It’s a love / hate thang …

The Martian by Andy Weir

martianOne square in my Book Bingo card is ‘Hated by someone you know’.

That one was so easy to fill, for a few weeks ago my pal Simon Savidge tried to read The Martian and he ended up not finishing it when something in it tipped him over the edge: “That was it, I was done and frankly utterly furious. I threw the book across the room and gave up.” he said.

I’ve been meaning to read The Martian ever since it first came out – and I LOVED IT! It’s the perfect example of a ‘Marmite book’ and shows how different we all are as readers, and how the world would be very boring if we all liked the same things.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit that:

a) It’s not great literature;
b) It’s very nerdy;
c) The level of humour is at best ‘undergraduate’ (cf Seth MacFarlane’s tanker of a novel last year);
d) The women are token;
e) The dialogue is pure cheese!

BUT … it does have one helluva basic plot.

Mark Watney is assumed dead when an accident occurs before the Ares 4 Mission is set to leave Mars and return to Earth. They leave without him, not knowing he’s alive. How long can Mark survive? How can he let Earth know that he’s still there when all communications are broken? Will they come and get him before he dies?

So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m fu**ed.

The novel starts with just Mark telling us about his predicament in daily log entries – in detail. It’s lucky that he was the mission’s engineer, for he is a resourceful chap. Not only can he calculate his needs, he is able to juryrig equipment to make it work. His other specialty is botany – and he is able to make the sterile Mars soil fertile through the application of poo to grow the experimental seed potatoes they brought with them. In short he’s able to get air, water and food sorted to give him extra months of survival time. Now time to turn his attention to getting back in contact with Earth…

Eventually, someone on Earth (a young scientist called ‘Mindy’ – yes!) watching the satellites spots things happening on Mars – they can see that the mission’s abandoned rovers have moved. This starts the parallel NASA strand as they go to work to see what’s feasible and ultimately if they can rescue him.

That’s enough plot. I’m guessing that many of you will have seen the marvelous films Apollo 13 or Gravity; some of you may also remember Marooned (from 1969, made before Apollo 13 flew). You know the score – a book like The Martian is unlikely to take a philosophical turn like John Carpenter’s 1974 film Dark Star or the daddy of them all – 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it is perfectly predictable how it will end – it’s the getting there that provides the excitement.

Weir’s narrator does describe all the science and engineering he’s doing as he goes along at great length. To be honest, you don’t have to understand it, you just need to appreciate that he’s able to do something to improve his situation, you can skim the detail. Weir has clearly done his research for the science felt very plausible on the whole, although I wouldn’t like to have to mess around with hydrazine (N2H4, a highly unstable and flammable compound) the way he does – but needs must.

There are plenty of running jokes in Watney’s log entries. He has the contents of the Hermes crew’s personal downloads to watch and listen to, comprising mission commander Lewis’s disco music pplus lots of 70s TV series like The Dukes of Hazzard, he also has plenty of Agatha Christie novels to read. He takes the piss out of his erstwhile crewmate’s media choices constantly, laddishly – it helps keep him sane.

Where the novel is less successful is the parallel strand back home at NASA. This is hackneyed and full of stereotypical characters – no elegant vision of the Mission Control backroom from Apollo 13 here. We also get very little feel for the crew who left him behind, I’d have liked to get to know them better. The Martian was initially self-published chapter by chapter on the author’s blog before it got picked up and became a hit.

You have to remember this is a thriller in a SF setting, once we’ve got over the initial tech stuff – it does pick up the pace nicely, until everything happens rather too fast at the end – a common thriller trope (I hesitate to say common thriller fault, because sometimes you just want it to be over, so you can breathe again – whether in relief, horror or whatever.

The Martian film What was clear from the start was that The Martian would make a brilliant movie – and would you believe it, Ridley Scott thought so too. Matt Damon as Mark will be hitting our screens in late autumn.  Looking at the all-star casting, it’s clear that they are going to big up the parts of the Hermes crew, and particularly the two women (yes, the mission commander and IT officer are both women in the book too).  Jessica Chastain (Lewis) and Kate Mara (Johanssen) will surely demand more than the cameo they get in the novel.  Kristen Wiig will play Annie (NASA’s West Wing CJ equivalent); Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels will be amongst the NASA team on the ground too.

Yes, I expect I will be going to see it!

So, Simon and other friends who didn’t like it, my feet are firmly in the other camp.  For me, although it wasn’t perfect, it was plausible-ish, huge fun and a good thriller.  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Martianby Andy Weir. (2014) Del Rey, paperback, 384 pages.

 

A strong new voice…

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris

Young GodI bought this short novel on Elle’s recommendation after she responded to my post about the number of male authors I tend to read (that post in itself was a response to hers on the same subject). Young God is the debut novel by a young American author and the minute Elle told me that it was like Winter’s Bone but more so, I had to investigate – and indeed a quote from Daniel Woodrell tops the list on the back cover.  Sold!

It starts as it means to continue:

NIKKI IS ALL TO HELL. A boy jumps off the cliff in front of her. She peers over the edge, watching him go.

‘Nikki.’
‘How far down is it?’
‘Like a hundred feet,’ Wesley says.
Wesley squats near her feet. He wants to stick his dick in her. Nikki yanks tight all the bows of her bikini, hot pink. It used to be Mama’s. Now Mama’s too old to wear it. Nikki has been thirteen forever.

There is a technique to jumping. Nikki manages it, but her Mama, jealous of her, doesn’t. She slips and dies, smashed on the rocks. Nikki is left with her Mama’s pervy boyfriend Wesley, who gets his way with her. Her response is to steal his bag of pills and car and drive off in search of her real father.

In her mouth his name is shiny and bitter like a licked coin.
‘Coy Hawkins’
It rings out.

As you might expect, in this trailer park world in Appalachia, this is going from one bad situation into another. Coy has been a drug dealer, he used to be the ‘biggest coke dealer in the county’, but currently he’s just a pimp, living in a trailer with Angel whom he rents out. He also has a young son, Levi, by Crystal who lives down the road. Levi is always out on his bike, watching.

Nikki stays. Angel is hostile to her, her father is not bothered, although grateful for Wesley’s pills. Life carries on in the trailer and once Nikki finds out that Coy is just a pimp, she is disappointed – he used to be someone. Somehow, she stirs a paternal urge to impress in him and he attacks another pimp for her.

This is the start of a new relationship between Nikki and her father, steeped in drugs and prostitution. Nikki learns the value of being an underage virgin and tries to recruit a girl from the children’s home. You can tell it’s going to descend into a new level of hell – but will Nikki survive?

My word! This novel, once started, doesn’t let go. The language is very coarse, the violence and sex is very nasty, the poverty is extreme. It’s everything you might expect from a tale of poor white trailer-trash folk, but it goes beyond cliché to become something else entirely. You can’t ‘like’ any of the characters, but you have to respect that they have no other way out. Nikki has such strength, you have to admire her for it, as you do Ree in Winter’s Bone. Nikki has a harder edge though, honed by years of abuse, neglect and periods in the children’s home.

Nikki’s story is told in short chapters, sort of vignettes – some only a line or two long, others stretching to a couple of pages. Soon, you recognise that the white space around the shorter ones will usually signal a major moment, be it in thought, deed or conversation. The author never attempts to make us like or judge Nikki, she just tells it like it is in a triumph of understatement.  Brutal, sparse and shocking, this coming of age novel is maybe the darkest one I’ve ever read – but I loved it. You don’t have to take my word for it either, see what Eimear McBride thought of it in the Guardian here(10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Young God by Katherine Faw Morris. Pub Granta 2014. Paperback, 208 pages.

The One Version of Laura Barnett

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

versions of usLast night it was a balmy evening in Abingdon – perfect for an author event in the packed courtyard garden of Mostly Books during Independent Bookshop Week. Visiting was Laura Barnett, author of The Versions of Us, a fantastic novel featuring three possible versions of the life of a couple. Publicists have billed it as ‘One Day meets Sliding Doors’, and it’s an apt comparison, as we follow Eva and Jim through the years with roughly annual snapshots in three different versions of how their lives could have turned out adding the what if? aspect of Sliding Doors, although Laura’s novel is more satisfyingly complex than either of them.

The story starts with a prologue in which Jim and Eva are born in 1938. Then we jump to 1958 when Eva and Jim are both studying at Cambridge (where Laura studied) and the timeline splits into three versions of their fateful meeting as Eva is cycling along the banks of the river Cam and she swerves to avoid a dog.

Version Two…

‘Are you all right there?’ Another man was approaching from the opposite direction: a boy, really, about her age, a college scarf looped loosely over his tweed jacket.

‘Quite all right, thank you,’ she said primly. Their eyes met briefly as she remounted – his an uncommonly dark blue, framed by long girlish lashes – and for a second she was sure she knew him, so sure that she opened her mouth to frame a greeting. But then, just as quickly, she doubted herself, said nothing, and pedalled on. As soon as she arrived at Professor Farley’s rooms and began to read out her essay on the Four Quartets, the whole thing slipped from her mind.

The three versions of Jim and Eva’s lives go on to intertwine around each other throughout the book, and we go from Version One to Two to Three as we move through the years. You may be reminded of the structure of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (reviewed here) – but there is no evolution in the lives here – there are just the three interwoven versions. Laura told us how Life After Life had been published as she was halfway through her first draft and she didn’t read it deliberately.

Why three versions? Laura always wanted to have one with the big romance at the start, one where there was a spanner in the works, and well, one that was completely different. Three felt right. She wrote all the stories together, intertwining them from the beginning, envisaging the novel as a plait. She didn’t plan out the three arcs in detail, but did include around five set piece scenes which occur in each version – big birthdays and funerals essentially. Outside of those, she let the lives of her characters develop as they went. She aimed to keep the balance between the three storylines, not favouring any of them, keeping them and the reader guessing, and always trying to maintain compassion for the characters.

Jim and Eva are fantastically well realised in all three versions. We ride the ups and downs of life with them, through good times and bad, infidelities, marriages, parenthood, their careers. We laugh and cry with them, get annoyed with them and get wrong-footed when they don’t do what we expect. Yet, we rarely get confused which version we’re in, except just a little in those segments where the three versions come together at a single event which of course will go three different ways. The Versions of Us is a very accomplished novel and I really enjoyed it.

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Laura’s other day job is as a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic for several London newspapers and Time Out magazine, so she’s no stranger to writing and had written two unpublished novels before coming up with the idea for The Versions of Us.  She told us how, after she’d finished the novel, she found an agent by googling the authors she admires and contacting their agents. In this way, she was picked up by Sarah Waters’ agent, and when they were ready to submit the novel to publishers, just before the annual Frankfurt Book Fair last year (good timing!), there ended up being a bidding war between six publishers and she had the luxury of picking the one she felt most at home with – W&N. Foreign rights are going well too, so it’s been a whirlwind time for Laura, now doing the publicity rounds.

One really great question from the audience was about if she felt that her novel had changed her as a reviewer and critic in any way. Laura’s honest reply was that she didn’t think she could review fiction any more, because she is so aware of what it takes to write a novel now and has great respect for the craft of writing. I asked a seriously smart alec question about the Fates from Greek mythology who spin, weave, measure and snip the threads of life and whether she’d imagined the fates of her characters like that at all with her ‘plaiting’ of their tales. Laura, bless her, hadn’t studied any classics at her South London comprehensive and was amazed at that congruity – she charmingly said she’d have to look it up!

Laura proved to be a very engaging speaker and she was happy to chat and sign books for all. If she’s coming to your neck of the woods, it will be well worth a visit to see her and I can recommend her novel too – bring on the next! (9/10)

The case of the missing disk…

Acts of Omission by Terry Stiastny

stiastny Thrillers set in the world of modern British politics are not that common compared with those led by the spies who report to the politicians; Acts of Omission is mainly the former. It is the debut novel by a former BBC News reporter who worked in Berlin in the late 1990s and is based upon a true story. There are three main characters:

Mark Lucas, a former television producer, is now a charismatic young minister in the Foreign Office. His office has come into possession of a disk containing the names of British informants to the East German Stasi. The Germans are putting pressure on him to give it to them, but the British diplomatic service would rather not. Visiting Berlin, he is shown the jigsaw operation that is still ongoing to piece together the files that the Stasi shredded when they left.

‘Of course,’ said Ilse quickly. ‘There are people whose whole lives may have been affected by what’s in these sacks of paper. They have a right to know what happened to them, the same as everybody else. It’s not their fault that it’s their files that were destroyed. So it’s our duty to give them that truth back.’

Even if you find our your best friend had informed on you? Even if it compromises national security? These are the dilemmas behind it all, and Mark has to toe the government line in his reply, despite personally being for returning the disk.

The second character is Alex Rutherford. A civil servant – working for the intelligence services in an office based job. The morning after the night before, he wakes up hungover only to realise that his laptop is missing and inside it was the disk – the only copy! He thinks he left it in a taxi home, and sure enough the laptop is in their lost property office, but without the disk.

Thirdly, Anna Travers is a second string journalist on a national newspaper. She gets her big chance when the disk is delivered anonymously, of course, to her paper. Seconded onto the team working on the disk, she has to try and winkle out its secrets and some of them will be difficult to deal with once made public and the right connections made.

Acts of Omission particularly explores the relationships between the government and the press through their front-faces and more murky underbellies. Early on, Anna gets a new boyfriend who works in Downing Street advising the PM and so with her we get taken into Number Ten, the Lobby at Westminster as well as the newsroom. It’s a far cry from door-stepping with by-election candidates in northern towns where Anna starts the novel. Stiastny has obviously put her wealth of experience into making the framework of the novel very credible. Additionally all three leads are very plausible and likeable characters, although Mark is a bit naïve.

The plot twists and turns around the politics and the detective work on the disk. The bureaucracy involved is a little dry at times but authentic and Stiastny manages to keep the suspense going through that to create an enjoyable debut. There’s also room for more novels involving Anna too as her journalistic career begins to fly which would be fun. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Acts of Omission by Terry Stiastny. Pub John Murray 2014, paperback May 2015, 336 pages.

Book Group Report – The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Miniaturist You know how it is with book group choices – sometimes you can’t find a lot to talk about? Well, The Miniaturist ISN’T one of those books! While it’s fair to say that no-one in our group absolutely loved it, we all thoroughly enjoyed this debut novel set in 17th century Amsterdam and it gave us a lot to talk about. For those few of you who haven’t read it yet, here’s an introduction:

Teenaged bride to be Nella arrives in Amsterdam from the countryside to wed wealthy middle-aged merchant Johannes Brandt, only to discover that he’s out. She is met by his sister, Marin, who is sharp of tongue and outwardly rather Puritan in nature. Later, Johannes arrives with a wedding gift for Nella – a cabinet house.

The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, its body sliced in two and its organs revealed. The nine rooms, from the working kitchen, the salon, up to the loft where the peat and firewood are stored away from the damp, are perfect replicas. ‘It’s got a hidden cellar too,’ Johannes says, lifting the floor up between the working and best kitchens, to reveal a concealed empty space. The ceiling in the best kitchen has even been painted with an identical trick of the eye. Nella remembers her conversation with Otto. Things will spill over, he’d said, pointing his finger to that unreal dome. …

‘I thought it would be a good surprise,’ Johannes says.
‘But, Seigneur,’ says Nella. ‘What must I do with it?’
Johannes looks at her, slightly blank. He rubs the velvet curtains between forefinger and thumb before drawing them shut. ‘You’ll think of something.’

Nella, although not sure if, at the age of eighteen, a doll’s house is appropriate for her, engages the services of a miniaturist whom she finds in the list of local traders to furnish and populate it. She never actually meets the miniaturist, yet the pieces provided are strangely accurate, as if the artisan knows the house and its inhabitants … Meanwhile, as she gets to know the household she begins to uncover secrets, dangerous ones that could be the downfall of them all.

Where to start – well, we jumped in with Marin, who was the most intriguing character – she was rather like Mrs Danvers at first, fiercely protective of her brother, and in the early stages we wondered whether there was incest between them. As we got to know the five members of the household, Johannes, Marin, Nella, maid Cornelia and manservant Otto, it became clear that all had secrets and because of them were outsiders. Otto who was rescued from slavery in Dahomey (now Benin) and Cornelia were intriguing because although servants, they had considerably more freedom than one would normally expect; yet Otto, as a black man was all too visible outside. Johannes is rarely there, and when he is, he closets himself in his study with his beloved dogs. Nella doesn’t know what to do – this marriage is not turning out to be what she expects.

When things really start to happen, it is a warehouse full of sugar cones from Surinam that sets it all off. They belong to the Meermans – inherited by Agnes, and Johannes has been asked to be their merchant. Agnes and Frans Meermans represent all that is bad about the business world in Amsterdam (think of Poldark’s Warleggans!). They are hypocrits, and like all the others are happy to turn a blind eye to all kinds of goings on as long as their own interests are protected. Once they break silence causing dire trouble for Johannes, poor Nella is left to take charge for poor Marin has her own cross to bear. I can’t say any more about plot elements.

A couple of weeks ago Victoria wrote an excellent post about historical accuracy in novels, in terms of imposing 21st century values on their fictional characters, in particular feisty feminist heroines who go adventuring unchaperoned. We had a good discussion about this for Marin does a lot of Johannes’ paperwork – but all in the house. Nella, who comes from a formerly well-to-do family in the countryside outside the city, is used to more freedom, and finds it hard to stay in.

As to the role of the miniaturist, who appears to have a kind of seventh sense, on the one hand we’d have loved to know more – but on the other, it didn’t matter, although the slight magical realism implied was rather a distraction for me. Was the miniaturist controlling all the action by the prescience in the figures produced? At first you may think that Nella is just a doll herself, but once she takes charge she proves herself worthy of the trust put in her.

We also wondered if there was scope for a sequel in what Nella did next, a prequel about the mysterious miniaturist, or even Johannes and Otto – (we agreed that there wasn’t enough Otto); but we decided it was best left open. The Miniaturist is an impressive debut novel, with plenty of intrigue and a level of suspense that kept us all gripped.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (Picador, 2014). Paperback, 400 pages.

 

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.

Loneliness and a life wasted?

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

the-twinTranslated from the Dutch by David Colmer.

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

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

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

‘Hello Riet,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Source: Own copy.

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

“I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me”

Love & Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds

love and fallout Tessa is one of those middle-aged women that do causes. She co-runs a (failing) green charity running workshops for schools and colleges and she’s always got a local campaign on the go – this time saving the playing field from development. She doesn’t take much time for herself (or her family arguably) and lives in jeans and baggy jumpers. Her long-suffering best friend Maggie and husband Pete have had enough of this and as the novel starts they have organised a surprise TV makeover for her. The doorbell chimes:

Smiling at me is a thin woman in her early forties who has the gloss and wing-mirror cheekbones of a former fashion model. Behind her is a camera crew. A camera crew. And there, waving, is Maggie. For a few stupified seconds I can’t work it out: in some bizarre co-incidence she’s stopped by at exactly the same moment as a TV crew.
‘Are you Tessa Perry?’ asks the thin woman.
Partly shielded by the door and ready to close it at any moment, I confirm my identity.
‘Excellent,’ she says, ‘because we’re here to…’ Then she raises her arms along with her voice and everyone cries in unison, ‘Make you Over!’
The penny teeters, bright and coppery at the edge of my comprehension then drops into a slot and rolls away. Maggie has brought these people here. Before I know what’s happening, they’re piling inside.

Tessa is horrified, but when Pete says they’ll mention the Heston Fields campaign she reluctantly submits to get the publicity for it. When, after they’ve finished filming she’s left fully dressed and made up, Pete wants to go out. Tessa says ‘Right, give me ten minutes, I’ll just get changed.’ Exactly the wrong thing to say to Pete who had wanted to show her off.

Cut back to 1982, and Tessa having finished school is working in a dead-end job in Stevenage and has recently split up with her boyfriend. She decides to go and visit the anti-cruise protestors at Greenham Common, and maybe stay at the camp for a while. Surprisingly, her mum and dad are broadly supportive, realising that it’ll give her the break from Stevenage that she needs, and after all, she’ll not stay for long …

Tessa finally gets to Greenham, and finds a diverse band of women, young and old, mothers, grandmothers, Europeans, all are here. Bumping into a young woman called Rori, she finds a group to camp with at the Amber gate. She soon realises that life is not a bed of roses – it’s cold and muddy, water has to be carted from the standpipe, latrine trenches dug and so on. There is little direct action other than being there to witness what the military are doing. As in any group there are tensions – Angela who is one of the key organisers doesn’t think Tessa belongs there – indeed, Tessa doesn’t really know herself at first, but she gamely mucks in and makes herself useful. The strong bond that Tessa forges with Rori will become tested to its absolute limit over the months to come – there will be betrayals…

Interspersed with the Greenham sections are those charting the increasing disintegration of Tessa’s home life after the programme. If she doesn’t get funding, her charity will fold; she and Pete are going to relationship counselling – but it’s not going well; her children are alienated, especially her daughter Pippa. It takes a visit from Angela, who had seen her on the television, to bring her life back into perspective, finally bringing closure to her Greenham days.

I actually worked in Stevenage for a whole seventeen years and lived there for fifteen, first arriving in 1983 just after Tessa goes to Greenham. I lived in a couple of different estates, before ending up in a nicer newbuild development, but, having moved down there after living in Cambridge (where Tessa later lives!), I can understand why she’d want to move away from the indentikit houses, and the town centre certainly wasn’t up to much back then.

Simmonds builds a strong picture of what it was like to be at Greenham, and includes the real life events such as ‘Embrace the Base’ when 30,000 women linked arms around the perimeter, and when Tessa gets imprisoned after climbing the walls and dancing on the silos. We’re shown what a hard life it was and how everyone had to muck in, but also how much cheer the women were able to generate from their sisterhood. Although Tessa doesn’t get on with Angela in the camp having allied herself firmly with Rori – she herself becomes an Angela type later organising her causes, especially once her children don’t need her parenting so much.

Tessa is fallible though, taking Pete and her family’s silent acquiescence as permission to take them for granted. Thank goodness for the jolt caused by the TV show and the memories it brings back to the surface. Ignoring relationship ruts is not a good thing, and we hope that Tessa and Pete can find some kind of path forward; Tessa needs more of a makeover than just a new outfit. I found this aspect of the novel a little uncomfortable to read. Whatever her faults though, because Tessa is inherently a good person with good intentions we are on her side throughout the story.

There is much to admire in this debut novel from one of my favourite indie publishers, Seren Books. Tessa’s story is told with humour as well as truth and sadness. Who knows, if I had met Tessa in a Stevenage pub, I might have been inspired to join her in her quest and that is the mark of an engaging novel. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love and Falloutby Kathryn Simmonds. Seren Books, June 2014, paperback original, 352 pages.

P.S. Quote at the top from ‘I’ve never been to me’ – by Ron Miller and Kenneth Hirsch, sung by Charlene – it reached No 1 in the UK in June 1982.

5 Characters in Search of a Theme Song

Love, Love Me Do by Mark Haysom

Love love me do

Looking at the title and cover of this book, I was expecting something light-hearted, a little bit sixties rock’n’roll, a bit Nick Hornby-ish if you will – and involving a caravan. Well the last bit was right, less so the others.

The title, that of the Beatles’ first hit single, is an anchor in time, and the book opens in 1963, Friday August the 2nd at 5.24am to be precise.

Young Baxter is dreading that later today he might have to go on a day-trip home to Brighton with his father. His mum, Christie, had said it’d be a good thing to have some time with his father, but Baxter doesn’t want to go – he wants to stay in the caravan, play in the grass and go and see Soldier in the woods.

A few hours later, Christie is again wondering why her husband Truman had sprung a surprise holiday on them – in a caravan on the edge of the Ashdown forest fifty miles inland from their home – and then abandoned them there without a car to go to work.

Not for the first time, Christie wondered whether she had ever truly loved him. …
And she had wanted him to love her. She was a little embarrassed to admit it, even now, even to herself; but more than being in love, what she had longed for then was the feeling of being loved by someone. …
But mostly what she felt now, she thought, as she knelt with her eyes still closed, trying to find just the right word for it, what she felt was that she had been overwhelmed by him. …
To begin with it had been excisitng to be with trumn, of course. To be wanted so much, to be pursued by a boy who was so tall and handsome; it was like nothing that had ever happened to her. …
…They had looked good together, people said. And, of course, there had been some defiance in it too. Because she had known her mother wouldn’t approve, it had made her all the more determined to go out with him in the first place.

It turns out that apart from be a charmer, Truman is a liar and a chancer, although Christie doesn’t know any of it. He’s a small-time con-man with an eye for the ladies and has a couple of mistresses on the go as well as Christie and their three children. He owes Mr Smith five grand – big money in those days. He had to do a disappearing act, hence the caravan, but he needs to go home – hence taking the boy with him for insurance. Mr Smith’s heavies can’t touch him with the boy…

What he doesn’t know is that Mr Smith has put Strachan on his trail. Strachan is a different class of heavy, older and looking to retire, well dressed – ‘You may not always be the best-looking man in the room,’ [his ma] she’d say to him, ‘but you can always be the man looking his best.’

The only character we’ve not really met yet is Soldier. He’s a tramp that lives in the woods, an ex-military man, obviously suffering from post traumatic stress even now although WWII ended 18 years ago. He talks to no-one, but Mrs. Chadney in the nearby farmhouse keeps an eye on him. 8-yr-old Baxter befriends him, and unbeknownst to Christie, Soldier is keeping an eye out for their safety too from the woods.

The story is told through the events of this single day, with lots of flashbacks to fill us in on the detail. We’ll find out about each of the five, their hopes and fears, their motivations, their searching for love – of whatever kind is on offer.

Christie, Baxter, Truman, Strachan and Soldier, each take turns in moving the story on through the day, each adding to the suspense. Will there be a showdown between Strachan and Truman at the end of the day? With the location setting, the build-up echoes Greene’s Brighton Rock a little – and we’ll get to find out a lot about Truman before the day is done.

This may be a debut novel, but Haysom is a newspaper man of long-standing and puts that to good use in an intriguing novel that is far more serious and far better than its cover would suggest. I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love, Love Me Do by Mark Haysom, pub July 2014 by Piatkus, paperback original, 448 pages.

A new bunch of Shiny New Book Reviews…

SNB logo tinyThe Inbetweeny issue 2a of Shiny New Books is available from today, with 22 new reviews and features, which includes nine, plus one joint article by me!!! Thus having contributed nearly half an issue (although I didn’t read as much as my lovely co-editors for the main Issue 2), I feel I deserve a bit of a plug, forgive me for being so indulgent.

A pair close to my heart are my review of Bethan Roberts’ fab new novel about a child abduction and Anglesey Mother Island and my accompanying short interview with her. You can also read my report of an evening with Bethan in Abingdon a few weeks ago here.

I’ve done my Director’s Cuts to several reviews from this blog of books now out in paperback: The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook (loving that tinted version of the cover for the paperback), Gossip by Beth Gutcheon and Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies.

I’m going to do just one more plug now before saving the rest for another post…

bright_moon_003zA new to me paperback review is my one of A Bright Moon For Fools by Jasper Gibson.

A very black comedy, it has a comedy anti-hero you’ll grow to laugh with rather than laugh at and a psychopathic villain who is the nastiest I’ve read for a long time. Set in Venezuela, it is a brilliant debut novel and it has one of the best descriptive phrases I’ve read at the end of the first paragraph: ‘The sunset was coronary.’

Highly recommended if you like your comedy black and a bit un-PC, as I do.