and he has to confront things, whereas before he has been very British and polite about everything.

Then there’s Maureen, Harold’s closed-in wife, who has as hard a journey as Harold – harder even, as she is left at home.  Harold has the physical aspects of his trek as well as the emotional one, and Maureen who starts off as a rather sharp woman has a hard time coming to terms with her life, but she does ultimately soften.

When asked about how she planned the route of Harold’s journey, she chose the starting point of Kingsbridge in South Devon as that’s where her husband was brought up and they knew the area really well. As for the rest of the route up to Berwick-upon-Tweed, some of it is detailed, other sections less so, but Rachel had a roll of paper charting Harold’s daily progress in detail.

It wasn’t all serious though, Rachel recounted some great things her children had said whilst she was writing the book, and how she used them to take notes when she had inspirations while on the school run.

This all made for a delightful evening, and I got my proof copy of the book signed. So that was what I did on World Book Night 2012. How about you?

A gem of a historical romance out of Africa.

The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

You know how sometimes you’re just in the mood for a sprawling romance, a continent-crossing historical epic, that sort of book.  That was me last week, and The Fever Tree is such a book.

The novel opens in 1880. Frances Irvine is left destitute upon the sudden death of her father. He had been a self-made man, and he and Frances lived in comfort in London; however one last bad investment lost his fortune.  Frances is left with a choice: either to go as a nurse/governess to her cousins in Manchester, or to emigrate to the Cape to marry Edwin Matthews, a young doctor that had lodged with them some time ago. Frances doesn’t really know Edwin, but what choice does she have?

The next chapters tell of her journey to Africa as a second class passenger, travelling with a group of young women emigrating to become  nurses. It is on board ship that she meets William Westbrook – charming and so handsome… He notices her too, and soon she is itching to be released from her vows – enough said!

William is a rogue though, and arriving in the Cape, she discovers that he’s not what she’d hoped for.  She also finds that Edwin has not set up a practice there, but instead is working for William’s boss at a station in the Karoo – some way even from mining town Kimberley. She marries Edwin, but being a doctor’s wife up-country is not what she expected either.  Edwin meanwhile, is concerned about cases of smallpox, and the mine owners will do anything to discredit him.

Their relationship faltering, Frances goes to Kimberley – where she will experience the grabbing world of the diamond mines and see for herself the exploitation of the native workers … and see William again. Rashly, she makes some further poor decisions which will have disastrous consequences.

This was a novel of great contrasts.  Between the first and second class passengers on the ship; the hard-working settler farmers and the nouveaux riches in the African cities; and particularly the greedy mine owners and their casual mistreatment of the native Africans they employed in horrific conditions. The contrasts in the landscape too, the anything goes pioneer town feel of Kimberley, compared with the “austere beauty of the Karoo” which inspired the author to write the novel.

It was hard to dislike Frances, however silly she was.  She threw her heart into most things except, initially, Edwin. When things went wrong, I was rooting for her all the way.  Edwin, as a doctor and scientist, is married on two fronts – he’s precise, restrained and strongly principled, and finds it hard to let go, but he’s a good man, (unlike William).  I admired Edwin, and grew to really like him too for his inner strength.

Impeccably well-researched, this novel was full of detail and made the differences between the lives of the haves and have-nots very clear, as it did too the effects of smallpox, the epidemic and its attempted cover-up, (a true event, I gather).  This attention was never at the expense of the central romance which swept me away and kept me reading, captivated, to the end.

As I read The Fever Tree, I was reminded of another epic romance that I read back in January – Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (review here). O&L too featured a voyage with passengers in first and second classes, episodes in the outback, and a central faltering relationship.  Although I loved O&L, its slow-burn and sheer bulk did require concentration and time to read and appreciate. The Fever Tree encompassed a similar scope in a simpler style that is crying out to be made into a film or TV series, and less pages.  A brilliant debut novel – I loved it too. (9/10).

For another take – read Fleur Fisher’s review here.

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My copy was kindly supplied by the publisher – thank you.

To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
The Fever Treeby Jennifer McVeigh. Pub 29 March 2012 by Penguin Viking, Trade Paperback, 343 pages.
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey.

I was manipulated but didn’t mind, for it was done with kindness …

Wonder by R J Palacio

  • A ten year old boy starts at a new school in the fifth grade…
  • It’s a good prep school, he passed the exam with flying colours…
  • It’ll be the first time he’s been to school, ever…
  • He’s been home-schooled by his Mom…
  • Auggie (short for August) is clever, funny and loves Star Wars…
  • He doesn’t have many friends, but his sister Via, and Daisy the dog make up for that…
  • Why?  Because people stare, then look away quickly…
  • Auggie’s face takes some getting used to…
  • He was born with multiple facial problems including a cleft palate…
  • But underneath it he’s a normal boy, who just wants to be loved …
  • It’s going to be a hard year…

That is the essence of this book in a nutshell, which follows Auggie’s first year in school. I’m not going to say much more about the plot, as you can work out what will happen. This brave youngster is putting himself (and us) on a roller-coaster that will have huge ups and downs, many twists and turns before it pulls back in to the station for the summer recess.

Yes, we readers are manipulated. Yes, it’s a bit sentimental, designed to tug at your heart-strings. But, I couldn’t put the book down. I smiled when Auggie won battles, I got cross when he struggled, and at one point I did cry. I didn’t mind all this though, for it was done with kindness.

Written for children, this book illustrates the issues of living with deformity really well. We start off with Auggie telling his own story, but in later chapters the tale is handed over to his sister and his friends, interspersed with more of Auggie’s voice. We hear both sides, including what it’s like being the sister or friend of someone like Auggie.

There are many, many valuable points about bullying and friendship to be gleaned from Auggie and his classmates. Underlying it all though, as set out by their English teacher Mr Browne, in his ‘Precepts’ for life, is the quality of being kind. He tells them, “When given the choice between being right or being kind. Be Kind.

I hope this book achieves a wide readership among boys and girls. They’ll find that  Auggie is actually great company – he’s very self-deprecating and funny. The author captures the personalities of all the children brilliantly, as she does Auggie’s parents.

Speaking of parents, I also hope that enough of them read it too – there is one event later in the book that should be a lesson to all grown-ups about snobbishness and tolerance. It got me really cross!

It may have been predictable reading it as an adult, but I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I laughed, I cried and I couldn’t put it down.  (8/10)

P.S.  The book is prefaced by a lyrics quote from Natalie Merchant’s song ‘Wonder‘ (from the album ‘Tigerlily‘).  You can see her performing the track live below.

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My copy was supplied courtesy of Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), click below:
Wonder by R J Palacio. Pub Bodley Head, 1 March 2012. Hardback 320 pages.
Tigerlily by Natalie Merchant (CD)

Another different Italian Inspector!

Death and the Olive Grove by Marco Vichi, translated by Stephen Sartarelli

This is the second of Vichi’s novels featuring Inspector Bordelli of the Florentine police.  I’ve yet to read the first, but I don’t think it really mattered. It was first published in Italian in 2003, the English translation was published this year.

When I started reading the book, I was initially worried that it might seem a little similar to Andrea Camilleri’s excellent Inspector Montalbano stories. Stephen Sartarelli has translated both and his style is recognisable in these pages.

Outwardly, although the Italian locations are different, Bordelli has some similarities with Montalbano too, being a single policeman who loves his food and drink. However, some pages in, (there are no chapters, only section breaks), Bordelli was beginning to show a personality of his own, and I really began to enjoy the novel.

Set in the 1960s, this is the era before technology revolutionised forensics. When a young girl is brutally murdered, the scene of the crime is overrun with onlookers, the paparazzi aren’t so new! No sooner than Bordelli and his young sidekick Piras have one murder on their hands, another happens when Casimiro, a dwarf who lives on the edges of Florence’s criminal fraternity, is killed. Casimiro had been Bordelli’s friend, and he vows to find his killer – they had been investigating some fishy goings on together in the grounds of a villa in Fiesole, a town in the Florentine hills.  The villa’s occupant, a German baron, is notable by his absence.  Things will get worse yet…

Bordelli is in his fifties, he’s unmarried, gruff, and accompanied by a personal fug of cigarette smoke everywhere he goes. His methods of detecting are largely to sit and smoke until inspiration hits. He agonises over the murders though, they keep him up at night; added to which he keeps thinking back to the war – when he was a Commander in the part of the San Marco marine battalion that turned and fought for the Allies against the Germans. He was a man of action, a fearsome shot, looked up to by his men which all gives him an added gravitas.  The after effects of the war still resonate from time to time in this part of northern Italy.

When he needs comfort though, he often ends up at Rosa’s flat.  She used to be a prostitute, and they’re old friends, and have a cosy relationship – why she’s knitting him a pullover.  If I had one quibble, it would be that, save for the wartime remnants, occasional musical references and the lack of mobile phones, it didn’t feel very like the 1960s to me – the traditional Italian café culture not having changed so much over the years.

Like all good Italian detectives, he has a healthy disrespect for authority, and goes his own way as much as possible. I liked him a lot and will read more, he needs to give up smoking though – but I forgot – it’s the 1960s!  (8/10)

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I received a review copy through Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Death and the Olive Grove (Inspector Bordelli 2) by Marco Vichi. Pub Hodder & Stoughton. Hdbk, 272 pages. Paperback due out 26 April.
Death in August (Inspector Bordelli 1) by Marco Vichi
The Shape of Water (Montalbano 1) by Andrea Camilleri

The making of a scientist

Konstantinby Tom Bullough

When I met Tom Bullough at the Penguin Blogger’s Night last month, I was instantly taken with his reading from his novel Konstantin.  Later, talking to him, he was excited by the finished article and showed me the lovely fold out cover. An oversized paperback original, the dust-jacket is scattered with gilt planets, stars, constellations and little spacemen.  You can see it in full on Tom’s own website here.  I digress already – back to the novel…

Konstantin is the true story of how a boy grew up to become one of the founding fathers of the Russian space programme – a pioneer in rocket science. Bullough concentrates on the period of his childhood, going through to his mid twenties where we leave him as a teacher developing his scientific ideas.  Don’t worry about being blinded by science though; this novel is concerned about a man following a dream.  First however, let me introduce you to the man it is about.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) wasn’t born into a normal family. His mother was an educated Russian, his father an orthodox Polish priest, who had been deported to Russia. When he was nine he became deaf as a result of scarlet fever, and became largely self-educated after that, which allowed the boy who read Jules Verne, and dreamed of space to focus on his interests.  He is particularly known for his ‘Rocket Equation’ which relates the mass and power of a rocket to the velocity it can attain – the basics of jet propulsion.

The novel opens in 1867, and Kostya is taking food to his father who is working as a forester:

Kostya hurried down the bank towards the frozen Oka, fine and light in his heavy sheepskin coat as a sparrow in its winter plumage. On the river, the tracks of the woodsmen cut north through the even snow, steering a line towards the pine logs strewn along the shore beneath the forest. Kostya ran and slid on the exposed ice. From the darkness of the birch trees he emerged in the December sunlight, one arm extended for balance, the soup can blazing beneath his shirt and his coat, and nowhere beneath the ice-blue sky could he see any movement beside his own long, wavering shadow.

The long Russian winters form the backdrop to most of this novel. There is no denying the hardship it causes to the average Russian family, but when the sun shines, Bullough’s lyrical prose makes it seem like the best of days, a romantic time for tramping in the snow or going tobogganing. Here, Kostya is waxing lyrical to his brother Ignat on their way to the town’s sledging hill:

‘In my world, anyway, there wouldn’t be any gravity, so it would be easy to pick up anything we liked.  In my world, I would be able to jump versts through the air. I would be able to jump through the clouds and right out into the ether. If I wanted to go to Moscow, I would just have to run and jump and I could fly there, easy. The people in the train would see me zooming past like a cannonball! …’

Kostya was probably lucky to survive his encounter with scarlet fever, and the ensuing deafness frees him to think; later, he will make himself an ear-trumpet which allows him to communicate better and will rarely be seen without it.

Aged 18 he goes off to Moscow where he studies at the free library, and gains a mentor in its librarian Nikolai Federov, a philosopher and proponent of Russian Cosmicsm, which combined culture, religion and ethics with science and evolution to look forward to the future of mankind. With Federov’s encouragement and guidance Kostya flourishes in his self-teaching.

We leave Konstantin a few years later – he’s become an inspirational science teacher to his pupils, he’s married and has become a family man, but we can sense that his best is yet to come…

Set as it is during a period of great change, where science and engineering are beginning to revolutionise life, Bullough manages to combine one man’s dreams and achievements with the essential spaciness of the landscape into a rather fine Russian novel. To cap it all, an exciting coda puts Tsiolkovsky’s influence on those scientists who came after him, firmly on the map telling the story of Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk in 1965.

Kostya’s parents were both fascinating characters not being conventional Russians, and I did miss them in the second half of the book once he’d moved to Moscow.  No detail is missed in Bullough’s descriptions though – from felt boots to the use of the old Russian units of measurement (versts and arshins etc, approx 1km and 71cm respectively), everything is authentic.

Russia, winter and science – three subjects that, when combined with Bullough’s beautifully descriptive prose, made an enticing and charming read. Bullough is a writer I’m longing to read more of. (9/10).

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– I received my copy of Konstantin courtesy of the publisher – Thank you.
– For another review, read Mark’s from Mostly Books write-up.
– Reading this book reminded me of another novel I loved (read pre-blog) about the Russian space programme – Ascent by Jed Mercurio (see below) – which tells how a Russian test pilot goes to the moon in a thoughtful and slightly detached spare style that is not afraid to use technical jargon without explanation, but is totally gripping.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Konstantinby Tom Bullough. Pub March 1st by Penguin Viking, 208 pages, paperback original.
Ascent by Jed Mercurio

Can faith work miracles?

The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen

This book wasn’t what I was expecting, although it did start off that way…

In the beginning there was an empty room, a little bit of space, a little bit of light, a little bit of time.
I said: ‘I am going to make fields,’ and I made them from table mats, brown corduroy and felt. Then I made rivers from crêpe paper, cling film and shiny tin foil and mountains from papier mâché and bark. And I looked at the fields and I looked at the rivers and I looked at the mountains and I saw they were good.

When I had read that it featured a girl who was building a model of her world in her bedroom, I had visions of it coming to life in the same way as the drawings did in my childhood favourite Marianne Dreams, (which I was inspired to re-read before starting this book.) The only real point of similarity however was the ten year old girls as the main characters…

Judith McPherson lives with her Dad.  In her bedroom, she is building an model of her world, using bits and bobs that people throw away – sweet wrappers, cloth scraps and matchboxes and she peoples it with pipecleaner, wool and clay figures. She believes in it as an allegory of heaven where she and her father will be together with her late Mum again – She calls it the Land of Decoration after a verse in the Bible.

The Bible is very important in her life. Her family are members of a fundamentalist Christian sect who believe that Armageddon is coming. They don’t associate with non-believers – except when they go door-knocking.

Judith isn’t happy at school. The class bully is on her case, and has been making threats. She doesn’t tell anyone.  When she gets home she decides to make it snow in the Land of Decoration so school would be cancelled.  When it snows for real in October the next day she believes she can do miracles, and she tells God all about it.

This is just the start of her problems. Neil steps the bullying up, and it starts to go beyond the classroom. There’s trouble at the factory too where her father works with a strike in the offing.  Things will come to a dramatic climax that will cause Judith and her father to question their personal beliefs and motivation in life.

There was an awful lot in this novel. It sometimes felt like the author was overflowing with ideas that she wanted to weave into the tale. There’s the one about growing up in a fundamentalist religion (echoes of Jeanette Winterson’s debut here); there’s the one about bullying; there’s the one growing up motherless; there’s the one about world-modelling, (and here I owe the author an apology, writing the word ‘world-modelling’ I couldn’t help but think of Slartibartfast and his fjords from H2G2 by Douglas Adams – sorry!).

Judith is a ten-year-old that’s wise beyond her years. She tries very hard to understand her world, discussing it with God. Her faith is strong with the certainty of youth and it colours everything, however, she does find it difficult when God lets bad things happen to people, and finds it hard to see through the hypocrites that end up surrounding her. She’s sweet and charming, and you do so feel for her growing up motherless.  I also wished that she, and her father for that matter, could have a life and friends outside their church.

Although not matching my initial expectations of a fantasy element in the Land of Decoration, this novel didn’t disappoint.  It was a great debut – a family drama with a strong heart, high drama and a creditable heroine. (8/10)

If you’re interested in finding out more about the book, do visit the author’s website here and see how many of its aspects are semi-autobiographical. See some other thoughts on the book at Fleur Fisher and She Reads Novels.

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I received an ARC of this book from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen, pub March 1 by Chatto & Windus, hardback 304 pages.
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

The case of the randy old goats and the vampire!

Linger Awhile by Russell Hoban

The ex-pat US author Russell Hoban, who lived in London,  died at the end of 2011 aged 86. He kept writing right up to the end.  I haven’t paid a visit to Hobanville in a while, and this short novel published in 2006 neatly filled in the gap between more major reads. Hoban’s world is weird, wacky and earthy – anything goes, and anything can happen, as it does in abundance in Linger Awhile

I’ve included a larger than usual picture of the book’s cover, as the montage of images seems to cover a lot of what happens – from Soho and Chinatown, to a black and white movie cowgirl who looks a bit like Barbara Stanwyck, a toad of the wart-licking variety, a videotape (remember those!), an old seafort, and of course the vampire and her victim in glorious Technicolor.  All that’s missing are the three old guys and a parrot called Elijah. Let’s  meet one of them…

Irving Goodman was married to Charlotte for ten happy years.

We were faithful to each other and I had no mid-life crisis. Then she died. Nobody talks about end-of-life crises but they do happen and twenty-seven years after Charlotte’s death I fell into one at the age of eighty-three. I needed some technical help with it so I bought a bottle of expensive whisky and went to see Istvan Fallok at Hermes Soundways in Soho.

Irving’s crisis is complex. He’s 83 and he’s fallen in love with Justine Trimble who’s been dead for twenty-five years. She was a black and white movie star in the 1950s, and played the kind of cowgirl “you could tie her to a post and leave her out in the rain for two or three days and she’d come out of it freshly laundered, make-up unsmudged, and with dry knickers.”  Irving is convinced that she can be brought to life from the visual DNA of her image in an old video tape of Last Stage to El Paso, and Istvan will be able to work out how to do it.

They drink their Bowmore Cask Strength Scotch (Hoban is big on this kind of detail), and Irv leaves Istvan to it.  Needless to say, he manages to regenerate Justine – but she’s black and white, and not at all happy to be brought back to life like this.  Istvan ‘sees’ to her, and also donates some red stuff which gives her some colour, but he’s an old man himself, and it’s not enough for the newly energised Justine.  She goes off in search of blood and finds and accidentally kills a woman she encounters just dumping the body around the corner. Chauncey Lim, who’s also a Trimble fan, witnessed it, and soon he’s admitted to the club of her randy old admirers.  Although they move the body, the police are soon on the trail, and it all gets very complicated, especially once Istvan’s girlfriend Grace hears about Justine.

This book is very camp, and totally non-PC, reminding me more of the Carry On films with their farce rather than Hammer Horror with its scream factor – call it ‘carry on vamping’?  There are chuckles aplenty with some good one-liners, and plenty of just desserts distributed to even up the high-jinks.

The whole though, feels a bit like a novella stretched just a little thin.  It was a fun, quick read, but I have read better: 2007’s My Tango with Barbara Strozzi for instance, plus his post-apocalyptic cult classic Riddley Walker which is totally different to the rest of his writing (and wonderful).  This one may be slightly more miss than hit, but Hoban is a writer I will keep on reading, and I’ve got plenty left to catch up with. (6.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Linger Awhile by Russell Hoban, Bloomsbury Paperback 2006, 160 pages.
My Tango with Barbara Strozzi (2007)
Riddley Walker (1980)

“I would walk 500 miles” – well 627 actually…

The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

This is a road novel, but with a difference.  Harold Fry used to rep for the brewery, but he’s now retired.  He has nothing to do but get in his wife Maureen’s way.  He’s in a rut, they’re in a rut, basically ever since their son David left, they’ve been in a rut – that’s a lot of rut.

Then one morning a letter arrives for Harold  from Queenie who used to work in accounts at the brewery. It says she is dying of cancer and in a hospice at Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold writes a short letter back, sets off to post it, and as he walks he gets a bit teary thinking about Maureen and David while watching a mother with her son…

Office workers were laughing with lunchtime pints outside the Old Creek Inn, but Harold barely noticed. As he began the steep climb up Fore Street, he thought about the mother who was so absorbed in her son she saw no one else. It occurred to him it was Maureen who spoke to David and told him their news. It was Maureen who had always written Harold’s name (‘Dad’) in the letters and cards. It was even Maureen who had found the nursing home for his father. And it begged the question – as he pushed the button at the pelican crossing – that if she was, in effect, Harold, ‘Then who am I?’ He strode past the post office without even stopping.

It’s the girl in the garage who confirms to him what he should do. He stops for a snack, and she tells him about her aunt who had cancer and they all prayed for her to get better. Harold doesn’t turn back, he’s decided to walk all the way to Berwick.

The only problem is that he’s in the South Hams in Devon – it’s 627 miles. A life-changing decision for Harold is indeed an unlikely pilgrim. He’s totally under-equipped, wearing the wrong shoes, the wrong clothes and with no supplies or first-aid kit; it’s not long before he gets bad blisters.

He plods along, blisters allowing, inching towards his destination by six, seven, or maybe eight miles a day. He begins to delight in the nature he sees along the way, and he always manages to find a bed for the night. He keeps in touch with Maureen and Queenie, with postcards and brief phone-calls. Poor Maureen is in a quandary, half wanting to leap in the car and either stop him, half hoping he’ll give up on his own, but incapable of actually doing anything herself.

The thing that keeps Harold going though is the people he meets. From a lovely Slovakian doctor who can only find work in the UK as a cleaner, to a silver-haired gentleman who needs to talk about his rent-boy lover…

He (Harold) understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passer by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things, that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.

Not all his encounters are so benign, and for a while Harold becomes the centre of attention as his cause is picked up by the press. As you might hope and expect however, as Harold continues on his journey, the details of his story are teased out: How he met Maureen and their early days; how he met Queenie, and how she became a special friend to him; and about his son David. What started out as an entertaining and altruistic journey, (which reminded me slightly of Hector and the search for happiness initially), becomes something much deeper, darker and better as Harold explores himself, and is surprised at what he finds.

This is a novel that never descends into mawkishness or sentimentality, although it could have so easily. From the outset, you care about Harold – and Maureen and Queenie for that matter. I needed to hear their stories, and to hear how they ended. I chuckled, I welled up with tears, and I kept turning the pages, needing to read on. (9/10)

Despite being a debut novel, Rachel Joyce is not a novice at writing, having honed her art on Radio 4 plays and the like.  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of  Harold Fry is an accomplished story and justifies its selection as one of the 2012 Waterstones 11 pick of the best debut novels coming out this spring.

Read also: Fleur Fisher‘s thoughts on this fine novel.

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I received an ARC of this novel via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, pub 15 March by Doubleday. Hardback, 304 pages.
Hector & the Search for Happiness (Hector’s Journeys) by Francis Lelord