Whatever happened to …?

…Paul Micou

micou

Whilst I was sorting out my chunksters the other day I came across six novels by an author I’d much enjoyed reading back in the 1990s. His name is Paul Micou, and I wondered what had become of him. An American; since graduating, he’s lived in London and then France.

A little research later, it turns out that he wrote another couple of novels in 2000 and 2008 – and apart from a couple of Kindle singles, has published nothing since. Only his last novel is still in print.

As I know many of you like searching out books, I thought I’d write about the first few to introduce this author to you.  Here are his eight novels…

Micou books

I was immediately drawn to his first novel published in 1989. The premise of The Music Programme sounded like something straight out of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Set in a fictitious African country, the employees of a US-funded UN programme have been living it up but panic sets in when an inspector arrives.  I remember it as hilarious.

The Cover Artist (1990) is about an artist who makes more money passing off the expressionist paintings done by his black labrador Elizabeth as his, than his own works. My memory of this one is hazy, but I did love the dog.

The Death of David Debrizzi (1991) is his best-known novel, and possibly his best. The titular David was a child prodigy on the piano. He had two teachers, one English, one French.  The novel is told by Pierre Marie La Valoise (the French one), who is staying in a Swiss Sanatorium. When La Valoise hears that Sir Geoffrey Flynch has published a biography of David taking full credit for the boy’s, he has to retaliate. Some great comic set-pieces in this one.

I’ve only told you about the first three, because although I know I enjoyed three more my memory of reading them is even more hazy.  Micou has a great comic style though; these novels are gentle satires with a lot of humour and some spice. A bit William Boyd meets Paul Torday (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) via Richard Russo, and perhaps with a dash of Waugh and Tom Sharpe.

I’ve ordered a copy of his last novel, and found I had the seventh lurking unread on my shelves, so eventually my Micou collection will be complete – but I rather hope he decides to write some more…

Have any of you read Paul Micou’s books?
What other authors have fallen off the radar that you’d recommend

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To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Confessions of a Map Dealer by Paul Micou

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Practice makes perfect?

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life-After-Life

Way back, when Kate Atkinson’s debut novel Behind the Scenes in the Museum was published and won prizes, I bought a copy – and struggled with it. Me and it didn’t gel back then, and I’ve not bothered reading any other books by Kate Atkinson since, until now.

I was taken the with idea of Life After Life though, and bought a copy of the hardback from the supermarket last year. It has sat there on the shelf waiting, despite everyone else reading and loving it, until now – as it is our book group’s choice for discussion next week. I needn’t have worried though, for I loved it, and I couldn’t wait until after book group to put some thoughts down.

I had worried before I started reading that Atkinson’s story of the many lives of Ursula Todd would be too much like a literary Groundhog Day, that there were no new tricks in the reliving one’s life game.   While I love that film, Life After Life has a very different time-looping mechanism to it.  In GHD, newsman Phil lived the same day again and again for around ten years until he became a better person and got his girl – but, he was aware of his previous days, so was able to use that experience to learn to play the piano, speak French etc and gradually improving himself. Most days he doesn’t die either.

That doesn’t happen in Ursula’s story – in each life she lives until she dies, then starts again at birth, unaware of her past lives except for an occasional sense of déjà vu at critical moments which enable her to do things differently.

What is fascinating is to see how the little changes can make big changes to her destiny.  The novel actually starts with her death in a very bold scenario that makes you wonder how she’d got there, and if that is the real ending.  I’m not going to tell you, if you’ve read the book you’ll know what I refer to, if not, I’ll leave it to you to find out for yourself.

Ursula is born in a snowy February 1910, so her lives go from that day each time through the decades. In her very first life though, she dies at birth, strangled by the umbilical cord.  The next time she is born, she lives and her parents Sylvie and Hugh are bickering gently after the birth…

A fox appeared out of the shrubbery and crossed the lawn. ‘Oh, look,’ Sylvie Said. ‘How tame it seems, it must have grown used to the house being unoccupied.’
‘Let’s hope the local hunt isn’t following on its heels,’ Hugh said. ‘It’s a scrawny beast.’
‘It’s a vixen. She’s a nursing mother, you can see her teats.’
Hugh blinked at such blunt terminology falling from the lips of his recently virginal bride. (One presumed. One hoped.)
‘Look,’ Sylvie whispered. Two small cubs sprang out on to the grass and tumbled over each other in play. ‘Oh, they’re such handsome little creatures.’
‘Some might say vermin.’
‘Perhaps they see us as verminous,’ Sylvie said. ‘Fox Corner – that’s what we should call the house. No one else has a house with that name and shouldn’t that be the point?’
‘Really?’ Hugh said doubtfully. ‘It’s a little whimsical, isn’t it? It sounds like a children’s story. The House at Fox Corner.’
‘A little whimsy never hurt anyone.’
‘Strictly speaking though,’ Hugh said, ‘can a house be a corner? Isn’t it at one?’
So this is marriage, Sylvie thought.

life-after-life pbkApart from illustrating the brittleness between Hugh and Sylvie, I chose this passage to quote, as it’s where they first see the fox.

The house, Fox Corner, is to remain a constant in Ursula’s lives, and the fox appears many times during her childhoods. In fact, the cover design of the paperback (right) is graced by the lovely creature.

I also like Hugh’s little joke – The House at Pooh Corner won’t be published until 1928.

I wondered too whether the author also chose the surname Todd as a nod to Beatrix Potter’s Mr Tod – although he wasn’t such a nice fox.

I loved the way that Atkinson finds so many different takes on Ursula’s birth, all the little changes are quite entertaining once we’ve got past her initial death.  However, we don’t get Ursula’s birth every time – the author only gives us the occasions when her life moves on and changes – so we get several different versions of key events, which then lead to totally different outcomes.  It’s very cleverly mapped out indeed.

We’re with Ursula right from the start, grieving each time she dies – again and again; sometimes mouthing out loud ‘Don’t do it!’ when we know that a life will turn bad if she does a particular thing, and cheering when her instincts lead her to do things differently, only for it to go bad again in another way. Will she ever manage to life the right life?

This gradual reveal of the final story reminded me of another novel in which the narrative is told out of time.  The Night Watch by Sarah Waters is actually told in reverse, but it’s only when we get back to the start of the story that we get the full picture.  With WWII playing a big part in both novels too, its a fair comparison.

I am so pleased that I’ve given Kate Atkinson another try, for in Life After Life, she is clearly an author at the top of her game, and I loved this book. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, 2013. Black Swan Paperback, 624 pages.
Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Groundhog Day (Collector’s Edition) [DVD] [2002]

Always read the small print!

Terms & Conditionsby Robert Glancy

t&c

Frank has been in a car accident – it turns out it was a bad one, and he’s lost his memory*.  He can’t remember people, but can remember his job**.  He works for the family firm, chaired by his older brother Oscar♦.

As he begins to remember things, he realises that everyone has something to hide♦♦.  The only one who seems happy is his younger brother Malcolm♦♦♦.  What is Frank to do?

If you hate footnotes, you should probably not bother reading further – but you would be missing a treat – for most of the jokes in this black comedy about modern life and finding oneself are in the myriad footnotes at the bottom of nearly every page.  Although they are in small print, most are readable – although at one point, there is small print to the small print and I nearly had to resort to a magnifying glass (surely a deliberate move on the author’s part).

Frank’s piecing of his life back together is hilarious. As he begins to find things out and remember more it is also sad though – for it soon becomes clear that his relationship with his wife had not been a happy one for some time.  She was no longer the rebellious fun girl he had married, instead she was now a skinny and driven HR manager.

My alleged wife, like many of my visitors, seemed very nervous when she came to see me.
Why? Where they worried I wouldn’t recognise them? May they were hopeful they’d be that special person – the key – the one whose mere presence would miraculously unlock me? Or was it that people were nervous because I’d been a complete bastard?
Was Old Frank a real twat?
I discovered early on that no one would tell me what I had really been like. When I asked my wife, she offered only the vaguest sentences; words that could have described a billion other people: ‘You were, are … a nice chap and funny, really driven and…’
It was like that awful ‘Personal Section’ in curriculum vitaes – my CV personality. So I accepted that I was the only one who could really discover who I once was – I knew no one would ever tell me the unvarnished truth.*
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* No one would turn to me and say, You were such a c***-face, Frank. You hated life, detested your friends, and you were often found in parks furiously masturbating.

In trying to sort out the bigger picture, Frank realises that the devil is in the detail, although I’d argue that sometimes it works both ways. We suffer with him with each new discovery and each return of memories, and cross our fingers that he’ll find a way out. When he works out his plan, it’s bold and daring, but is revenge really worth it?

I could cope with the footnotes because they were often so funny, but I did find the chapter titles a little annoying. Each was ‘Terms and Conditions of …’.  As most chapters were just a couple of pages, in big type they took up a lot of space, and could have been abbreviated to T&C rather than unsubtly reminding us to read the small print.

I wasn’t sure whether I liked Frank or not, but I did like his wit. I certainly disliked his wife and Oscar intensely. The whole business with the small print was also a great idea, and was executed well, although it was surprising to read that the author was a historian and not a lawyer! However, all that was enough for me to really enjoy reading it, and I had a good laugh. (8/10)

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* He doesn’t remember his wife, but she’ll do nicely…
** He’s a top contract lawyer, specialising in the small print. The terms & conditions.
♦ He soon works out that Oscar is a shit!
♦♦ Including himself, and especially his wife.
♦♦♦ Who escaped to find himself in the Far East.

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Terms & Conditions by Robert Glancy, pub Feb 13 2014 by Bloomsbury, Hardback 272 pages.

John Buchan meets Umberto Eco via Dan Brown

The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix

P1010976 OK – so I put Dan Brown into the title of this post to grab your attention!

While I totally agree with the rest of the world that the Da Vinci Code is not great literature, there is no denying that however silly the whole thing is, it is a rollicking fun adventure. I will nail my colours to the mast and say that, back in the day when I read it on holiday in the sunshine on the stoop of a New England clap-board cottage on Cape Cod – I enjoyed it a lot.

The reason I mention it, is that Antal Szerb’s 1934 novel, The Pendragon Legend, does share that definite sense of fun, and also has a plot that goes at breakneck speed involving manuscripts and ancient rituals etc.

János Bátky is a Hungarian scholar in London who is on the search for a new project. When he is introduced to the Earl of Gwynedd at a salon, he finds a fellow scholar with a large library of rare manuscripts in the family mansion in Wales and an invitation to visit follows. Tagging along is Maloney, an Irishman, whom Bátky met in the British Library, who turns out to be a friend of the Earl’s nephew Osborne.

‘Doctor, you’re a hoot. We certainly hit the jackpot when we met. But this Osborne … I’d be so happy if Pat could seduce him. These English aren’t human. Now we Irish … back home in Connemara, at his age I’d already had three sorts of venereal disease. But tell me, dear Doctor, now that we’re such good friends, what’s the real reason for your visit to Llanvygan?’
‘The Earl of Gwynedd invited me to pursue my studies in his library.’
‘Studies? But you’re already a doctor! Or is there some exam even higher than that? You’re an amazingly clever man.’
‘It’s not for an exam … just for the pleasure of it. Some things really interest me.’
‘Which you’re going to study there.’
‘Exactly.’
‘And what exactly are you going to study?’
‘Most probably the history of the Rosicrucians, with particular reference to Robert Fludd.’
‘Who are these Rosicrucians?’
‘Rosicrucians? Hm. Have you ever heard of the Freemasons?’
‘Yes. People who meet in secret … and I’ve no idea what they get up to.’
‘That’s it. The Rosicrucians were different from the Freemasons in that they met in even greater secrecy, and people knew even less about what they did.’

Bátky is beginning to feel as if Maloney is interrogating him – a feeling that won’t lessen over the days to come, as he gets an anonymous message telling him not to go.

So our scene is set for action to transfer from London to Wales.  Llanvygan, the new ancestral home of the Earls of Gwynedd, since they abandoned the nearby Pendragon Castle is a typical country house, creaking and groaning at night. Its staff have to patrol the corridors to protect the Earl – for it transpires that someone is trying to kill him.

The plot gets ever more complicated as Bátky, Osborne, and the Earl’s niece Cynthia, get involved in a old feuds between the Pendragons and the Roscoes over a legacy, plus the Rosicrucians mystic alchemy and ultimately black magic.  Add secret passages, ghostly figures and scared villagers into the mix and there’s almost too much adventure!

Bátky rather reminded me of John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay from The 39 Steps (which I reviewed here). He’s a little less dashing, but by virtue of being European, like Hannay returning from Africa, he’s an outsider in London.  Combine Hannay with the learning of Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville from The Name of the Rose and you’re just about there.  Of course, Szerb may well have been familiar with Buchan’s book which was published in 1915.

This book has been on my shelves for a year or two, and I’d been putting off reading it, expecting Szerb to be another serious European author.  How wrong I was!  It was a joy to find that a rich vein of comedy runs through the entire novel, and I laughed a lot.  The swaggering Maloney was hilarious; Bátky’s statuesque German friend Lene trying to seduce the effeminate Osborne had me chortling away, and the whole bonkers plot was a running joke in itself.

However, the primary theme is that of a philosophic adventure, and adventure requires characters to be placed in danger.  That they are – it’s amazing that some of them come out alive. Yes, some, for there are deaths along the way too.  You mess with the ancestors of the Rosicrucians at your peril, as Eco fans will know.

Len Rix’s new translation for the Pushkin Press is sparkling.  Bátky of course is a delight – a European that knows English better than the English themselves. He has translated three other Szerb novels, of which I own two and won’t put off reading them now I’ve made his acquaintance. I loved it (9/10).

I read this book for Pushkin Press Fortnight, hosted by Stu of Winston’s Dad.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix, published by Pushkin Press (2006), paperback 236 pages.
Also mentioned:
– The Complete Richard Hannay Stories: The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Three Hostages, The Island of Sheep (Wordsworth Classics) by John Buchan
– The Name Of The Rose (Vintage Classics) by Umberto Eco.
– The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Wise words about books

A few quotations from the Folio book A Booklover’s Companion for you to ponder today and discuss(!)…

They are Landmarks and guides in our journey through life.

Wiliam Hazlitt, On Reading Old Books (1921)

lighthouse_canvas_art_danhui_nai

 

Books are the compasses and telescopes and sextants and charts which other men have prepared to help us navigate the dangerous seas of human life.

Jesse Lee Bennett, What Books Do for You (1923)

Books – Lighthouses erected in the sea of time.

Edwin P. Whipple (1819-86)

The good book is always a book of travel; it is about life’s journey.

Henry Major Tomlinson, Out of Soundings (1931).

After the war is over …

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

aftermathThe aftermath of war can be just as hard to get through as the war itself – for both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.  Rhidian Brook’s novel gives us a portrait of the British zone in Hamburg after WWII, a city largely destroyed by Operation Gomorrah in 1943.

It is now 1946, and Colonel Lewis, is arriving with his family, to take charge of the British occupying forces.  His staff have found him a house, a large mansion on the banks of the river where an architect lives quietly with his daughter.  Herr Lubert and Freda are due to be billeted elsewhere, but in an unprecedented act of kindness, Lewis offers to let them share the house. The Luberts will move up to the attic servants quarters.

The house is finely furnished, and is full of art, antiques and a grand piano. Before Lewis’ wife Rachael even steps through the door, she is intimidated by the situation her husband has foisted upon her …

‘But I don’t understand,’ Rachael said. ‘Are other families doing this?’
‘None of them has requisitioned a house like this. It’s not really the same.’
Rachael had no space for this. It did not matter how grandiose, how replete with rooms, how exquisite the art of the action of the piano; were it a palace with separate wings and outhouses, there still would be no room for a German in it.

Rachael’s attitude can be easily understood for the Lewis family lost a son in the war, her eldest Michael. She was there when the bomb hit the house, whereas Lewis was away with the Army of course. She has another son, Edmund, but she is still grieving and angry at the Germans and Lewis for not being there.  Her reunion with him after this time will be tough for both of them, and her enforced relationship with the Luberts will become interesting too.

Meanwhile Lewis has to deal with the severe lack of food and jobs for the remaining Germans, who are only allowed to resume their prior work once they have been certified as clean. Intelligence are determined to root out the slightest hint of collaboration or Nazi sympathies, something that goes against the grain of Lewis’ ideals. Lewis is a good man, and is unfailingly polite to his host-nation. He wants nothing more than to let the Germans get back to work, to reunite parted families, to get food to them, start the rebuilding, but bureaucracy is always getting in the way.

Alongside the adults’ stories, is that of a band of feral children, orphaned, living in the ruins close to the Lubert’s house. Ozi their leader, is an expert wheeler-dealer, getting the most for things scavenged.  Edmund spots them one day, and becomes their saviour – Lewis’ cigarettes are better than currency. They are the true forgotten in all of this, living on their wits in terrible conditions.

It turns out that the central premise of Brook’s novel – that of sharing a house with the former enemy – is something that actually happened.  His grandfather, who was in a similar position to Lewis, did just that – he must be proud of him. While all around are taking advantage of being in charge, Lewis and his small team of officers who understand his point of view, show restraint and compassion for their fellow man.

Lewis, Rachael and Herr Lubert are three fully realised characters and as I read, I wanted the best for all of them. That Lewis and Rachael would find themselves again, and that Herr Lubert would be able to begin again too – for as an architect, his skills would be needed to rebuild the city.

This was an emotionally involving novel that gave a rather different take on WWII and I enjoyed it a lot. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Aftermathby Rhidian Brook. Pub 2013 by Viking Penguin, Hardback 336 pages. Sorry – no sign of the paperback yet.

Rebecca covered…

I blame Simon – he started this off last week with posts on bad book covers for classic novels – Wuthering Heights after seeing this post on bad Jane Eyre ones.

I thought I’d have a go too – and rather than choose a Victorian novel, I came a little back up the timeline and have plumped for Daphne Du Maurier’s best-known book, Rebecca.  Here goes – my selection of bad or funny or just plain plain covers…

Rebecca 6Rebecca 5Left – The first edition is the ‘Ronseal’ cover – does exactly what it says on the tin – twice!

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Right – The ‘Cookson’ cover, for misery romance fans.

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Rebecca 2Left – The ‘Zaphod-Rebecca 1Beeblebrox’ cover – Mrs Danvers seems to have another head growing out of her arm.

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Right – The ‘Sting’ cover – ‘every breath you take, I’ll be watching you’…

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Rebecca 12

Rebecca 4Left – The ‘Wilkie Collins’ cover. This one’s not bad, just on the wrong book!

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Right – The ‘On the Beach’ cover – this reminds me of Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic novel.

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Rebecca 10Rebecca 7Left – ‘The Moody Redhead’ cover – with the strange black mark on her chin.

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Right – ‘The Saloon Bar’ cover for lovers of Western-style fonts.

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Rebecca 8

Rebecca 9Left – The ‘Gothic Manderley’ cover, where the house is a witches castle.

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Right – The ‘Don’t look now’ cover.

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Rebecca 13Rebecca 11Left – ‘The Mrs Danvers is sweet really’ cover.

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And finally – The ‘Jeffrey Archer’ cover – Not a penny more, not a penny less!

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Maybe these covers aren’t generally as bad as the ones Simon found, but I enjoyed thinking of captions for them.

 

The clue is in the title …

The Echo by James Smythe

When I read The Explorer last year, Smythe’s novel of a failed deep space mission, I had no idea he planned a sequel, let alone making it part of a quartet. I disengaged my reality check and went along for the claustrophobic ride with the mis-matched crew who were mysteriously picked off one by one, leaving just Cormac, a journalist. In the second part of that book, it got seriously weird but fascinating, and I loved it so much I got my book group to read it, (shame they didn’t concur really.)

echo

I have, however, been looking forward to reading the sequel, The Echo, for months now and I pre-ordered it before Christmas so I could legitimately read it when it was published in January during the months of the TBR Dare I’m taking part in.

It’s twenty-three years after the Ishiguro and its crew went missing in deep space. A new mission is being mounted to go and explore ‘the anomaly’, an area of black nothingness into which it is assumed the Ishiguro went. The mission is directed by identical twin brothers Tomas and Mirakel Hyvonen. They’ve spent years developing the science to make the new ship, the Lära – named after their mother, more efficient, faster, failsafe – everything has been tested. Mirakel describes their motivation to try again …

Everything was to be different to the way that they did it last time. … They set us back decades, I believe. When they disappeared, ever to be heard from again – as if space is a fairy story, something less than tangible – all funding went. Private investors, the life-line to the modern scientist, disappeared. Everything they did was wrong. I can pick holes. They launched from Earth, even though it made no sense, even back then. They spent money on automated systems because they believed they would add efficiency. … They spent billions developing ridiculous gravity systems, … They took a journalist with them, because they spun their mission into something commercial, something outside science. … What did that cost them, that folly? They played everything badly, a product of moneymen rather than scientific design. It drove Tomas and myself insane. And when they went missing, the balloon deflated overnight. No more space travel. There is nothing new out there to find, and no glory to be garnered from dying in the cold expanse of space as they surely did. … Most of us – scientists – felt as if they let us down. That’s a hard truth, but a truth nonetheless. When Tomas and I decided that we would do this, we decided that we would do everything better. This – space, discovery – it deserved better.

One of the twins remains behind to run Mission Control, able to run all the ship’s systems from Earth. Tomas and Mira played a game to decide; Mira, our narrator doesn’t say whether he won or lost – but he will be the one to go into space.  They launch from the International Space Station and everything starts off fine. Once awakened from sleep, the crew are all getting on with each other and are kept busy doing their jobs. The improved communications with Earth mean it’s almost as if Tomas is there with them.  It’s almost humdrum.

Then they begin to approach ‘the anomaly’, and soon it’s a case of – what the…! Here we go again.  If you take what happened to the Ishiguro’s crew and especially Cormac in the first novel, multiply it several-fold in tension, add the shock-factor of what happens and the echoes of what follows that – it kept me on the edge of my seat… until it began to become clear how there is only one way out, (I think!).

The author piles on the twists and turns as Mirakel struggles to get to grips with what is happening to them, and finds that the truth has been founded on lies that he is part of. The sibling rivalry leaps off the page, but it is mostly Tomas who has control, twisting the brotherly knife ever deeper by making Mira jealous.  It is Mira’s developing relationship with the Russian doctor Inna that I found rather entrancing though, for she is a fascinating character, strong and passionate; the rest of the crew were of less interest – wearing metaphorical red shirts as you might imagine.

Smythe has certainly maintained or even bettered the quality of writing in this second volume, and by upping the drama The Echo is even more of a psychological thriller than The Explorer.  By allowing us to bond with Mirakel, something that didn’t happen with Cormac, the ante was upped and there was less detachment. I enjoyed it even more – in the same way that the equally ‘edge of your seat’ Aliens was better than the art-house Alien as a thriller on the big screen, (certain memorable scenes excepted).

Knowing that this is a planned quartet of books, I’ll be fascinated to see where he takes us next.  Surely the final part will see Earth taking on the Anomaly? But who will win?  What will happen in between?  Can it get any bleaker? I can’t wait. (9.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Echo by James Smythe. Pub Harper Voyager, 16th Jan 2014. Hardback, 320 pages.
The Explorer, paperback.

Where is your North?

Soonchild by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Alexis Deacon

220px-Soonchild_Cover

This was the last book that Russell Hoban finished before his death in 2011. It was published posthumously by Walker Books as an illustrated short novel for a teen audience, and it is dedicated to Hoban’s grandchildren who are probably the perfect age to read this modern folktale of the frozen north…

Maybe you think there isn’t any north where you are. Maybe it’s warm and cosy and outside the window the street is full of cars or maybe there’s just emptiness and a train whistle. There aren’t any Eskimos or dog sleds, nothing like that. But in your mind there is a North.

There’s a north where it’s so cold that your nose hairs get stiff and your eyeballs get brittle and your face hurts and your hands will freeze if you leave them uncovered too long. A north where the white wind blows, where the night wind wails with the voices of the cold and lonesome dead. Where the ice bear walks alone and he’s never lost. Where the white wolf comes trotting, trotting on the paths of the living, the paths of the dead. Where the snowy owl drifts through the long twilight without a sound. Where the raven speaks his words of black.

In this north there’s a place on the shore of the great northern bay with forty or fifty huts and a co-op and some boats and some of those motorized sleds they call skidoos. Some of the people still live by hunting and fishing but many have jobs and buy their food at the co-op.

These are the opening paragraphs of Soonchild, and those of you who’ve encountered Russell Hoban before will recognise his trademark way of bringing a flight of fantasy down to earth with the introduction of the mundane and a dash of humour.  This novel is full of these touches of humour, but underneath that is a rather dark and profound story of death and rebirth based on Inuit folklore. 

Soonchild is an unnaturally quiet baby, and she plans on staying in her mother No Problem’s womb. She can’t hear the ‘world songs’, so there is no point in coming out, she doesn’t believe there’s a world out there.

Sixteen Face John is her father, he is the local shaman, as was his father and grandfather before him, but he has got fat and lazy drinking Coke and watching baseball on the telly.  No Problem challenges John as shaman to fix it.

Illustration by Alexis Deacon from Soonchild by Russell Hoban

Illustration by Alexis Deacon from Soonchild by Russell Hoban

Somewhat reluctantly, John goes off and makes a big-dream brew – and he jumps into the raven’s eye to go and visit Nanuq, the ice bear, chasing these elusive songs. He will meet all manner of wildlife of the North as well as his ancestors in his quest in which he will die and be reborn many times in his search for the songs, and he will need courage as he finds out some hard truths about himself too.

With the exception of the mysterious snowy owl, Ukpika, many of the animals that John meets are straight talking and worldly.  “… my houth is youw houth and you’we my browther. What can I do fow you, bwo?” says Timertuk the walrus with a shocking lisp.  However, if you took out these playful bits of vernacular and the references to Coca-cola and pizza, what’s left could be a traditional folktale.

What makes the story really come alive, and takes it to a whole new level though are Alexis Deacon’s superb monochrome illustrations as above. They are ghostly and slightly savage – you can see the ribs and skulls of some of the wolves showing through their skin. You can sense that it’s hard to stay alive for the animals in this harsh landscape.

monster 1Given the fantastic nature of Hoban’s story, it lends itself to being illustrated. This was the same for Patrick Ness’s novel A Monster Calls, which I reviewed here. Jim Kay’s Greenaway Award-winning illustrations for that book were elemental, full of a life darker than the story itself. Reading the illustrated version was an absolute pleasure, yet Walker Books also produced an picture-less version of the paperback as a conventional adult crossover edition. I don’t think this would benefit Soonchild – it needs the illustrations to take you past the humour so you can savour the story underneath.

I’m a fan of Hoban, and the allure of the frozen North and its spirits, encountered from my cosy armchair made for a magical hour or two of reading. (9/10)

By the way: Another novel for older children and teens with its roots in the far north that I’d recommend is The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake, which I reviewed here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Soonchild by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Alexis Deacon. Walker Books 2012, 144 pages, paperback – Feb 2014.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, illustrated library binding.
The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake

When your best friends don’t get on …

Gossip by Beth Gutcheon

gossip UK trade paperback cover

When the UK edition of Beth Gutcheon’s 2012 novel came out last year, I couldn’t resist the cover and oversized paperback format. However, that gorgeous cover is no more than a single snapshot in the lives of the three women it follows …

We start in 1960, when Loviah French is fifteen and enrolling at Miss Pratt’s – a boarding high school for girls in New York. Lovie’s family are from Maine, and she’s a country girl having a hard time at settling into this exclusive school that her folks can’t really afford.

Thank heavens for Dinah.  They met on their first day at school and will remain best of friends for life through thick and thin. Dinah’s father is a teacher at the school in an exclusive gated community in New England, so Dinah is outside that set, but a keen observer of how it all works, and she takes Lovie under her wing.

Lovie’s other real friend is Avis – the shy only daughter of a socialite couple. They also meet at Miss Pratt’s when Avis, three years older, is assigned to be a mentor to Lovie in the classes in etiquette and conversation leading up to coming out as debutantes. Although Avis and Dinah know of each other, at this stage they are individually friends with Lovie.

Lovie narrates their story and tells how they all came by their careers – Lovie being apprenticed to a dress designer, and eventually setting up an exclusive boutique of her own; Dinah becoming a journalist and having a successful gossip column; and Avis indulging her love of art being an expert at an auction house.

It’s 1983 and Dinah and Avis are/have been married/divorced and had children, Lovie is still single, but does have a devoted lover – shame he can’t leave his wife. Anyway, Lovie sets up a lunch for the three of them…

‘Doesn’t it seem a century ago that we were all locked up at Miss Pratt’s? To me it seemed like something out of Jane Eyre.’
‘Oh,’ said Avis gratefully, ‘that’s just what I thought! I was so homesick I wanted to weep, most of the time. …

… Avis and I were warming to our topic. She said, ‘I was used to having the city as my backyard. I missed the Met, I missed the symphony, I missed the art house cinema on weekends.’
‘I thought the whole thing was kind of a hoot,’ said Dinah.
I knew perfectly well she had hated every minute of it. Avis, caught up short, didn’t seem to know what to do.
‘You did not,’ I said.
‘I did. I decided to see if I could break every rule in their pompous little book without getting kicked out, and except for never having a boy in my roo, I think I did it.’
Avis look bewildered. …

… ‘Well,’ I said, ‘the world has changed so much, it all seems quaint now. Think of life before the Pill, or Our Bodies, Ourselves, or Ms. magazine. Before women could be doctors or lawyers-‘
Avis broke in, ‘Isn’t it true? And it’s not just women in professions … in our parents’ world, the professions themselves weren’t really acceptable, were they? Somehow gentlemen lawyers were all right, but when you were growing up, did your parents know doctors or schoolteachers socially?’
My heart had sunk into my shoes. I was saying to myself, Dinah, don’t say it, please don’t say it, when Dinah said, ‘My father is a schoolteacher.’

So Avis and Dinah could never be friends, and Lovie sees them separately through the decades. It is not until Avis’ daughter Grace meets Dinah’s son Nicky and marriage beckons, that they are forced to develop an arms-length relationship. There is a lot of drama along the way as families change over the decades, and it takes us up through 9/11 to a shocking climax that will shock all three to the core. Lovie tells it all.

gossip-pb-300As a result, this novel does rather meander through the years, but the author’s development of the three main characters is such that we do want to follow their lives. Avis may be rich, but she does have difficulties at home; Dinah comes unstuck as a gossip columnist when she uncovers unethical goings on; and Loviah is there throught thick and thin – their loyal supporter. Poor Lovie, she gets used by everyone including her best friends. You can sense that although she loves her gentleman friend, she misses having a family of her own, so makes sure that she is the best Godmother her friends’ children could have.

Beth Gutcheon’s narrator, Lovie, is a wonderful character. She has an eye for detail, setting the scene as the years go by through the fashions and styles of the day.  Dinah is the loud and confident friend that all quieter girls need to bring them out of their shells – but she is rather apt to shoot her mouth off. It was shy and sad Avis I felt for – despite being rich, she proves that money isn’t everything.

The blurb suggests that this novel is ‘in the tradition of Mary McCarthy’s classic The Group, however I (still) haven’t read that yet.  The Group is set much earlier, during the 1930s, but I could compare this book with other New York stories – Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls and Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. Gossip holds up well to the former, but I did like the Towles more.

Once we got past the schooldays, I really enjoyed reading this novel, absorbing myself in the lives of these three women.  Lovie dispenses her secrets gradually and the slowburn was worth staying with making this a satisfying read. (7.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Gossip by Beth Gutcheon. Atlantic Books 2013, Trade paperback, 288 pages. Std paperback now available too.
Valley Of The Dolls (VMC) by Jacqueline Susann
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
The Group (VMC) by Mary McCarthy