Would you do this on holiday?

Lazy Days by Erlend Loe

loe-lazy-daysTranslated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw. With its irresistible cover I was always going to pick this book up to examine it. I read the blurb on the flyleaf and discovered that the author, new to me, was Norwegian, and that the book was likely to be quirky and probably funny, so that sold it to me.

It’s simply the story of what Bror and Nina Telemann did on their summer holiday, as told to us by Bror.

Bror is in his early forties. He’s stage director at the Norwegian National Theatre, but aims to become a celebrated playwright – soon. He hopes to get started on his magnum opus while on holiday. His wife Nina has booked a house for the family summer holiday in the Alps near Munich in the town that Google Translate calls Mixing Part Churches – Garmisch Partenkirchen to you and me, but Bror only uses the mangled translation. Bror and Nina bicker about her choice of destination…

Do you think Mixing Part Churches is the type of place people lock up their kids, or others’ kids, in the cellar for twenty-four years and rape them three thousand times?
That’s enough.
No, but do you think so?
Stop that now.
For Christ’s sake, no harm speculating.
Stop it.
You don’t think this is a hub for that sort of practice then?
No.
So, those things don’t happen here?
I don’t think so.
So, we just let the kids run about on their own?
I think so.
Good.

That is very representative of Bror and Nina’s conversations. They tend to be very one-sided, as reported by Bror, with him always winding up Nina; sometimes deliberately, other times unconsciously. He’s not happy with her choice of Germany – he considers Bavaria as ‘being the cradle of Nazism’, and doesn’t hesitate to rub it in.

Nina is left most days to go out with their three children and they have a lovely time visiting all the sights. Bror stays behind, supposedly writing – except that he doesn’t. He’s mostly having fantasies about Nigella Lawson, whom he thinks is ‘fascinatingly well-built. She has, for instance, got hips. And a bosum.’

All the above is in the first 21 pages. The book has only 211, so in its small hardback format can easily be read in one sitting. You can imagine, as so often happens on holiday, that tensions simmer and come to the boil explosively, behaviour on both sides of the relationship gets out of hand – can they sort themselves out in time to go home?

This turns out to be quite a dark little comedy – and I could see it working well as a stage adaptation. Bror starts off by being ironic and funny but, as his writer’s block and fantasies take over, Nina is increasingly dismissive of him. Bror’s obsessions take him over, and he gets less likeable by the page; the long-suffering Nina, feeling hard done by, retaliates and does herself no favours either.

To be honest, the whole Nigella thing started to get tedious, but given that the novel was published before the whole scandal, this does give it an added frisson initially but that soon pales. Bror in his mid-life crisis reveals himself to be bigoted, boring and still a big kid for most of the time.

What I did really like though was the author’s dead-pan style of writing, which comes through in the translation. Written in the present tense, Nina and Bror’s conversations in particular, forming much of the meat of this little novel, develop a real sense of anticipation in the reader trying to guess which direction they’ll go in, or what awful thing Bror will say next.

Based on Lazy Days which was fun, I would certainly read more of Loe’s work; a couple more of his novels have been translated. (7/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Lazy Days by Erlend Loe (2009, trans 2013) Pub by Head of Zeus, hardback 211 pages.

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Top Ten Authors Whose Books I Own…

I don’t usually take part in the Top Ten weekly meme, but occasionally they and/or other regular memes will pick a topic that piques my interest. A couple of weeks ago the Top Ten topic was ‘The Top Ten Authors Whose Books I Own’. I’m glad they made the distinction between own and read! Thanks to Librarything this was easy as I could sort my catalogue accordingly. I wasn’t really surprised by the results (except one), but it was fun. So here they are:

beryl bIain Banks BanksReadLeading the charge with 24 books on the shelves each are two of the three authors I am most passionate about. So much so that they have their own pages up at the top of this blog. Of course it’s the late-lamented Beryl and Iain. Have a look above to see more about both of them.

I really must make time to continue my plans to (re)read everything they’ve ever written.

ackroydFollowing close on their heels with 23 books is Peter Ackroyd. I find his books are a little hit and miss with me, but his best are wonderful, and the others are always interesting. Amazingly prolific, I’ve only managed to read/review one of his (The Death of King Arthur) since starting this blog. Others I’ve enjoyed include Hawksmoor, English Music and Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem.

Then come four authors with twenty books apiece.

Paul auster sh #1:4Top of the list alphabetically is Paul Auster, who happens to be the third of my favourite authors. Again he is definitely overdue another read. See here and here for posts on him and his books.

Don’t you think he has the most compelling eyes?  Married to Siri Hustvedt, he’s a New Yorker, and is the king of meta-fiction. Some people don’t like that, but I do!

Auster shares twenty books with Lawrence Block, John Le Carre and Michael Connelly. Two crime writers and one spy novelist.

liam-neeson-as matt scudderI see that Block’s tenth Matt Scudder novel A Walk Among The Tombstones will be on the big screen soon starring Liam Neeson as the ex-cop, alcoholic but now TT private eye. Again I say to the adapters – why do you always start in the middle of a series?  Actually I’ve read up to about number twelve, so am ahead so to speak, and I really recommend them.

More spies and crime next.  At sixteen comes Ian Fleming – I have a complete set of James Bond naturally, and he keeps company with Elmore Leonard, who is probably the crime writer that makes me laugh the most – his dialogue-driven novels are usually hilarious as well as violent!

Having told you about nine authors, I can’t have a top ten – it’ll have to be a top twelve as three tie on fourteen books each. They are the incomparable Graham Greene, the prolific Stephen King, and the intriguingly named L Du Garde Peach.

l du Garde PeachPictures of Du Garde Peach are few and far between, so you’ll have to make do with this painting by Thomas Cantrell Dugdale (not dated but Dugdale died in 1952, Du Garde Peach in 1974).

LDGP was the author of many plays for radio and stage, having a long association with the Sheffield Playhouse. He also wrote film scripts including the Boris Karloff film The Ghoul (1933).

Nelson ladybirdBut how would I own fourteen books by him?

Well, he wrote thirty titles for the Ladybird Adventures from History series, and I still have a pile of them from my childhood – much treasured (and all bearing my homemade library stickers).

If you want to find out more about old Ladybird books, visit The Wee Web which has them all!

So that’s my top twelve authors whose books I own.  Which authors feature at the top of your lists? 

 

Thoughts on my header photo

I’ve been mostly writing reviews for Shiny New Books this week after finishing Frog Music, but wanted to write something on the blog for the weekend…

My eye caught my header photo which when taken a few years ago, I compiled a shelf of favourite reads over the years, mostly those getting a full five stars from me. I’ve read a lot of wonderful books since, but I still think the row above represents a fair selection of the wide range of novels that I like to read, so I’ll probably leave it for now. I haven’t reviewed all of them on this blog, but quite a few do feature, so I thought I’d revisit my old posts on books above. So from left to right and in alphabetical order of their authors too…

death of grassDouble Indemnity by James M Cain. 136 pages of classic noir with a crooked insurance agent, a femme fatale and a husband to murder.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher. The 1956 breakthrough novel from the creator of The Tripods.

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey. It was reading one of the original cowboy novels from 1912 that cemented my love of literary westerns.

SpyMy Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen. Jensen is one of those authors who writes entirely different novels every time. This steampunky time travel love story is the funniest thing I’ve read by her so far. A real hoot.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carre. Possibly my favourite spy novel ever. It feels so authentic, and Alec Leamas is Richard Burton.

peyton placeLet the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Simply the best vampire novel there is (and possibly the goriest too – you have been warned).

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious. This epic novel set the benchmark for every soap opera and small town drama that followed. Beautifully written.

True Grit by Charles Portis. Forget the film, read the book.

The Shipping News - 1st UK paperbackThe Shipping News by Annie Proulx. This novel is still up there in my top ten, love it to bits.

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve. Written for teens, but a wonderful read for any age, Reeve’s novel puts a different ‘spin’ on Merlin and Arthurian legend.

Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick. It’s hard to believe that this fictionalised biography of Arthur Ransome’s time in Russia was written for teens, it’s that good. Sedgwick is my favourite YA author without a doubt.

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. In just 193 pages, you get a slice of how hard life is for a poor family in the Ozark mountains when Ree has to go searching for her pa. The film is also wonderful.

It’s a shame that favourites like Flowers for Algernon and Ray Robinson’s wonderful debut Electricity were books I read just before I started blogging. Perhaps I should revisit them and review them now. It also reminds me that it’s ages since I read a Christopher Brookmyre book.

Having done this, it’s got me thinking of course!
I may just have to start searching out a new set of more recent great reads for my header photo now.
What do you think?

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

Telling it from the monster’s side …

Sad Monsters: Growling on the Outside, Crying on the Insideby Frank Lesser.

Sad Monsters

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been having a chuckle dipping into this book of humorous short pieces, which are written from monsters’ points of view. Almost any monster you can think of puts in an appearance – let me give you a flavour of some of my favourites:

Questioning Godzilla’s Existence
March 8 – Wound up hitting snooze for six more months. Barely had enough energy to rampage to the bathroom, let alone through a city, but finally rolled out of bed and destroyed Tokyo. Again. Starting to wonder what’s the point? They’re just going to rebuild.
March 12 – Couldn’t sleep, so woke up early and went for a job through Osaka. Kept wondering what happens to people after I stomp on them. Do they have souls that live on, that I can also stomp on? Or is the human soul unstompable? Maybe I’m just going through a midlife thing Never had these worries during the Mesozoic era. When I was younger, each screaming villager felt like a triumph, like I was really doing something with my life. Now I just wish they’d shut up and accept it, or at least quit it with the anti-aircraft missiles. Those thing really irritate my eczema.

The rest of Godzilla’s diary is similarly existential. You can also find a whole series of personal ads, a bestiary of unsuccessful monsters, an interior design guide on how to keep your genie happy, and so on. Then there’s this one:

The Joy of Unicorns
Hey, preteen girls, put down the rock and roll music records and listen up! If you give up your virginity before you get married, you’ll miss out on something far better than sex: befriending a unicorn. …
However, one night of mind-blowing, soul-shattering ecstasy means you’ll never in your life enjoy this magical creature’s gentle nuzzling. (It feels like taking a bubble bath full of giggling puppies!) And unlike a sex-crazed boyfriend, a unicorn will never “use” you. …
So the next time your boyfriend tries to get you to “go all the way,” tell him you don’t want to “horse” around, because you’d rather get “horn-y” with your platonic unicorn. then be sure to tell your unicorn what you said. They love puns, and every time a unicorn laughs, an angel has tender sexual intercourse on her wedding night. And nine months later, a rainbow is born!

I always hated My Little Pony!  There are many more –  notes on the fridge from Dorian Grey’s flatmate, Igor’s résumé and a reference for a yeti who wants to get into fashion to highlight just a few.  My last favourite though is a sermon from a Mer-preacher, here’s a small snippet:

The world above the waves seems to offer so much: sunlight, dancing, food that isn’t sushi. But assimilating into human society is no fairy tale. I would tell you to ask the Little Mermaid, but you can’t, because as we learn in the Gospel of Hans Christian, when her love married someone else, the godless mer-whore disintegrated into sea foam.

Everyone will have their own favourites amongst these forty or so pieces depending on the appeal to the reader of the monsters lampooned – I’m not bothered about mummies or Bigfoot, but love fairy tale beasts, vampires and werewolves and their ilk. Some tales work better than others, but they’re clever, ingenious and full of good puns. My only criticism is that they’re mostly written in the same jocular tone, and if you read more than a few at a time, it can get get a little samey. This is often the case with humour collections though – I love the late Alan Coren’s columns, but again can only read a couple at a time, so distinctive was his voice.

Taken in small bites, I feel I’ve got to know all these Sad Monsters so much better. This book is great fun, and ideal seasonal fare for those who scare easily. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Sad Monsters: Growling on the Outside, Crying on the Inside by Frank Lesser, pub Oct 2013 by Souvenir Press, paperback.

Crimes & Casinos, Miami & Puerto Rico – R.I.P. Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard. Photo: Lisa Carpenter, The Guardian.

Elmore Leonard. Photo: Lisa Carpenter, The Guardian.

I was sad to hear of the death of Elmore Leonard a week and a half ago. He was 87, and had suffered a stroke earlier in the month.

He was one of my favourite crime writers. I liked him particularly for his ability to make me laugh and of course for his distinct style which he worked out to help him remain invisible in his novels. This he encapsulated in his ten rules of writing:

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

* Excerpted from the New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”

Leonard’s writing is very action driven, he really isn’t big on description, and yes, he doesn’t use adverbs to modify dialogue, they’re rare in the rest of the text too. Yet, from the characters dialogue and what they’re doing, the reader can intuit what they need.  But you need to concentrate! (note to self – use less exclamation marks, rule 5).

I realised that I hadn’t read one of his books for absolutely ages. Glitz, published in 1985, was his break-out crime novel.  He had started writing westerns in the 1950s including Hombre which was made into a film with Paul Newman in the 1960s, before changing direction into crime-writing.

Glitz by Elmore Leonard

glitz

One of the things that Leonard is brilliant at is opening lines…

The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.

We’re straight into meeting Vincent Mora, an off-duty cop in Miami, who gets shot by a mugger on his way home from getting the groceries. He takes a slug through his side and ends up in intensive care, but not before firing back at his attacker. Vincent decides to convalesce in Puerto Rico, which is also where Teddy Magyk is, fresh out of prison. Enjoying himself, Vincent meets a girl, Iris. She’s been offered a job at a casino up in Atlantic City as a ‘hostess’. Iris also has the misfortune to be spotted by Teddy, and tells him about her new job.

Meanwhile once a cop, always a cop, and Vincent is helping the local police to keep busy – there are two bodies – a taxi driver and a little old lady.  Vincent has spotted Teddy watching him and Iris, and vaguely recognises him from somewhere – turns out Vincent put Teddy away seven years ago.  They can’t prove he did the murders yet, but deport him back to the mainland anyway.

Teddy promptly hotfoots it to Atlantic City, and then sends a ‘message’ that will get Vincent to follow too.  Vincent immerses himself in the business of Spade’s Boardwalk Casino where Iris was working and entertaining a gentleman from Bogotá. This unbeknowst to Nancy Donovan, wife of Tommy who owns the casino with Jackie Garbo – she is one sharp businesswoman…

‘A player brings in a lot of cash, hon, we have to look at it impartially, only as money, nothing else. In other words we have to keep our eye on the player’s line of credit. Guy bets heavy, offers us a shot at him, we have to concentrate on taking about twenty percent of his dough if we expect to make a profit.’ Tommy frowned. ‘I explained all this once before, didn’t I?’
Wrong wrong wrong. Jackie held onto the arms of his chair. She was going to kill him.
‘Mr Osvaldo Benavides, from Bogotá,’ Nancy said, ‘deposited a million nine, in cash, and left with our check for almost a million eight.’
Jackie watched Tommy twist in the chair again, the schmuck finally realizing what was happening to him. He took a moment and said, ‘That’s not twenty percent but, see, it averages out.’
‘Once a month,’ Nancy said, ‘you fly Mr. Benavides here in the company plane-‘
‘Just from Miami,’ Tommy said.
Jackie closed his eyes.
‘He draws up markers for up to two million in cash, loses five to ten percent, never more than that in the last seven months,’ Nancy said, ‘and goes home with a clean check for the balance. Mr.Benavides is laundering his money in our casino. Since you’re aware of it, both of you, I have to believe you approve.’
Tommy said, ‘Honey, Jesus Christ …’
Nancy waited, ‘Yes?’
‘Hon, this is a tricky, complicated business.’
Nancy waited again, Jackie watching her. Broad was a f**king shark. Gets her teeth in you and never lets go – and though, Wait a minute. She’s in the boat too, isn’t she?

glitz current uk

Again Vincent ends up informally helping the local police, particularly by stirring things up between the local hoods – ‘Wonderful things can happen,’ Vincent said, ‘when you plant seeds of distrust in a garden of assholes.’

All this time though, Vincent is unwittingly playing a cat and mouse game with Teddy, and Vincent is the mouse…

Glitz has everything that we’ve come to expect from an Elmore Leonard novel – the quick-fire repartee and cracking gags, guns and money, dumb hoodlums and sassy women, and always a couple of characters you can feel for.

Plotwise, this probably wasn’t my favourite so far of those I’ve read (I have a soft spot for Maximum Bob), but it was complicated and entertaining in equal measure. I’ll be reading lots more, including Hombre to see what his westerns are like.  (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
GlitzHombreMaximum BobElmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing – all by Elmore Leonard

Which path should one take? A novel choice…

Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge

I had just come home from a festival in Nevada, the theme of which was Contact with Other Worlds, when my mother, or, I should say, one of my mothers, called to tell me that my grandfather had died.

Thus begins Luminous Airplanes, a quirky novel right from the outset, particularly so for the book is backed up by a website which continues its branching narrative – billed as a ‘Hyperromance’ – giving you an additional experience a bit like a those ‘Choose your own adventure’ books. However, the novel works on its own perfectly well without the website, so we’ll concentrate there.

It’s the 1990s, and the unnamed  narrator works in computers in San Francisco after dropping out of a History course at Stanford. He has a happy life in California, currently single but still friends with his ex-girlfriend Alice. When he hears that his grandfather has died and that he’s missed the funeral, he considers not going back to his hometown, but he knows that his mothers won’t do the home clearing – they’ll just arrange for it all to be chucked, so he gets in his car, (which used to belong for Norman Mailer), and sets off across the country to Thebes…

It was for my sake that my mothers ran away from Thebes. They didn’t want to have their child in a little town in the Catskills where things happened so slowly that people were still speaking French six generations after the first settlers arrived. By Thebes standards, my mothers were more like weather than like people: they changed fast, and they moved on. They took me to New York, where they were going to be famous artists, only they had no idea about money and knew how to do nothing, nothing.

Yes, it does say ‘mothers’ above.  He was brought up by twin sisters Marie Celeste and Celeste Marie: Marie being his birth mother. Still a teenager, Marie fell for her father’s lawyer: Richard Ente was a handsome fifty year old who ran from town when the romance was uncovered. Understandably, our narrator is obsessed with finding out about his absent and deceased father.

Back in Thebes, he is reunited with his neighbours, the Regenzeits, a Turkish family. Siblings Kerem and  Yesim run the Snowbird Ski Resort on the edge of town, which had been developed by their father Joe, and was the subject of the lawsuit for which his grandfather had employed Ente. Yesim was his childhood sweetheart, could he re-kindle something?

So our narrator jumps from a path of an easy life back into one of uncertainty and  with many questions needing to be answered – branches to be explored if you will. Some of them are paths that have been gone down before, but time has changed them. What happened the first time will affect what happens now, and like the labyrinth in the early computer game he was addicted to as a teenager, how will he know exactly where he is?

This quirky tale of dysfunctional families is told with a wry voice, that is always taking us off in different directions, flashing back in time non-linearly – sometimes to childhood, at other times to teenage or college years or the recent past, before returning to the now of the novel.  Along the way we hear about his history thesis on a Christian cult that believed the world was going to end, his favourite book about the history of flight, amongst other digressions, but gradually as he gets to grips with his grandfather’s things, the answers to some of his questions begin to reveal themselves, and he is able to realise his place in the world.

It’s a strange sort of coming of age story when the narrator is almost a thirty-something – but there is a definite sense of this, perhaps better expressed as reaching an emotional maturity.  It’s all done with a light touch, even when things get really serious, it’s witty but not hilarious.

As quirky novels about dysfunctional families go, the best I’ve read in a long time was The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (reviewed here).  Luminous Airplanes adds a small town mentality to the mix and was a great read but lacked the Fang’s madness.  The narrator, who let’s face it, is a bit of a slacker, was too content to let things happen to him – although I did warm to him when he couldn’t get into Murakami’s Norwegian Wood; a book I’ve failed with too. I also loved being reminded of that old computer game Adventure aka Colossal Cave, which I used to play at lunchtimes back in the mid 1980s – “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike”.

I enjoyed this book a lot and had fun pootling around the website for a while too. One for fans of quirky family novels. (7.5/10)

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I was sent this book by the publisher. Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click through below:
Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge. Pub Aug 2012 by 4th Estate, Trade Paperback 256 pages.
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Once upon a time, there was a girl who didn’t read proper fairy tales …

When I was little, the books I enjoyed reading the most were fairy tales. My childhood favourite was the Puffin A Book of Princesses selected by Sally Patrick Johnson published in 1965. It’s a great collection combining old tales like The Twelve Dancing Princesses with ones by E E Nesbit and Oscar Wilde. I still have my copy somewhere complete with coloured in illustrations.

Soon, I was devouring the wonderful fairy tale collections of Andrew Lang. I’ve been addicted to fairy tales ever since, building up a collection of volumes from around the world together with commentaries on the subject.

Lang’s collections comprise twelve volumes in every colour of the rainbow, not to be confused with the Rainbow Magic franchise that today’s early readers are offered. There are over 150 of these tediously similar stories for little girls now! My daughter did read some of them when she was five or six, but by the time we’d read maybe a dozen, she lost interest, (phew!). These books are written by a wide range of authors under the name Daisy Meadows, and always feature two schoolgirls Kirsty and Rachel who have adventures with their fairy friends. I’m sure they do have some value in building confidence in young readers, but they are seriously formulaic, very sanitised, and frankly no-one needs 150 of them.

Many of the traditional fairy tales were not written specifically for children, although they were included in the intended readership by the Brothers Grimm in the early 1800s for instance.  In their original versions, some of these tales are very dark indeed, being full of violence with people getting eaten by wolves as in Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood, (1697) or tragic like Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid and Little Match Girl, (1830s-40s).

With all the animated Disney adaptations, enjoyable as they are, but which reinvent the traditional tales with new happy endings, and the formula books mentioned above, I feel that general opinion has rather dumbed down fairy tales as stories for young children. We know better.  My daughter, however, gave up fairy tales completely – swapping them for family dramas by Jacqueline Wilson, Hilary McKay, Sophie McKenzie et al.  Quietly, I despaired…

…then a couple of days ago, I found her starring at my Folio fairy tale shelf …

She was admiring the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, and she said could we start reading them.  We started with Lang’s rather different version of the Three little pigs from the Green Fairy Book, but then she decided she wanted to start at the beginning and read all of them – so back to the Blue Fairy Book (which is the first chronologically too, but I’ll have to adjust the order of the others though on the shelf!).

I asked why the sudden interest? She said that she hadn’t realised that the Three little pigs was considered a fairy tale, and that they didn’t necessarily have to have fairies in. That, plus she liked the book colours and covers. I hope her interest is sparked by reading these together, and that she can cope when we do meet a fairy, especially as the violet and brown volumes will be joining the others soon!

Do you have an opnion about the dumbing down of traditional folk and fairy tales?
Is our current fad for ghosts, vampires & zombies squeezing fairies out?
Which are your favourite fairy tales?

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To explore further at the Folio Society or Amazon UK, click on the links below:
Folio Society – Andrew Lang Fairy Books (Membership requirements apply)Book of Princesses (Puffin books)selected by Sally Patrick Johnson (available second-hand)
The Complete Fairy Tales (Vintage Classics)
Fairy Tales (Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions)
The Complete Fairy Tales (Oxford World’s Classics)
Olympia the Games Fairy (Rainbow Magic) by Daisy Meadows

You shall go to the ball …

Invitation To The Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

Florence at Miss Darcy’s Library is hosting a week of reading Rosamund Lehmann. She is another of those authors from the middle decades of the twentieth century that I’ve been meaning to read for ages – and luckily I had one of her books on my shelf.

Invitation to the Waltz, her third novel, was published in 1932.  Set in the 1920s, it is the story of Olivia Curtis’s first dance. Written in three parts: the lead up to the dance and getting her dress, the day of the dance and getting ready, then the dance itself.

It all starts on Olivia Curtis’s seventeenth birthday.  Her older sister Kate has come to wake her up, and Olivia is reluctant to get out of bed …

Another five minutes, thought Olivia, and shut her eyes. Not to fall asleep again; but to go back as it were and do the thing gradually – detach oneself softly, float up serenely from the clinging delectable fringes. Oh, heavenly sleep! Why must one cast it from one, all unprepared, unwilling? Caught out again by Kate in the very act! You’re not trying, you could wake up if you wanted to: that was their attitude. And regularly one began the day convicted of inferiority, of a sluggish voluptuous nature, seriously lacking in willpower. After I’m married I shall stay in bed as long as I want to. Girls often marry at my age. Seventeen today.

The novel is full of Olivia’s internal monologues. She discusses everything withself, analysing, trying to understand her observations, but she’s also a romantic and wants to believe the best of everyone and everything.  Today, she’d much rather stay in bed, than do breakfast with the family and be the centre of attention.

To go to one’s first dance, one needs a dress.  Luckily one’s mother gave one a bolt of flame-coloured silk for one’s birthday. Mother would have preferred a paler colour, but Kate persuaded her. So Olivia takes the cloth to the young Miss Robinson to have it made up.  Poor Miss Robinson has been left on the shelf – her family is too respectable for her to marry a farmer, and after the war, there is no-one else, so she makes dresses.

All week, anticipation builds towards the dance.  Some relief comes when mother’s godson Reginald is able join them to partner the girls. He turns out to be a bit of an odd fish, planning to take holy orders.  Neither girl thinks he will be the man for them.

Time to get ready: bathing, primping, hair-styling, and finally – the dress …

‘It simply doesn’t fit anywhere…’ The words burst from her chokingly. ‘It’s the most ghastly – It’s no good. I won’t go looking like a freak. I must simply rip it off and burn it and not go to the dance, that’s all.’ She clutched wildly at the bodice, as if to wrench it from her.
Kate cried suddenly:
‘You’ve got it on back to front!’
Olivia’s hands dropped.
‘Have I?’ she said meekly.
‘You would.’ With the asperity of relief Kate seized and reversed her hurriedly, plunged her once more through the armholes. ‘Now let’s see you. Hm. It drops at the back now, of course.’
Olivia turned away from the glass while Kate hooked, tweaked, patted her into shape.It was a comfort to look into space for a little while before having to face once more the now irrevocable and perhaps scarcely improved image.

Diaster averted, it’s off to the dance, in the longest part of the novel.

Arriving at the Spencer’s mansion, Kate is soon away dancing – her card filling up. Olivia is content to observe, but can’t be a wallflower all evening, being introduced to a wide assortment of partners and conversations – from an old gentleman with lovely hair, to a young man blinded in the war, a poet up from Oxford who refuses to dance, but also a boy she remembered from a childhood party. Olivia watches everything with a sort of wide-eyed innocence, and is unfailingly polite to all her partners and interlocutors, wishing she had some of the poise and confidence that the Spencer children and others in the hunting set have.

Such an evening is bound to have its highs and lows – the same must still be true for today’s teenagers going to their first dance or proper party.  I well remember my first visit to a dance hall – the famous Mecca Blue Orchid Ballroom in Purley – I can’t say it was a big success!

Lehmann captures the workings of Olivia’s teenage brain so well, contrasting with the more knowing Kate. The class divides between the various tiers are equally well drawn – from the aristocratic Spencers to the middle class Curtises down to Miss Robinson and beyond.  I did hope that as the Bingleys are to the Bennetts in Austen’s P&P, that there may be hope for Olivia and Kate …

We’ll find out the answers to that in the 1936 sequel Lehmann wrote, The Weather in the Streets, which continues Olivia’s story ten years later. I’m now very keen to read that, as Invitation to the Waltz was a totally charming book, I loved it. (8.5/10)

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I did a bookswap for my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Invitation To The Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann, Virago Paperback
The Weather In The Streets by Rosamond Lehmann, Virago Paperback