Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt. Everyone knows who she is, and everyone knows her story. Or at least what we know of her story in the forms it has come down to us. My first experience of her life was through Shakespeare, presumably as was many others. Although I knew of her before, I was profoundly affected by Antony and Cleopatra, and although I’ve only read it and studied it once, the sadness and melancholy I took away from that play has never really left me. However, Shakespeare was writing fiction, for entertainment purposes, and although I was aware at the time of reading it he stuck relatively closely to his sources, I want to know about her life, who she was, the world she lived in, and what really happened during the thirty-nine years of her life.

This book goes some way to answering those questions; however it is also brutally honest in its assertion that we will never truly know and much of what we ‘know’ is only speculation and even guesswork. That didn’t make this book any less fascinating though. At its essence it could be said that this book was 300 pages of possibilities, yet instead of detracting from its brilliance, this only seemed to add to its appeal.

Reading history is something of a return to an old love for me, and the whole process of accumulating, analysing and assessing evidence is something I have simply got out of the habit of doing. Not so for Stacy Schiff though. In the very first chapter she states

“History is written not only by posterity, but for posterity as well. Our most comprehensive sources never met Cleopatra. Plutarch was born seventy-six years after she died. Appian wrote at a remove of more than a century; Dio of well over two. Cleopatra’s story differs from most women’s stories in that the men who shaped it-for their own reasons-enlarged rather than erased her role. Her relationship with Mark Antony was the longest of her life, but her relationship with his rival, Augustus, was the most enduring. To Rome, to enhance the glory, he delivered up the tabloid version of an Egyptian queen, insatiable, treacherous, bloodthirsty, power-crazed. He magnified Cleopatra to hyperbolic proportions so as to do the same with his victory-and to smuggle his real enemy, his former brother-in-law out of the picture. The end result is a nineteenth century British life of Napoleon, or a twentieth-century history of America, were it to have been written by Chairman Mao.”

In terms of historical analysis, this quotation contains the two themes that crop up constantly throughout the narrative. That of the unreliability of the major sources, due to both their distance from the events they are writing about, and their bias to Rome, and also Cleopatra’s gender and her posthumous manipulation because of it being a major stumbling block to knowing many true facts. Time and time again throughout this book, it is mentioned that the sources put a roman or male spin on things, or disagree vehemently on an event. It is an incredibly honest book, in that it frequently says we don’t know, or can never know because the evidence just doesn’t exist. In contrast though, the author is never afraid to give her own opinion on what she considers to be likely, unlikely or downright impossible. Overall, it made a refreshing balance of honesty, possibility and opinion.

The quotation also highlights one of my favourite aspects of this book. The last line is just one example of Schiff’s writing that made this book so readable and accessible. In this case it is about the story as a whole, but it is frequently used about specific events or people, using a comparison from much more modern times to illuminate a situation that is totally alien to modern readers due of the complete difference in attitudes to life. It’s a brilliant technique, and used to great effect to explain complex situations in few words.

Obviously, a life of Cleopatra is difficult to write without some background into the period she lived in, and Schiff doesn’t skimp on this either. Both Egypt and Rome are detailed fully, and particularly in the passages about Egypt, the luxury and opulence almost comes off the page, as well as the violence and brutality of the era. Mothers killing children, siblings killing each other, as well as marrying each other. It’s all there, but it all serves a purpose of placing this mythical queen in her proper context, and attempting to separate her from her fictional creation.

Context is a vital part of this book. I felt that although it became clear fairly early on in the book that I was not going to find a ‘true’ life of Cleopatra, I did get an incredibly detailed account of the world she lived in, and the persona she created for herself. It would be incredibly difficult to understand her actions fully without the in depth knowledge of the previously mentioned murder and incest, as well as her association with Isis, with which she persisted throughout her life. And this context was done so well!

So although it is still three hundred pages of possibilities, it is also three hundred pages of brilliance. Although, at the end of it, there are still no definite conclusions to how Cleopatra lived or died, it is informative all the way through. For me, it’s brilliance stems from its de-bunking of myths, its in depth analysis and comparison of various sources and its honesty and integrity, in admitting that there are some things we will just never know, whilst still not being afraid to offer an opinion. I think that is one of the reasons I loved this book so much. It managed to create a life for Cleopatra, which seemed believable, without ever losing sight of the fact that it is just a creation. What I loved about it is the same as what disappointed me, as I still don’t know exactly what sort of life she led, but I do know a lot more about the world she lived in. I do however know why I’ll never know, and somehow that’s enough!

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Newspaper of Claremont Street by Elizabeth Jolley

Despite its title this book is not about a newspaper at all. The title refers to the central character, Marguerite Morris, although in her current life she is only known as ‘Newspaper’. This is because she cleans a large number of the houses in Claremont Street and makes it her business to know everyone else’s business and pass the gossip along. She spends many an hour sat in the local shop, although she rarely buys anything, instead using her intimate knowledge of the shopper’s homes to inform them of what they need to purchase. To say she is a thrifty woman would be understating the point slightly, as she lives on bread and boiled vegetables, saves every penny she can and dreams about her savings amassing as a mountain of coins

“They had no idea that Weekly’s bank account, besides filling several bank books, filled her mind every morning. It was a daily vision, and took the form of an exquisite cone shaped mountain made entirely of money, with a silver scree of coins on its steep sides. Every morning she pictured this shining heap, gilded on the rosetinted sky of the dawn, before getting up”

I felt a strange sort of sympathy for Weekly. There are times she is manipulative and devious, getting as much a she can out of her employers, for example charging them bus fares, when she only really lives at the end of the street. Yet the majority of what she receives from the people she cleans for they give her out of a desire not to appear mean or stingy to their neighbours, not from any real affection for Weekly. I don’t know if I’d call this satire, but I did feel it was mildly poking fun at the ‘keeping up with the Jones’’ attitude that develops around Weekly. Through this attitude Weekly manages to secure a free car,

“of course, they had given the car to Weekly for how could they, the Kingston’s, though they always felt short of money, take her money away from her when they already had two other cars and two properties and a boat.”

And then, in the spirit of reputation

“The Chatham’s had paid for her driving lessons as it was unthinkable for them not to do something when it was known that the Kingston’s had given the car to Weekly. That week she was heaped with presents of all sorts”

All progresses along these lines, with Weekly continuing her work and thriftiness until one of the residents of the street asks for her help, and ends up being more than a match for Weekly in the manipulative stakes, which leaves Weekly’s busy yet ordinary life in disarray, and threatens to ruin her plans for a peaceful future.

The story of Weekly as a cleaner is interspersed with her memories of her past, specifically her relationships with her mother and brother, Victor. She has a relatively poor childhood, with little to call her own, and in this context it becomes easy to understand why she is so obsessed with saving her money to acquire the one thing she desires more than anything else for herself. The memories themselves are revealed in a very piecemeal fashion, particularly those connected to her brother, who she had a difficult relationship with, and was used by, but whom she loved very much. It is clear that she feels guilt at something she did to him, but what this actually is is not revealed until the conclusion of the story, and it is this tension that turns what seems like a very pedestrian story into something more interesting.

Although the story made me smile in places, and Weekly, despite her faults, was for the most part a likeable character, it also had some dark moments and on one or two occasions, Weekly showed an incredibly dark and cruel side of herself. Once with some cats, and again close to the end, in an incident involving rubber boots, mud and a pear tree. It was an incident that made me re-think the whole book, but somehow it didn’t change my opinion of Weekly, possibly because by that point her life has been revealed, so it is easy to see how and why she wants what she gets, and why she will go to almost any means to get it.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a quick read, yet it was never quite what it seemed. Events were always making me reconsider what I thought about Weekly, and each time I thought I’d got her figured out, she did something else, be it kind or not, to make me change my opinion.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins

Amnesia, memory, madness and history. They would be the key words I would use if I had to try and describe this novel in single words. Luckily, I don’t because short, simple words can never do this complicated story justice. More precisely, the book is concerned with the effect of memory, or its absence, on humanity, and how memories, both personal and historical can affect a person’s state of mind. That’s a few more words, but it still doesn’t do it justice.

Margaret Taub emerges from a forest, tired, dirty and wearing men’s clothes with no knowledge of how she got there, what she was doing to get into that state, and no recollection of the previous six months of her life. However, she returns to her life, studying in Berlin, and conducting walking tours for tourists, taking in some of the key points of Berlin’s history. When, out of the blue, she receives a letter from an unknown Dr Araschebilis inviting a Margaret Taubner to an appointment, she decides to attend, if only to let this doctor know she must have the wrong person, but also to try and shed some light on her amnesia. It takes the whole of the novel for the shocking revelation to what Margaret was actually doing in the forest to emerge, and we witness the gradual degeneration of Margaret as she remembers and comes to terms with her own past, via an obsession with some specific historical characters from Berlins murky Nazi past.

Margaret has an in depth knowledge of Berlin’s history due to her studies at the university, which she puts to good use on her tours of Berlin. However, when the morning after her first appointment with the doctor, she wakes up to find all the buildings have turned to flesh, it is our first realisation that something is not quite right with Margaret. She becomes obsessed with Magda Goebbels, who infamously killed her six children in the bunker at the end of the war, and also with the history of Regina Strauss, a Jewish mother who killed herself and her three children in their kitchen to escape the camps. Her obsession centres on whether these killings were justified, or even ethically correct, and she is haunted by the ghost of Regina, and a representation of Magda as a half woman, half bird creature.

Margaret is a fairly disturbed character, but it is through her eyes we see Berlin, juxtaposed with memories of hr past coming back to her. Through Margaret’s disintegrating present, we see the history of the city, or at least the version she creates. As Margaret continues her tours, she glosses over certain facts, because she believes no tourist would know what to do with the information that Jewish prisoners availed themselves of the brothel services provided by female Jewish prisoners, who were then killed at the first sign of disease. She may be right there and I think this was one of he key points of the novel for me. Margaret is trying to reconstruct her past, just as the tourists on her walks are trying to recreate the Berlin of Nazi Germany. But this is never possible, as looking back filters history through your own particular lens, just as the tourists do, and just as Margaret does with her obsession with the characters of the time. The doctor who becomes Margaret’s guide through her delirium says

“You, my pet, are having an identity crisis that has become moral despair. It is impossible for the human animal to remember his or her own life without cleaving a line, a line of some kind, however capriciously zigzag lay, narcissistic, arrogant or, on the other hand, self-blaming and unforgiving, between right and wrong, credit and blame.”

As much as I enjoyed this book, I would have to say that I think a lot of the meaning went over my head. I’m sure it would benefit from a second read. That said, I don’t feel this detracted from what I did get from this book. The images created, whether they be of buildings turned to flesh, families committing suicide or playing cards with ghosts at the kitchen table were intense and beautifully portrayed. Margaret herself continues her tours of Berlin throughout most of the book, and the information given in the tours was illuminating both as information about Nazi run Germany and in light of Margaret’s situation. And as bizarre and odd as the book was at times, as the novel progresses, and the information about what actually happened to Margaret, or more precisely, what she brought on herself, becomes clear, it is heartbreakingly easy to see why she chose to forget those six months, and why her mental state deteriorated as she was forced to remember them.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Booking Through Thursday-Age Innapropriate (or censorship)

What do you think of censoring books BECAUSE of their intended age? Say, books too “old” for your kids to read?

Generally, I don't believe in censoring books. Offhand I can't think of a book that either of my children would want to read that I wouldn't let them if they chose to. I have on occasion suggested to my daughter (she's eight) that a book she is interested in may be too complicated for her to enjoy, but that is much more about the text itself instead of the subject matter. If she still wanted to read it, I would let her, but just make her aware that it may be too hard for her and not to let it put her off reading, just to try something else.

Censorship in terms of content is much more dangerous ground. My core belief about reading is that books are a way of learning about the world, other people, ourselves and the relationships between these things, and I don't see how censoring books for children can fit with that idea. Thinking about my son, who at a bright thirteen, is more likely to be reading adult books, I would prefer him to read things with my knowledge, and for him to know that any issues he doesn't understand, or that make him uncomfortable he can talk to me about. That's got to be better than him possibly reading something surreptitiously, and either misunderstanding the content, or just feeling unable to talk abut it because he's not supposed to have read it.

I do also believe that banning, or even restricting books is counter-productive. As a case in point, my son recently tried to take a young adult book out of the library (Iboy by Kevin Brooks) and was told he couldn't as he would have to be sixteen. It was a young adult book, and one by an author he's read before. However, it made him all the more keen to read the book. It's a natural reaction to want to know what you're missing out on! He read the book in the end, (I took it out on my ticket) and we discussed the controversial scene. In this instance it was a book that appealed to him anyway, it's central character being a boy who has an IPhone dropped on his head and wakes up to discover he has technological powers transferred from the phone! It's his dream, his Ipod touch never being more than an arms reach away from him! But in other circumstances, I feel he could be pushed to read a book he wasn't overly interested in, just because he's told he can't. And I don't see how that can ever be a good thing.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Artemis Fowl and the Atantis Complex by Eoin Colfer

I do like Artemis Fowl. Actually, he’s not my favourite character in the series, that’s an honour reserved for Mulch Diggums, who is always called upon to use his rather unique talents to save the day, but as far as children’s/young adult literature goes, Artemis Fowl is up there with the best of them. I don’t read a lot of children’s books though, so I don’t have a lot to compare it to. This one is the seventh in the series, and the fact that I‘ve got that far is testament to how much I like them, because I don’t read much in the way of series either.

To anyone familiar with Artemis, this one is a little different. For a start, Artemis has summoned a meeting with his fairy contacts on a totally altruistic basis, to showcase his new idea to save the polar icecaps, which incidentally they are just as concerned about saving to protect their underground world. This in itself arouses suspicion in Captain Holly Short, who although she classes Artemis as her friend, is aware he rarely does something for nothing. Added to that is Artemis’s peculiar obsession with the number five, there needing to be five people at the meeting, and trying to construct sentences in multiples of five words whenever possible. And avoiding the number four, as that means death in Chinese! Compared to a usually uber- rational and never superstitious Artemis, it is not long before Holly spots the difference, and is sending concerned messages to Foaly, the genius, technical wizard of the party. Wirelessly, through communications devices far superior to human capability, obviously.

The end result is that between them they diagnose Atlantis Complex, more commonly known in human circles as multiple personality disorder. But this is best described by the Fairy encyclopaedia, Wicca-Pedia (this bit made me smile)

“Atlantis Complex is a psychosis common amongst guilt-ridden criminals first diagnosed by Dr E.Dypess of the Atlantis Brainology Clinic. Other symptoms include obsessive behaviour, paranoia, delusions and in extreme cases, multiple personality disorder. Dr E.Dypess is also known for his hit song ‘I’m in two minds about you’.
Holly thought that this last bit was probably Wicca-humour”

As usual, things do not go entirely to plan, and it is not long before a fairy spaceship of unknown origin comes crashing down on the group, nearly killing Artemis, and leading the group to sort out the mess, and save the fairy people once again. However, this time they must do it without Artemis, as the disaster has pushed him over the edge and left him as Orion, who is the total antithesis of Artemis and of virtually no use at all. For example his response to the crisis is:

“I have been taking stock of the situation from the rear seat as it were, and I suggest that we retire to a safe distance and construct some form of bivouac”

Although different in style slightly, this has all the trademarks of the previous books. And to be honest I’m surprised to see myself writing that, and saying I like the book. All the characters are there, they all play a part in saving the day, because obviously everything works out okay in the end, and the group save the day at the last moment. Even Orion/Artemis plays his part, complete with hilarious comments throughout. In fact Orion as Artemis sheds a little more light on the self awareness begun in Artemis in the last book, and since this one doesn’t really conclude the story of the icecaps, since the crash landing became of crucial importance, I wouldn’t mind betting that that’s where the next, and final book will go. But I’m probably wrong there!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

For what is quite a short book, To Bed with Grand Music packs one hell of a punch. The tone of the book is set from the striking first sentence;

“Graham and Deborah Robertson lay in bed together and tried to say goodbye to each other”

Set during WWII, Graham is being posted to Cairo, all be it to a fairly cushy office job, and Deborah is being left behind in the country to look after their child and home. On this last evening together, Deborah promises complete fidelity, yet Graham will not be drawn into such a commitment, and will only go so far as to say that he will not fall in love with another woman, therefore ensuring his emotional fidelity to Deborah. Deborah however is not really the maternal type, and the limited opportunities of life in a village with her child soon begin to take their toll on her. With a gentle nudge from her mother, she decides that a job would be the right thing for her, and taking the bull by the horns, she finds one in London, moves in with an old college friend and leaves her son in the care of her housekeeper for the week, returning only at weekends to spend time with Timmy.

On her first exploratory visit to London, Deborah immediately compromised the vow of fidelity she made to Graham, leaving the next morning disgusted with herself and determined to stay at home and be a good wife and mother and wait for Graham to return. However, when a job almost lands in her lap, it doesn’t take long for Deborah to justify returning to London, even managing to use Timmy’s well being as justification for the necessity for her to go.

“Then, she said, there’s the question of Timmy. I rather think ones got to take the long view. Of course it would be nicer for him, and for me too, to stay together, but one’s got to consider what’s best for him, not what’s nicest. It’s no good bringing him up to a comfortable dependent security that certainly doesn’t exist nowadays and isn’t likely to in the world he’ll grow up in. Surely, however much it may hurt me, I owe it to my child to make him strong enough to face all knocks of life rather than to protect him against them?”

Justifying her actions, usually only moments after she has stated how wrong they are, is something Deborah makes a bit of a habit of throughout her time in London. At first, she does make an effort to stay away from all forms of socialising, rebutting all attempts by her socialite flatmate to include her in her partying, but it is not long before she is involved in a relationship with an American officer, who is also married, but has promised his wife he will only philander with someone he respects as much as her. From this point Deborah moves from man to man, soon getting to a point where she is never without a lover, even asking one of her beaus to teach her how to be a good mistress, with which he duly obliges.

Deborah is the sole focus of this book character wise, as Graham departs in the first few pages, and is just the absent husband all the way through the novel. And it left me in a bit of a quandary about my reaction to her. I honestly have to say I didn’t like Deborah very much. All the justification and the seemingly materialistic concerns which led to her descent into promiscuity did not compel her to me very much at all. Obviously, this book is set in a different time, when it was very much the norm that women married and stayed faithful, yet men seemed to have to promise no such thing. It was not expected of them. I do feel I can understand Deborah’s frustrations with the restrictions on her life, particularly since they are restrictions that Graham, from his letters, does not seem to be suffering. For more than half of the book, I did feel like I could sympathise with her plight, although not empathise, yet there came a point where within a couple of pages she composes a letter to her husband requesting he increase her allowance to fund her lifestyle (although obviously she does not tell him this), and then makes a passing comment that really changed my opinion of her.

“Well, darling, thts just one of the things I’ve really thought out for myself and I know it’s better to be happy than unhappy, and not only for me but for my baby as well. I like this sort of life, in fact, I love it, and seeing as how I’m hurting no-one and doing myself quite a lot of good, I rather think I’ll carry on with it. I’ve come to the conclusion that conventional morals were invented by a lot of unattractive bitches to make themselves feel good.”

However, although at this point I lost sympathy for Deborah, and to be honest, she doesn’t do much to redeem herself in my estimation, particularly with her actions at the very end of the book, I did finish the novel wondering about what it meant to be a woman left behind during the war. This story paints a very different picture to the common wartime images of women at home, digging for victory and such, that it is impossible not to finish it thinking about possible alternative lifestyles women may have led. If the truth behind this book is to be believed, then there was a whole subculture (I’m aware that word would not have been used then, but it just seems to fit), of women taking up independent lives for themselves, and part of me wants to say ‘who can blame them’. Especially with the double standards between the expectations of men and women. It does make me think that my reaction to Deborah should not be as cut and dry as it is, but I just can’t get over her constant justification of her lifestyle and more than that, her virtual abandonment of her child to further her own desires.

Despite my dislike of the main character, I did love this book. All credit to the author for creating such a dislikeable character, but a book that I love! I haven’t really been compiling a favourites list for this year, either physically or mentally, but if I had, this would be on it. It was very thought provoking, and above all left me grateful for being born in a time where I can, within reason, do as I choose, and not ever really be put in a position where I would have to make the kind of decisions Deborah had to make, however much I disliked the reasoning behind her making those choices.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

I was prompted to read No Country for Old Men after reading this post about another McCarthy novel here, and realising that since loving The Road, I hadn’t read any more despite having two on the shelf. And I loved this one almost as much as The Road, so heres hoping it’s not too long until I read another.

Vietnam War veteran Llewellyn Moss stumbles across a failed drug convoy comprising numerous shot up vehicles, even more dead bodies, the drugs, and a case containing two million dollars. Almost instantaneously deciding to take the money, he returns home, packs his young wife off to her mother’s, and makes a run for it with the cash. Hot on his heels is a professional hit man with his own moral code, unusual execution methods, and a penchant for deciding I someone lives or dies by a coin toss. Also chasing him is Sherriff Bell, who knows exactly what Chigurh is capable of, and that he will stop at nothing to get his man. Through alternating storylines we see the actions and whereabouts of Moss, Chigurh and Bell. As Chigurh gets closer to Moss he is prepared to annihilate everyone that lies in his way, which is in effect everyone he comes into contact with, so the book is littered with dead bodies.

Although I can’t shake the feeling that Moss brought a lot of what follows on himself, he is a likeable character, and I was rooting for him all the way. It’s a side issue, and doesn’t detract from how I felt about this book, but really, why take the money? He obviously knew what he was getting into, to send his wife away, and go on the run. And Sherriff Bell is an officer about to retire who just wants to see out his last days in office peacefully and retire to spend time with his wife. In terms of personal feelings and past history we know more about Bell than any other character, mainly because each chapter is preceded by his musings, mainly on the state of the nation today, and how corruption and violence is widespread, and it is easy to see his despair both for the job he loved, and the nation he calls home.

“I read the papers every mornin. Mostly I suppose just to try and figure out what might be headed this way. Not that I’ve done all that good a job at headin it off. It just keeps getting harder. Here a while back they was two boys run into one another and one of em was from California and one from Florida. And they met somewheres or other in between. And then they set out together travelin around the country killing people. I forget how many they did kill. Now what are the chances of s thing like that? Them two had never laid eyes on one another. There can’t be that many of em. I don’t think. Well, we don’t know. Here the other day they was a woman put her baby in a trash compactor. Who would think of such a thing?”

Sherriff Bell’s narrative gives a framework to the whole chase story, and adds another level to what would already be a very good story anyway. His monologues give a sense of the destruction that crime in general, and specifically drug crime is having on the country, and particularly on Bell’s sense of hs ability to do his job. Throughout the book, it emerges that both Bell and Moss are affected by a pervading sense of guilt for their actions in Vietnam, which they both feel a sense of shame for, and although I felt this was an undercurrent, rather than a main plotline, it does bind the two men together, against the incredibly chilling Chigurh.

Chigurh is something else altogether, and it would be easy to characterise him as pure evil, killing anyone in sight, almost for the fun of it. In my opinion, he is, in fact pure evil, but he does live by a moral code, all be it a very strange one, one of his own devising. I think that makes him all the more frightening. Chigurh very simply believes in a form of destiny. If it is your time to die, then there is nothing you can do to stop it, and pleading with him is pointless, he is just the bringer of the inevitable. Someone with this belief would be a very scary person to meet, and deadly to cross. His worldview, and his ability to carry this out, is really all we know about Chigurh. This lack of any knowledge about his past, or his motivations for thinking like this just serves to make him more frightening. And some of his speech is truly chilling.

“I had no say in the matter. Every moment in your life is a turning and everyone a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.”

This passage doesn’t come until close to the end of the book, but viewed as a microcosm of the whole novel, it can be seen that actions at the start are inevitable, and even with the faint glimmer of hope that permeated my reading experience, it should have been obvious from the start how this would all pan out.

I think part of the intensity of this novel comes from the sparseness of the language. McCarthy is very economical with his language, and there are no superfluous words in this story. In fact, most of the progression is achieved through dialogue between characters, without punctuation, so the whole thing flows very quickly, as a normal conversation would. This seems to add to the tense atmosphere and the pace and chaos of the characters interactions becomes real. With no punctuation, it is hard not to read quickly, adding a sense of breathlessness and urgency to the action happening on the pages. In contrast, although Chigurh, who is the calmest character in the book, still has no punctuation in his speech, he tends to have longer passages, and he never seems to use slang, so his clarity of mind comes across as our reading naturally slows down. It’s a brilliant way of actually using the words on the page to enhance the story.

I‘m not sure I could say I enjoyed this book, as I don’t think it was altogether a pleasant reading experience. It was harrowing in places, tense in places, depressing in places and thought provoking most of the way through. I was gripped, and read it quickly, and totally absorbed in the cat and mouse chase between the three main protagonists. Yet, when that abruptly stopped, and the book turned into something else, I was just as gripped. This book paints a pretty damning picture of drug running underworld, but more than that, it presents a clear and simple picture of how one ill thought out act can change a life irrevocably, and that of many other people.

Fantastic book, fantastic author and I definitely need to read more. I think I may need to read this again too.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon is one of the saddest books I’ve read in a long time. It’s also one of the very few that has actually made me cry. It’s not often that happens! The central character is Charlie, a thirty-nine year old mentally disabled man, with an IQ of 68. He works as a janitor in a bakery, and attends adult learning evening classes in an attempt to improve his basic literacy and numeracy. Nearby, at the local university, research is underway on a procedure to develop and accelerate intelligence. After seemingly successful results on mice, specifically a particular mouse, Algernon, the search begins for a human volunteer, which is where Charlie fits in. Through Alice Kinnear, his teacher at the adult education classes, Charlie is recommended as a suitable candidate and the process of mental assessment begins.

The whole story is told in the form of progress reports written by Charlie himself, and the narrative starts once Charlie has been chosen, and is in the final stages of preparation for the operation. Charlie is a brilliantly portrayed and extremely likeable character. At least initially, the operation is successful and Charlie sees his intelligence increase drastically, and his narration reflects that change. Obviously, when Charlie first begins to write his reports he is writing with his low intelligence, hence the spelling, grammar and syntax are all wrong, and actually quite difficult to read and understand in his ‘Progris Riports’, yet after his operation, as his intelligence accelerates rapidly he becomes more literate, and this development is portrayed very well throughout his writings. Looking back on the book as a whole, it is easy to track Charlie’s development, and even to spot where he is on the IQ scale, almost by picking a page at random in the book.

It is not all good news for Charlie though. Yes, his intelligence increases (finally reaching 190), but some of the realisations this brings about in him are not pleasant for him to deal with. When he worked at the bakery, he believed he had friends, didn’t realise that people were laughing at him, not with him.

“Their all my good frends and we have lots of jokes and laffs here. Some times somebody will say hey lookit Frank or Joe or even Gimpy. He really pulled a Charlie Gordon that time. I dont know why they say it but they always laff and I laff too. This morning Gimpy hes the head baker and he has a bad foot and he limps and he used my name when he shouted at Ernie because Ernie losst a birthday cake. He said Ernie for godsake you trying to be a Charlie Gordon. I don’t know why he said that. I never lost any packiges.”

And a few pages later

“I think it’s a good thing finding out how everyone laughs at me. I thought about it a lot. It’s because I’m so dumb and I don’t even know when I’m doing something dumb. People think its funny when a dumb person can’t do things the same way they can.”

I think that that encapsulates what this novel is about perfectly. It is looking with a very critical eye at the treatment and attitude towards mentally disabled people in society, and this is seen with the utmost clarity as seen through the eyes of someone who has been on both sides of the fence. Although when Charlie has the low IQ, he understands little of what it means, throughout the novel his increasing intelligence leads to dreams and memories of repressed incidents from his past, both with his peers and his parents, and the sadness it causes him to feel is heartbreaking. The realisation that the people he believed to be his friends are just making fun of him is compounded by the understanding that all his life he has been laughed at, hidden away and generally thought worthless. When this all becomes clear to him, he says what I would consider to be the crux of this entire story

“I’m a human being, a person-with parents and memories and a history-and I was before you ever wheeled me in to that operating room”

The book is raising some very serious questions about how we categorise and react to mentally disabled people, and the way we view their place in the world. Although written in 1966 (slightly earlier for the original short story I think) and some of the terminology used reflects this, it’s still an important concern today, and although we’re getting better, we are nowhere near where we should be. At least, not in my experience working in special needs education.

I think the other central theme of this book can again be summed up succinctly with a quotation from quite near the start of the book. At one point, his doctor says

“Your intellectual growth is going to outstrip your emotional growth”

This is a problem that hounds Charlie throughout the book. Relating to people on a personal level is virtually impossible for him, and it is more difficult, the more emotionally attached he feels to the person. It is a problem at he never really comes to terms with, and is never really resolved within the story. What is obvious, however, is that his inability to relate to people on their own level becomes a major stumbling block for him, and seriously hinders his attempts to find happiness. Charlie always believed he could be happy if only he could be smart, but in reality this is not the case, and I finished the book wondering whether Charlie would have been happier, if he had been left alone, if he hadn’t felt the pressure of society to be smart as the only way of being worth something.

I loved this book, just as I loved Charlie. Charlie is so central to the story, and is really the only character with any depth that the two are synonymous anyway. He wasn’t always likeable, in fact there were points where I felt he became quite obnoxious, but that was always balanced with the knowledge that none of this was his fault, and he was struggling with his emotions, his past, and the uncertainty about his future.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Up the Junction by Nell Dunn

This was an odd little book, recommended to me by my mum, during a rare moment discussing her youth. It was a library copy, as she doesn’t own the book any more, although she apparently vividly remembers reading it! She doesn’t remember how old she was when she read it, but I doubt very much it was on publication, as she’d have been thirteen in 1963.

Not really a novel, more a series of short sketches in the lives of three young women living in South London during the sixties; it was most interesting to me as an insight into how different women’s lives were in the early sixties to now. From reading this book, it seems women were just beginning to get some freedom, although this is a long way from any major feminist movement. They go out weekend evenings, yet they seem to have to fit into the already established male social scene, drinking brown ale, and waiting to be asked to parties and gatherings by various, sometimes random men. In fact, finding men, attracting men and sleeping with men seems to be a major focus of these women’s lives.

“We stand, the three of us, me, Sylvie and Rube, pressed up against the soon door, brown ales clutched in our hands. Rube, neck stiff so as not to shake her beehive, stares sultrily around the packed pub. Sylvie eyes the boy hunched over the mike and shifts her gaze down to her breasts snug in her new pink jumper. ‘Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!’ he screams. Three blokes beckon us over to their table.”

Their personal lives can sometimes go very awry though, and details are not spared in this book. There is a horribly descriptive story of a back street abortion, and its dramatic conclusion. The language was plain and straightforward but, it was the imagery it brought about that was so powerful.

“Finally the ambulance arrived. They took Rube away, but they left behind the baby, which had now grown cold. Later Sylvie took him, wrapped in the Daily Mirror, and threw him down the toilet.”

However, as well as the personal lives of these young women, we see their day to day lives in many of the vignettes. They live their lives for the weekend, working hard at the sweet factory, but these tales include moments of life that are completely alien to me, writing in the 21st century. There are two stories involving someone called a Tally-man, which was a totally new concept to me. Goods sold door to door, at exorbitant prices and then paid for weekly. And now I’ve written that, it occurs to me that it sounds similar to catalogue shopping so perhaps not such a strange concept after all. But as described in this book, definitely a much more malicious and conniving system, described in detail, as a particularly unpleasant man details how he keeps his customers constantly in debt, and makes them believe they have a good deal. In fact, money, or more specifically a lack of it, permeate all the stories, with people only really earning enough to get by, and discovering ingenious ways to make it stretch, or have what they can’t really afford. The start of the credit nation perhaps?

“’Shall we go up the Pay-as-You-Wear and choose a couple of frocks?’
‘I thought you were skint?’
‘Pay as you wear, berk! You only have to put down bout fifteen bob deposit.’
‘And then you pay the rest off weekly’”

There are numerous events in this book that are just the women going about their daily lives and witnessing things happen, speaking to people about things that have happened, or just discussing events between themselves. Combine that with the fact that it is mainly dialogue, and colloquial dialogue at that, it was easy to feel the characters emotions and feeling about what was happening, and their emotional commitment to each other shone through their own language. .

I said at the start this was an odd book, and I spent a lot of time trying to pin down what I thought was odd about it. I finally came to the conclusion that it is the lack of any character definition. The three girls, Lily, Sylvie and Rube are indistinguishable from each other a lot of the time and it is often difficult to tell which is speaking, but somehow this doesn’t seem to be a problem. I think that is where the oddness came from. The characters are so indistinct, yet I still enjoyed the book, and I wanted to keep reading. It seems to have a universality (for the time), and it is precisely this blurring of the characters which gives the book its character. These women could be any working class women, their experiences will all be very similar, or they would at least have known other women who had been through similar experiences. At least, that it is the impression I came out of reading this book with.

I did enjoy this book. It was interesting to read, the lives of these women were so different and the options open to them so much more limited, yet it wasn’t that long ago. Obviously reading this now I can old this view, but what was running through my mind most when I read it was how it would have seemed to women reading this soon after publication. Would it have been scandalous, or exaggerated, or just plainly and simply describing their lives. I’d love to know.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Lying in Bed by Polly Samson

Lying in Bed is a collection of slightly odd, but moving short stories. Some of them made me laugh, some made me smile, and some almost made me cry. Concerned mainly with human emotions, the stories really do seem to get to the heart of an issue, and as all good short stories do, finish with a twist, that sometimes elicited a gasp from me. Most of them definitely had a twist, sometimes even worthy of Roald Dahl. I loved nearly all of these stories, and there are some that will stay with me for a long time.

The first story, Wasted Time, managed to induce giggles, smiles and sadness in me, all in the space of fourteen pages. It was my favourite story in the collection. It starts with a young girl asking her mother why she doesn’t have any brothers and sisters, and given an explanation, this is her considered response;

“Now this was all very well, thought the girl, but if they made love as often as her mother claimed, then why did she not have brothers and sisters. It was all highly suspicious, just like that ‘twinkle in your father’s eye’ stuff before.”

That little bit made me smile, but this story soon takes a much more ominous tone, as the true mental state of the mother is revealed, leading to the realisation of how lonely this child is, and the lengths she goes to to find ’friends’, and force her parents to provide siblings. It is in fact quite a horrific story, and it is impossible not to feel for the child as the realities of her life are revealed.

Inner feelings and emotions are a central theme of the stories in his collection. In fact the events themselves are always quite ordinary (except in that first story), but the author manages to shift all of the focus to the characters feelings, thoughts and emotions. The true extent of what is going on is never revealed at the start. At first the stories are just describing a scene, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, but always with a deep emotional impact for at least one of the characters by the conclusion of the story. It also seems to be distressed women in the majority of the stories. We watch a woman who doesn’t know who the father of her baby is inform her current partner of her pregnancy, then see her move from a state of fear to total love for her daughter. In another story we see that same woman’s friend dealing with the lack of children in her life, mainly because her husband doesn’t feel the need to bring children into the world.

This particular story really emphasises the theme running through many of the stories of the difference between outward impressions of relationships, and the inner reality. To all concerned, the couple have an ideal relationship, they really seem to enjoy spending time together and have a comfortable lifestyle including a nice home and lots of holidays. On one such holiday, their friend says to Clara

“You and Robert are the only couple I know who are actually quite nice to each other”

But personally Clara is feeling there is something missing from her life, and there always will be.

“It was the pain in her head more than menstrual cramps….the relief each month of her teenage years (thank you God!), that in Clara’s case extended into the first ten years of married life, were now replaced by a vacuous sorrow. A nebulous grief for someone who didn’t exist. A few more years and this monthly reminder would cease. She felt like she was becoming extinct”

It was this gradual peeling back of the layers in each story to reveal the truth of what was going on that I found so fascinating in these stories. That combines with the fact that all the characters were so ordinary, and so well drawn that they were easily identifiable with. They could live up the road, or round the corner from you. They were brilliant, shocking and emotionally raw. And definitely worth reading.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Rupture by Simon Lelic

Rupture is such an apt title for this book. It’s about the huge rupture caused when a supposedly mild mannered history teacher walks into his school assembly armed with a gun and shoots three pupils, a colleague and then himself. This isn’t giving anything away as this is all revealed within the first chapter; the rest of the book is concerned with the reasons why Samuel Szajkowski did this, what drove him to such a radical act.

In the sense that there is a lead detective assigned to the case, this would appear to be a straightforward police procedural type story. But since there is no mystery as to who committed the crime, there is no apparent case to solve. The whole school witnessed the shooting, and it is apparent fairly early on that Louisa May, the investigator, is expected to wrap up the case fairly swiftly, leaving the press and public to declare what a horrific tragedy it was, and vilify the perpetrator of the crime. I don’t think it gives too much away to say that she doesn’t see it that way, and risks her career to pursue the idea that there may be other factors to consider when apportioning blame for the crime, and unearths a lot of other issues in the process. The book itself doesn’t actually present a definite answer, although I think there was a slight bias towards one side of the argument than the other, but does raise a number of issues worthy of thought. However, the brilliance of this book is in the telling, specifically in the way the events preceding the tragedy are revealed.

Some of the chapters are straight linear narratives of what Louisa is doing, thinking and the way the ideas are developing in her mind. But her thought processes are guided by the interviews she conducted with key witnesses in the school, and these transcripts are provided in full which makes for a very interesting reading experience. As readers, we almost come to the same conclusions as Louisa, at the same time, making this a very interactive read. It is also interesting to see the different character’s attitudes to the incident, and in what appear to be quite in-depth investigations, see their reactions to the slightly odd-ball, and mild mannered history teacher from the moment he joined the school. For example, it is clear from her discussion with the school headmaster that he is not an altogether pleasant man;

“He asks for a glass of water. I have not offered but he asks for one anyway. I have Janet bring one in and he thanks her, rather obsequiously. He takes a swig and then seems unsure of what to do with the glass He makes a motion towards my desk but then changes his mind. In the end he just clutches it in his lap. I can tell he regrets asking for it but I do not offer to take it from him. I do not see why I should have to.”

In fact, although this is only a short book, with a reasonably large array of characters, the author does a fantastic job of giving them all their own personalities and traits even though we only hear from each of them once, with casual references to them in other peoples conversations. Curiously, Samuel is the most discussed person in the book, yet he seems to be the person we know least about.

With the main theme of the book being whether anyone else can be culpable when such a horrific tragedy occurs, it is amazing how many other issues the author manages to pack into just over three hundred pages. Through the development of the story, it is clear that bullying is a major issue, both staff bullying staff, pupils bullying pupils, and even pupils bullying staff. And Louisa herself appears to be the victim of workplace bullying by her colleagues (mainly male). How much bullying should be tolerated in a community environment, and exactly when somebody should step in is an issue prominent throughout the book. I think at the end of the book, we do have a little more insight into why Samuel did what he did, although I still find it difficult to understand. I did appreciate the way this book gives a whole background to such a tragic event, and queries the natural reaction to just vilify the perpetrator, whilst all the time questioning the institutions that assist in this, both as organisations and the individual people concerned. There some very unpleasant authority figures in this book, and their actions are very hard to justify.

I think it’s fairly obvious by now that I really enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the structure more than anything else, and I think it is a really interesting way to tell a story. At times events or incidents were mentioned which as readers we had no knowledge about, and although they were explained fairly soon, the slight tension created whilst waiting for an explanation was what kept me reading. I think a quote that comes very early in the book sums it up quite nicely;

“History is what it is. It can’t predict the future, but it can hep us understand who we are, where we’re from. History is all about context, he says, and without context, all meaning is lost.”

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The City and The City by China Mieville

The City and The City has to the one of the more bizarre books I’ve ever read! The basic plot line follows the conventions of a detective/police procedural novel fairly tightly, starting with a murder, introducing the police to be responsible for solving the crime, and a bit of basic scene setting. However, it is the setting that made this book so special, and for me it was the most interesting aspect of the book, so mainly what I will focus on.

The two cities of the title are Beszel and Ul Quoma, two cities transposed onto each other so in someway they exist in the same physical space, whilst still being different places! How that is supposed to work I’ll never know, but I’ve spent many an hour trying to figure that one out. The two cities have very distinct and rigidly controlled boundaries, yet conversely, much of the shared territory is passable just by a step from one city to another, and in many parts the residents of the two cities can see each other, or should be able to, except that they practice something called ‘unseeing’.

With a hard start I realised she was not on Gunterstrasz at all, and I should not have seen her.Immediately and flustered, I looked away, and she did the same, with the same speed. When after some seconds I looked back up, unoticing the old woman stepping heavily away, I looked carefully instead of at her in her foreign street a the facades of the nearby and local Gunterstrasz, that depressesd zone.

‘Unseeing’ is when they purposely don’t notice anyone or anything which is in the other city, a skill taught from birth and which any transgression from will incur the wrath of the body know as Breach, feared by residents of both cities. This strict control causes problems for inspector Borlu, when it transpires that his murder victim is probably an Ul Quoma resident whose body has been dumped in Beszel.

What follows is a solution to the original murder, whilst exploring the difficulties and complexities of living in such odd cities. The explanations don’t come in a linear format though. Key concepts related to the geographical placement of the cities are mentioned before they are explained, making them seem a normal part of the world, as they are fed to us gradually. This is the main reason this book works so well. At no point did I disbelieve any of it. The terminology is drip fed enough to make it seem normal, the rest of the world is normal, as we know it and crucially, the rest of the world accepts Beszel and Ul Qoma as twin cities and even have their own foreign polices regarding them, and comply with the strict entry procedures.

I think what I found most interesting about this book were the concepts of ‘unseeing’ and the idea of ‘Breach’. Particularly the way these ideas, although metaphysical in this story, could be viewed as a way of commenting on our own lives. In the context of this story, unseeing is a conscious action undertaken by all city residents. I found myself comparing this necessary process in he book with the way that in our societies we are capable of looking but not really seeing, ignoring aspects of the world around us if it makes our lives easier, and possibly even comparisons with the way the media reports stories. In effect, the bias of a particular report is subtle way of telling us what to see, and what to ignore, or at least discouraging us from seeing things a certain way.

Breach actually refers to two things in the novel. To breach is to illegally cross, or see across boundaries, but Breach is also the mysterious power that polices these breaches when they do happen. Another difficult concept to comprehend. Breach exists, but they don’t exist in either city, they exist outside of the cities, in unseen, unknown places. Nobody really seems to know what Breach’s power is, but everybody is afraid of it. When it becomes clear that is only this fear that enforces the boundaries, it is relative easy to see the parallels to our own lives. Many boundaries we live by are self imposed. We observe them because we are supposed to, usually in the belief that something will collapse if we don’t. This may be true, but it is a power open to abuse, particularly when an element of fear is added to the mix, as with dictatorships and totalitarian regimes.

I found so much to think about and enjoy in this book. I was gripped  it from the beginning, I adored the descriptions of the two cities, they really did seem to come alive, and I could almost imagine visiting them (although I'm not sure I could deal with the 'unseeing'). The paralells to our society were interesting to spot, and made it a good story, and a thought provoking read.

Favourite Quotes

I policed a music festival once, early in my career, in a crosshatched park, where the attendees got high in such numbers that there was much public fornication. My partner at the time and I had not been able to forbear amusement at the Ul Qoman passersby we tried not to see in their own iteration of the park, stepping daintily over fucking couples they assiduously unsaw.
I po

Monday, 17 January 2011

The Children of Dynmouth by Wiliam Trevor

The blurb of The Children of Dynmouth uses the word ‘sinister’, and the phrase ‘evil lurking in the most unlikely places’. It had won me over with that alone, but the main reason for reading is that I was interested in the Penguin Decades series, and this was published the year I was born, so seemed as good a place as any to start.

Evil and sinister are definitely very appropriate words to describe both the feel of this book, and the central character, fifteen year old Timothy Gedge. Timothy lives in Dynmouth, a nondescript seaside town, and spends his time visiting the residents of the town, and just generally wandering around making sure he knows everybody’s business. He is a pretty odd character, he appears to have no friends of his own age, and enjoys attending funerals, whether he knew the deceased person or not. It is through Timothy’s eyes that we view the foibles, idiosyncrasies and secrets of the people of Dynmouth, and as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that he is prepared to use his ill-gotten information to further his own needs, wants and desires.

Timothy appears to be an unloved child, his mother seems to have no time for him, yet all the time in the world for his elder sister, and his oddness leaves him with very few friends at school. The only time he ever felt good at anything was when he dressed up as Elizabeth the 1st for a lesson, and realised he had a talent for mimicry and humour. Thus when the annual spot the talent competition comes around, he decides to enter with a decidedly dubious act involving a bath, a wedding dress and three historical murders. And then sets about procuring all the props he needs from the residents of Dynmouth, using his knowledge of their hidden truths to blackmail them in to giving them what he needs. Sometimes he is speaking the truth, other times he is only partially truthful, and he has used his imagination to conjure up the rest, but on all occasions he causes devastation in his wake, tearing apart families and friendships, and exposing the papered over cracks in peoples lives. He is also creating the excitement he craves in life through bizarre fantasies. It is one such fantasy, that celebrity talent spotters may be at the small town talent show, that fuels his rampage through the personal lives of the people of Dynmouth, and when this is finally quashed, it is only replaced by another, even more unlikely fantasy.

In many ways Timothy is a despicable character, but I couldn’t help but feel slightly sorry for him. Unloved at home, ostracised at school, and living in a town where the height of ambition seems to be to get a job in either the fish packing place, or the sandpaper factory is hardly the ideal scenario for turning out a healthy, happy well balanced child. Tellingly, the two most balanced, well adjusted children in the story are the two that are schooled outside of Dynmouth and only return for their holidays. As a character, Timothy is a brilliant vehicle for developing a sense of the stifling nature of growing up in a small town, without parental guidance and support.

The novel itself is interesting and as much as Timothy, his deviousness and his fantasies are a large part of the story, the people of Dynmouth themselves, and the gradual reveal of their facades, fantasies and hidden truths was another of the reasons I liked this book. Dynmouth is always portrayed as dull and staid, but when we first meet the residents they seem happy, if ever so slightly resigned to the blandness of their lives. As Timothy reveals his secrets, the residents take on a new light, and their unhappiness and despair almost seems to have been apparent from the start. I liked seeing how the dynamics between people changed as their secrets became known, and the unhappiness they had previously managed to hide (even from themselves) came to the forefront, and permanently changed relationships.

I enjoyed this book a lot. The sinister and evil mood was present almost from the very start of the book, but it was a very gentle story, with nothing overplayed or exaggerated. It all just felt very real. The characterisation of all the characters seemed totally believable, and their secrets, although one of them was a fairly big secret, none of them seemed outlandish at all. It was a book about small, ordinary things. The ordinary lives were changed by the actions of one child, and I felt it was enlightening both in how many secrets a small community can have, and the effects of these secrets on that community.

Good Bits

“Timothy Gedge was a youth of fifteen, ungainly due to adolescence, a boy with a sharp boned face and wide, thin shoulders whose short hair was almost white. His eyes seemed hungry, giving him a predatory look; his cheeks had a hollowness about them. He was always dressed in the same clothes: pale yellow jacket with a zip, and a t-shirt that more often than not was yellow also.”

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Post Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

It was the structure of The Post Birthday World that convinced me to read it. Its actually been sat on my shelves for a long time, and I wasn’t sure it was ever going to get read. Sometimes it just seems the right time for a book, and this one just seemed to tie in so well with some things I’ve been thinking about recently, I felt I had to read it.

Irina McGovern, an American living in London is in a solid, stable relationship with Lawrence, also American, when suddenly she feels an irresistible pull to another man, and is overcome with a strong desire to kiss this man, a joint friend of her and Lawrence. That is how chapter one finishes, and from that point onwards the book veers off in two opposite directions and covers Irina’s life over the next five years in both circumstances. There is the thread where she submitted and kissed him and conversely, an alternate reality where she resisted and didn’t kiss him.

At the start of the story, Irina is reasonably happy and content in her relationship with Lawrence. She has moments were she wonders whether it is right, but the companionable, peaceful home life they have is generally all she wants out of life. A children’s book illustrator, she spends her days working and indulging her other passion, cooking and baking, for a very appreciative Lawrence. The other man is Ramsey Acton, a world famous snooker player, who comes complete with the income, attitude and lifestyle of a major player in the sports world. On the surface these two men couldn’t be more different. Lawrence earns good money, but they are cautious with it, and having an alcoholic mother has left him vehemently opposed to regular drinking, or being drunk under any circumstances Ramsey on the other hand likes a drink, and splashes his cash on good food and wine whenever the opportunity arises. Lawrence is a terrorism expert, who works in a think tank so converses about politics and current affairs regularly. Ramsey has no real interest in anything but snooker. Without giving too much away, in one thread Irina leaves Lawrence for Ramsey, and in the other, she stays with Lawrence and the novel juxtaposes the two opposing possibilities of Irina’s life.

It’s an intriguing, if simple idea, but what makes this book so special is the way it is done. The chapters are written so that a conversation may appear word for word in both strands of Irina’s story, although the emphasis may be totally different or the conversation is between two different people. It is not only conversations, but events that occur in both threads, although the outcomes can be totally different dependent on which reality we are in. Even a simple trip to the supermarket with her partner (whichever one) turns out totally differently. Relationships with friends, parents and colleagues are all juxtaposed with slightly different outcomes dependent on which reality we are following. The parallels don’t stop with the small things either. The biggest events in each strand are tuned on their heads to, all be it at different ends of the respective stories.

It made for a brilliant story, and a thought provoking read. I can’t imagine there are many people that haven’t wondered what would have happened in a given situation if they’d reacted differently, said something different, or done something differently. What we see Irina do is go through a series of trade-offs. Some decisions don’t pan out the way you want, or intend, but there are other things that are beneficial because of that decision. She obviously doesn’t see this, because she is only living one life at a time, but as readers we see her trade offs and compromises in her life (either one), and this can only be seen by seeing both lives. I wouldn’t work as a linear narrative, because as readers we would also be thinking what if?.

As I mentioned earlier, it was thought provoking for me on a much more personal level too. At eighteen, I left a Lawrence (that really is his name), for a Ramsey type character, but sixteen years later, that same Lawrence is back in my life, and all the little things that irritated me enough to leave him, are what I love about him now. Its odd, and this book expands slightly on thoughts I’d been having anyway about what would have happened if I’d have stayed then. Would it have all been rosy, did we both need to go our separate ways and grow up, world my life be totally different now, would it be better, worse or just different. Not having the luxury of seeing my alternative reality, I’ll never know, but all I can say is that I loved this book, and it was definitely right book, right time!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The Radleys by Matt Haig

I had this book pushed onto me, and told I HAD to read it, by someone I usually trust implicitly to know what I will like. But Vampires? I haven’t read vampire fiction (modern at least) since I read Anne Rice in my teens and I was therefore really unsure. But I read it anyway, and I’m really glad I did.

The Radleys are vampires. Although unless they told you, you wouldn’t know it. Peter and Helen Radley live in a normal, pleasant suburban street with their two teenage children Rowan and Clara. Rowan and Clara don’t even know themselves that they are vampires, as their parents have never quite found the right moment to tell them. It would not be immediately obvious to them because the family are abstainers, meaning they consider blood drinking to be morally wrong, and although the craving itself never goes away, they attempt to live normal lives. There are issues however. They still have extreme reactions to sunlight, can’t abide even the smell of garlic, and eat copious amounts of rare meat! The children have these oddities explained away to them as sensitive skin and so on, but problems arise when fifteen year old Clara decides to turn vegan! Whilst at a party a drunken boy pushes her a little too far, and in her deprived state, she loses all control, and reverts to her true nature.

This event is the crucial point of the whole novel. In essence, the book revolves around the revelations and events that this discovery has on the whole family. Peter and Helen have to deal with the natural repercussions of this event, as well as the double shock for the children, who realise both that they are vampires, and that they have been lied to their whole lives in one evening. Add into the mix the appearance of Will, Peter’s brother, a fully practicing and out of control vampire, and the whole façade of normality Peter and Helen have constructed for themselves threatens to come crashing down.

There is so much about this book that makes it readable. It mixes an original story, humour and moments of intense darkness together very well. Because as much as this book is about abstaining vampires, not all vampires abstain so there is blood drinking, killing, and persecution. And some pretty sadistic vampires out there. The humour comes from a book within the book, known as the Abstainers Handbook. Chapters from this are interspersed throughout the novel, with ‘helpful’ tips, such as

“if blood is the answer, you are asking the wrong question”

That such a book could even exist is amusing in itself, but the way it is written is so condescending, it is impossible not to smile at some of its ‘advice.’

There is so much more to this book though than a slightly quirky vampire story, although it does do that very well. In fact I felt that the vampirism was just a representation of difference, and how we all try to protect ourselves from being seen as different. Because as much as Helen and Peter attempt to create an outward impression of normality, it never quite succeeds. They manage to hide their vampirism, but their neighbours still think there is something not quite right about them, and comment to themselves about their odd behaviour. Being set in suburban England, it is portraying scenes that are completely understandable for many readers of this book. Many people live in the vicinity of people who don’t draw their curtains, or exhibit other slightly strange behaviour. I thought the book was brilliantly observational on how ordinary people live, and how even slight differences can provoke comment, usually in so called liberal minded people. I liked the fact that I could imagine the places easily, and even some of the people.

In the end though, the book is about accepting who you are, and not trying to build too much of a façade up around yourself, and reconciling your own life and preferences with other peoples. It is about the Radleys progression from almost denying themselves, to learning to accept what they are, but also how to temper that with what is required to live in a civilised society. And it was brilliant. I loved it.