First person plural…

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

virgin suicidesTwo things prompted me to promote this novel, which had been in my bedside TBR bookcase for ages, to the top of the pile.

Firstly, although not written for teens, I cited it in the post I wrote trying to comprehend the current vogue for suicide-lit in teen novels (see here).

Secondly, after reading reviews of Weightless by Sarah Bannan by Victoria at Shiny and Harriet on her blog. (I desperately want to read this book now!) Weightless is not about teen suicide, although it does appear quite dark – but it is written in that rarest of styles – the “first person plural” – as is The Virgin Suicides

This novel was Eugenides’ 1993 debut – a very daring one at that.  Fancy publishing as your first novel a story about a family of five unconventional teenaged sisters who commit suicide and told from the collective point of view of the group of teenaged boys who had worshipped them wanted to get into their pants!  It hits you right from the start:

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, ‘This ain’t TV, folks, this is how hast we go.’  He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.

We’re then told of Cecilia’s first attempt at suicide, slitting her wrists in the bath. Cecilia, at thirteen the youngest of the Lisbon girls, survived this. She gets patched up in hospital:

“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”
And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: “Obviously, Doctor,” she said, “you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”

The Lisbons’ five daughters were born a year apart. Somehow I couldn’t help but mentally compare the family to the Bennets in Pride & Prejudice!  The girls are very close-knit, and Lux (14) is definitely a Lydia-type. Mr Lisbon is a maths teacher at the local high school, perplexed by his five daughters, so not unlike Mr Bennet in that regard. Mrs Lisbon is the antithesis of the flighty and voluble Mrs Bennet though – she is steely, closed and authoritarian, a strict Catholic – and to be honest we never find out much more about her. Mr Lisbon is a maths teacher at the local high school, and seems to be liked well-enough there, but is totally under the thumb at home. But enough of the Austen comparison!

The Lisbon family kept themselves to themselves. The girls weren’t allowed out on their own, and weren’t generally allowed to have guests home either. No wonder the girls are the subject of speculation and a challenge to the local teenaged male population. A while after Cecilia returns home from hospital, Mr Lisbon persuades his wife to let the girls have a chaperoned party at home – the first and only one they’ll have. Their friends and neighbours join the girls in the basement and things are getting going when Cecilia, wearing a cut-down vintage wedding dress, quietly asks to go upstairs – and defenestrates herself, impaling her body on the railings.

This is the beginning of the end really, although it will take a year before the other girls follow suit. The family is never the same, Mrs Lisbon is even more closed in, Mr Lisbon becomes an emotional wreck, their house starts to get shabbier and shabbier. The girls close ranks too whether by choice or confinement. Only Lux has a wild, feral air about her – sneaking out at night to have assignations with countless partners on the roof. Then the anniversary of Cecilia’s death approaches… naturally I can’t tell you more about what happens.

All the while the boys watch and talk about the Lisbon girls. They collect anything to do with the girls, from the news articles after Cecilia’s and later the others’ deaths, to Lux’s discarded album sleeves, to copies of medical reports later smuggled out for them. These items form a catalogue –  ‘The Record of Physical Evidence’ as they try to come to terms with and understand the events of that tragic thirteen months. Everyone has their own theory about why they did it, but will they ever really know?

VirginSuicidesPosterThere is a dreamlike quality to this novel, contrasting sharply with the events within. I remember that feeling came across very well in Sofia Coppola’s feature-film debut – she wrote and directed. Kirsten Dunst (having turned down American Beauty) was troubled teen Lux, with James Woods and Kathleen Turner as Mr and Mrs Lisbon. I must watch it again, I remember it as rather good.

I read Eugenides’ epic second novel Middlesex pre-blog – I remember finding it rather drawn out (in the same way as Donna Tartt to me). The Virgin Suicides is much shorter, coming in at just under 250 pages. If you think that makes for a fast-paced read though, think again. Although it’s not long, the months between the bookending events are explored in much detail. This does make for a slightly flabby middle – as  the boys recount the events in hindsight, collect their evidence and present it to us through their team leader narrator. We never get to know which one of them narrates and we never get to know how long after the events they’re actually telling the story. If you’re looking for answers and resolution, this isn’t a novel to give them to you – in fact it’ll leave you with more questions.

The Virgin Suicides certainly marked the emergence of a great new American writing talent though, and I enjoyed it very much. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, 4th Estate paperback, 260 pages.
The Virgin Suicides [DVD] [2000] dir Sofia Coppola.

Consumer culture gone mad in a warped and very funny novel…

Get Me Out of Here by Henry Sutton

Scanning my TBR shelves for something different to read the other week, I alighted on this novel remembering that Kim had loved it! It was time to return to a novel by Henry Sutton. Many moons ago, pre-blog and in the early days of keeping my reading list spreadsheet, I made a note after reading Sutton’s first novel published in 1995 entitled Gorleston:

Gorleston

Having actually lived in Gorleston [-0n-Sea, adjacent to Gt Yarmouth in Norfolk] for a year I can completely understand this novel. It was lonely enough as a Londoner fresh from university in my first real job, but at least I could get away at weekends. For dear old retired Percy in this novel however, who leads a very humdrum existence, the chance to have some fun when he meets Queenie is totally irresistible! He has a whale of time, but Queenie moves on and he’s left alone again to discover some uncomfortable new truths about his dead wife. A touching novel full of wry observations about being old from a young first-time author.

Norfolk wasn’t me, but I really enjoyed Gorleston, so hoped I’d have a treat with his more recent novel Get Me Out of Here too.

Get me out of hereThe book starts in an opticians shop at Canary Wharf, East London’s business district, where Matt Freeman is trying to get a refund on his new pair of designer glasses, which he has deliberately mistreated because he doesn’t like them. He’s angling for a refund so he can go to another optician for a different pair he’s spotted. They call his bluff though, offering to replace the scratched lenses with stronger ones, it’ll take two weeks! Matt Freeman is, as they say, having a very bad day.

Right from the start we know that Freeman is a wannabe, he has some kind of unspecified financial start-up company about which he is very secretive, while accepting ‘investments’ from friends and family. All the time, he is living beyond his means in a flat with a bust boiler that isn’t actually in the most desirable location of the Barbican development in central London. Set in 2008, if you thought this novel was going to be about the credit crunch, you’d be mostly wrong but also a little right – for the only credit that will get crunched in this novel is Matt’s.

I’ve never read about a character so obsessed with brands and shopping! If starts on page one, and doesn’t let up for the whole novel… In fact, on the copyright page at the front, the publishers have inserted a paragraph to dissociate the author and themselves from Matt’s ‘highly subjective views about a variety of well-known brands and shops. These are purely a product of his imagination and state of mind.’

There’s a brilliant scene where he proves that an indestructible suitcase can be the opposite, which commenters over on Kim’s review likened to a John Cleese rant, so I won’t repeat that here. Another telling moment happens in Prada, where he goes to pick up a jacket he bought at half-price in the sale on which he’s had some alterations done. Needless to say it no longer fits and he can’t get his money back so he attacks the sales assistant.

I’d never hit a sales assistant before and I didn’t hit this man very hard. It was more of a slap with the back of my hand, which I sort of disguised as part of my desperate struggle to tear off the ruined piece of clothing as quickly as possible. He was too shocked, I think, to realise quite what had happened. But I couldn’t stand it when places such as Prada proved so unaccommodating. It was particularly shoddy behaviour, from an establishment that tried to project such a refined, stylish image.
‘Keep it,’ I shouted, letting the jacket fall to the floor. ‘But don’t expect to get my custom again.’ I couldn’t afford to waste £480, but I didn’t see why a trickle of Prada customers shouldn’t be made aware of how they treated their non-celebrity clients.

Underneath all the hilarious ranting and raving by Matt, the bad customer, is something all together more macabre as evidenced by that slap, for Matt is not just Mr Angry.

Shortly after the start of the novel we meet Matt’s current girlfriend, Bobbie. She shares a house in South London, and is addicted to reality TV – which is where the title of this novel comes from, as Ant and Dec are currently in the jungle on screen doing ‘I’m a celebrity…‘ in it. Bobbie is the latest in a long string of girlfriends, none of whom seem to last very long. With her TV addiction, she is on the way out.

It’s not clear what actually happens – with our unreliable narrator Matt telling his own story, he never actually admits to anything. We, naturally, fill in the gaps and with all the clues, can only assume the worst.

If I described this novel as a typically British response to Bret Easton Ellis’ infamous 1995 novel American Psycho, I wouldn’t be far off the mark, except that where AP is just nasty, Get Me Out of Here is very funny, a black comedy of the highest order with the pace of a thriller. It’s not often that you encounter a leading character that you love to hate so much but who keeps you riveted to the page – Matt Freeman is one of those. You’ll either love it or hate it – I’m the former.(9.5/10)

Sutton’s new novel My Criminal World features a struggling crime author, whose failing marriage and need for more gore in his writing begin to converge. Sounds irresistible, I’ve ordered a copy.

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Source: Own copies.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
All by Henry Sutton:
Gorleston – O/P – S/H copies available.
Get Me Out of Here – Vintage pbk, 2011, 272 pages.
My Criminal World – Vintage pbk, 2014, 288 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

My Books of the Year 2013

I’ve had a great reading year in 2013. I’ve managed to read more books than the past few years, topping the hundred mark, and at the time of review thirteen of those scored ten out of ten. Not all of those will make my list below though, as the score is just a snapshot – a useful guide, but not definitive, for often it is those books that initially may not have the instant wow factor, but stay with you and keep you thinking about them that become treasured reads later on.

So here we go with my usual mix of categories – both serious and fun. Links will take you to my original review …

Best sense of place: The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers
A quiet novel with emotional depth set around the great cathedral. I was lucky enough to hear Salley talk about the novel too which was fascinating.

Best at messing with your mind – The Explorer by James Smythe
More than just SF, this is a claustrophobic psychothriller that just happens to be set in deep space. I shall be re-reading it for book group in January before turning to the sequel The Echo – out in the New Year.

Best novel that’s been in the movies this year – The Great Gatsby
The critics may have thought Baz Luhrman’s GG too flashy, but I loved it. I loved re-reading the novel again even more.

Best by a newly mourned author (R.I.P.) – The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
I had been planning a project to re-read all of Banks novels this year, when the shock announcment came of his terminal illness. I re-read his debut novel – and the power of it blew me away again. He is deeply missed.

Best portrait of American life – Mrs Bridge (& Mr Bridge) by Evan S Connell
Told in a series of vignettes, this pair of novels, each from the PoV of half of a couple, capture the minutiae of suburban life just before the war so perfectly. The personalities of Mr and Mrs Bridge are quite different, so Mrs Bridge is frothy, Mr Bridge is rather stoic. You must read both.Books of the year 1

Best portrait of English life – Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes
There were many novels I could have chosen here including ones by Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym and not forgetting The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield, however I plumped for MacInnes because of its youth and optimistic outlook.

Best witchy novel set in Paris – Babayaga by Toby Barlow
Russian witches in fin de siècle Paris, American spies and a police inspector who is transformed into a flea – What’s not to like. Fabulous fun.

Best rediscovery of a childhood favourite – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner
Going to the Bodleian for it’s Magical Worlds exhibition, and then a lecture by Alan Garner at Magdalen College, rekindled my love of his children’s books from the 1960s, and has made me want to read everything he’s written.

Best historical monster – Magda by Meike Ziervogel
This short work of fiction packs such an emotional punch – telling the story of Magda Goebbels through the eyes of her mother and oldest daughter as well as herself. Meike manages to get inside Magda’s mind to understand without condoning her actions. Simply stunning.

Best one-sitting read – Glaciers by Alexis M Smith
A young woman, who works in a library, muses about her life – her friends and family, her dreams of travelling, finding the perfect dress for a party, and the man she hopes will notice her there. Dreamy and delicate prose, but strong themes of losing people – through distance, break-ups and war.

Books of the year 2
Best comic novel – The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
The story of an Australian professor with Aspergers who sets out to find a wife, and ends up on a voyage of self-discovery. Simsion manages never makes fun of him – but Don is so matter of fact, he can’t help but make you laugh out loud. A delight!

Best memoir – Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
In the 1970s, Steve Martin was one of the US’s top comedians, playing sell-out tours to huge audiences. After eighteen years, worn out by it, and noticing the first empty seats in an audiences appearing again, he turned his back on stand-up. This book is part comedy masterclass and part memoir – and a fine read indeed.

Best book group discussion – Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
This is my pick of the books we’ve read this year as the one which generated the most meaningful discussion. It may not have been a novel that everyone liked, but we all had something to say about it – which suggests it is a good book group choice.

Best book group read of the year – The 100 year old man who climbed out of a window and disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
This is the book our group voted for as our fave of the year. This hit book in translation contains some of the most novel ways to die we’ve encountered, and was hilarious to boot.

Books of the year 3

… and finally – My Book of the Year is …

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

mr loverman

Mr Loverman is the story of Barrington Walker, who emigrated from Antigua in the 1960s. Barry has a big secret. His friend Morris has been his lover for decades. His wife Carmel is at her wits’ end thinking he’s a philandering womaniser, while Morris is putting pressure on Barry to do the right thing. In Mr Loverman, Evaristo has created a memorable family with a magnificent patriarch whom you can’t help falling for. Hilariously funny and exhuberant, yet compassionate and bittersweet in its portrayal of the difficulties of family life – I loved every single page.

So those are my picks of the year. It’s true to say that both Magda and The Explorer came very close to being my book of the year, but the ability of Mr Loverman to put a big smile on my face won out in the end.

Have you read any of these books?
What were your stand-out reads in 2013?
Do tell me …

Ten Books that Represent Great Britain

A couple of days ago, Simon at Savidge Reads and Thomas at My Porch created a new meme (Yes Simon, I know you didn’t want to call it a meme, but it is one – a nice one!). The challenge is to pick ten books that sum up your own country geographically but authors from that country. Simon has also made his post WWII in its scope – so a state of the nation picture as well.

I couldn’t resist the challenge. I have also kept it current in scope, and all books I’ve written about on this blog. The one bit I couldn’t do, and apologies to the land of my mother’s birth, but I have had to make it a Great Britain list (i.e. England, Wales and Scotland) rather than UK, as I couldn’t find a book to include for Northern Ireland. So here goes (all the links are to my reviews):

Firstly London and the Home Counties:

balthazar jones1. Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart.

This novel represents heritage and London Transport. Heritage through the titular Balthazar Jones being a Beefeater at the Tower, put in charge of the Queen’s Royal Menagerie, and LT through his wife Hebe working in the Underground’s lost property office where all of human life can be found. It sounds as though it should be an historical novel, but it was a lovely surprise to find that it was modern.  Charming and touching in equal measure, with some lovely comic moments.

rivers of london2. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

This novel represents rivers and my birthplace. The first in a series of paranormal police procedurals, there is a rich vein of fun running through this book – which leads to the raiding of a vampires’ nest in Purley (my birthplace), but you’ll never look at Covent Garden or Bloomsbury in the same way after reading it either.  The great rivers being personified by modern day Gods and Goddesses adds a more serious mythological flow to the narrative.  Hugely imaginative, there are now four books in the series. (Note to self – get reading them!).

mr loverman3. Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

This pick is all about diversity.  At its heart is Barrington Walker, a sharp-suited seventy-four year old who emigrated to Hackney from Antigua in the 1960s.  Barry has a big secret, since his childhood his friend Morris has been his lover.  Barry’s wife Carmel, thinks he’s a philandering womaniser, whereas Morris is urging him to finally do right by him.  Add two contrary daughters to the mix and you have a richly bittersweet and hilarious family drama. I loved every page of this book.

Moving northwards to the Midlands

200px-TheSecretDiaryOfAdrianMole4. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend

Adrian Mole is one of the funniest characters ever written. A product of working class folk in the Midlands, he is pompous in his unshakeable belief that he could be a great writer, but loveable too.  His eight volumes of diaries take him from his early teens through to forty, chronicling the decades from the 1980s into the noughties with superb wit.

Now moving north and east to Yorkshire …

gods own5. God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin

The North York Moors come to life in this story of a young man and his dog. Stuck working on the farm and virtually ignored by his parents, teenager Sam wanders the Moors. Then a family of incomers move into the area and he falls for their daughter. Rich in nature and landscape, and enhanced with a smattering of Yorkshire dialect, this novel was a fine debut and Raisin was picked as one of Granta’s latest Young British Writers under 40.

Going west …

mills all quiet6. All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills

Set in the Lake District during off-season, Mills’s hilarious novel encapsulates the plight of the outsider trying to fit into a community, when a plucky tourist stays on after his holiday looking for work.  The book also highlights that it’s always a long way round lakes by road, especially by milk float. All of Mills’s novels are primarily about men and their work, and this one – his second – is still his best.

We now hop over the border into Scotland …

stonemouth7. Stonemouth by Iain Banks

I would have included Banks’s The Crow Road, but haven’t read it during the life of my blog – so Stonemouth represents his writing instead. A Scottish seaside town is the setting for the funeral of the grandfather of the Murston clan, one of Stonemouth’s two ruling families. Stewart Gilmour is returning under a truce for it five years after they ran him out of town. Will he survive the long weekend? Will he see Ellie again? Cracking dialogue, punchy action, and some beautiful writing make this a fabulous read.

hamish mcbeath 18. Death of a Gossip by M C Beaton

Completely opposite in style to Iain Banks’s characters is Hamish Macbeth – the canny police constable that would like an easy life on Scotland’s scenic west coast.  Beaton is the current queen of the cosy mystery and the combination of the beautiful location, fun characters, and Hamish’s laid-back style of investigation all combine to make murder seem almost nothing to worry about! Personally I much prefer Hamish to her other long series featuring Agatha Raisin. The first two in the series were fun – I have another 25 to go!

Then down we go into Wales …

mab1

9. White Ravens by Owen Sheers

Representing farming and the food cycle, this short novel is a retelling of the story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, from the second branch of the Mabinogion – a set of medieval Welsh stories of Celtic origin.  The beginning is set on a farm beset with foot and mouth. The farming brothers go out stealing lambs to supply fancy restaurants in London, and their sister Rhi has to drive the van one day. At the Tower of London (there again!) she meets an old man who tells her a story of raven chicks, and an act of revenge of savage butchery. Grim but gripping with Sheers’ powerful writing.

And finally we join the dots, with a 627 mile journey from Devon to Northumbria…

harold fry10. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

A road novel with a difference. Retired Harold Fry sets out to post a letter to an old friend who he’s discovered is dying of cancer, but decides he’ll deliver it himself. Only problem – he’s in Devon and Queenie is in Berwick-upon-Tweed up by the Scottish border.  On his journey, Harold meets some wonderful people, gets to appreciate nature along the way, and finds himself becoming a celebrity and being taken advantage of. We also learn about Harold’s life, how he and his wife Maureen have ended up in a rut; It’s a tear-jerking page-turner that just manages to stay the right side of sentimentality.

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So that’s my ten books touring around Great Britain.  Having limited myself to those I’ve written about on my blog and British authors, I wasn’t able to include East Anglia, or the great northern conurbations of Manchester and Liverpool.  I would have liked to include a university novel for Oxford and Cambridge too, but couldn’t squeeze one in. Likewise, Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark with their northern and London novels which mostly weren’t quite contemporary enough.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my tour.  Feel free to have a go yourself and link back to Simon and Thomas.

“If a loving yuh looking for yuh buck upon the right one”

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo.

mr loverman

This novel has gone straight into my shortlist of books of the year – I loved every single page.  It is both hilariously funny yet compassionate and bittersweet, and eminently quotable.

Meet sharp-suited seventy-four year old Barrington Jedidiah Walker, who emigrated from Antigua in the 1960s and has lived in Hackney ever since, with his wife Carmel and daughters.

…Still here, thanks be to God. Still spruced up and sharp-suited with a rather manly swagger. Still six foot something with no sign of shrinkage yet. Still working a certain je ne sais whatsit. I might have lost the hair on my head, but I still got a finely clipped moustache in the style of old Hollywood romancers. Folk used to tell me I looked like a young Sidney Poitier. Now they say I resemble a (slightly) older Denzel Washington. Who am I to argue? The facts is the facts. Some of us have it, some of us do not. Bring it on Barry, bring it on.

Barry is a self-made man of property and an auto-didact with a rather Brandian (Russell that is) love of language and Shakespeare. He missed out on a scholarship from Antigua to a British university, and went to work at Ford motors, Dagenham. He has taken evening classes ‘since 1971 to make up for it‘.  He doesn’t like being treated as uneducated…

Oh, boy, I catch so much fire when people talk down to me like I’m some back-a-bush dumb arse who don’t understand the ins and outs of the Queen’s English. Like I wasn’t educated at Antigua Grammar School, best one in the country. Like all my teachers didn’t come from te colonial mother ship. Like this here Little Englander can’t speak the Queen’s as well as any Big Englander over there, I mean here. And so what if me and my people choose to mash up the h-english linguish whenever we feel like it, drop our prepositions with our panties, poss in the pot of cirrect syntax and spelling, and mangle our grammar at random? Is this not our post-modern, post-colonial prerogative?

We’re getting a good picture of Barry, but, he has a huge secret.  His childhood friend, Morris, has been his lover for decades.  Unable to come out in Antigua or England during those decades when it was illegal, he and Morris had felt compelled to marry and have families, yet still managed to carry on their relationship on the side – but now, in the twenty-first century – Carmel who has long suspected that he’s a philandering womaniser is at her wits end, and Morris, now a widower, is putting pressure on Barry to do the right thing.

Barry doesn’t know what to do, and worries about Carmel.

She used to tell me I was the funniest man alive.
Now her heart is so cold you can snap off a frozen shard and cut a diamond with it.
When did I last make that woman laugh? What decade was that exactly? What century? What millennium?

His relationship with his older daughter Donna is rocky too.

Donna is a lazy cow. All of her life she’s been eating her mother’s meals but she never reciprocates. Eats Chinese and McCrap. My daughter is most definitely a second-generation bra-burner.

If Donna takes after her mother, things are different with his ten years younger daughter Maxine, who works in fashion.

…Maxine and her mother never really gelled. I was the buffer between them. Carmel still don’t get arty-fartiness, and the only culture that interests her is the one she decimates with bleach.

In between Barry telling us of the quandaries his life has landed him in, and speculating about how he might wriggle out of them without causing world war three, we hear Carmel’s side of the story starting back in 1960 when she became Mrs Barrington Walker.  Carmel is young, inexperienced. and loves Barry for his good behaviour…

one thing is obvious: Barry, a real gentleman, unlike some of the boys round these parts, who can’t keep their things in their pants and their hands away from girl’s privates

Little does she know.  I crossed my fingers, hoping that the author could manage to sort out this dysfunctional family by the end of the novel.

Carmel’s story is told in a different style to Barry’s wise-cracking.  More stream of consciousness – following her thoughts as they come into her head, single sentence paragraphs with little punctuation. The author also distinguishes between Barry and Carmel’s chapters in their headings. All of Barry’s are ‘The art of …’,  marriage, being normal, Sunday lunch. Carmel’s are all ‘Song of …’, sweetness, despair, prayer.

Evaristo has devised a memorable family in the Walkers. We can separately sympathise with all of their plights, but in Mr Barrington Jedidiah Walker she has created a magnificent patriarch whom you can’t help falling for.

Contemporary novels about older people are rare, (Anita Brookner, Pym’s Quartet in Autumn and last year’s The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce excepted in my reading). This is the first that I have read about the Afro-Caribbean community, and the first that addresses these issues for older people, and that explodes many misguided cultural clichés.

I was lucky to hear Bernardine read extracts from her book at the Penguin Bloggers Night earlier this year, and I had marked it as one to look out fore. Now I’ve read Mr Loverman, it will definitely feature in my list of books of the year. I loved it, and I hope if you read it you’ll love it too. (10/10)

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Source: Publisher review copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo, pub Hamish Hamilton, Aug 2013, trade paperback 320 pages.

P.S. The quotation at the top is from ‘Mr Loverman’ by Shabba Ranks – a song Morris and Barry like, despite its lyrics!

Penguin Bloggers Night

penguinIt was pleasure and privilege to be invited once again to Penguin’s Bloggers Night held in the third floor gallery at Foyles.  Thank you to Penguin, and especially Lija there who arranged the evening.

It is always especially pleasurable to meet up with blogging friends old and new. It always amazes me that we all get on as if we’ve known each other for ages,  well, we have – online, but physically we don’t meet that often.  A quick namecheck to Sakura, Kim, Hayley, Simon S, Simon T, David, Polly @Novel_Insights and finally, it was lovely to meet Rachel aka @flossieteacake.

We were treated to readings from eight authors who have books out now or soon, a heady mixture of seasoned writers to debut novellists. I can honestly say that I would like to read all of the books showcased. We heard from:

Mohsin HamidHow To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia A life’s story in the guise of a self-help book. Witty and gritty.

warpaintAlicia FosterWarpaint. Not about make-up! Rather a group of women war artists during WWII. Fits in perfectly with my current reading trend to 1930s/WWII books. Lovely cover to this book too.

Rhidian Brook The Aftermath – An emotional thriller set in post-war occupied Germany. Apprently Ridley Scott has optioned this book. (published in May).

Catherine O’Flynn Mr Lynch’s Holiday – To be published this autumn.  A drama of father v son in an ex-pat community in Spain.  Sounds like another gritty read. Catherine herself was lovely – she volunteers at her local Oxfam shop once a week, and finds her own TBR piles growing since she started working there.

Bernardine EvaristoMr Loverman – To be published later this summer.  Bernardine read an hilarious passage about two older Caribbean gentlemen bickering – but I suspect there is a much more serious side to this novel about old people in this community.

James RobertsonJames RobertsonThe Professor of Truth – To be published this autumn.  Robertson prefaced his reading saying wryly – “All you need to know is there’s been a plane crash.”  We were straight into the aftermath of a plane being bombed over Scotland (Dunblane?), and a professor is searching for his wife and daughter at the hospital.  Some years ago I really enjoyed Robertson’s book The Testament of Gideon Mack, so look forward to this one, although it will be hard to read given the subject matter.

Joanna Rossiter The Sea Change – A debut novel with a dual narrative. A daughter is caught in a tsunami in India in the 1970s, and her mother after WWII who had had to abandon her home in Dorset.  Joanna read of the girl’s panic on seeing the tsunami and not knowing where her new husband was. (pub in May).

20130327_200111Jonathan CoeExpo 58 – An unassuming civil servant is sent to Brussels to the World’s Fair to keep an eye on things.  Coe read us an hilarious excerpt involving an exhibit about the history of the toilet.  Being a huge fan of his books, I managed to get a fangirl moment, and got him to sign an ARC for me.  When I asked if the book was a full-on comedy, he assured me that despite the funny bit he read, it had plenty of melancholy as well.  I can’t wait to read this novel, but it won’t be published until autumn. (Sorry about my poor picture.)

It was a lovely evening, with the added bonus of getting a bagful of books to take home (thank you).

An unusual friendship

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

universe vs alex woods Alex Woods is an unique young boy. It’s not that he is prime material for bullying because his single mum is a clairvoyant white witch who runs a new-age shop in Glastonbury, he has a much more bizarre claim to fame that has come to dominate his early life.

When Alex was ten, he was hit on the head by a 2.3kg meteor that came through the bathroom roof. He was in a coma for thirteen days, had brain surgery and a plate put in his head. No-one thought he would survive, but he did and was quite the celebrity for a while. It left him with epilepsy, but it didn’t dim his geekiness; and he did get a meteorite out of it. Alex has to learn coping strategies for his epilepsy, helped by his consultant, Dr Enderby…

I watched my breath. I counted to fifty. I named each of the planets and major moons in turn, starting at the sun and working my way out to the Kuiper Belt. I listed every character from The Simpsons I could think of. I remained calm and alert and banished any distractions into a separate corner of my mind and focused my attention like a laser. It was a very strange experience. I told Dr Enderby that it felt like Jedi training. Dr Enderby replied that it was like Jedi training. It was a form of mediation – a way of helping my brain to stay poised and peaceful.

Later, Alex is again running from the bullies, he hides in a greenhouse which gets smashed. It belongs to Mr Petersen, a reclusive widower and Vietnam veteran who’d settled in England. Instructed by his mother to help Mr Petersen as penance for getting the greenhouse broken, the gruff old soldier and the  teenager begin to strike up a friendship which is cemented by Mr P introducing Alex to the books of his favourite author – Kurt Vonnegut.

I don’t want to tell you any more of the story, because it’s rather brilliant, and if it sounds like a book you may like, you should discover it for yourselves.

The novel begins as a light-hearted tale of friendship – the young Alex has a slight hint of Adrian Mole about him. No prior knowledge of Kurt Vonnegut is needed, but anyone who does know him will chuckle when Alex reads Breakfast of Champions. (I too read this as a teenager from the library – had to hide it from my parents at the time, as it’s full of doodles of *ahem* ‘wide-open beavers’ amongst other more normal things. Now, decades later, I can’t remember the book – only those illustrations!)

Naturally, Mr Petersen becomes a father figure to Alex, and their relationship deepens, as does the tone of the novel. What started off as funny and quirky, takes on a serious tone as things happen. Throughout it all though, as he grows up, Alex retains his essential Alex-ness which, however heart-breaking things get, (which is very), makes him a loveable and fascinating companion.

If you enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, you will probably like Extence’s debut novel, The Universe Vs Alex Woods, as I did. (9/10)

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I read an ARC received through Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. Pub Jan 31st by Hodder & Stoughton
Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

If you go down to the woods today …

The Devil’s Beat by Robert Edric

Reading the blurb of the latest novel from Edric, I had visions of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, The Crucible, updated to the early 20th century but actually, it has more in common with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale.

Four girls claim to have seen the Devil while out walking in the woods.  Were they genuinely possessed?  Or is it just hysteria?

A small Nottinghamshire town becomes the centre of attention as an enquiry is to be held. A doctor, a cleric, and a magistrate, all from the town make up three of the enquiry panel together with their leader Merritt, an outsider appointed by the Assistant Chief Constable.  Together they must investigate the girls’ claims and decide what happened – if they can.

As you might guess, the reverend and the magistrate have their own interests in taking part.  Rev Firth is hopeful of promotion to a larger parish; Mr Webb will be running for Mayor.  Nash, as a medic, is a good reader of peoples’ character and will remain faithful to his oath, this will be a great help to Merritt.

Although told in the third person the story, as it unfolds, is entirely Merritt’s. We arrive in the town with him, and we follow his progress step by step as he begins to get the measure of the town and its people, and the likely path of the enquiry.

Merritt is an old hand. We soon learn that he has participated in thirty or so such enquiries.  They always start off with huge interest, with the flames fanned by the press who sensationalise every little thing, but it usually soon dies down as the volume of depositions and paperwork needed to record everything so the facts can be sifted brings a monotony to proceedings. He hopes this will happen here too, but at last the enquiry can begin.

Little surprised Merritt. He knew there was a discernible pattern to these things, and that soon that pattern would reveal itself to him here. He sensed who was a reliable witness and who was not. Ten times on that first morning he imagined picking up the written testimonies and then tearing these in half, then quarters, then even smaller pieces in front of the people who were still talking to him, and who were refusing, despite all his own signals and declarations, to fall silent.

The enquiry will throw up huge challenges for Merritt to stay in control.  His fellow panellists will have their own axes to grind; slogans and demonic symbols will be daubed around town; the newspapermen won’t go away. Then, there are the four girls and their families to deal with. They are different in age and character, and Mary Cowan, the oldest is an obvious ringleader, and I’m not going to say any more about them to avoid any spoilers.

This is a novel that gives up its secrets slowly. The first hundred pages are all about taking us into the setting up of the enquiry, full of mundane activities, so by the time that Merritt is ready to go, we’re longing to find out what happened, but it still goes along at a measured pace – the enquiry can only go so fast, and still Merritt has scant fact to go on.  However this strict procedure isn’t mirrored by events which begin to get out of hand quite quickly.

Ultimately this is a book about manipulation – it’s going on at all levels between the alleged victims, their families, the investigators, the press. Although Merritt strives to remain impartial and objective, even he can’t help but become part of the fever for action.

Edric is an interesting author.  He always seems to find a different angle to tell his story from.  His writing is considered and always readable, but I was so glad when the pace of this novel did pick up a little; then I enjoyed this tale of putting the spotlight on a small town and the behaviours of its occupants. (7.5/10)

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My copy was supplied for review by Amazon Vine. To explore titles mentioned further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Devil’s Beat by Robert Edric. Pub March 2012 by Doubleday. Hdbk, 329 pages.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicherby Kate Summerscale
The Crucible by Arthur Miller

This had me in fits …

Browsing in my super-local-indie-bookshop Mostly Books yesterday, my eye was drawn to this sitting by the till… Wendy: The Bumper Book of Fun for Women of a Certain Age by Jenny Eclair and Judith Holder. It’s a girl’s type annual for grumpy old women by one of the sharpest comedians on the planet.

I only had to open the front cover and I nearly dropped it in paroxsysms of laughter. They’ve created Top Totty pin-ups by pasting celeb heads onto other pictures – and there on the inside cover was Paxo’s head on a Val Doonican bejumpered body, and facing him was Richard Madeley in a limo in a posing pouch! There are many more delights inside – all the articles you might expect in a Jackie-style teenage comic are there – given the GOW treatment. It’s hilarious all the way through – It would be an ideal bog-book for girls – though as any fule kno, we of course don’t spend hours reading on the toilet.

Just one major drawback – whereas the Q.I. Annual has a list price of £12.99 and you can get it for about half that online, Wendy is £18.99 and you can’t get it for less than £12 at the moment, thus rather limiting its use as a stocking filler …