Stirring things up on Martha’s Vineyard

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

AD20120811934468-Tigers_In_Red_WCousins, Nick and Helena Derringer, grew up spending their summers at Tiger House on the Vineyard. Now WWII has ended, they’re grown up and married, Nick to Hughes, freshly returned from the navy and working in Florida, and newly-wed Helena to Avery, a Hollywood producer. Florida doesn’t suit Nick and Hughes, they stifle in the heat, and you wonder how long their relationship will last.  There are tense times and too many shrimp dinners…

Nick looked up from the shrimp. Hughes hadn’t switched the radio on, but he was fingering the silver knobs. He had elegant fingers with neat, square nails. Everything about his was like his hands, tailored and clean, the color of pine. Nick watched him gaze at the dials, run the tips of his fingers over the brown covering of the speaker. She wanted to eat him, he was so beautiful. She wanted to cry or melt or gnash her teeth. Instead, she peeled the skin off another shrimp.

Things are left unsaid between them, secrets are not shared, but a move north to Cambridge, and the decision to have a baby seems to settle them. There will always be an underlying tension between Nick and Hughes though.

Shoot forward to 1959, and their daughter Daisy takes up the story. We’re on Martha’s Vineyard now at Tiger House, which Nick had inherited.  It was ‘the summer they found the body‘.  Helena and her son Ed were visiting for the summer, Ed, who can be very strange at times (like his father), skives off tennis school, then appears saying he has something to show Daisy – it’s the body of a maid from one of the local families.  This event naturally sends a shock-wave through the entire community. Hughes makes arrangements to keep Ed otherwise occupied.

Helena will take up the story next, and it’s clear that the tension between her and Nick, that Nick doesn’t realise is there, is growing. The problems with her strange husband and strange son too, lead her to an increasing dependence on pills and booze, something Avery had got her started on.

Alternate cover

Stoic Hughes and weird Ed in turn will take up the story, which jumps from the mid forties to the 1950s, to the 1960s; Back and fro. However such is the skill of the author, that you’re never confused whom you’re listening to when.  In having the five main characters present the story in turn, we get inside their heads, and find out what they really think about each other.

Literary allusions abound, with lead characters being called Nick and Daisy and New England replacing Long Island, you are bound to think of The Great Gatsby.  The stifling start to Nick and Hughes’ relationship after the war recalls Yates’ Revolutionary Road.  The gin o’clock culture is pure Mad Men meets Hemingway, and to top it all, the author is related to another early chronicler of New England – Herman Melville!

This novel is not a heavy read however, combining the heady family drama with a central mystery that keeps on giving. It’s hard to believe that this was a debut novel – the writing is so accomplished, the characters are rounded and the plot is beautifully tense and controlled.  I was enthralled from the opening pages, and found this book near impossible to put down.  (10/10)

P.S. The title is from a 1915 poem (below) by Wallace Stevens about life made dull by a lack of imagination.

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather.

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

A portrait of a family’s grief …

After Phoenix by Martine McDonagh

I really enjoyed Martine McDonagh’s debut novel I Have Waited and You Have Come, which was a dystopian psychodrama, so I was very happy to read her second novel – but it couldn’t be more different to her first.

After Phoenix

It’s Christmas, December 1973, and we meet the Jacobs family: lefty hippy parents JJ and Katherine, son Phoenix – just back from his first term at uni, and fifteen year old daughter Penny.   Phoenix is overjoyed at having persuaded his parents to get him a motorbike for Christmas.  Penny did well out of that too, getting the record player she was desperate for. Cut to New Year’s Eve – partytime at the Jacobs house.  Phoenix has a fumble with Penny’s best friend Jackie – she’ll not let Penny know who she did it with.

Cut to the New Year – January 1974. Phoenix is dead – his too big helmet slipped, he lost control of his motorbike and hit a van.

Katherine and JJ are catapulted into freefall in their grief. Katherine blames JJ for persuading her to let him have the bike. She can no longer talk to him.  JJ responds by giving her the space she appears to want – he retreats into his shed, his home office where he writes his newspaper columns, eventually moving in there completely.

Quick footsteps on the stairs. Not Penny’s. Now on the landing. A faint rap at the door, the wrong door, and a timid: ‘Katherine?’ She heard him open their bedroom door and go in. A few moments later he crossed the landing again and she heard him open and close the door to Phoenix’s room. He knocked at the bathroom door.
‘Go away. Leave me alone.’
‘I thought you might like a hot-water bottle. I’ve put it in the bed.’
‘Please leave me alone.’
‘Katherine, talk to me.’ He was loud-whispering.
‘No. I can’t talk to you any more. You killed my son.’
‘Katherine, please let me in. I don’t want Penny to hear this.’
‘She’s not stupid. You heard what she said as well as I did. She knows you killed him.’
‘Penny doesn’t know any such thing, and that wasn’t what she meant, you know that. Kathy, I can see how you’ve come to think the way you do, but you know it’s not true, I know you do. You’re grieving. We all are.’
‘Don’t tell me what I know. Go away. I want my son back.’ Katherine’s words wavered as they forced their way up through the constricted pipe of her throat.
After one last desperate, despondent ‘Kathy,’ JJ shuffled his feet and after a bit went downstairs.

It’s left to Penny to carry on as normal and look after things, as her parents’ relationship gets worse and worse.  Then one day Katherine snaps. She realises she needs help and signs herself in to the local psychiatric hospital – it’s the beginning of the long road to recovery.

This book is raw.  Between Katherine’s breakdown and JJ’s compassionate yet silent disbelief at what happened, this novel needs the life goes on attitude of teenager Penny to give some breathing space.  That’s not to say that Penny doesn’t feel grieve for her stupid brother Phoenix too.  Each of the Jacobs family members has to find a way to deal with it separately before they can begin to come together again.  JJ the hermit, throws himself into his work; Katherine gradually restores her sanity; and Penny gets fed up with Jackie, and makes new friends.

My bike - a Honda CB250RSOn an aside, in the early 1980s and in my twenties, I had a motorbike for around five years, (right – a Honda CB250RS).  I was proud of being a biker-chick, and I did spend out on good equipment – helmet, gloves, boots, and my beloved scarlet leather jacket,  kit which would help to minimise injury – but I still had my fair share of hairy experiences.

I was lucky. I rode from Gt Yarmouth to Harlow, Essex (around 110 miles) every weekend to see the boyfriend – and back.  I came off it on the A11 at Thetford; I skidded on a patch of oil, and was lucky to not get hit by a car, just dislocated my shoulder, but ended up in Bury St Edmunds A&E.  I also got blown off by the shock-wave of a lorry going past on a windy day on the Acle straight between Norwich and Gt Yarmouth. Too scared to get back on that time, I pushed the bike the couple of miles into town.  

I never told my parents about the bike until after I’d sold it.  So, I can understand Phoenix’s desire for the bike. It was a cheap and affordable option for independent transport in those days. I can also understand Katherine’s reaction and grief.  I’m very glad that my daughter will want to learn to drive a car.

With each chapter titled after a pop hit of the day, the period details in After Phoenix were spot on – I remember it well.  The regime in the hospital too was horribly as expected, (in the Guides, we used to go up to our local psychiatric hospital to sing to the patients at Christmas).

Despite beginning with a tragedy, this book is never entirely without hope though and is a powerful portrait of grief and how time heals. Powerful stuff.

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I received a review copy from the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
After Phoenixby Martine McDonagh. Pub Jan 2013 by Ten to Ten Publishing, paperback 220 pages.

Sci-Fi Sound Effects

BBC Sci-Fi Sound Effects (Vintage Beeb)

Having built up a few reviews on Amazon, a couple of years ago I was lucky enough to be invited to be a reviewer for Amazon Vine. I get to pick items from lists they send out of all sorts of things. Usually I stick to books, but just occasionally I branch out and pick something different …

Sci-fi sound effectsI couldn’t resist this CD, which features sound effects from four classic SF programmes from the BBC: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (radio version), 1980 vintage Doctor Who, Blake’s Seven and the radio series Earthsearch.

Sound effects recordings are strange things. In its 45 minutes duration, this CD has 81 tracks, some a couple of minutes long, some just a few seconds. From alien soundscapes to various techy noises, and of course the Tardis from Doctor Who, it was easy to have a little nostalgia trip listening to this CD, and if I’m honest, I won’t listen to it in full again.

It is a shame that the Doctor Who effects by Dick Mills are only from series 18 (the end of the Tom Baker era), which apart from an encounter with the Master, only had the Marshmen to cope with monster-wise, else we could have had more interesting noises – there are no Daleks here sadly. (There are dedicated Doctor Who sound effects CDs available too it turns out).

blakes7gang3It was Elizabeth Parker’s effects for Terry Nation’s Blake’s 7 that I enjoyed the most.  Although it was a cheesy space opera with rickety cardboard sets, it lasted for four series from 1978-81 and for me it was must-watch TV. Political renegade Blake may have been a goodie, but the baddies in power were badder, especially Jacqueline Pearce as the dictator Servalan (centre left).  This brings me to the sound effects…

Towards the end of the first series, our crew of galactic freedom fighters acquired Orac – a perspex box with flashing lights that masqueraded as a super computer and had the irritating personality of a real smart Alec.  The good thing about Orac was that you could switch him on and off, two wonderful little sound effects – both on this CD.  I particularly liked the Orac Off one!  If you’d like to experience Orac for yourselves, watch this clip (they turn him off about 3 minutes in)…

This CD was previously available on vinyl, this is its first outing on CD. Although I won’t sit and listen to it as a while again I shall keep it for you never know when an alarm klaxon, laser blaster, alien soundscape, or indeed Orac off sound effect might come in useful!

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine – to explore further please click below:
BBC Sci-Fi Sound Effects (Vintage Beeb) – BBC records, 2012.
Doctor Who Sound Effects (Vintage Beeb)
Blake’s 7 – Complete Collection [16 DVD]

Hollywood Noir down Mexico Way

Bitter Drink by FG Haghenbeck, translated from the Spanish by Tanya Huntingdon.

bitter drink

Whenever I read some noir, I know I should read lots more, for I love it, but I get distracted onto other things – I think it’s a dead cert that’ll happen this time too.  Meanwhile, although this slim novel is no masterpiece, I did enjoy it for its little dose of Hollywood glamour.

The tale is set around the filming of the 1964 film The Night of the Iguana, directed by John Huston, and starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr with Sue Lyon.  Tennesse Williams’ play tells the story of a defrocked Episcopal priest scraping the bottom of the barrel as a tour guide to a coachload of Baptist women in Mexico.

The Night of the Iguana - movie poster by Howard Terpning

The filming took place in Mismaloya, Mexico and put the town of Puerto Vallarta on the map. It was notorious for two things in particular: firstly, the still-married Burton, fresh off the set of Cleopatra, brought the still-married Liz Taylor with him on location; and secondly, the fact that John Huston had gold plated revolvers made for the acting leads, each with silver bullets engraved with their colleagues’ names.

So much for reality. Haghenbeck takes the already colourful facts, and weaves a story around them centred on a Beatnik detective Sunny Pascal, a Mexican working in Hollywood, who is hired to be in charge of security on set and keeping the cast out of trouble too.  The set, its cast and crew, are awash with booze, and the town is full of tension so when someone ends up with one of those silver bullets in them, it’s not a surprise. Things will only get worse once the Mexican Mafia turn up.

Sunny doesn’t seem to be much of a security guy – he seems to spend most of his time getting beaten up – he successfully deflects the worst attention from the shenanigans of the film’s stars though. How much is luck and how much is judgement isn’t always clear, but he does know how to make things go away.  Nearly everyone seems to like Sunny, and when not getting beaten up, he’s usually to be found propping up the bar on the set knocking back a few cocktails, which brings me to a major feature of this book…

Cocktails!  Each of the 26 short chapters is titled after one, which will make an appearance in the main story later.  Preceding that is the recipe and a potted history of each cocktail’s development, so that’s 26 pages out of 147 in total devoted to cocktails.  This made the story rather slight, and I doubt I’d have read this book if it hadn’t been about the film and its stars – indeed I’d love to see the film now.

The author is a fan of Chandler, and a lot of Sunny’s dialogue echoes that of Philip Marlowe – sometimes cheesy (but with tongue in cheek) – of course I don’t know how much of the cheesiness is in the translation.  It was fun though (6.5/10).

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I received a review copy of this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Bitter Drink by FG Haghenbeck, pub 2012 by Amazon Crossing, 147 pages.
Night of the Iguana [1964] [DVD]

Reading Thomas Keneally for Australian Literature Month

Oz Lit MonthApril is Australian Literature Month at Reading Matters. Kim is also generously donating 50p for each linked review to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation which gives books to families in remote parts of Australia, which is a fab incentive to participate!

A swift perusal of my shelves came up with several authors to consider, including Kate Grenville and Tim Winton, but the book that grabbed me more than any other was:

The Widow and Her Hero
by Thomas Keneally

This novel complements my wartime reading perfectly – but looks to the consequences of war rather than its precursors.

Keneally’s novel takes its inspiration from two real covert operations carried out by the Australian equivalent of our SOE (Special Ops Exec) in which a team of commandos mined Japanese ships in Singapore. The aims were similar in intent to the British op which inspired the 1955 film Cockleshell Heroes, in which Trevor Howard led his team in canoes to raid shipping in Bordeaux.

Grace Waterhouse had only been married for a short while to the love of her life, Leo.  It was during the latter stages of WWII, and Leo was seconded to a group planning a daring raid on the Japanese ships moored in Singapore, led by a charismatic Englisman called Doucette.  Their first raid using kayaks was a big success, so they planned to do it again in a different harbour, this time using mini-submarines to get close to the boats, but it was a disaster. The group split up, but were killed or captured by the Japanese.  Leo was captured and eventually executed.

Decades after the event, Grace, now in her late eighties is still finding that it won’t let her go. She eventually remarried and had a child, but the past won’t go away and leave her with good memories of Leo. There were people involved who have personal burdens they still need to unload, there are researchers and authors determined to find out exactly what happened, opening cans of worms with each new piece of evidence they uncover.

I knew in general terms that I was marrying a hero. The burden lay lightly on Leo, and to be a hero’s wife in times supposedly suited to the heroic caused a woman to swallow doubt or to understate her demands. Although, as much as women now, we suspected men might be childish or make mysterious decisions, it wasn’t our place to say it for fear of damage to the fabric of what we had. The Japanese had barely been turned back and had not abandoned the field of ambition. It was heresy and unlucky to undermine young men at such a supreme hour.

But with the confidence of near-on nine decades I can talk about doubt now. I would at least ask, what is so precious about the heroic impulse? Why do ordinary lusty boys love it better in the end than lust itself, and better than love? Why did Leo – judging by his actions – love the Boss, Charlie Doucette, in a way that rose above love of any woman, me included?

Grace gradually tells her story, how she and Leo met and fell in love, and interspersed with Grace’s recollections of her short life with Leo, are excerpts from Leo’s diaries.  We also hear from her how Leo met Doucette – somewhat bitterly, she always refers to him by his surname.  We gradually meet the other characters in their story, including Leo’s colleague Rufus Mortmain and his wife Dottie, who becomes her best friend when the two young couples share a large apartment while they plan the operations.  Then there is the American Colonel Creed who is the liaison with General MacArthur, whom Doucette doesn’t trust.

In later life, Grace has found the pressures of being the widow of a hero very trying. She knows that Leo was a hero, but she hasn’t ever understood his boyish devotion to Doucette, the man who would lead them all to their deaths. There was no doubting of their bravery, but it is the fundamental sense of some element of foolhardiness that she struggles to come to terms with.

With every reveal, we find out more about the true characters of all involved. It’s gripping stuff. In the latter stages, it doesn’t make for easy reading though, as what happened becomes clear, but it allows Grace to come to terms with Leo’s death.

Keneally’s novel is a powerful exploration of what happens to grief and memory when it is modified, when beliefs have to be changed.  It questions what a hero is, but the fundamental love beneath lives on.  Great pacing, great complexity, great questions, great insights.  This novel evoked complex and confusing emotions as I read, trying to understand Leo and Grace’s situations. A thought-provoking read – I highly recommend this book.

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Widow and Her Hero by Thomas Keneally, Sceptre paperback, 264 pages.
Cockleshell Heroes [DVD]

What price progress for the peasant farmer?

Harvest by Jim Crace

harvest crace

Harvest should mark a time to celebrate a year’s bounty, but right from the start of Crace’s atmospheric new novel, there’s a hint of underlying darkness to come. When strangers come to the village, announcing their arrival by a smoking fire, normal life is upset. When the Master’s dovecote is set on fire it becomes too easy to pin it on the newcomers rather than drunken post harvest high jinks.

Walter Thirsk narrates the events – he is an incomer to the village himself and even after twelve years still doesn’t feel entirely as if he belongs. He came as one of the Master’s men, but fell for a local girl and was permitted to become a farmer. But Cecily died, so Walter alone again. The Master has troubles of his own; he’s a widower too, and having married in, is not the rightful heir to his late wife’s Manor – his cousin-in-law is on his way to claim his inheritance. He wants to enclose the wheat fields for sheep, and that needs less people. It seems that everything must change.

Through Walter’s eyes, we witness the disintegration of the village in just one week, as friendships dissolve into suspicion once the new Master arrives with his entourage. This small village, two days ride from the nearest town, has never known such emotional turmoil, and Walter is well placed to commentate on the events in both camps, those of peasant and squire.

Crace’s rich prose is hypnotic, laden with summer sultriness. His evocation of the countryside at harvest is truly beautiful, contrasting against the oafish behaviour and poisonous gossip of its inhabitants.

It struck me as I read, that this novel is very much a fable and can be envisaged as a reflection upon our current changing ways of life in the country; thus Walter is the parallel of Harvest‘s author.  This novel, which Crace has declared will be his last,  is one of his very best, and like Walter, he’s now moving on to something else.

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I received a review copy via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Harvest by Jim Crace, Picador Hardback, Feb 2013, 320 pages.

Stieg Larsson meets Forrest Gump but way better …

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, translated by Rod Bradbury


You might think he could have made up his mind earlier, and been man enough to tell the others of his decision. But Allan Karlsson had never been given to pondering things too long.
So the idea had barely taken hold in the old man’s head before he opened the window of his room on the ground floor of the Old People’s Home in the town of Malmköping, and stepped out – into the flowerbed.
This manoeuvre required a bit of effort, since Allan was one hundred years old. On this very day in fact. There was less than an hour to go before his birthday party would begin in the lounge of the Old People’s Home. The mayor would be there. And the local paper. And all the other old people. And the entire staff, led by bad-tempered Director Alice.
It was only the Birthday Boy himself who didn’t intend to turn up.

Thus begins a great comic caper and adventure.  We chose this as our book group choice for April, and it was a great success, charming all of us.

As you’ll have already surmised, Allan is prone to act on impulse. He makes it to the bus station – buys a ticket for the first bus leaving, and steals someone else’s suitcase! He can’t explain why he did it. Later after getting off the bus randomly, meeting a chap called Julius, a bit of a scoundrel but who is up for an adventure, they open the case to find it’s full of money – only to discover that its owner is on their trail.

A brilliant caper ensues, with Allan and an increasing cadre of friends, who will all take a share of the money, traverse the country, pursued by the suitcase’s owners, and the police.  Allan and Julius manage to remain one step ahead, while accidentally disposing of their pursuers one by one in some very imaginative and funny deaths that beat Stieg Larsson hands down.

However, after the opening chapters we start to alternate between Allan’s present predicament, and his life story – which is like a history of the 20th century. Having become an explosives expert, he accidentally blows up his house, and homeless goes off on a whim to Spain, where he accidentally saves the life of General Franco. He ships out to the USA where he meets President Truman, and accidentally helps Oppenheimer towards the solution on making an atomic bomb.

By now, you’re getting the picture, and we were all thinking – who will he meet next?  Well, he seems to meet most of the 20th century’s key movers! It’s notable though, that the moment he gets close to these historic figures, and is invited to join in the politics, Allan jumps ship and goes somewhere else, maintaining his strict neutrality and, nearly always, manages to remain friends.

Allan has an engaging naïvety that is reminiscent of Forrest Gump, sailing through life having amazing experiences, yet remaining unfazed by it all.  He is also a 20th century equivalent of Alfred Nobel, 19th century inventor of dynamite, initiator of the Nobel Prize, a man who travelled a lot, lived in several countries and learned many languages.

Although broadly a comedy, there are small pauses for serious matters now and then; managing to be committed as a young man for his learned propensity for blowing things up, Allan was a victim of the Swedish forced sterilzation programme. He was destined never to have an heir, although he never mentions this, he just gets on with life.

Allan’s story gave us plenty to talk about, and the imaginative demises for the hoodlums after the suitcase, and the encounters with all those famous people gave the chuckles.  This is such a fun and easy read – if you’ve not read it yet, do take it on holiday – if summer ever comes!  (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, Hesperus Press, 2012, paperback 385 pages.

When mothers fail their daughters …

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

The past couple of weeks have seen the publication of not one, but two novels featuring the ‘First Woman of the Third Reich’ Magda Goebbels. The first was Black Roses by Jane Thynne – A spy story set in 1933 Berlin. I loved it and you can read my review here.

Magda The second, simply titled Magda, sees Frau Goebbels move up to take centre stage.  This short novel of 113 pages by Meike Ziervogel, (whom many of you will know as the publisher of the superb Peirene Books), is an ambitious imagining of Magda’s life, as seen through her relationships with her mother and her oldest daughter.

The novel is written in eight vignettes, book-ended by Magda’s preparations before going to Hitler’s bunker, and her murder of her six children there before emerging outside and her own and Joseph’s suicides.

Please note – I found it impossible to discuss this book without being a bit spoilerish below.

Although the facts of Magda’s life are history, Meike has found an unique way of telling her story that really seeks to understand, without condoning, what made her the woman she was.

Magda was illegitimate, born at the turn of the 20th century to a maidservant, who successfully pursued her father, who promptly shipped her off to a strict Belgian convent. Meanwhile Magda’s mother finds herself a new man, a Jew, and they eventually retrieve Magda from the convent.  Magda, instead of going to work, soon gets married, has a son, gets divorced, has many dalliances, and quite poisonous relations with her mother. Her mother, relating her story after the events, comments:

Herr Direktor Quandt proved to be very easy-going over the divorce and settlement. I suspect part of him was quite relieved to be rid of my daughter. And maybe he felt a little bit guilty too. I mean, he wasn’t able to offer everything she was after. On the other hand, my daughter surely had too high standards. I don’t know, it just often seemed that way, especially in her relations with men. That was even the case with Herr Doktor Goebbels – although I’m really not looking to defend him now – and all his women troubles. Him too, somehow she managed to put him under so much pressure that he went off looking elsewhere. Everyone knew. That’s what men do.

Magda, Hitler and Joseph with (l-r) Hilde, Helmet and Helga (1938)

Magda, Hitler and Joseph with (l-r) Hilde, Helmet and Helga (1938)

Then Magda discovers ‘him’ – the real number one man in her life. She’s joined the National Socialists and is running a soup kitchen where ‘they queue up to catch a smile from the from the beautiful blonde in her high-heeled shoes with the mink around her shoulders’, when ‘he’ visits, with Goebbels in tow. Invited to dinner, she has found her calling.

Then we jump to 1945 and the bunker. Magda’s oldest daughter Helga takes up the story, writing in her diaries. Magda is ill with constant migraines by this stage, and it is clear that Helga cares for her mother, despite Magda having been remote all her life, and absent for a lot of it. But if Magda had known that Helga was experiencing the first pangs of love, for a young German soldier guarding the bunker, who knows what would have happened.  (I now have a copy of another well-regarded novel written from Helga’s point of view to read too – Chocolate Cake with Hitler by Emma Craigie.)

Then we are onto the endgame, and this is where the author plays her trump cards.  That bunker scene made me cry, again. I can’t think about it, in words or pictures, without a tear forming. Told through Helga’s eyes, it is utterly heart-breaking.  Then Magda tries to imagine life without ‘him’ outside the bunker. Hitler had long replaced God as her personal saviour with Magda as Mary in her warped view of religion and sex.  It is this belief in some kind of hereafter that allows her to coolly murder her children, and then commit suicide herself.

Ziervogel’s vision of a flawed mother raising, or rather not raising, a flawed daughter, who in turn raises a brood of probably flawed puppet children who didn’t have a chance is compelling, and completely plausible in its realisation and language. The structure, in particular, as seen through the three generations of women, is superb. This fictionalised biography, a debut novel, is an absolute gem. (10/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Magda by Meike Ziervogel, Salt Publishing, April 2013. Paperback 128 pages.
Chocolate Cake with Hitler by Emma Craigie
Black Roses by Jane Thynne

Love in a toun of gangsters

Stonemouth by Iain Banks


That would have been good.
Instead, a cold clinging mist. Not even mist; just a chill haze, drifting up the estuary. I’m standing fifty metres above the Firth of Stoun, in the middle of the road bridge, at the summit of the long, shallow trajectory it describes above the waters.

A man stands on a bridge. A notorious “suicide” spot, he knows some who’ve died there. Stewart Gilmour however, is waiting for someone, waiting to get permission to come back to the town he left five years ago – then, it was a case of leave or die.

It’s an atmospheric beginning that sets the tone perfectly. Right from the off, we’re longing to know why Stewart Gilmour was run out of toun – and why he’s come back.

We’re sitting in Powell’s black Range Rover Sport in the viewing area near the bridge control centre. My more modest hired Ford Ka is a couple of bays away. For some reason when we arranged out arguably melodramatic meeting in the middle of the bridge, I’d thought he would part at the north end and walk over while I did the same from the south, but he must have driven past me and parked here. Obviously hasn’t watched the same old Cold War movies I have.

Gilmour is back for the funeral of the grandfather of the Murston clan, patriarch of one of Stonemouth’s two ruling families, the two had been close when Stewart was young, despite Stewart’s family working for the MacAvetts.  Gilmour, it seems, is a bit of a bridge between the two.  He gets his temporary truce to come home for the long weekend, but is reminded he mustn’t outstay his welcome.

Having lived in London for five years with all the trappings of a good job and lifestyle, Stonemouth doesn’t appear to have changed which is reassuring, slightly surreal and sad at the same time. Some of Stewart’s friends never left either; Ferg did, but he’s back too and the pair, reunited, go out to get drunk – which sets the pattern for most of the weekend.

Divided into five daily sections, starting on Friday with the funeral on the Monday, Stewart narrates his story.  As he goes around over the weekend, renewing some connections, steering clear of others, he reminisces with us about his teenage years, meeting and walking with Murston-pere, an assortment of character-forming tragedies, and … meeting Ellie Murston, the love of his life…  and the reason for his exile.

Despite the truce for the funeral, this homecoming reunion of friends and enemies is always going to be a simmering stew of tension, old resentments and feuds. The younger scions of the Murston clan are not as tolerant as their father, and they’re naturally very protective of their sister Ellie. Stewart finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his distance, especially once Ellie take the initiative to talk to him. I won’t tell you how it goes, you can read or imagine that for yourselves.

It would be fair to say that there is more than a hint of Romeo and Juliet, or rather Capulets vs Montagues, in the central family drama and love story, for despite it being ostensibly a thrillerish gangster drama with a nod to the film Get Carter in its underlying violence and homecoming theme, it is really a romance at heart.

Stewart is an interesting character.  Although he slips back into the boozy culture of his old cohorts and haunts easily, he has grown-up during his five years away. He is still seeking ‘Clarity‘ though, he hopes, indeed he needs to find out where he stands with Ellie.

Stewart’s pals and contemporaries provide much of the humour in the novel. Ferg is f***ing hilarious in particular. The guys’ language is coarse and punchy, argumentative, their body-language physical; fuelled by drink and drugs, they party hard, but none want to fight with the Murstons. The dialogue, the craic, is cracking.

Seemingly at odds with its characters are Banks’ descriptions of the landscape around Stonemouth: the beach has a stark beauty you can imagine when the sun comes out on a misty morning. At other times though, together with the bridge and forest beyond, it marks a boundary – holding the town within.  Yet Banks can’t quite resist occasionally putting some humour into his descriptions – as in this sentence of musing from Stewart:

Quietly pissed, but feeling like a child again, I watched through the side window of the Audi as a waning moon like a paring from God’s big toenail flickered between the black trunks of sentry trees ridging lines of distant hills.

How’s that for imagery!

This seemingly straight-forward novel is not without layers of complexity. Our narrator is a man who is trying to work out his place in the world, and the Murston family dynamics are more than a little complicated, as is this small town which has been held in stasis by its ruling clans with their fingers in every pie. Banks also managed to end it in a way that worked believably – I was convinced. Times are changing, and Stonemouth must change too. (9/10)

I will be adding this novel to my ‘BanksRead’ tab above. It’s the first novel in my project to read and re-read the novels of one of my favourite authors. I shall also be discussing it further at the BanksRead Forum.

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Stonemouth by Iain Banks, Abacus paperback, 448 pages.

A novel in reverse…

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Midwinterblood Hardback

This is a rather different kind of YA novel. The cover of the hardback (left), would have you believe it’s full of blood, and possibly vampires. Blood, yes – and there is a part with a vampire, but in reality the paperback’s cover with hares leaping around the red moon (below), gives a better flavour of the story.  That’s not to say that this is not a dark book though…

Midwinterblood is a story cycle of seven tales spanning the centuries, all linked by the setting and named for the moon’s folkloric phases, Hunter’s moon etc.  It is told in reverse chronology; starting sixty years into the future, and from there travelling back to the present day, and then leaps of around half a century, until the 6th and 7th stories which delve back much further into the days of the Viking sagas.  With each step back in time, we learn more about the ancient roots of the stories which lead up to the first story, which is revisited in an epilogue.

Midwinterblood Paperback

It starts with a young journalist, Eric, visiting an island in the far north, known as the Blessed Isle, investigating a rumour that its people live forever. He lands at the jetty:

Eric Seven does not believe in love at first sight.
He corrects himself.
Even in that moment, the moment that it happens, he feels his journalist’s brain make a correction, rubbing out a long-held belief, writing a new one in its place.
He did not believe in love at first sight. He thinks he might do now.
‘I’m Merle,’ she says. Her light hair falls across one eye as she shakes his hand, she flicks it aside. And smiles.
‘Of course you are,’ he says. Inside, he makes a note to punish himself later for such a lame reply, and yet, he had not said it with arrogance, or even an attempt at being funny. He said it as if someone else was saying it for him.

Eric soon discovers that he’s not really welcome on the island. Tor, their leader is unfailingly polite, but sinister underneath.  Only Merle is on his side – he feels as if he’s known her forever …

The other stories tell the stories of other incarnations of Eric and Merle and how they find and lose each other over they ages. They are enchanting in whatever form they appear including as twins, and mother and son. There are many other recurring motifs including black tea, hares, there is an important painting – and of course, the island’s secret. (NB: If you plan to read this book, you may choose not to examine the painting at the bottom of this post too closely. It provided Sedgwick’s inspiration for this novel.)

This novel is probably Sedgwick’s most grown-up book yet.  Although primarily aimed at a teenaged audience, it’s main characters although young, are not children. The cyclical nature of the narrative, and the slow reveal may not be to all younger reader’s taste, but I relished it.  It’s dreamy and contemplative, yet it is very dark – there’s an undercurrent of horror swirling around in the mists and eddies of this island.

I would love to see Sedgwick win the Carnegie Medal this year with this book, but I fear that it is brooding and atmospheric, it is almost too adult in its prose style – I loved it though. (9/10)

P.S. I am offering a copy of Midwinterblood in my YA Giveaway on a previous post. You have until Sunday teatime, (4pm GMT)  click here to enter.

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Midwinterbloodby Marcus Sedgwick, Orion Children’s paperback.