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

Dancing Powell

A Buyer’s Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenkins is so easily distracted by the fairer sex!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The quest for Mr Right…

Last week you may have seen my post about ephemera (here) reporting my finding of some marginalia in an old book – well it made me want to read said book instantly – so I did!

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

pursuit of love 2Published in 1945, The Pursuit of Love is the companion piece to Mitford’s later novel Love in a Cold Climate (1949) (which I reviewed here previously). Both are narrated by Fanny, somewhat of an outsider to the central families of each novel, but otherwise they are standalone, so reading them in the wrong order doesn’t matter. I was delighted to find that I enjoyed The Pursuit of Love a lot more than the later book – it was funnier and more frothy.

The comedy is evident tight from page one, where Fanny describes her eccentric and irrascible Uncle Matthew’s prowess in WWI with an entrenching tool. Fanny always stays with the Radlett family at Christmas – and it can be a stressful time:

There was the unforgettable holiday when Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie went to Canada. The Radlett children would rush for the newspapers every day hoping to see that their parents’ ship had gone down with all aboard; they yearned to be total orphans – especially Linda, who saw herself as Katie in What Katy Did, the reins of the household gathered into small but capable hands. The ship met with no iceberg and weathered the Atlantic storms, but meanwhile we had a wonderful holiday, free from rules.

Fanny lives with her Aunt Emily, Sadie’s sister, her mother, known as the Bolter, having abandoned her when she was just one month old, and her father now being on his fifth wife! The story starts when Fanny and Linda, one of Sadie’s daughters and Fanny’s best friend, are both fourteen – at this age they are both ‘very much preoccupied with sin’, finding out about sex and looking forward to their coming out in the future.

Despite frequently falling foul of Uncle Matthew’s bad temper, the children have the most marvellous time with minimal education, loads of riding and outdoor pursuits, together with closeting themselves away in their hiding hole ‘Hons’ cupboard – where people they like are declared ‘Hons’ and those they don’t – Counter-Hons.

The girls reach their coming out ball, and no-one except Fanny could have imagined that Linda would fall for the first boy to look at her. Tony is the son of the Governor of the Bank of England, in his last year at Oxford, in the Bullingdon(!).  ‘Tony is Bottom to Linda, isn’t he?’ says Fanny sadly. The marriage isn’t to last, after nine years, leaving her daughter, Linda takes after her aunt and does a bolt – falling for Christian, a communist whom she will follow out to Perpingnan on the Franco-Spanish border, only to find out that she’s not what he wants at all.

It’s not until Linda escapes again ending up in Paris, that she meets the love of her life. Fabrice is older, extremely rich (he’s a Count), wordly, a serious and serial lover of many women. I now know, thanks to my mum’s marginalia, that the character of Fabrice was based upon Mitford’s lover Gaston Palewski to whom the novel is dedicated.  Fabrice is the great love of Linda’s life, only for them to be separated by WWII. Back in London, Linda and Fanny catch up:

Oh, don’t pity me. I’ve had eleven months of perfect and unalloyed happiness, very few people can say that, in the course of long long lives, I imagine.

It’s notable that these privileged young women seem totally immune to scandal – all this bolting from one love to the next would be completely frowned upon by the working classes. This freedom lets them be giddy and frothy and have so much fun. What is refreshing is that Linda, for all her excesses and lack of formal education, except for schoolgirl French and riding it seems, is a game girl in her pursuit of romance, and we can’t dislike her for it. Fanny our narrator may be terribly witty but, with her own happy marriage and children, she comes over as a bit staid in comparison.

As Fanny says though, this is Linda’s story – and it’s funny and sweet and touching – I loved it. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Pursuit of Loveby Nancy Mitford, Penguin paperback.
Love in a Cold Climate and other novels (Penguin Modern Classics)omnibus edition includes The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate and The Blessing.

Romance in a Paris Cinema – a feelgood recipe for success?

The Secret Paris Cinema Club by Nicholas Barreau

untitledAlthough I rarely read full-on romance novels, I couldn’t resist this one. It has all the feelgood ingredients one could ask for – an old cinema, a beautiful woman in a red coat, a classic boy meets girl/loses girl/finds girl (one hopes) romance – and it is set in Paris. Will this be a recipe for success?  Or just too cheesy?

Alain Bonnard is an old, but young romantic. He is the owner of a small arthouse cinema in Paris that he inherited from his beloved uncle. Working there is a labour of love, but Alain does love the Cinéma Paradis. He runs it as a traditional picturehouse showing no Hollywood blockbusters, there is no popcorn either.

Every Wednesday evening he shows a classic film about love – Les Amour au Paradis as he calls this slot in the cinema’s programme. Each week a beautiful woman in a red coat comes to watch the romantic movie and always sits in row 17.

Alain is talking about her with his best friend Robert…

“You mean to tell me that this girl you fancy so much has been coming to the cinema for four months and you still haven’t even spoken to her?” …
… I nodded again and thought back to the time the girl with the red coat had first appeared at the box office. I always called her ‘the girl,’ but in fact she was a young woman, somewhere around twenty-five to twenty-eight, with shoulder-length caramel hair, which she parted at the side, a delicate heart-shaped face with a scattering of freckles, and shiny dark eyes. To me, she always seemed a little lost – in her thoughts, or in the world – and had a habit of nervously tucking her hair behind her ear with her right hand as she waited for me to tear a ticket off for her. But when she smiled the whole place seemed to fill with light, and her expression became a bit roguish. And yes, she had a lovely mouth and wonderful teeth.

Eventually Alain plucks up courage, and he and Mélanie go out for a late supper after the film one night. At the end he walks her home and they kiss and agree to meet next week. Alain is head over heels in love, and it seems the feeling is reciprocated. In the classic romantic plot, Alain must now lose Mélanie and find her again after much angst and searching.

This is where the American indie film director Allan Wood (yes, you read it right, and yes, this is a very thinly disguised character based upon the celebrated American film director) comes in with the star of his next film, Solange Avril. They are looking for a location to film some cinema scenes. Solange used to come to the Cinéma Paradis as a girl, and Alain, once approached can only say yes – it’ll be a huge financial boost for him.

He finds himself invited to dinner with Wood and Solange, and whilst having a post-prandial cigarette outside with the actress who is ‘available’ – he turns her down – she does a Gallic shrug and puts her arm through his, when Flash! the paparazzi are there, and he finds himself on the front pages of the tabloids touted as Solange’s new boyfriend. Naturally Mélanie doesn’t turn up the next week. What is Alain to do?

There will be complications and twists aplenty for Alain in his journey to regain his new love, aided and abetted by Wood and Solange.

I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book – and yes it was incredibly cheesy – which rather added to its allure.  The character of Allan Wood was funny and irritating in his transparent characterisation at the same time – but he spouted plenty of Allen-esque lines that made me smile…  Solange and Mélanie were just too good to be true, but you did want the lovelorn Alain to win her back. It was the perfect light-hearted palate-cleanser after getting stuck into the heavyweight literary novels I’d been reading before.

Then I went to look up the author, as he has written another novel – The Ingredients of Love, and the mystery deepens. Nicholas Barreau, so the blurb goes, is an acclaimed Parisian writer of mixed parentage who went to the Sorbonne, and worked in a bookshop on the Rive Gauche – but his name is a pseudonym and his identity is known only by his editor.

Another reclusive author like Elena Ferrante…  but, it seems, the truth is not so romantic – and it has put me off wanting to read the other book. Outed in Germany, Barreau is apparently a collective pseudonym for a series of authors writing romances to order to meet market preferences – just like the Daisy Meadows fairy books for little girls.

I must admit that I feel a bit cheated by that discovery, but it hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for this particular book – whomever its real author is – it was great page-turning fun! (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you!

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Secret Paris Cinema Clubby Nicholas Barreau, pub September 2014 by Quercus, 336 pages, paperback original.

Are there dark days coming? I don’t think so …

Apocalypse Next Tuesday by David Safier

apocalypse_next_tuesday_1A bestseller in Germany, Safier’s novel, translated by Hilary Parnfors, got me interested within a few words of the press release in which it told how Satan, who has come back to Earth as a dead ringer for George Clooney, is recruiting horsemen for the apocalypse next week.

Gorgeous, soon-to-be-married-and-thus-no-longer-available-for-us-me, George? Nooo! But you must admit that’s one hell of a hook for a contemporary comic novel about Armageddon, guaranteed to pique the interest of readers of both sexes.  You know how it’s going to go from the first paragraph, in which we meet Marie…

There’s no way that Jesus can have looked like that, I thought to myself as I sat in the parish office staring at the painting of the Last Supper. He was a Levantine Jew, wasn’t he? So why did he look like a Bee Gee in most of the pictures?

Marie, a single, overweight thirty-something has gone to discuss her forthcoming nuptials to Sven with the Reverend Gabriel. Gabriel is challenging her desire to get married in church because he thinks she doesn’t believe enough. ‘You were already doubting God during confirmation class twenty years ago,’ he quipped.

20140715_132241_resizedMarie definitely believes in the free will approach to the Almighty, unlike her atheist sister, Kata who is a cartoonist and draws a regular strip chronicling their sibling life. Kata’s cute philosophical cartoons crop up throughout the novel, whenever there is a big question to be asked.

When Marie has a crisis of faith and jilts Sven at the altar, she retreats home to her father’s house, where her Dad’s new even-younger-than-Marie, Belarusian bride Svetlana is in place. Everyone else is happy except her, and she hates Svetlana. She moaned: ‘I was now officially a M.O.N.S.T.E.R. (i.e. Majorly Old with No Spouse, Tots, Energy or Resources).’  As if to confirm this, the roof falls in on her, literally.

However, her life will change with the arrival of a thirty-something carpenter come to make the repairs called Joshua. ‘The carpenter’s gentle, dark brown eyes seemed very serious, as if they’d already seen a thing or two.’ Yup, you’ve guessed it. It’s the Messiah, returned to Earth to thwart Satan and reclaim Earth for God. Joshua hand’t reckoned on arriving in a little town in Germany though, let alone meeting a third rather outspoken and tomboyish Mary in his life.

What follows is one of those When Harry Met Sally type of romances, with added Satan doing nasty things in the background.  Joshua has a lot of wising-up to do to exist in the 21st century – being nice isn’t good enough. Marie finds herself falling for this old soul, and their one step forward, two steps back relationship is rather charming.  I’ll refer you to the Book of Revelations for an idea of how it all might end …

I did enjoy this book a lot, but I don’t think it was entirely successful as a comedy. Although I’m a non-believer, I did like the way it didn’t make fun of Jesus or God, just the situations they were in, but there wasn’t enough of Satan. He could have been more like Bulgakov’s devil, whipping up the townspeople more, creating more obstacles for Marie and Joshua to overcome. Instead he was mostly absent in the middle of the book, and just left them to get on with it.

The novel is set in a small town in Germany and, like the Asterix books, all the German idioms and references have been translated into the appropriate English ones. Sometimes this jarred a little; Marie would comment for instance, ‘There seemed to be more sex and crime in this book [the bible] than on Channel 5.’  There were many pop music references but I suspect that many, if not most of them, also appear in the German.

I found this novel chucklesome rather than laugh out loud, (unlike the wonderful Rev Diaries) but it would make a diverting summer holiday read. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Apocalypse Next Tuesday by David Safier, pub May 2014 by Hesperus Press, paperback 272 pages.

A new brand of WWI spy …

Jack of Spies by David Downing

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US cover

Some readers may already be familiar with David Downing; the six books of his ‘Station’ series of spy thrillers set in WWII Berlin are highly regarded. Now he has set his sights back to just before the First World War to start a new series of spy novels with a new hero – Jack McColl.

Jack McColl is a car salesman, travelling the world with a bottle-green Maia automobile, taking orders from those with money for whom the luxury of a hand-made British vehicle will show that they’re somebody, not just an everyman that would buy a factory-built Model T from Mr Ford.

When our story starts in 1913, McColl is in China. He has been joined on this leg of his round-the-world tour by his younger brother Jed and colleague Mac. This suits McColl fine – it gives him more time to do his other job:

It was left to part-time spies to do the dirty work. Over the last few years, McColl – and, he presumed, other British businessmen who travelled the world – had been approached and asked to ferret out those secrets the empire’s enemies wanted kept. The man who employed them on this part-time basis was an old naval officer named Cumming, who works from an office in Whitehall and answered, at least in theory, to the Admiralty and its political masters.

With all the unease at home over the likelihood of a European war, McColl has been asked to find out the disposition of the German fleet in Asia and whether the Chinese are supplying them with coal. McColl’s hotel in Tsingtao is full of Germans, and he’s made ‘his sad lack of linguistic skills’ clear to them; in reality languages are McColl’s gift and he gets useful nuggets of information from listening in. One of the Germans, an engineer called Rainer Von Schön, is friendly to McColl and they enjoy a drink and conversation together.

Staying in the hotel is an American woman journalist, Caitlin Hanley. She has dark brown hair and green eyes and comes from Irish descent. It is clear that she will become the love interest in this novel – but when they embark upon a small affair – intended to last until he has to return to England and she to New York, little does McColl know, just how Irish her family is and how they will become tied up in his investigations.

Before that though, the next leg of the journey involves shipping the Maia to San Francisco, via Shanghai, and it is there that he is mugged and stabbed – and ends up spending the voyage released from hospital but flat on his back recuperating. Was he mugged? Or was someone out to get him? Had his cover been blown? By Whom?

UK cover

UK cover

Caitlin is on the same ship, and when she finds out and he is better, they resume their affair, but she’ll be staying with friends at the other end. This might be it, but you know deep down it’s not. McColl jacks in the car sales job, and take up Cummings’ offer of being a full-time spy, getting diverted down Mexico way for a while, before returning to New York and getting seriously embroiled into Irish politics.

McColl is a likeable enough spy, but lets his heart rule his head in this novel. If that carries on, he won’t live much longer – although you do see him being to develop the detachment needed towards the end. All the way through, he is on the edge of being exposed to Caitlin as a spy who’s using her to get information, knowing it’ll kill the romance dead. He’s a former soldier, so he is able to handle himself well in adversity, but it does make him a bit boring. Caitlin, of course, is a sparky new feminist, a suffragette fan.

The globe-trotting locations naturally brings 007 to mind – his villains would never do their dastardly deeds somewhere a bit ordinary. However, here, it just makes the novel rather bitty – McColl is no Bond, and his villains are political and real in the form of the Germans and their allies; the Chinese and the Irish in this case. There’s quite a lot of explanation of the political situation all the way through which, while necessary to some extent, was very dry and I found the whole Mexico section to be hectic but boring.

While I suppose that to some extent, the first novel of a series often has to do a lot of setting up situations for its sequels, Jack of Spies ended up being too wide-ranging and episodic, meandering around the world. I probably would read its sequel, but I’d prefer to encounter Downing’s other spy John Russell in the Station novels first (#1 – Zoo Station is on my shelves). (6.5/10)

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Source: US Publisher, Soho Press – thank you.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Jack of Spies by David Downing. Old Street Publishing, paperback June 2014.
Zoo Station (John Russell 1)by David Downing (2007)

 

Riding the slipstream …

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

The-Adjacent-Christopher-Priest-198x300 Today I shall direct you to another review I wrote for Shiny New Books:- The Adjacent by Christopher Priest, now out in paperback.

Priest is one of those authors who defies genre, yet routinely gets categorised as a science fiction author. True his books often have some SF elements in, and The Adjacent was short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award this year (losing out to Ann Leckie).  However, to me, he’s more a spec fiction writer – riding the slipstream rather than pure SF.

Those of you who have seen the film The Prestige will have encountered the mind of Priest, (although the film did remove one whole contemporary plot-strand which would have complicated things to much for the big screen), so you’ll realise that a level of the fantastic is a part of that story.

Priest is a great ideas man. This novel with its central echoing romance, goes from a bleak future back to WWI and through WWII before coming full circle. I really enjoyed it.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (pub 2013, Gollancz, paperback 432 pages).

Annabel Elsewhere … again …

This post refers to my last new fiction reviews for Shiny New Books’s debut issue.  If you haven’t done so already, do pop over to the website, (and sign-up for the newsletter).  Thank you, and feel free to leave comments there or here.

THE-MADNESS

The Madness by Alison Rattle

This is a cracking YA novel set during Victorian times about a doomed between the classes romance.  Loads of authentic period detail about the Victorian seaside (that’s Clevedon pier on the cover) and bathing couple with a well-written main character made it a fantastic read with echoes for me of Andersen’s Little Mermaid. (8.5/10)

and …

one-plus-one-186x300The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

Commercial women’s fiction as they tend to call it these days rather than chick-lit, is something I rarely read, yet – when I pick a good ‘un, I can’t get enough of it. I devoured this novel in one sitting, staying up in bed until after 2am to finish it.  The complications of modern family life with extended and split families living on the poverty line made this totally compulsive. (8/10)

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Source: Publishers – Thank you!  To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Madness by Alison Rattle, Hot Key Books, March 2014, paperback original 208 pages.
The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes, pub Feb 2014, Penguin hardback, 528 pages.

Always read the small print!

Terms & Conditionsby Robert Glancy

t&c

Frank has been in a car accident – it turns out it was a bad one, and he’s lost his memory*.  He can’t remember people, but can remember his job**.  He works for the family firm, chaired by his older brother Oscar♦.

As he begins to remember things, he realises that everyone has something to hide♦♦.  The only one who seems happy is his younger brother Malcolm♦♦♦.  What is Frank to do?

If you hate footnotes, you should probably not bother reading further – but you would be missing a treat – for most of the jokes in this black comedy about modern life and finding oneself are in the myriad footnotes at the bottom of nearly every page.  Although they are in small print, most are readable – although at one point, there is small print to the small print and I nearly had to resort to a magnifying glass (surely a deliberate move on the author’s part).

Frank’s piecing of his life back together is hilarious. As he begins to find things out and remember more it is also sad though – for it soon becomes clear that his relationship with his wife had not been a happy one for some time.  She was no longer the rebellious fun girl he had married, instead she was now a skinny and driven HR manager.

My alleged wife, like many of my visitors, seemed very nervous when she came to see me.
Why? Where they worried I wouldn’t recognise them? May they were hopeful they’d be that special person – the key – the one whose mere presence would miraculously unlock me? Or was it that people were nervous because I’d been a complete bastard?
Was Old Frank a real twat?
I discovered early on that no one would tell me what I had really been like. When I asked my wife, she offered only the vaguest sentences; words that could have described a billion other people: ‘You were, are … a nice chap and funny, really driven and…’
It was like that awful ‘Personal Section’ in curriculum vitaes – my CV personality. So I accepted that I was the only one who could really discover who I once was – I knew no one would ever tell me the unvarnished truth.*
_____________________________________
* No one would turn to me and say, You were such a c***-face, Frank. You hated life, detested your friends, and you were often found in parks furiously masturbating.

In trying to sort out the bigger picture, Frank realises that the devil is in the detail, although I’d argue that sometimes it works both ways. We suffer with him with each new discovery and each return of memories, and cross our fingers that he’ll find a way out. When he works out his plan, it’s bold and daring, but is revenge really worth it?

I could cope with the footnotes because they were often so funny, but I did find the chapter titles a little annoying. Each was ‘Terms and Conditions of …’.  As most chapters were just a couple of pages, in big type they took up a lot of space, and could have been abbreviated to T&C rather than unsubtly reminding us to read the small print.

I wasn’t sure whether I liked Frank or not, but I did like his wit. I certainly disliked his wife and Oscar intensely. The whole business with the small print was also a great idea, and was executed well, although it was surprising to read that the author was a historian and not a lawyer! However, all that was enough for me to really enjoy reading it, and I had a good laugh. (8/10)

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* He doesn’t remember his wife, but she’ll do nicely…
** He’s a top contract lawyer, specialising in the small print. The terms & conditions.
♦ He soon works out that Oscar is a shit!
♦♦ Including himself, and especially his wife.
♦♦♦ Who escaped to find himself in the Far East.

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Terms & Conditions by Robert Glancy, pub Feb 13 2014 by Bloomsbury, Hardback 272 pages.

A May to December romance with strings…

Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

January in JapanOnly reading from my TBR, I searched my shelves for books so that I could join in with January in Japan hosted by Tony’s Reading List.  I could have chosen Murakami – but have had both good and bad experiences with him. It ended up being a choice between Out by Natsuo Kirino and Yoko Ogawa’s second novel – I chose Ogawa.

I read The Housekeeper and the Professor, review here, a couple of years ago. I was beguiled by that quirky yet serene novel, her debut. Hotel Iris has a similar air of aloofness in writing style, but the subject matter is in no way gentle like her debut …

Mari is a dutiful daughter, manning the desk at her family hotel, the Hotel Iris, situated in a Japanese seaside town. At seventeen, she is totally dominated by her mother who tells her she is beautiful, as every day she styles Mari’s hair into a traditional Japanese bun, held in place with camellia oil.

The book opens with a guest and the prostitute he’d brought back to the hotel causing a kerfuffle and being ejected. Mari is fascinated by the man’s voice. Later she sees him again and follows him. After a few days of stalking they strike up a conversation. He is a translator, and lives an ascetic life on the island off the coast.

The first shock is to find that he is a widower in his sixties, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Mari, she’s ready to fall in love.  The second shock is when she goes with him to the island, and the third is when he ties her up and subjects her to degrading acts which she submits to with increasing pleasure – but always managing to catch the ferry home before her mother wonders where she is.

Earlier that same day, I had been tied to a bed with iron rails that were ideal for securing my ankles and wrists. He had cut away my slip with a large pair of scissors. The blades had been sharpened to a fine edge, and the steel had a dark sheen. He snapped them open and closed in the air, as if to test the sharpness and savor the sound. Then he drew them straight up my body from my spread legs, and the slip fell away as if by magic.

The blades touched my abdomen. A cold shock ran through me, and my head began to spin. If he had pressed just a bit harder, the scissors might have pierced my soft belly. The skin would have peeled back, the far beneath laid bare. Blood would have dripped on the bedspread.

My head had been filled with premonitions of fear and pain. I wondered whether his wife had died like this. But as these premonitions became realities, pleasure also erupted violently in me. I knew now how I reacted at such a moment: my body grew moist and liquid.

I had read elsewhere that this book is rather unsettling, but I didn’t really expect it to be quite like the above. To see a young girl submit to this, however loving the administrator is, does not make for easy reading.

When the translator’s nephew, a mute (due to tongue cancer) young man a year or so older than Mari, arrives for a holiday this really does complicate things. As you might imagine, this leads to the final climax.

Although I was naturally concerned for Mari’s plight, I found it hard to warm to her, and I remained deeply suspicious of the translator all the way through, but on the other hand this tale could be described as a coming of age story for Mari – acting out her dark schoolgirl fantasies.  Still, once we see what he does to Mari, we have to wonder about his wife…

For such a dark and disturbing book, Ogawa’s prose, again translated by Stephen Snyder, is cool and always slightly aloof but it does reel you in.  This book was such a contrast to the happy serenity of The Housekeeper and the Professor.  I didn’t ‘enjoy’ reading Hotel Iris, but I was compelled to finish it though.  (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa, Vintage paperback, 176 pages.

What the new Hoffmann addict read on Christmas Day …

The Nutcracker & The Strange Child by E.T.A. Hoffmann, translated by Anthea Bell

Nutcracker

My mum was a huge ballet fan, and it was a much-anticipated Christmas treat to be taken to London to the ballet to see The Nutcracker, preferably at the Royal Opera House for a grander experience and better tree (see below). It was my favourite of the Christmas ballets; although I got to see bigger ballet stars in Cinderella or The Sleeping Beauty in other years, I loved The Nutcracker the best.

I had two favourite bits – The Russian Dance in Act II for the music and dancing, but for the real WOW! moment – it’s got to be when everyone’s gone to bed except Clara and Drosselmeier, and the Christmas tree grows.

See this clip from the 2008 production at the ROH – That’s how to do the tree properly!

I was thinking of this as I read the original story of The Nutcracker this Christmas, another classic fairy tale by German Romantic author ETA Hoffmann, whom I discovered a couple of weeks ago for the first time when I read The Sandman, (reviewed here).  Needless to say the ballet is based upon a dumbed-down version written for children by Alexandre Dumas (père), and Hoffmann’s original is much darker.

It is a family Christmas, and Fritz and Marie (Clara in the ballet) are enjoying the presents brought by their Godfather Drosselmeier who makes automata and clockwork toys.

Legal Councillor Drosselmeier ws not a handsome man; he was small and thin, with a wrinkled face, and he had a big black patch over his right eye. He was bald, so he wore a very fine white wig made of glass, a most ingenious piece of work. Councillor Drosselmeier was a very ingenious man himself. He knew all about clocks, and could even make them. So if one of the fine clocks in the Stahmbaums’ house went wrong, and its chimes failed to ring out, Godfather Drosselmeier came to call, took off his glass wig, removed his yellow coat, tied a blue apron around his waist and poked at the insides of the clockwork with various pointed instruments. …

When Councillor Drosselmeier came visiting he always had something pretty for the children in his bag, sometimes a little manikin that could roll its eyes and bow – that was a comical sight – sometimes a box with a little bird that hopped out of it, sometimes another toy. But at Christmas he had always made them something that was particularly elaborate and had meant a great deal of work for him, and once he had given it to the children their parents put it away and took care of it.

Tiring of the toys, Drosselmeier produces a nutcracker in the shape of a man who cracks nuts with his teeth. It is not a pretty toy, but Marie is drawn to it – Fritz grabs it and breaks it, and Marie nurses the toy.  Fritz had been taunting Marie earlier about mice in the skirting boards, and when she falls asleep the toys come to life and the toy soldiers fight the Mouse King who has seven heads. Her Godfather Drosselmeier appears as an evil owl on the mice’s side. Overwhelmed, the Nutcracker seems doomed so Marie throws her shoe at the Mouse King saving him.

She awakes to find it all a dream – or was it?  Godfather Drosselmeier tells the children the story of Princess Pirlipat and the hardest nut to crack, which explains why nutcrackers are ugly. Marie loves the Nutcracker doll, and at night the Mouse King returns and together they defeat him and the Nutcracker is revealed to be an enchanted Prince. He takes Marie to the Kingdom of Toys where all the lands are named after candies and they are betrothed in due course.

Hoffmann obviously had an interest about mechanical toys and automata – indeed the brief notes at the end of the volume confirm this . Toys coming to life have long been the stuff of nightmares (especially in films like Magic and the ones with that Chucky doll in). I liked that the toys in The Nutcracker’s case were on the side of good as in Toy Story, and the evil monsters came from the ‘real’ world. It was perfect Christmas reading.

This edition from Pushkin Press paired The Nutcracker with a lesser known tale from Hoffmann – The Strange Child. This is the tale of two children who live in the country and have a wonderful life running wild in the woods. One day their rich relatives come to visit from the city, bringing gifts of toys. and tell their parents that they will send a schoolmaster for the children.  Meanwhile, the children abandon their new toys in the woods, preferring natural pursuits, when they meet a strange child who becomes their new playmate.  When their new evil tutor arrives, the children are banned from the woods, confining them to the stuffy schoolroom and the tutor scares them stiff, buzzing around them like a fly. I won’t say how it ends, except that it’s suitably Gothic and moralistic.

I adored the Nutcracker, and enjoyed the much darker Strange Child too, my reading enhanced by the lovely quality of the Pushkin Press edition.  I’m going to get some more tales of Hoffmann, and revisit some of his contemporaries, notably the Brothers Grimm, too to compare the style.

So another Hit from Hoffmann! (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Nutcracker The Strange Child (Pushkin Collection) by ETA Hoffmann, Pushkin Press 2010 translated by Anthea Bell, 206 pages.