Loneliness and a life wasted?

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

the-twinTranslated from the Dutch by David Colmer.

It’s quite a feat to win a major prize with your first novel, but that’s what The Twin did, taking the prestigious IMPAC Award in Dublin back in 2010.

Henk and Helmer are twins – identical in features, but with very different characters. When they were 19 in 1967, Helmer was studying at university in Amsterdam while Henk, the younger twin, was learning to be a farmer. Henk had a fiancée, Riet, and she was driving in the accident that killed Henk. Helmer had to give up university to take on the farm.  The boys’ father never forgave Riet and she left. Helmer never forgave his father for making him come back or for preferring Henk.

It’s now 35 years later and Helmer is in his fifties. He subsists. Beyond food shopping, he doesn’t go out, he looks after their small flock of sheep, their few cows, chickens and his pair of beloved pet donkeys. His mother had died years ago, but his aged father lives on, bedridden, ‘breathing and talking. Even now, here, I can hear him muttering.’  As the novel starts, Helmer has decided to move his father upstairs into the bedroom there, out of the way, perchance to die. When a letter from Riet arrives, Helmer panics – he tells her his father is dead. She comes to visit.

‘Hello Riet,’ I say.

Very old fury, a fury I can’t remember having, whose existence I didn’t even suspect, rises up inside me. Riet isn’t troubled by fury. I can see that. She is moved and confused, that’s what’s troubling her. The longer Henk is dead, the more I look like him, simply because there is no longer any comparing.

No, fury is too big a word, outrage is closer.

The purpose of her visit is to ask if her teenaged son could come and stay with him for a while, to be a farm hand; he’s called Henk.  Helmer can’t refuse, he can manage on his own, but the help would be useful, and so Helmer finally gets a chance to be a father-figure to someone. Young Henk will soon be ready to go out into the world for himself and it percolates through to Helmer what he’s missed, if only his father would hurry up and die.

The relationship between Helmer and his father is a complex one – no love lost between them at one moment, then something there the next. The pair have essentially colluded in a sort of mutual neglect over the years with the father stubborn and Helmer quietly resentful, wondering why his father had preferred his brother when they were twins.  Thirty-five years of this!  You have to feel sorry for Helmer.

The cover is initially entrancing, evoking a rural farming idyll but it wraps around the back too and that’s all you see, the vast flat expanses of the Dutch polders reclaimed from the sea.  The novel, too, evokes this flat, almost featureless land. It could be a solitary life, farming here. Helmer is lucky to have one neighbour, Ada, who keeps an eye on him; her young sons love the donkeys.  Yet it seems that Helmer goes out of his way to be solitary – he doesn’t try to make friends with the regular milk lorry driver for instance. He’s grumpy about his whole existence here – you just long for him to be freed from it.

Although a little drawn out in the middle, this novel was a compelling read. I had to find out what happened to Helmer and what his future would hold, the ending when it comes is entirely appropriate.  The text is not all grim, there is a certain dry humour to the writing. In style it is spare, yet there is much to read between the lines as you get to know Helmer.  It’s a stunning debut novel in a wonderful translation from a writer to look out for. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, trans David Colmer. (2009, Vintage, paperback, 288 pages).

Penguin 80s …

Little Black Classics

TinderboxGosh Penguin is 80!

They’ve produced a lovely set of 80 little black penguin classics books priced at 80p each to celebrate, plus a lovely website to go with it.

I desperately want to collect the whole series naturally, but I’m going to be strong and just pick a few to treasure, which will probably include Hans Christian Andersen left – although I probably have The Tinderbox in several other collections of his tales already.

But, I have a problem…

You see, back when Penguin was 60, they produced a three series of 60 books all at 60p.  You can see the full list here.

60 orange spines, 60 black classic spines, and 60 other titles comprising 10 biography, 10 cookery, 10 travel and 30 children’s titles.  Ever the collector, I own about 135 out of 180 of these including the full original orange and black sets – (which I collected individually from bookshops – not knowing that boxed sets would be available and which I would have snapped up to save having to buy them separately and store in shoeboxes).

Phoenix books also produced a copycat set of 30 little black classics which I own.

Then Penguin published a set of 50 small volumes of Penguin Modern Classics to celebrate that imprint’s 50th anniverary (these were pricey though at £3 each) but I blogged about them here.  I ended up just buying a handful of these.

So my collection of these little classics now looks like this:

P1020334

Guess how many of them I’ve physically read?

Just 2! – which are those in my Modern Classics review linked to above.

I shall be disposing of the Phoenix set, and the little Penguins will go back into their shoeboxes for now, surely to be joined by a few of the Little Black Classic 80s.

I have always loved Penguin books (and their Puffin and Pelican imprints) though and always search for orange, black and white spines in bookshops.

Long Live Penguin!

Leonard Nimoy – R.I.P.

spock live longI wasn’t going to post this weekend and I don’t usually write RIP pieces, but the death of Leonard Nimoy yesterday did bring a tear to my eye, and a smile too as many fond memories were evoked.

Although he had a varied career as actor and director, he will forever be Mr Spock for me. I grew up with the half Vulcan, half human who kept Captain Kirk in line, made it alright to be different, yet had such dignity.

The Telegraph has put together a wonderful collection of clips, tweets, tributes and links here, but below is Nimoy’s last tweet…  LLAP is, of course the Vulcan greeting ‘Live Long and Prosper’. We’ll miss him.

nimoy final tweet

State of the Shelves

The Billy bookcases in my library spare bedroom used to look like this:

Bookcase 4
That is, on both walls, jam packed, double depth, no space left at all. More on the top in boxes too.

Now, after a couple of months of real winnowing, one wall in that room now looks like this:

P1020330

You can see a couple of empty shelves, and most of the rest are now single stacked only. I am on the verge of being able to consolidate these books into 2 bookcases on the opposite wall with a little more purging. Then I can reclaim this space to a) finally get rid of the horrid yellow paint on the walls and b) put the spare bed propped up in my garage in the room which has never had a bed in it!

Only problem is the huge desk in the opposite corner, which I was sitting on to take the photo – I’ll have to dismantle it to get rid of it. It’s a tall modular work station type one and was assembled in the room for those pre-laptop days – it won’t go through the door as it is!

I can honestly say though that this ongoing book cull is proving to be a good experience. All those impulse purchases from the charity shop that I’ll never actually read are going back there by the bag-load (the manageress knows my gift-aid details off by heart), plus many, many more – as I try to distil my TBR into more realistic numbers.

While my desire to add new books to the shelves is essentially undiminshed, I have begun, I hope, to move towards an equilibrium state in my book piles – it’s getting more difficult though…

We’ll see, and if I ever get to that stage where the room does get redecorated and remade into a bedroom with bookshelves rather than a bedroom of bookshelves I’ll be sure to post a photo.

Have a great weekend everyone.  I’m off to play with my books some more.

 

Too lurid and too pretentiously cute!

Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell

Lurid and Cute When I read Alex Preston’s review of Adam Thirlwell’s new novel in the Financial Times I instantly wanted to read and review this book for Shiny New Books. As you know I love quirky novels, and I thought this book would be fun, very contemporary and something a bit different.

I wish I’d read some more reviews for it has since become clear that Thirlwell (one of the Granta Best British novelists under 40) is a real ‘Marmite’ author – there is little middle-ground, you’ll love it or loathe it. I quickly grew to loathe this book and gave up at around page 115 during the orgy scene.

It takes place in a great unnamed metropolis, where our unnamed narrator wakes up in bed beside a woman who is not his wife, and she is in a bad state with blood and vomit around her mouth – but still alive. He delivers Romy, with whom he is having an affair to the hospital and goes home to his beloved wife Candy and the house they share with his parents. He has recently given up work, saying he is depressed and needs to find his art – she indulges him. He essentially goes on to laze around taking drugs with his best friend Hiro, bemoaning the fact that he loves Candy so much, while having fun with Romy – and then they all end up at a party that turns into an orgy, even Candy- and he can’t handle it.

He reminded me very much of a Murakami protagonist – Toru in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle who ends up sitting in a well. He was rather an empty shell and was difficult to engage with, although I quite enjoyed that novel. Thirlwell’s 30ish main character is also hollow – but is also downright indulgent and silly. I felt so sorry for his wife Candy – she must have known he was lying through his teeth to her.

Because, to put this another way, it turns out that in the perfect marriage where you are absolutely trusted there is no end to what you can do. For lying only distils its gorgeousness if you are doing it to the person who wakes up next to you every day, who believes they know your inner heart more than they know their own, that’s the perfect person to lie to because only when you lie to someone like that can you create a perfect lie, … Unfortunately, it leaks all over the picture.

Irritatingly, Thirlwell’s prose does have its moments, but I disliked the narrator so much I couldn’t continue – I gather I’ve missed a whole lot of shenagigans involving a hold-up and gunshots by giving up, but life’s too short. The title was very apt though (with an ironic emphasis on cute). DNF

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Source: Publisher – Thank you!

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thanks):
Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell. Pub Jonathan Cape, Jan 2015, Hardback, 368 pages.

The first in a long line of crime novels

Naked in Death by J.D.Robb

naked in deathLast week, Victoria over at Tales from the Reading Room wrote a post about Obsession in Death, the latest in J.D.Robb’s long-running crime series featuring detective Eve Dallas. In fact, it turns out that Obsession in Death is the fiftieth in the series! I knew that I had the first novel in the sequence somewhere on my shelves, and felt compelled to dig it out and see how Dallas began…

As Victoria said, Robb/Roberts is known for her philanthropy which is lovely. She is also known for being a writing machine, producing countless novels each year, romances as Roberts, crime as Robb. Naked in Death was published in 1995 – the first of fifty, so that’s two or three per year of this series alone.

Eve Dallas is thirty. She’s a Lieutenant in the NYPSD (the ‘S’ is for Security). At the start of the novel she is called out to a murder – it turns out to be the grand-daughter of a senator who is running for his party nomination on a ‘moral’ ticket. His grand-daughter in one of those f***-you type career choices has been working as a ‘licenced companion’ – a prostitute. The scene is grisly – she was killed with 3 bullets from a hand-gun. There’s a note under the body saying 1 of 6.

Naturally, the senator is all over the department wanting to keep things closed down, but Dallas knows there may be more deaths – and there will be.  The killer seems to be expert at bypassing security systems and leaving no trace, but in true psychopath style he sends Dallas videos.

One of the immediate suspects is Roarke, an Irishman. He’s a tycoon, he owns the building she was killed in, he collects guns – which are now antiques. He has to be a suspect – if only he wasn’t so sexy – because you just know that Dallas and him will end up in the sack for some truly purple prose – lancing spears and all that!

Enough of the plot, for it was entirely predictable, I guessed whodunnit halfway in, but the pieces didn’t fall into place until later.

You don’t really read series like this for the crimes. They’re incidental, you read them for the characters. You hope for some development – and reading between the lines in Victoria’s review I can surmise that apart from Dallas and Roarke ending up married, that little has changed in fifty books. However: Naked is set in 2058; Obsession is set in 2060. So these fifty books move forward just two years.  My – that’s a full case-book of murders for anyone!

Note that near-future timeline. In 2058, guns have been outlawed, become collectors items only. Prostitutes have become legal, licenced. Various gadgets make modern life easier, but as far as I could see offer no improvements in quality of life. None but the rich can afford real coffee. Roarke is planning a space resort – so Richard Branson may continue to dream on. Yet, it’s all too familiar – in a way it’s not futuristic enough in its detail. Apart from the guns, there seemed no need to set it in the future, and even now there are collectors of old firearms – the perp could have used contemporary collectibles.

What of Dallas and Roarke? Well she is of course a feisty superwoman, and Roarke may as well be a superman, not so much Clarke Kent, but Bruce Wayne – his money can buy him anything.  Dallas is damaged goods, abused as a child – holding it all in ever since. Roarke is a chancer who hit lucky and made enough money to go legit.  She is a good policewoman with the appropriate contempt for authority and is not afraid to bend the rules. He is just sickening – too handsome, too rich, too lovey, too much!

So there we have it. Naked in Death combines crime with a steamy romance.  I liked the crime part, and squirmed a bit with the romance. As a whole, I enjoyed reading Naked in Death in exactly the same way as I enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code. With no expectations, it was very easy to read throwaway grisly fun. (5.5/10)

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Source: Own copy.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
Naked In Death: 1Glory In Death: 2 etc by J.D. Robb. Piatkus paperbacks, around 400 pages.

 

 

Trending: Tough Issue Lit for Teens

See, being an eternal optimist, I can’t even bring myself to say the word ‘suicide’ in my blog post title – yet as a subject of teen novels, I’m seeing it and mental health related illness cropping up more and more…

I was hereI bring the issue up as I’ve just read Gayle Forman’s new novel I Was Here, (which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here).

To cut a long story short, on page one, you read the suicide note of Cody’s best friend Meg. They’d grown up together and only just gone separate ways when Meg went off to uni. Everyone is grief-stricken in their small town in the US northwest. Asked by Meg’s parents to collect her things from uni, Cody is shocked to find that there was so much she didn’t know about, and that Meg had been visiting the wrong kind of internet forums – essentially being anonymously groomed towards suicide. I was shocked to find that Forman’s novel was based on a real case! Importantly, Cody’s investigations lead to an appropriate ending, and she is able to move on.

I was here though, is just the latest (bound to be) bestselling YA novel covering this territory – there seems to be more and more of them at the moment. To see just how many there are – a good sample of titles and some intelligent discussion around the subject can be found on the Stacked blog here and here.

Of course, there have always been books which include suicides and attempted suicides, many of which will be read by older teens – The Bell Jar being the classic (see my review here), but many of the suicidal protagonists fail in their attempts to end their lives, recovering to some level and overcoming their depression.  The gritty memoirs Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen and Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel sharing their experiences will be familiar to many too.

its-kind-of-a-funny-storyMoving to 2007 – Ned Vizzini wrote It’s Kind of a Funny Story about a suicidal high school student who gets over his depression (my review here); Vizzini himself tragically committed suicide in 2013. Plath of course committed suicide just months after finishing The Bell Jar. Knowing the authors’ fates makes for a doubly sad read. These two books both feature protagonists who overcame their depression to engage with life again.

The current crop, including I Was Here, often feature successful (that’s so the wrong word, but you know what I mean) suicides though. This does change the emphasis towards what happens next and the effects on their friends and familes, but the act of the suicide always hangs heavily over the whole stories.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen ChboskyAgain this isn’t new, Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel was The Virgin Suicides about a family of teenaged sisters who all committed suicide, told after the events from the girls’ boyfriends PoVs; that wasn’t targeted at a YA audience although many older teens will read it. (I’ve yet to read it, but did see the film). Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is particularly well-written in its sensitivity and wonderful young hero Charlie – I highly recommend it.

Despite their sad themes, if you look around the blogosphere you’ll find many YA bloggers who are welcoming these books for giving their teenaged readers a way into discussing their own problems, and explaining to them what being depressed in particular is like – a kind of reading therapy perhaps. For them, it’s all about overcoming the old taboos and fostering a kinder, non-judgmental and more supportive atmosphere in which it’s good to talk. I applaud that wholeheartedly, because I see the pressure to achieve being put on teenagers today and I worry for them.

These days there are also hundreds of books for children and teens about grief, coming to terms with terminal illness, or the death of a parent or loved one. These range from Patrick Ness’ exceptional A Monster Calls about a boy whose mum is dying from cancer, to Sally Nicholl’s heartwarming but sad Ways to Live Forever about a boy with terminal illness, Clare Furniss’ bestselling novel Year of the Rat about a girl whose mum dies in childbirth, and not forgetting Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece which has to win the prize for most elegiac title.  These novels, many of which are eminently suitable for older children and younger teens, are perhaps the natural precursor to those above, but, they are also totally different in that no-one wants to die in them…

So, I also worry because these latest suicide lit books are so real. Where is the escapism and mystery?  I remember escaping into books as a teenager, never reading books that were so close to real life. Admittedly, the thrillers I read were terribly violent (Alastair MacLean and his ilk), but they were not ‘real’ – you engage with them differently. With the exception of The Bell Jar I can’t remember any similar titles around when I was a teenager, but then you didn’t talk about any mental health issues either.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought that all the novels I’ve mentioned and read above were good, they nearly all made me cry too, but so much teen fiction these days is so bleak and seems to want to shock. Given that many of the protagonists are on verge of becoming young adults, it’s such a brutal way to come of age too!

That’s why one of my favourite recent YA novels is Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone. No-one dies, there’s a mystery to be solved, and it still has lots to say about modern life and families. From those I’ve read so far on the longlist I’d be very happy if it won the Carnegie Medal. But, I also fear that to stick one’s head in the sand over this YA trend would be the mark of becoming a sentimental old fool – I’m not ready for that yet!

It’s Shiny linkiness time …

I haven’t told you about all the reviews I wrote for the latest edition of Shiny New Books yet… If you’ve not visited yet, there are around 80 new pages of reviews and articles and our editors’ picks competition on the front page as usual.

Back to me!  This time we’re concentrating on fiction reviews:

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A Price to Pay by Alex Capus

a-price-to-pay1-190x300

Capus is a Swiss-French author writing in German. This novel, translated by John Brownjohn, opens in November 1924 at Zurich railway station with three people passing through it at the same time but they never meet. We follow these three through their lives into WWII, in which each will have a part to play and pay the price. Based on real lives, they will become the forger, the spy and the bombmaker. The book relates its history calmly and thoughtfully, giving us the space to appreciate the characters’ fates – and leaves us wondering what would have happened if these three people had actually met?

Read my review here.

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Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

hornby funny girl

You’ll probably know that I’m a big Hornby fan (see here and here for previous reviews).

Funny Girl is set during the golden age of the 1960s for TV comedy and concerns a northern lass who was nearly Miss Blackpool, but escapes to London to become a star in a TV comedy that follows the trials in the lives of a young couple.

The show itself is really the star of this book, and we get an inside view on it – from concept to finished article, and all the lives of those concerned in between. Hornby could have chosen an edgy show to feature, instead he went the cosy route. We have a charming heroine and everyone behaves as expected. To be honest, it’s not Hornby’s best, but it was still very enjoyable, nostalgic fun.

Read my review here.

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The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

ghosts-of-heavenIf I’m a big Hornby fan, I’m an even bigger fan of Marcus Sedgwick, one of the best authors of teen fiction that really does cross over to make satisfying adult reads. (see here, here and here for previous reviews).

His latest novel is a cycle of four novellas – each having a focus on spiral patterns. In the order published they move through from stone age to middle ages, to Victorian and then the future – but he says you can pick your order to read them in. I preferred the gradual reveal of the interlinking between them so stuck to the natural order, and it wasn’t until the last part that it clicked that the whole novel was a homage to a certain other story – and I loved that!

The hardback is also a lovely thing, with gold foiled covers and turquoise page edges – but in side is a fine novel too. I loved it.

Read my review here.

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Sources: Top two – publishers – thank you. Bottom – my own copy.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, Orion books, 2014, hardback 448 pages, paperback coming March 5.
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby, Viking, 2014, 352 pages.
A Price to Pay by Alex Capus, Haus Publishing, 2014, Hardback, 240 pages.

 

The Southern Reach Trilogy #2

Authority by Jeff Vandermeer

AuthorityI had been planning to eke out my reading of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy over three months but, after the comments on my post about the first volume (see here), I couldn’t wait – for a variety of reasons.

  • I was hooked, of course.
  • Commenters said that the second volume wasn’t as strong as the first – I wanted to check that for myself.
  • What’s with the rabbits!

I deliberately didn’t read the blurbs of the second and third volumes, so would come to them fresh. However, given that Annihilation introduced us to the Garden of Eden-like Area X and maintained the secrets of its genesis (pun intended) throughout – there are only really two directions that a sequel can go in:

  1. To send in another expedtition. This is what happened in sequels to 2001: A Space Odyssey in 2010, and more recently in The Echo – James Smythe’s brilliant follow-up to The Explorer (which I reviewed here and here); or
  2. The sequel can eschew sending another expedition which may suffer the same fate, and try to work things out from outside the anomaly.

I had expected a variation on the former – it’s the usual approach, but instead Vandermeer has given us option two.

If you’re planning to read these books, this is where you should leave…

The Southern Reach, the agency which guards and researches Area X, is in disarray after the return of the 12th Expedition chronicled in Annihilation. The director has gone, the returnees are uncommunicative, the demoralised staff fear for their jobs. The government authorities send in a fixer, John Rodriguez, who has the childhood nickname of ‘Control’ to sort it out, he is to report to his anonymous boss only known as ‘The Voice’.

Control arrives to find that everyone is against him – well what did you expect?!  None more so than the assistant director. She is naturally protective of the director, whom we find out in the opening pages had overridden all protocols to go on that last expedition herself. She was the psychologist, and she was the one who didn’t return. Control is thrust into an office full of the former director’s papers, scribbles, notes, theories and a rather familiar quotation written on the wall behind a door. He soon finds that everyone in the organisation too has an axe to grind and each has secrets, lots of them.

Then there is the biologist, the narrator of Annihilation. Control has to find a way to get through her barriers, to unleash her memories about what happened in Area X and in a series of interviews he starts to build up some rapport. Along the way we start to build up a picture of Control the man too, through flashbacks to his childhood. With his wild Grandpa and secret agent mother he was perhaps bound to fall into a similar line of business, for they groomed him to fit.

Although I really enjoyed Authority I did have some problems with parts of it which I’ll come to in a minute.

Firstly I have to comment on ‘Control’.  I suspect the author’s choice of nickname for Rodriguez was because of the literal meaning of the word – and the subtext throughout of who (or what) is controlling whom, but I enjoyed thinking of Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s boss ‘Control’ every time I saw it. It seems I can’t help but spot possible influences in these books – Control’s childhood seems rather close in a way to that of Jeff Lindsay’s avenging anti-hero Dexter in that he is channelled into becoming what he is and then controlled all the way…

The-Grand-Master-mi-high-cbbc-20559774-720-405Then there is an image that got stuck in my head and won’t let go… In the BBC children’s series M.I.High – about school-kid secret agents who are fighting the (James Bond) SPECTRE-like organisation SKULL led by The Grand Master, who has not a white cat on his lap like Blofeld but a white rabbit – called Flopsy no less! (right)  This has double significance, because of a) the rabbits on the cover – yes, we do find out why they were there, and b) because we never see The Grand Master’s face, we only hear his ‘Voice’.

All this is leading me towards saying that Authority is significantly different in style to Annihilation, and it is not the same dystopian eco-thriller that the first volume was.  Authority is all about internal espionage and Control in this book is much closer to Le Carré’s George Smiley and his mission to find the mole than the X-Files‘ Fox Mulder.  That’s OK – it worked for the most part, but the frequent intrusion of Control’s mother into things seemed unnecessary (again, it reminded me of M.I.High where young agent Blane’s mother is a double-agent working for the baddies!) How I wished he could cut those apron-strings that seemed to tie him like a puppet to her sooner rather than later.

There is a sense of world-weariness to Authority – we mustn’t forget that the expedition in the first volume was actually the twelfth, so really Annihilation could be viewed to start at my option 1 above as a sequel to an unwritten prequel if you see what I mean. Control’s ‘Smiley-like’ investigations into the Southern Reach, an organisation that had been forced, by the nature of the secrets it was guarding, to be inward-looking and ended up spiralling in on itself aren’t necessarily the stuff of great drama. I believe that many clues have been laid though, and we do finally get some action as the ending set us up for a great final act. (8/10)

From eco-thriller to spy-thriller to … what?
Will they find out the secrets of Area X?
Will they be able to ‘accept’ what they find?

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer – pub 4th Estate, hardbacks:
Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Feb 2014, 4th Estate, 208 pages.
Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – May 2014, 352 pages.
Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Sept 2014, 352 pages.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré, paperback.

A Dance to the Music of Time 2: A Buyer’s Market

Dancing Powell

A Buyer’s Market

So we come to the second volume of Anthony Powell’s sequence of twelve novels. If you’d like to catch up with my summary of the first part follow the link to A Question of Upbringing.

It’s now the late 1920s and Jenkins is living and working in London for a publisher of art books. As the novel begins he reminisces in his narration about Mr Deacon, an ageing artist of middling reputation he had met in Paris:

Mr Deacon was grown-up still: I myself, on the other hand, had changed. There was still distance to travel, but I was on the way to drawing level with Mr Deacon, as a fellow grown-up, himself no longer a figment of memory from childhood, but visible proof that life had existed in much the same way before I had begun to any extent to take part; and would, without doubt, continue to prevail long after he and I had ceased to participate.

powell 2
The ensuing story is inspired by Jenkins’ memory of seeing a painting (just as Vol 1 began), this time an indifferent picture by Deacon, hung inconspicuously in the house of the Walpole-Wilsons, Jenkins’ hosts for a house-party. Jenkins is always a little in love with someone – this time, it’s Barbara Walpole-Wilson – but hidebound as he is by the rules of society, she is probably unattainable whereas her sister Eleanor would be. Powell, however, in a rare example of only using a few words instead of a hundred, has Barbara mordently describe her thus :

Barbara used to say: ‘Eleanor should never have been removed from the country. It is cruelty to animals.’

I’m sure that in time Nick will find the right girl for him. Having concentrated upon the old boys’ network in the first novel and making useful contacts to get one’s career kick-started, volume two is largely concerned with establishing oneself in society and finding a mate. Nick sounds out one of his dinner companions, Lady Anne Stepney, about her sister Peggy, whom his old school-friend Stringham had had a thing for:

‘As a matter of fact, Peggy hasn’t spoken of Charles Stringham for ages,’ she said.
She did not actually toss her head – as girls are sometimes said to do in books – but that would have been the gesture appropriate to the tone in which she made this comment.

Jenkins is so easily distracted by the fairer sex!

One seeming obstacle to his progress is his continued association with Widmerpool, who crops up all over the place like an eternal gooseberry, often getting in the way and making Jenkins wonder how he comes to be invited to these dos, and:

It suddenly struck me that after all these years of knowing him I still had no idea of Widmerpool’s Christian name.

Widmerpool will be subjected to several humiliations throughout the novel and laughed at by his companions; Nick to his credit, although ever the observer, doesn’t join in. Widmerpool seems (at this stage anyway) doomed to fail in the romance stakes but we will find out that he is not without desires. He is, however, obviously useful in the business and government circles in which he works and is acquiring a solid reputation therein. Again, Widmerpool is the most intriguing character in the novel.

Many of the others from A Question of Upbringing pop in and out of the narrative from time to time. Sillery turns up at a decadent party; Uncle Giles gets a mention or two – including his abhorence of ‘champagne, beards and tiaras’, and Nick’s first love Jean will make an eventful reappearance – sparking in Nick a ‘sudden burst of sexual jealousy’.

In their twenties, life is one long social whirl for these Bright Young Things moving in the higher echelons of society – it really is a buyer’s market. Just imagine if the Tinder app had been around for this lot!

Again written in four long chapters echoing the seasons, A Buyer’s Market ends back with Mr Deacon bringing the year full circle, and finally – Jenkins finds out Widmerpool’s forename.

This time, knowing Powell’s style with it’s long convoluted sentences full of sub-clauses, I was able to jump into the text and enjoy it fully finding much more humour in particular. Having introduced us to the main characters at length in volume one, the narrative takes off launching us fully into their lives. I really enjoyed it – although the title of volume three, The Acceptance World, infers a seriousness to come – or is it just an initial settling down?  Back next month!  (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):

A Question Of Upbringing (Dance to the Music of Time 01)
A Buyer’s Market: Vol 2 (Dance to the Music of Time 02)