Friday, 25 September 2009

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold

I wanted to read Carter Beats the Devil mainly because somebody bought me his new book, Sunnyside, and I thought I'd read his only other novel first. Its a long novel, my hardback copy being 560 pages long, but a relatively quick and easy read. Charles Carter was a magician, contemporary with Houdini, who incidentally has a key role in the plot of this book. The story starts with President Harding making a visit to see Carter's show, coming on stage to take part in an illusion, and subsequently dying under mysterious circumstances that same evening, leading to Carter becoming chief suspect for his murder.

After watching Carter interviewed by secret Service agents, in the presence of his pet lion, obviously, we rewind to Carter's childhood and start a detailed study into his childhood, adolescence and the events that led him to become a magician in the first place. We learn about his skills with cards, his struggle to make a name for himself on the Vaudeville touring circuit, and his bitter rivalry with another magician, Mysterioso, who although brought down by Harry Houdini, re-appears at the climax of the novel to exact revenge. Even though this is a fictionalised account, I did feel as if I knew so much about Carter, his life, his loves, his losses and how he overcame hurdles in his life.

But although this is is a totally fictionalised account of Charles Carter, the man himself did exist, and this book reads as a biography in places. In examining Carters childhood and rise to fame, no detail is left out, and it does feel as if all these events could have happened. Many of the illusions are described in great detail, although not usually how they are achieved (there still has to be some secrets in magic)! It also reads as a chronicle of the period, with the advent of movie theatres and the invention of television impacting on the popularity and success of magic shows. In fact, Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of television is another real life historical character that plays a crucial role in the story, although his role is fictionalised.

But as well as reading as a biography, it is also a mystery/adventure story. Once we are back in the present, the aftermath of president Harding's death, carter is setting up his latest show, but also being trailed by Secret Service Agents convinced that he was responsible for the Presidents death. The President was under surveillance anyway because he was asking all and sundry what they would do if they knew a terrible secret, so not only do the service want to know if carter killed him, but also if he revealed what this secret might be! But these are not the only people Carter is being trailed by. At the end, in his final show, no less than three different people are trailing carter, for different reasons, which leads to a thrilling climax, and lots of threads tied up. It is all a bit neat at the end, which is satisfying, but perhaps a bit of ambiguity would have been nice.

This book strikes a good balance between character development and interaction, action, factual information about the time period and magical illusions. The most entertaining aspects for me were Carter using his skills as a magician/illusionist to extract himself from the various sticky situations he gets himself into, as competition for new and better illusions leads to him making some enemies along the way. It's worth anyone's time and definitely worth reading.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Booking Through Thursday-Sad Reads

What’s the saddest book you’ve read recently?

Saddest book? My first response is the The Book Thief (it made me cry), but since I used that last week I really should think of another one! But just before I do, it strikes me as odd that I used it last week as my most entertaining book, but this week it springs to mind as the saddest. Not sure what that says about my reading preferences. Perhaps I should think about that, but that will have to be another time.

The Time Travellers Wife is the only other book I can think of that I've read recently that made me cry, but I really did cry about that one, and it left me with a sad feeling following me around for days after finishing it. And one that I mention all the time, Tess of The D'urbervilles always makes me cry even though I know what's going to happen, it still makes me cry, and I still will it not to happen. This might not count because I haven't read it recently, but that means it is due a re-read, so I'm going to have it!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

I went home......and bought books!

Well, it's not really home since I haven't lived there for twenty years and I haven't been back for ten, but somehow I always feel a homely feeling towards Derbyshire. I grew up here and wish I went back more. I actually went for a family party, but that was pretty odd since the only people I knew were my parents, who travelled up there for the same party, and the distant relative whose party it was! But at least my children got to meet the mysterious Steve and Jacqui who send them presents every Christmas and Birthday!

But more importantly, they got to see this crooked spire, which they've heard so much about! I don't think they got what I meant when I'd told them about it, but they couldn't take their eyes off it when we were there. We had to walk round to see it from every possible angle! If I'm honest, I found it a bit strange to see again, especially since it used to be so normal!

And I bought books too! Probably way too many, but they were cheap! Charity shop books are cheap anyway, but they seemed to be even cheaper up there! But maybe I'm just kidding myself there, it's amazing what I'll convince myself of to justify buying books!

Monday, 21 September 2009

War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen

This is a book that defies classification. Its set in WWII, but its not your typical war story. Gloria is in her seventies, living in a nursing home because her son thinks she is losing the plot a bit, and recounting her life as a young woman working in a munitions factory during the war effort. Her son Hank is frustrated with her because what she says about his father, an American GI, and evidence he has discovered do not tally. As well as this there is a mysterious woman visiting Gloria in the home who claims to be her daughter, a fact which Gloria denies vehemently.

Gloria and her sister live alone, although they work long, twelve hour shifts at the factory, they by no means live a fun free life. They go out, party, and have sexual relationships, mainly with GI's. Gloria has what she considers to be a long term, stable relationship with an American, but predictably he doesn't view it this way and scarpers off to America after the war. In her conversations with her son, Gloria maintains that she went with him, married him then returned to the UK with the child.

This is where the discrepancies set in. This fairly obviously doesn't match up with what Hank has discovered and is what leads him to believe she is losing her marbles. For us as readers, we also see Gloria conversing with her dead friend, and a young, wet girl who periodically appears in Gloria's life. And there's also a stage hypnotist and his wife who seem to make occasional appearances in Gloria's life, most tellingly, as she is giving birth.

All these threads run throughout the book, leading to a confusing, but very compelling mystery story. It's a really short book, but manages to address, a lot of issues. I enjoyed reading about the life of young women during the war, but I think the most interesting was the nature of memory. When all the threads are tied up, and we do finally know what happened to Gloria, and who the mysterious woman is, we start to question whether she is truly suffering from dementia, or just suppressing memories and creating a different truth to hide the one she couldn't deal with. And the motives of the people who assisted her with this are questionable. There's a real twist to the end but I can't say much more without giving the story away, but suffice it to say, Gloria is betrayed by the people she trusted the most, however misplaced that trust may be. It's a brilliant book, and one that will stay with me for a long time.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Booking Through Thursday-Entertaining Reading

What’s the most enjoyable, most fun, most just-darn-entertaining book you’ve read recently?
(Mind you, this doesn’t necessarily mean funny, since we covered that already. Just … GOOD.)

Well my first response was to say that all reading is entertaining, isn't that the point? I wouldn't do it otherwise. So picking just one to be the most entertaining is hard. So, I think I'll go with the two that I just couldn't put down. Both of these actually have been read in the last few weeks, and I still have to write reviews, so I can't link to them.

The first is The Book Thief. I think I'm probably the last person in the world to read this, but I loved it. As well as being a brilliant story, I was amused by the fact it is narrated by death, and I liked the stories written by Max for Liesel, especially the fact that these were included in full, with pictures. I liked the pictures, the really seemed to add to the book. I will review this soon, but Dylan is reading it at the moment, and he's asked me to wait until he's finished so he can add his opinion.

The other, completely different book, is After Dark by Haruki Murakami. I really enjoyed this, even though it was a bit surreal and took at least half the book to figure out what was going on. I love the fact that the author managed to get so much out of a few chance meetings on one night. I'm waiting for this one to settle in my mind before I review it here, because each time I think about it, something else strikes me about it.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo

I picked up Blonde Roots because I couldn't resist the idea of reading a story where the roles of slave and master were reversed, with the African nations being dominant over the white Europeans. It just sounded so intriguing. And it is obvious before a single word has been written that almost everything in this world has been reversed, or changed, as there is a map of the world in the front of the book with the continents of Europe and Africa switched, and even the Equator moved, so that the weather conditions switch too. Evaristo also switched some of the names of places in the UK (although this now stands for The United Kingdom of Great Ambossa) to African sounding names such as Londolo, Mayfah, Edgewa and paddinto. Oh, and The Africans are called blaks and the Europeans Whytes.

So bearing all these changes in mind, onto the story. It's the story of Doris, a Whyte slave girl who at the start of the story is being helped to escape to try and return to her homeland to find her family. Predictably this doesn't go to plan and she is re-captured, punished and returned to her master, although she lives a much harsher life after her capture. Through her narrative we learn a lot about her previous life with her family as cabbage farmers in Europe, her fairly cushy slave role as a personal assistant (if any slave role can be called cushy), and the horrors of the passage on the ship to The UK, once she has been kidnapped. When she is sent to the plantations after her capture, she at first feels isolated, but is eventually accepted into the slave culture, and the details of this culture are minutely written about, although obviously with the usual reversals due to the nature of the story.

It wasn't just the lives of the slaves that were described in great detail, also the way the slave owning race, in this case the Blaks, justified their inhumane treatment of human beings was noted in great detail, and although reversed, I'm sure similar justifications were prevalent in the not too distant past, and do bring home how once power and superiority is achieved, it's perpetuated through totally made up 'facts' and 'science' :

"Needless to say, Craniofaecia Anthropometry proves that the negro is biologically superior to the other two types. Indeed, while the negro belongs to the genus known as 'mankind', the mongolo and caucosi belong to a broader definition of 'humankind', which ranges from the fully evolved species 'mankind' to the lesser evolved species classified as 'neo-primate'."

Using this as a basis, the passage goes on to expound the horribly familiar ideas that skull shape and formation shows a lack of mental development, pain is not felt in the same way, and compares them to animals rather than humans, finishing with the idea that by enslaving the Europeans they are in fact being saved and given a better life.

Unfortunately, although the detail and horror in this book are all too real, I did have a slight problem with it. There wasn't really much of an original story involved. I was gripped by it, and I enjoyed it. The author evokes the atmosphere and brutality of life as both a slave and a slave owner brilliantly, but this is nothing that hasn't been done before. The reversal from Europeans to Africans as slaves is a really clever idea, and it could so easily have been that way round, but I just wasn't sure what I felt about it. On one hand, I thought it could be a fantastic way of showing how power corrupts humanity, whatever colour or creed you are. I like to think this is what was being aimed at, but at times the role reversal and all the name changes and switches just felt too gimmicky, and seemed to overtake the story. And, at least for me, this is borne out by the fact that I finished this about a month ago, and I've had to rack my brains to remember the story, but I can remember all the details about the reversing of circumstances easily.

All in all, not as good as it could have been in my opinion, but still a good insight into slavery and the effect it had on both the slaves and slave owners, so still worth a read. And the idea itself was an intriguing one, even if it overtook the story a bit.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Mudbound by Hilary Jordan

Mudbound is a small story set in Mississippi in the 1940's, but with large themes and a far reaching impact. As it's set in Mississippi, it's fairly easy to predict it deals with social injustice and racism but it does it so very well, it's easy to forget that all these stories have been told before in one form or another. But that really doesn't matter, as for what is quite a short book, it manages to deal with racism, sibling tension, marital stress and the effects of WWII on the men that returned, all within one story, and a few characters.

The first part of the book deals with the blossoming relationship between Henry and Laura, their lives and their families, and eventually their marriage and relatively happy life in Memphis. Although the ominous tone of the book is present in this section, it is less apparent here. It is when Henry decides to give up his job and move his family out to a ramshackle farm on the delta that the story takes the downward turn that is prevalent at the very start of the story. The culture shock of moving from civilised Memphis to a farm with no comforts at all is hard on Laura, and a lot of the story is concerned with her unhappiness at this, but also her obedience to her husband (mostly), although she does have moments of defiance, and the insights she gains, and therefore that we gain also, into the different ways the couple see their lives.

The story is told through alternating narratives, from Henry and Jamie, the two brothers, Laura, Henry's wife, and Hap and Florence a coloured couple who are tenants on Henry's farm, and Ronsel, their eldest son. The first few pages set the tone for the rest of the book. The Mcallan brothers are burying their father, who we are told has been murdered, and that he is despised by all his family. During Laura's first chapter she says

"My father in law was murdered because I was born plain rather than pretty.That's one possible beginning. There are others: because Henry saved Jamie from drowning in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Because Pappy sold the land that should have been Henry's. Because Jamie flew one too many bombing missions during the war. Because a negro name Ronsel Jackson shone too brightly. Because a man neglected his wife, and a father betrayed his son, and a mother exacted vengeance. I suppose the beginning depends on who is telling the story. No doubt others would start somewhere different, but they'd still wind up at the same place in the end."

This short passage says so much about the story I had to include it, as well as the fact that it's just lovely writing, and a good example of the tone of the book. The inevitability of what will happen is made clear from the start of the book and the ominous tone continues and the tension builds as the story continues. The different characters mentioned all get their turn to speak, and between them they all manage to tell the complete story. Henry and Jamie speak about what is happening to them, as do the Jackson family, although these points of view are very opposed to each other and it is Laura's chapters that tie the whole thing together and Laura who fills in the blanks that the other characters don't say.

The opposition of viewpoint between the Mcallans and Jacksons is what makes this story. We see the same events from the racist, superior viewpoint of mainly Henry Mcallan, but also Jamie to a lesser extent, and the accepting, reluctantly subservient view from the Jacksons, mainly Florence. Her chapters are enlightening, showing how they just get on with their lives and keep their heads down, despite the injustice of the way they are treated. This all changes with the return of Ronsel from the war however, where he has been treated equally, and struggles to settle to life as a coloured person in Mississippi. Jamie, also just returned from Europe, becomes friendly with Ronsel and this friendship angers his extremely bigoted and racist father, leading to the horrific but inevitable conclusion.

Surprisingly, for the subject matter, I did feel sympathy for all the characters in the story, probably because because they all had a distinct voice, I could see why they acted the way they did, and what led them to have their faults and viewpoints. The exception to this would be pappy, the murdered father, but he never got to speak, his actions were only told through other people, but still I don't think I could have felt any sympathy or empathy with him under any circumstances. The Mcallans did move on from the horrific events on the farm quickly, and this jolted me, but that this sort of social injustice was rife is the whole point of the story.

I could waffle on for ages about this book, but I think I'll stop now because if I say any more I might give something away, and then there would be no need to read it, and I really think you should read this book. It's brilliant. And anyone that doesn't put their hand to their mouth at the conclusion is just heartless and has no soul!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Booking Through Thursday-Informative Reading

What’s the most informative book you’ve read recently?

My immediate answer to this is that all reading is informative, whether it's fiction or non-fiction. I suppose non-fiction would be classed as more straightforwardly informative since that is really its purpose, but since I don't read a lot of non-fiction, I thought I'd go with some fiction choices, since I think what you learn from that is more interesting anyway, and often surprising!

Firstly I'll go with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society because as well as being an entertaining read, and a fantastic way of telling a story through letters, I realised whilst reading this that I knew very little about the occupation of The Channel Islands, other than that they were occupied. I'd never really thought about the devastating effect this had on the people living on the islands and I was quite shocked,particularly considering it was so close to home.

And my most recently reviewed book, The Behaviour of Moths, was packed full of factual information about moths! I was actually slightly worried when I started this book that this would get tedious, but it was actually really informative and interesting to read about different types of moths. It was really a secondary thread in the story.

And then I suppose going slightly off on a tangent, but I could name others that although they haven't contained very much in the way of factual information themselves, have contained enough to get me interested in the subject and go off and research the subject for myself. The one that comes to mind most would be the civil war on the Island of Bougainville in Lloyd Jones Mr Pip. Yet another event in recent history that I knew woefully little about!

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams

I actually finished The Behaviour of Moths just before my computer broke six weeks ago, but I really enjoyed this book so I still want to write about it. Unfortunately, the book itself has had to go back to the library, so this is all being done from memory!

It's a family saga, told solely through the narration of Ginny Stone, a seventy year old woman, who has lived her life alone and reclusive in her old family home, although she only uses a very small portion of the large, crumbling house, closing the rest of it down. At the start of the book, she is awaiting the arrival of her elder sister, Vivi, who escaped country living and made a new life for herself in London, rarely returning to the family home. Told over the course of five days, the story focuses more on the events in the past that led to the estrangement of the two sisters and the different lives they have led during their time apart.

When Vivi left for London, married and lived a busy, socialite life, Ginny remained with her family, taking care of and suffering abuse from her alcoholic mother and assisting and then continuing her father's work with the advancement of the understanding of moths. We actually learn very little about Vivi's life though, because all the narration is from Ginny, and the sisters don't talk much about their lives apart. We know she married and had a baby, but we only know this because Ginny was involved and so it forms part of her memories. However as the book progresses, the fact that we only ever get to hear events from Ginny's perspective becomes a real issue, and the crux of the story. Throughout the novel, it is clear that Ginny is slightly off balance, although it is ever made clear exactly how much. There are constant references to visits from a 'Dr Moyse' when she as a child, a social worker trying to contact her as an adult, her obsessive compulsive behaviour, particularly towards time and tea, and just a general feeling that she does not see the world in the same way as other people, or process information in the same way. It is made clear that Ginny likes order and routine in her life, and this is stressed both through her behaviour in her day to day life, and her descriptions of moths, and how they will do what they are expected to do. They are predictable and will never go off on a tangent and do something unexpected to throw the routine.

It is what is not said in this book that has more impact than what is. Towards the end, when it becomes clear that Ginny and Vivi have a very different perspective on what happened to their mother, at first I thought that that was simply Ginny having a false memory because of her seeming mental disorder (whatever this is). But as I think about it, I started to realise that we are not hearing Vivi's actual opinion at all, just Vivi's opinion filtered through Ginny's perception of truth, which in this book is a very different thing. And then it all ends, rather abruptly and ambiguously, but that just fits the whole tone of the book. Knowledge that is questionable, because it all comes from an extremely unreliable narrator, so in effect, we are left to make our own minds up what happened, both at the end, and throughout the women's lives.

As I said at the start, I really loved his book. But then I do like ambiguity. It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces are all there throughout the story, they just need putting together. I think there are many different ways they could be put together to make a whole though! I don't very often feel the need to re-read a book so soon after reading it, but I think this is one that could benefit from a re-read in the near future, to see if my thoughts are any different when armed with all the information.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Blackmoor by Edward Hogan

When I came to review this I tried to remember what was the main factor that made me want to read this book. I know I've read numerous good reviews, and I'm always drawn to books set in Derbyshire (born there and will always have an affection for the place), but I think I actually picked it up because it was just sat on the library shelves when I was there. Just before I actually talk about the book, I did have a touch of nostalgia with some of the language. Some of it is written phonetically, and I can so imagine the way it would be spoken, and it used the word 'nesh'. I don't know how widespread this word is but it's one that I use and nobody ever knows what I mean. That may just be the people I talk to though!

Blackmoor itself as a fictional mining village that we know from the start of the novel no longer exists. It was a victim of the 1980's mine closures and eventually destroyed as the mine caused safety problems for the village. The book itself is narrated from both the present time, after the destruction of Blackmoor, and from 1970's onwards throughout the history of Blackmoor. George Cartwright is the central character of both narratives, both in Blackmoor and in Church Eaton, where he moves after the demolition of Blackmoor. But it is not just Blackmoor that we know is destroyed from the start of the book. We also know that George's wife, Beth, dies from the start of the book, although she is very much alive throughout most of the narrative.

Beth is a slightly oddball character, with her own idiosyncrasies, that don't do very much to endear her to her neighbours. Apart from the obvious difference of being albino, she makes her own clothes, has strange cravings during pregnancy, and suffers from severe postnatal depression which leads to her being hospitalised for a while. She is ostracised within the neighbourhood, and her destruction is parallelled in the destruction of Blackmoor itself. I would almost say you could count Blackmoor as a character in itself, as all the other characters who reside within the village are so integral, and in a way seemed to make it whole.

However, aside from Blackmoor, I think by far the most important character in the story is Vincent, Beth and George's son, who appears both as a small child in Blackmoor, and a reserved teenager in the sections set in the present. He took a fall out of a window as a small child and is left with a unresponsive arm from this fall, although he is not aware this is the reason. But that is not the only scars he is left with from the destruction of Blackmoor and Beth. Due to his father's reticence to talk to him about his mother, he has no knowledge of what happened to his mother and I found it fascinating to see the effect this has on him, both his sullenness because he doesn't know, and his reactions when he eventually discovers the truth.

It is probably obvious from this that I thought the characters and their reactions were the most important part of this novel. The importance of community is an important aspect too, and how a community can destroy a person with ignorance. In fact, the events of this book destroy every body's lives. Secrets, lies and hidden truths feature heavily in this book, and no in a good way. I loved it though!

I'm back!!!!!!!!!!

That's it really! I've been away for a while due to computer issues, which happened to coincide with school holidays, so I wasn't even at work to access the internet there. It's typical that my home computer finally gets sorted just as I go back to work, but there we go! I'm writing this at work, but I've got a huge backlog of books to review (obviously still been reading)! They probably won't all make it on to here, I don't think I'd ever catch up otherwise! So that's it, and I'll be back with more book stuff soon!