Three Slightly Shorter Reviews

I’ve got a series of posts lined up for the week in between Christmas and New Year with my hits, misses, finds and stats, so it’s time to catch up with my review pile backlog and some shorter reviews…

The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield

undertakers daughter For anyone who loved the TV series Six Feet Under, this is what it’s like in real life to grow up living in an American Funeral Home, and sometimes it’s not that different! Kate Mayfield’s family moved to the town of Jubilee in southern Kentucky in 1959 where her father could realise his dream of running his own funeral home. Kate was already used living in the same house:

Back in Lanesboro, I had been the first in our family to be carried as a newborn from the hospital directly into a funeral home. Birth and death in almost the same breath.

We grow up with Kate in the business. We experience the competition between the rival businesses, and the favours and kindnesses that her father secretly does for the owner of the funeral home for the black population – for Jubilee in the 1960s was segregated. Kate’s father is a bit of a conundrum, totally professional and controlled, yet charismatic and a real dandy and, with his own hidden secrets of hard-drinking and womanising, no wonder Kate’s mother is brittle and desperate to fit into this community where they are initially outsiders. We learn a lot about the funeral business with Kate as she grows up, becoming a quietly rebellious teenager in the 1970s. We also see how the business of death can divide communities, cause family feuds and rattle a lot of skeletons in closets.

This memoir was absolutely fascinating, I heartily recommend it. Source: Publisher – Thank you, (9/10)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

kjfI’ve read this for book group – we’ll be discussing it in early January, but I won’t post about that discussion because I don’t want to spoil this novel for anyone that hasn’t read it yet – is there anyone?

The story is told by Rosemary who, at the start is at university, and still trying to come to terms with the disintegration of her family that started when she was five and her sister Fern disappeared from her life.

Rosemary takes us back and forwards through her life and the details gradually fall into place. However the big plot twist happens on page 77, early on in the novel.

As it happens, I knew the twist and I can honestly say it wouldn’t have taken me by surprise. The clues are all there (don’t read the tagline on the back cover for starters!). I’ve read several other books over the years that cover much of the same ground – without the twist.

After that it’s all a bit inevitable. That said, I did enjoy this book a lot, although I didn’t like the way the author continually signposts where we are in Rosemary’s story by referring to the beginning, middle, end and points inbetween.  I’m still confused too why the Booker judges thought so highly of it as literature, but it is a good read. Source: Own copy, (7.5/10).

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

murakamiI’ve had mixed success with Murakami, but loved this beautifully illustrated novella, translated by Ted Goossen.

A boy gets an urge to find out about Ottoman tax collection and stops off at the library on his way home. Directed to the basement and the stacks of withdrawn books, he finds himself in the weirdest of horror stories featuring a sheep man, a cage, doughnuts and a girl who talks with her hands amongst many other strange things. It’s a very weird story – sort of Alice in Wonderland meets The House of Leaves.

The beauty of this little volume is in the illustrations, many of which are pages from old catalogues and text books. The end-papers are marbled and on the front is a pocket to hold the book’s ticket – Harvill Secker, the publishers have done a lovely job. I must admit I pored over the illustrations, finding the story almost as secondary, but loved the whole. (If you need a late Christmas present for someone this would be ideal.)  Source: Own copy, (9/10).

murakami spread

* * * * *

To explore any of these on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):

 

‘After the first death, there is no other.’ – or is there?

Advantages of the Older Man by Gwyneth Lewis

seren_-_the_advantages_of_an_older_man

When this short novel popped through the door, I couldn’t resist reading it straight away. Gwyneth Lewis is a poet, author and playwright and I’ve previously read her volume in Seren Book’s New Tales of the Mabinogion series. The Meat Tree is a retelling of the strange and ancient story of Blodeuwedd, the woman made from flowers. Lewis’s version had a science fiction setting.

Her writings are very varied – so what could I expect from this new book?…

Now it can’t escape your notice that this new novella has the profile of Dylan Thomas lurking on the cover – indeed he looms large over the whole proceedings, so much so I dug around for an apt quotation to title this post and found his poem A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.  (You can read it here.) In this elegiac poem, written in 1946, the death of an unnamed child is seen as a parallel to that of the Unknown Soldier.

However, the last line of that poem, taken slightly out of context, fitted perfectly – for this is an extraordinary little ghost story told with humour and a lot of heart…

Jennie has finished university and is back at home living with her parents in Swansea. She applies for a job with The Dylan Thomas Gallery which only shares the poet’s name – in their house her mother goes ‘Pig of a man,’ every time his name is mentioned and she is aghast when Jenny gets the job – it turns out she knew him – but she won’t give any details. It is there she meets Peter, a poet and hoping he’ll ask her out, she helps him to start up an Open Mic Poetry Club despite not being a poetry fan. Peter doesn’t seem to notice her though, so when he and Bernard decide to hold a Dylan Thomas celebration, Jennie leaps into helping and gets into the spirit of Dylan…

… or rather he gets into her. All this attention has brought the ghost of Dylan Thomas back and he appears to Jennie in her bedroom – he says he had no choice but to come:

‘If you’re worried, your reputation is still good. You seem to get more famous by the year, not less.’
‘The thing about death is that it’s very hard to accept, even when you’re dead. Maybe especially then.’
‘Mind you, I think that people know more about your rackety life than read your poems.’
For the first time, the ghost appeared perturbed. ‘Don’t they study me in schools and universities?’
‘They do. But you’re know as one of the Three Thomases.’
‘There are others?’
‘Yes, Edward Thomas, and then RS. He lived into his eighties. He wrote a lot about God.’
‘Was he known for being drunk on language like me?’
‘No. A vicar. Clean-living. Liked ornithology.’
‘Is he better known than me?’
‘Nominated for the Nobel.’
‘Bugger.’
‘You were telling me why I’ve been graced with your presence.’

He tells Jenny he’s writing new poems, haiku, she could ‘find’ them and make him more famous again, in return he could help her to get Peter…

There’s a lot more to his return than that deal though and I’m not about to spoil the story for you. Jenny and Dylan will strike up a love-hate relationship – at one stage he’ll possess her leading to the priest being called, at other times they’ll happily walk on the beach together. One thing is certain – a life which includes Dylan Thomas, alive or dead, is always going to be interesting!

Although a comedy, this novel has some great moving moments and a couple of fantastic twists. (Yes! and all inside a mere one hundred pages). I loved it, and it would make an ideal stocking filler. (9/10)

* * * * *

Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To buy or find out more visit:

Amazon or Seren Books directly (which may be cheaper for new copies for non-Amazon Prime members).

Book Group Report – Jean Teulé

The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé

suicide-shopOur book group read for July into August was actually a re-read for me. We’d wanted something quick and light as due to our schedules we only had three weeks between meetings instead of our usual four or five. I had read Teulé’s 2007 novel, published in English translation by Sue Dyson in 2008 when it first came out pre-blog – but thanks to my spreadsheet that I was already keeping back then I can retrieve my capsule review:

This very French, dystopian fable reminded me very much of the stylish film Delicatessen (a hilarious post-apocalyptic French sort of Sweeney Todd), but lacking some of its virtuosity. That’s not to say that it is unimaginative … Some of the ways that the proprietors of The suicide shop devise to help their customers do away with themselves are really hilarious, but it lacks the film’s lightness of touch with its macabre material. In particular, the Alan Turing suicide kit is inspired, as is the Kiss of Death given to Marilyn as her coming of age birthday present.

The Tuvache family who own the shop are all cartoon characters, all named for famous suicides which tell you all you need to know about them – there’s the father Mishima, the mother Lucrèce, son Vincent, daughter Marilyn, and the wayward youngest son. He’s named Alan after Turing, but does not display any of his namesake’s traits! Alan is the despair of his parents being all too happy, and happiness is catching in this sulphurous City of Lost Religion (presumably a take on Paris being the City of Light?). Usually in novels, it’s the other way around with everyone starting out happy before diving into the slough of despond – but this does allow a neat ending. A clever and funny, quick novel to read, but a little heavy-handed.

Yes, it’s literally about a shop where you can buy everything you need to kill yourself in whatever way you please. M. & Mme. Tuvache are only too happy to will help you decide how. There are some delightfully gruesome jokes here – but I will only share a bit of the Alan Turing one with you in case you want to read the book yourself:

‘The inventor committed suicide in an odd way. On the seventh of June 1954, he soaked an apple in a solution of cyanide and placed it on a small table. Next, he painted a picture of it, and then he ate the apple.’
‘He never did!’
‘It’s said that this is the reason why the apple Macintosh logo depicts an apple with a bit out of it. It’s Alan Turing’s apple.’
‘Well, well… at least I won’t die an idiot.’

(Wikipedia tells me that a half eaten apple was indeed found beside Turing’s bed, but it wasn’t tested for cyanide. His inquest wondered if he had accidentally inhaled cyanide fumes from gold electroplating which he did in his spare room.)

I really enjoyed the book all over again, but what did the others in the group think?  Well – no-one hated it outright. We were split over the plot, or perceived lack of it – some wanted more, others somewhat disagreed with as it is only 160-odd pages of big print – a short novel really and it does have a main storyline with other elements. I think all but me felt a little cheated by the final ending, but I won’t expound further. Everyone did at least like some of the jokes. Needless to say, we all found it very French! Given the amount of discussion though, it did make quite a good book group read. I particularly loved the shop’s slogan – ‘Vous avez râté votre vie, réussisez votre mort…’ translated as, ‘Has your life been a failure? Let’s make your death a success.’ (8.5/10)

By the way, I recommend the film Delicatessen from 1991 directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro – a post-apocalyptic character-based French comedy about the inhabitants of a building block. Full of grotesques and very quirky – very Terry Gilliamesque, but in French. The Suicide Shop has been made into a French animated film too, but I haven’t seen it and aren’t sure if it’s subtitled.

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé, Gallic Books, paperback 169 pages.
Le Magasin des suicides (DVD) ~ Patrice Leconte
Delicatessen [DVD]

Hitch’s last essays …

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Hitch-MortalityI’m a long-term fan of Vanity Fair magazine for it’s in depth articles, photo portfolios and reportage, (OK, I don’t read the bits about obscure US politicians). One of the highlights most months though was to read the latest essay by British writer Christopher Hitchens.

A sublime essayist and journalist, a forthright and vocal atheist always happy to debate on difficult subjects – his pieces were always worth reading, whether you agreed with him or not.  I say were – because he died in 2011 from oesophageal cancer, more than likely brought on by his heavy drinking and smoking.  He collapsed in 2010 on the book tour to publicise his memoir Hitch 22, and was found to have cancer which had metastised, spread and thus was terminal. As he said: ‘…the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.’

His last book, published posthumously, Mortality, is a collection of the essays he wrote during that last year for Vanity Fair around the subject of his cancer and dying. It is prefaced by his friend and editor of VF Graydon Carter with an afterword by his widow Carol Blue. I remember devouring them each month, and it is entirely fitting that they be collected into this short book.

Of course, memoirs about dying and cancer have been done before. Notably, I still can’t forget John Diamond’s page-long columns in the back of the Saturday Times magazine in which he wrote of his life once diagnosed with throat cancer. These columns became the basis of his memoir C: Because cowards get cancer too. He died in 2001: Diamond’s wife was Nigella Lawson, and I really felt for her, having already lost her mother and one sister to cancer. In fact, in Hitch’s unfinished notes in the final chapter he mentions Diamond:

Like many other readers, I used to quietly urge him on from week to week. But after a year and more … well, a certain narrative expectation inevitably built up. Hey, miracle cure!  Hey I was just having you on! No, neither of those could work as endings. Diamond had to die; and he duly, correctly (in narrative terms) did. Though – how can I put this? A stern literary critic might complain that his story lacked compactness toward the end…

But back to Hitch himself. Having the benefit of being able to write full essays for VF, he is able to expound at length, essentially taking a different related topic each time as well as updating us on the progress of his illness and treatment.

Perhaps the most fascinating essay is the second in which he deals with religion, and how he had both people praying for him and condemning him to hell!  For an atheist polemicist, he has many friends among the world’s many religions, and is more likeable than Dawkins for it. However, some would still hope to persuade him to have a deathbed conversion …

I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.

A different secular problem also occurs to me: What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.

In another chapter, he writes about his voice – his vocal cords going decidedly croaky – and as a man who earns his living by voice as well as pen, he hated the idea of having to communicate by writing, even if his writing is his voice on paper.  He thanks (also now the late) Simon Hoggart who …

…about thirty-five years ago informed me that an article of mine was well argued but dull, and advised me briskly to write ‘more like the way you talk.’ At the time, I was near speechless at the charge of being boring and never thanked him properly, but in time I appreciated that my fear of self-indulgence and the personal pronoun was its own form of indulgence.

Another interesting essay is based upon Nietzsche’s pronouncement: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich starker – Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Hitchens discusses why it doesn’t really work, although you may think it does until you get terminal and he illustrates the essay with quotations from Kingsley Amis, Betjeman and Bob Dylan.

These essays and additional material were a joy to revisit. Well-argued, supported by apposite quotes, each encapsulates its subject brilliantly. His interest in  the human condition too shines through the writing – it always has done. You could argue that this is not his best work, but perhaps it is is his most meaningful. Hitchens for all his bravado comes across as so full of life, even as the end approached and he shows great courage. His voice – spoken and on the page is a great loss, but luckily, he wrote lots of books, including his memoir Hitch 22, his anti-theist treatise God is not great: how religion poisons everything, and a great collection of other essays from 2011, Arguably. Now I don’t have him to read in VF any more, I shall start on these. (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic, 2012 paperback 128 pages.
Hitch 22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic, 2010 paperback 448 pages.

 

Getting back to Banks…

The Quarry by Iain Banks

 

SNB logo tinyI was saddened at Iain Banks’s untimely death last year, and although I added his last novel The Quarry to my collection, I couldn’t read it straight away. Nine months later, it was an opportune time to read it – coinciding nicely with the paperback issue and the launch of Shiny New Books.

QuarrySo, you can read my review here.  It’s not his best novel but it is made all the more poignant in the fact that at its heart is a man dying of cancer and Banks himself didn’t know he was in the same predicament when he started writing it.
I shall be linking my review to my Banksread tab at the top of the page. I also hope that having read The Quarry will kickstart my (re)reading project.

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Quarryby Iain Banks. Pub 2013. Abacus paperback 384 pages.

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.

* * * * *
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

‘A Duty-Dance with Death’ – ‘So it goes’

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegut This was our book group’s choice for discussion in November. Whilst it’s fair to say that whilst nobody loved it, and some didn’t get on with it at all, it did provoke some good discussion. I quite enjoyed it, and would certainly read more by Vonnegut. My only previous experience with him was having read Breakfast of Champions as an older teen – and having to make sure my parents didn’t see the diagrams, (if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean!).

vonnegut 2

S-5 is commonly seen as Vonnegut’s most influential novel, as it builds in autobiographical elements of Vonnegut’s own experience of the firebombing of Dresden as a PoW, escaping death by hiding in the cellar of ‘Slaughterhouse-5’. Other themes are time travel, alien abduction and living an otherwise normal life!  Vonnegut sets it all out on the book’s title page after the title and sub-title The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death:

A fourth-generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (and smoking too much), who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, “the Florence of the Elbe,” a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers come from.
Peace.

Before we get to the story of the man in question, the introductory chapter introduces the narrator – clearly a metafictional version of Vonnegut himself, explaining his writing of the book:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.
I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, ‘Is it an anti-war book?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I guess.’
‘You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?’
‘No. What do you sau, Harrison Starr?’
‘I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.

And, even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Then the narrator tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who as a young soldier and prisoner of war in Dresden, returns to a normal and rather dull life in America. He becomes an optometrist, marries, and lives into his old age and senility. However Billy is convinced that he’s become a time traveller, slipping up and down his timeline as a result of being abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore where he was kept in a zoo, and gained their ability to see in 4D – so he could be in all times at once.

This means that the novel goes back and forth with Billy. But is he travelling in time? Or is it just memories coming to the fore of a brain with dementia, or schizophrenia? We discussed these elements at length in our book group – it was obvious that Billy thought he was time-slipping, that he really was abducted by aliens – some were happy to accept that. Others including me, took a rational view.

Given that the novel was published in 1969, and it being most of the group’s first experience of him, we wondered how much the time-travel and alien themes were linked to any trippiness of the time…

Something the narrator does throughout the novel, which we all thought worked really well, was that every time someone dies (which is a lot), the paragraph ends with the phrase ‘So it goes’. This becomes a real mantra and emphasises the inevitability of death – one way or another.

One fact that surprised us was that more people died in the bombing of Dresden than were killed in Hiroshima. For us subsequent generations who didn’t live through WWII,  the nuclear carnage is seen as the greater tragedy. The bombing destroyed over 90% of the city of Dresden.

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

As if Vonnegut’s anti-war messages about the damage that can be wreaked by conventional weapons weren’t enough, he makes his selection of the novel’s subtitle perfectly clear too. Billy the teenaged PoW is introduced to some English officers in the prison camp:

And he said, ‘You know, we’ve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. ‘ “My God, my God-” I said to myself, “It’s the Children’s Crusade.” ‘

Despite the novel being written in short sections, jumping back and forth through time, snapping from one theme to another, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes even beautiful, Vonnegut’s writing is always interesting: ‘Four inches of snow blanketed the ground. The Americans had no choice but to leave trails in the snow as unambiguous as diagrams in a book on ballroom dancing – step, slide, rest – step slide rest.’

This was a surprisingly moving book to read, and a good book group choice. (8.5/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children’s Crusade – A Duty-dance with Death, Vintage paperback, 192 pages.

Still shocking after all these years …

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Distractions! I had hoped to read or re-read more Banks books by now. But better late than never, I have returned to the beginning and re-read The Wasp Factory again, and updated my BanksRead page.

Published in 1984, I read it for the first time in 1985 when the paperback first came out. I read it again back then too, and I still have my original paperback.  The monochrome cover with its squared symbols and numerals, and the embossed title and author name really stood out then, and does now.

wasp factory orig papaerback

Banks has always been brilliant at beginnings,  and the first lines of his first novel are cracking.

I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.

Right from the off, you know you’re in for something different with Frank, a rather feral teenager who lives on an island with his abandoned father. Frank is rather fond of catching the local wildlife, and killing it to display on his totemic poles. Animals are not the only things Frank kills though…

Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.

For those that haven’t read this book, I’m not giving things away with the above quote. It’s part of the back cover blurb of my original copy and comes at the end of chapter two. However, by then Frank has told us quite a lot about his family history, how he became a murderer, and we know about his ‘accident’. His certified brother Eric is at large, and on his way home, which is a cause for concern for everyone except Frank, who although he loves his brother thinks he may rather cramp his style. He finds solace in a boozer in town with his only friend, Jamie, a dwarf, but I can tell you no more about the plot.

wasp factory newWhen I first read this novel, I was stunned; it made an instant fan of me.  It was so dark and twisted, yet had a strong vein of black humour running through it. Between Frank’s cruel experiments, Eric’s deranged rantings on the phone, and the father’s secretive behaviour, it’s clear that what is left of this family have real problems.

Banks’ prose still has the power to shock, even knowing what was to come.  This is definitely still not a book for the squeamish.  I could pick up on more clues in his Gothic coming of age story this time.  I also saw parallels between Frank and the horrorshow of Alex in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – both vicious adolescents growing up; and also with Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle – another flawed young person who uses her own version of sacrifice poles to warn off intruders onto the family estate.

It feels as if Banks arrived on the scene as a fully fledged author with The Wasp Factory.  He’s taken it from there with each subsequent novel, always experimenting, always having a strong vision, and keeping that sense of humour underneath.  Still 10/10.

* * * * *
I bought my copy decades ago. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks – Abacus paperback, 256 pages.
A Clockwork Orange (Penguin Essentials) by Anthony Burgess
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

A portrait of a family’s grief …

After Phoenix by Martine McDonagh

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

After Phoenix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Thomas Keneally for Australian Literature Month

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

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

The Widow and Her Hero
by Thomas Keneally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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