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Arturo Perez-Reverte is a well known Spanish author who mainly writes historical novels; he has a series about a swashbuckling seventeenth century hero, Captain Alatriste. This is an early book (1990, translated 1994), and one of the few set in modern times, though it still involves the evocation of the past.

Beautiful young Julia restores paintings and other objects d’art. She has been asked to work on a fifteenth century painting – the Flanders panel – that is being put up for sale. The painting shows two men playing chess, and a woman reading. She is excited to find that an X-ray of the painting reveals a hidden inscription: Who killed the knight? What does it mean and why was it hidden? The value of the painting would be much increased if this puzzle can be solved. But the first person she consults, a Professor of art history and a former lover, soon ends up dead. An expert chess player helps her work out the riddle posed by the picture. But is the chess game somehow continuing in Julia’s life, and does taking a chess piece in the course of play equate to killing a person?

I can see that Perez-Reverte would write good historical novels; he clearly has a feel for creating times past. The painting, and the life it depicts, are beautifully rendered, and the writer creates a whole imaginary geopolitical landscape in which to set its characters. I even went to Google to check whether the painting and its Flemish artist, Pieter van Huys, really existed. They don’t, of course, though the work as described is similar to that of the Dutch masters Pieter de Hooch and Jan Vermeer. (They are seventeenth century painters, not fifteenth century ones. My historical sensibilities were also offended by the suggestion that van Huys was a bourgeois painter – that concept didn’t exist in the fifteenth century.) But none of this matters when you are reading about it; what he creates seems quite real.

Chess is a major part of the story, and it probably helps if you know at least the basic moves. The ones that are important in the story are shown in several diagrams. There’s also a certain amount of musing on the relationship of chess to love and war, and this is relevant, which is just as well because otherwise it would be a bit turgid. The mystery is solved by seeing what is happening in real life as if it were a game of chess. The chess master applies Sherlock Holmes’s observation – that when you have eliminated all that is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth – to the task of finding the identity of the unknown player who seems to be controlling Julia’s life. This turns out to be a quite a clever application of the ‘least likely’ suspect convention.

As with all mystery stories where the protagonist is an ordinary person, I’m interested in the motivation that makes that person follow the dangerous path necessary to solve the crime. Julia is frightened, but her fear is ‘percolated by an intense curiosity, in which there was a strong dash of personal pride and defiance. It was like a dangerous, exciting game’. I don’t find this entirely convincing. And she really doesn’t grow up at all during the book, though the story line gives her an opportunity to do so.  I’m also interested in the motivation of the baddie; unfortunately this is revealed in my least favourite way – the villain explains it at the end. But I may just be a bit obsessive about plot. I could see greater coherence looking back on it than there seemed to be when reading it, so maybe it is just an matter of taste whether you prefer to see the building blocks of the plot being put in place as you go, or are happy to have all revealed at the end.

Overall, I wouldn’t go out of my way to read this book. But with his talent for historical description, I think Perez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste books might be quite fun. (Think Viggo Mortensen in the title role of the 2006 movie Alatriste). Pirates of the Levant (2010) is his most recent book.

You can find out more about Arturo Perez-Reverte here.

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New writers these days seem to have to do a lot of their own publicity. So it isn’t surprising that along with everyone else who writes a book blog, I get requests to write reviews of books that might not catch the eye of mainstream reviewers. And though they may not be books I would normally gravitate to, it seems only reasonable to read and write about them if that is going to give their authors a bit of publicity.

In this case, the book falls into a category I haven’t written about before: chick lit. I do not mean anything disparaging by this label. Being mostly about women, chick lit suffers the same disparagement as does romance fiction. And while the Mills and Boon style of romance may be rubbish, some of the greatest works of English literature are romances. OK, I don’t think it’s likely that the chick lit genre will produce something of the quality of Pride and Prejudice, but neither do I think it should be automatically dismissed.

Chick lit addresses issues faced by modern women, especially those around identity, and relationships with friends and family. The search for a partner is important, but does not dominate the agenda as it does in romance fiction. Coffee at Little Angels deals with a group of eight friends, and while half of them are male, I think this is essentially a book about women, for women.

Maxine, Sarah, Kaitlyn, Melanie, Josh, Phillip, Grant and Caleb identified themselves as a group at their high school in a small town in South Africa.  They were not all equally friendly: ‘You don’t get to choose your friends when you live in a small town. There are simply people in your general age group who you make do with because you don’t have a choice’.  Partner swopping and jealousies didn’t help either.  After school, several of them moved away, and effectively lost contact. But when some ten years later Phillip is killed in a hit and run accident, they get together again for his funeral.

The book is about the thoughts and feelings of the characters, and the relationships between them, both in the past, and now that they see each other again. None of them is really happy or satisfied with their life. The action takes place over three days and is mostly located in the nameless small town, where the only place you can get decent coffee is at the Little Angels coffee shop. This is not a book where plot is of over-riding importance, though there is a bit of a twist at the end. Indeed the narrative is constantly broken up by Larter’s device of telling the story in short bursts in the first person from the perspective of all eight participants, including Phillip – both before and after he dies. When each character is speaking, their circumstances are what distinguish them from each other. Their language, both in thought and conversation, is hip and modern; no doubt Ms Larter writes as she speaks. But none of the characters has a distinctive voice.

The town may be dilapidated, the hotel cold and its furnishings threadbare, but these white South Africans nevertheless exist in a modern western world with a gen Y sensibility. The fact that one is married to a black woman and another is gay does not really challenge this. I think Larter is most powerful when she looks outside this bubble and includes the black population of the ‘township’ which lies outside it. Phillip has been doing charity work there, though its hopelessness depresses him. His friends find evidence of his work, and acknowledge the impact of AIDS on ‘a dying nation’. ‘It’s easy to have a superficial knowledge of these kinds of things. It’s easy to agree or act appalled when people say stupid things like HIV is God’s way of cleansing the planet. But to know it for what it is? To really know it. We don’t.’ This awareness changes the lives of at least some of the group. They also reject the stuffy impersonality of the funeral service in the local Dutch Reform Church, and join the black Africans singing and dancing outside. ‘It is perhaps only in this country that so many people mourn death by celebration,’ one of the characters notes. This may be standard fare in South African novels, but it is moving to an outsider.

Nadine Rose Later is twenty-nine, and lives in South Africa. This is her first book. You can find out more about her from her blog.

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Ragnarök (2011) is the latest in the Canongate Myth Series, in which myths from all over the world are ‘re-imagined and rewritten’ by contemporary authors (see my previous post on Philip Pullman’s version of the Christian myth). Byatt hasn’t really re-imagined or rewritten; rather she has retold the Norse myths of the beginning and the end of the gods. As a child she read and deeply valued the book Asgard and the Gods, based on the Eddas and adapted from a German version written by Dr W. Wagner. Here she introduces a ‘thin child’ who is reading this book and thinking about the myths. Byatt says she found she was writing ‘for my childhood self’, and the child reflects Byatt’s own response to the myths.

The child is reading the myths while living in the English country side to which she has been evacuated during World War II. Her father is fighting in North Africa and she worries she will never see him again. Even the idyllic countryside is infected with fear of ‘the Germans’, though she wonders whether these can be the same Germans who wrote her treasured book. She wonders too about a fundamental question: why is there something rather than nothing? The Norse myths seem to her to answer this question better than the Church of England can. Somehow they have got inside her, ‘coiled like smoke in her skull’, so she sees the world in terms of them.

The myths themselves suit a time of war; they are filled with blood and darkness. The earth and everything on it is created by three gods, Odin, Thor and Loki, from the dismembered body of a giant. It is held together by Yggdrasil, the World-Ash and Randrasill, the Sea-Tree. (Everything has a name.) And then, ‘almost casually, to please or amuse themselves, they made human beings’ from two inert lumps of wood , Ask and Embla, which they found on a beach. (Lovers of Possession will remember the fragments of Randolph Ash’s beautiful poems ‘Ragnarök’ and ‘Ask to Embla’.)  The Gods live in Asgard, but go out into the world to hunt and fight. This world is inhabited by giants, monsters, wolves and demons, as well as humans, (who don’t seem very important in this story). The progeny of Loki, who is part god and part giant, are themselves monsters, who have such destructive powers that the gods seek to restrain them. Loki’s tricks and schemes cause such misery that he also is restrained, but breaks free and causes a battle in which the gods, giants and monsters all die. The earth is overwhelmed by fire and water and left with ‘a black undifferentiated surface, under a black undifferentiated sky, at the end of things’. This end is called Ragnarök.

Byatt suggests that myths are not narratives that engage a reader in the way that ordinary stories and characters do. ‘The thin child, reading and rereading the tales, neither loved nor hated the people in them – they were not ‘characters’ into whose doings she could insert her own imagination’. They have attributes that are fixed – being powerful or warlike, or gentle. Loki alone can change his shape; he is clever, ‘amused and dangerous’. Later writers have amalgamated him with Lucifer, the fallen angel, but Byatt says he is ‘neither good nor evil’. I can’t quite see this; his pleasure in chaos and cruel tricks seem malicious to me. But just as the attributes of the gods are fixed, so the story must take its course, and the destruction that is foreseen must come to pass. In this way Loki is an instrument of the story, not a good or bad person.

While the threat of invasion accompanied Byatt’s original reading about Ragnarök, I find resonances in a potential apocalypse brought about by changes in our climate. Byatt agrees. ‘If you write a version of Ragnarök in the twenty-first century, it is haunted by an imagining of a different end of things’. In her view, we are bringing about an end to the world we know: ‘Not out of evil or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lopsided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our own kind, and a biologically built-in short sightedness.’ The gods know Ragnarök is coming, but are incapable of finding any way to change the story. Let’s hope that’s not true of us.

You can read more about Ragnarök here. The Wikipedia entry says the destruction of the earth was followed by the resurrection of life, but Byatt rejects this is as a Christianised interpretation.

You can read more about Byatt here.

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I found A Cup of Light (2002) an odd book, not easily categorised. That is not to say that books should be easy to categorise. In fact probably the reverse is true; non-genre novels are generally considered superior to genre ones. This book doesn’t fit into any one genre and seems to have a bit of everything – mystery, crime and romance. But nor does it rise above genre; none of these elements is fully worked out and none of it is very compelling. I could easily have put it down and not picked it up again.

Lia Frank is an expert in Chinese porcelain who is sent to Beijing to appraise a collection which has somewhat mysteriously appeared on the market. We also meet the Chinese businessman who is organising the sale, the consignee in Hong Kong, the potential buyer and the ‘ah chan’, or smuggler, who is organising transport for the collection. Then there is the master potter, the Chinese museum curator and the American researcher. There seems to be something stereotypical about all of them, despite attempts by the author to individualise them.

Lia’s particular attributes – besides love for and knowledge of Chinese porcelain – are that she is deaf, and that she has learnt to use a memory system that relates specific memories to places, sometimes called the ‘method of loci’. She likes to remove her hearing aids, shut out the world and turn in on herself. She uses the memory system in appraising ceramics, being able to recall how one pot resembles another in every catalogue or collection in the world. Although this capacity seems a bit too good to be true, it is in fact a recognised art. Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall has a prodigious memory, and seeks the fabled ‘memory device’ to help him further; Tony Judt uses a similar process in The Memory Chalet, and I believe that Hannibal Lector is also an adept. But could she really recall verbatim accounts of the history of the Emperor’s art collection several pages long?

I guess the main interest of the book is supposed to be the gorgeous ceramics Lia is dealing with.
I looked at some pictures of the sort of thing she is describing and can see how beautiful they are, but I certainly couldn’t ever feel that their beauty was somehow on a higher plane, as she does.  I found the discussion of fakes interesting: ‘What exactly made a fake a fake, when everyone who saw it was sure it was real? What lay deeper in it to recognize?’ Great ceramics were often copied, by way of tribute, not fraud. Lia is afraid that she will fail to recognise fakes that might be in the collection, and a fake chicken cup – on the cover of the paperback edition – is a motif in the story. But it is a motif in a minor key, and fakes are not really important in the story.  

For me, the most appealing aspect of the book is the history of how the ceramics come to be up for sale.  No one knows the full story of what happened when the best of the Imperial treasure, of which this is a part, had to be moved from Beijing because of the Japanese invasion. Most – probably all of it – made it to Nanjing, but from there it was split into three sections for transport, and it is possible that some was lost or stolen.  When Mones wrote, there was no history in English of the flight of the collection. (There is now: The Odyssey of China’s Imperial Art Treasures (2007), by J S Elliott with D Shambaugh.) But I don’t mind that Mones is guessing what might have happened; I just don’t find her account (one of the pieces Lia remembers) convincing. And it doesn’t explain how the collection has appeared at this time. This is another example of the way in which the story develops in one direction, only to peter out.

I wonder also what other readers will think of the right of the Chinese to keep their treasures in their own country, and of the legitimacy of an art market driven by rich, reclusive collectors. Is the flight of Imperial art toward the West in the twenty first century that different from the flight of Imperial art away from the Japanese in the twentieth? This is not a question Mones asks.

You can read more about Nicole Mones here.

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The Ghost Writer (2004) is a clever title, because this novel is not only about ghost stories – it is also about the scripting of someone’s life in a way that is at least analogous to ghosting an autobiography. I’m not going to say any more than that, because this is a mystery story, and I don’t want to spoil it.

Gerard Freeman lives in the fictional town of Mawson (Adelaide?) in South Australia. When he is young, Gerard knows little about his family history, except that his English great grandmother, Violet Hatherley, wrote ghost stories. His excessively protective mother also talks sometimes about her childhood memories of a country house set in an idyllic English countryside. When he finds a photograph of a beautiful young woman hidden in her bedroom, and even more when he begins writing to an English penfriend, his mother stops saying anything about her past, and becomes even more apprehensive about some nebulous danger that threatens the family.

As Gerard grows up, his main solace is his correspondence with his penfriend, Alice Jessell, who becomes his ‘invisible lover’. He tells her about his mother’s paradise lost, and how he would like to recover it. She tells him that the accident that killed her parents has left her unable to walk, but that she is in hope of a cure, and until then, wants only to write to him, ruling out visits or phone calls. The relationship is so important to him that he abides by these rules all through his years at school and university, and even on a brief visit to London after graduation. But when his mother dies, Gerard, now aged thirty-five, resolves to go back to England to find out more about his family history, and to find Alice. Both prove easier said than done.

Three of Violet Hatherley’s ghost stories form part of the novel. The young Gerard finds one in his mother’s room, reads another on his first visit to London, and then finds part of a third story in their house after his mother’s death. These stories are written in the vein of Henry James, where ghosts are an extensions of everyday reality—‘the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy’ as he put it. All three stories deal with obsession, betrayal and death. What if the third story has somehow come true?

Some readers may think that Gerard goes into all this with his eyes wide shut, and certainly his acceptance of Alice’s conditions over so many years seems a bit far fetched. Harwood merely sketches in Gerard’s isolation, his dependence on his relationship with Alice and his virtual obsession with his lost past; we know nothing else about him. But this is a mystery story, not a psychological profile, and my doubts weren’t sufficient to derail my enjoyment of the story. And there are some hints for the reader that all is not as it seems: can it be coincidence that Alice’s name is Jessell, and that Miss Jessel is the predatory ghost in James’s The Turn of the Screw? And wasn’t there another book where someone had great expectations?

While critics rightly note that this is a remarkably assured first novel, it is not the work of a young writer. John Harwood, who is the son of the well known Australian poet Gwen Harwood, is a literary critic and academic of many years standing. His familiarity with Victorian literature has enabled him to produce faux-Victorian ghost stories which sound wonderfully authentic. They are, futhermore, presented in a different voice from that of the narrator Gerard. The writing is simple and direct, though not without telling description. I liked, for example, his picture of London in winter: ‘Half frozen but rabidly adhesive dogshit lurked beneath the slush. The chaffinches had all mutated into scrofulous pigeons’. And if at the end, I did question the central premise of the story, mystery and suspense certainly kept me turning the pages, and that’s the aim of a ghost thriller, isn’t it?

There isn’t much about Harwood on the web, but you can read a review of The Ghost Writer here. His second book, The Séance, came out in 2008, and I will definitely be reading it.

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I’ve always wanted to use the word bildungsroman, and in Jasper Jones (2009) Craig Silvey has given me the perfect opportunity. Charlie Bucktin sums up what happens to him in this story in words that could stand as the definition of a bildungsroman, or coming of age novel: ‘It’s like I’ve got to crawl out of my own eggshell and emerge … I can’t unfurl from my cocoon when I’m good and ready. I’ve been pulled out early and left in the cold’. Thanks Craig.

The year is 1965. It is a hot summer night in Corrigan, a mining town in Western Australia. Thirteen year old Charlie is reading Mark Twain when he is interrupted by Jasper Jones, a boy with a terrible reputation in the town: ‘He’s a Thief, a Liar, a Thug, a Truant’, and everything bad that happens in the town is attributed to him. Charlie hardly knows him, but thinks of him as distinctly charismatic; he can’t resist Jasper’s plea for help. However when Charlie finds out what Jasper wants to show him, and learns what help Jasper needs, he has suddenly to grow up.

Some other things happen in the story to make Charlie grow up, including problems with his parents, a racist attack on the family of his best friend Jeffrey Lu (by 1965 Australia was embroiled in the war in Vietnam), and his first kiss. But Jasper Jones is the key to his self discovery.

There are lots of things to like about this book. Charlie is a delight; happy, sad or thoughtful, he is always interesting. And his friendship with Jeffrey sparkles: ‘Chuck, I bid you a jew.’ ‘And I owe you a revoir.’ Both are bright boys in a town ‘whose social currency is sport’. Charlie is bullied for being smart, but persists with his passion for new words (even though ‘they always fail me when I need them’). ‘Every new word is like getting a punch back.’ Jeffrey is a brilliant cricketer, but prejudice keeps him out of the local team. Both Charlie and Jeffrey are able to take a satisfying measure of revenge. There is also an interesting interplay between myth and reality, between what the town believes and what is actually the case, though this reality will in time itself become myth. Silvey writes well. The hot summer landscape is vividly evoked, and the first person present tense narrative is engaging.

Then there is Jasper Jones himself. His view of growing up provides a counter-point to Charlie’s. He says it’s not a matter of how old you are: ‘Everyone ages. Everyone can learn a trade and pay taxes and have a family. But that’s not growin’ up. It’s about how you act when your shit gets shaken up, it’s about how much you see around you. That’s what makes a man.’  Silvey has an interest in American literature, and there are references to Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac, all of whom have ‘coming of age’ elements in their writing. But most important is Mark Twain, and it is difficult not to see Jasper Jones as a Huckleberry Finn character, with Charlie as a Tom Sawyer. This is in itself perhaps almost enough to explain the rapport between the boys. Somewhat against the odds, I found their relationship convincing.

But somehow the central situation in the book doesn’t work for me. What Charlie learns on that first night is so devastating that I don’t think he could operate after it even as well as he does. He says he feels like there is a brick inside him permanently weighing him down, but his behaviour doesn’t convince me. I don’t find the behaviour of his girlfriend, Eliza Wishart, entirely credible either. The side story about his relationship with his mother also seems a bit off key.

On balance? Worth reading, even if not completely satisfying.

This is Craig Silvey’s second novel, the first being Rhubarb (2004). You can read more about Silvey here.

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The White Tiger won the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and I’m not sure how I missed it at the time. But I’m really glad I’ve made up for it now. Funny but sad to the point of tragic, it is a biting satire on the divisions between rich and poor in India. At least I assume it’s satire, and that the details are an overstatement to make a point; if it is an accurate description of reality, then I guess it’s not in the least funny.

The book takes the whimsical form of a letter from Balram Halwai to Wen Jiabao, Premier of China, the purpose of which is to explain, by reference to his own experience, how India fosters entrepreneurship. China, apparently, lacks entrepreneurs, whereas ‘our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewerage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs’. Written over several nights, most of the letter focuses on Balram’s life up to the point where he starts his own successful version of outsourcing (ie ‘doing things in India for Americans over the phone’); this is covered in a few very clever pages. So most of the book is about his experiences as the son of a poor village rickshaw-puller who becomes a driver for a rich master in New Delhi, and how by a single act of ‘social entrepreneurship’, he becomes an entrepreneur himself.

Balram uses two metaphors to describe the life of the poor in India. They live in ‘the Darkness’, whereas the rich live in ‘the Light’. And the poor live in ‘the Rooster Coop’, meaning not only do they live confined in terrible conditions, but they think of themselves as having no escape. ‘The greatest thing to come out of this country in the ten thousand years of its history is the Rooster Coop’, Balram says. The essentials of the coop include the bonds of family and location, economic dependence on the rich, chewing paan and a deep sense of servility. Anyone who tries to buck the system is picked off and destroyed. ‘Democratic’ elections, the police and the justice system are nothing more than shams, and inequality is cemented by corruption at every level of society. Hence the picture of the rooster on the cover.

So how does Balram escape? He isn’t sure himself. ‘If you ask me to explain how one event connects to another, or how one motive strengthens or weakens the next, or how I went from thinking this about my master to thinking that – I will tell you that I myself don’t understand these things’. When he is at school, he is able to read, and so rare is this accomplishment, the school inspector dubs him a ‘white tiger’ – a creature that comes along only once in a generation. Poetry also has something to do with it: Balram hears the lines ‘You were looking for the key for years/But the door was always open!’ and realises ‘a man can make himself vanish with poetry’.  ‘The moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave,’ he says. ‘To hell with the Naxals and their guns shipped from China. If you taught every poor boy how to paint, that would be the end of the rich in India’. But it takes more decisive action for Balram to free himself. Hence the title, and picture of the white tiger accompanying that of the rooster on the cover.

You might wonder how all this poverty and misery can be funny. Here are just two out of many possible examples of Adiga’s skill with words and ideas: first, while Balram is still a driver – ‘From the amount of garbage thrown outside the walls of the house, you knew that rich people lived here’, and second, when he has become an entrepreneur – ‘You’ll see my friends when you visit Bangalore – fat, paunchy men swinging their canes, on Brigade Road, poking and harassing vendors and shaking them down for money. I’m talking of the police, of course’. However dark the story, and as Balram warns, it is dark, Adiga’s light touch and ironic view make the book thoroughly satisfying for me. His achievement is all the more remarkable, given that this is his first novel.

You can read more about Adiga here. His second novel Last Man in Tower (2011) is described as a painful tragicomedy, so I guess it’s pretty much in line with his first.

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Jacob Jankowski is ninety – or maybe ninety-three; he’s lost count. He lives in a nursing home, where he is ‘scolded and herded and managed’, and all too frequently treated as a patient rather than a person. Then one day a circus comes to town, and the ghosts of Jacob’s past come ‘crashing and banging’ back.

It is 1931. He is twenty three, and close to finishing his final year of veterinary science at Cornell University. But he is overtaken by family tragedy, and in a moment of crisis, leaves university and jumps a train. This turns out to be a circus train carrying the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Jacob gets a job as vet and menagerie worker, and finds himself in a whole new world, part glamour and spangles, part deception and greed, and part friendship and love, but also hatred and murder.  The story then moves between Jacob’s life in the circus, and his life in the nursing home. Both are told in the first person present tense, so it is as if he is living the past, rather than just remembering it.

Both plot and character development are adequate rather than inspired. Jacob’s adventures with the circus have an air of ripping yarns about them and at twenty-three he is a nice boy, caring, brave and passionate, but only as the story requires. At ninety-three he is feisty and pugnacious, also as the story requires, but life in the nursing home is something of a cliché. I couldn’t really distinguish the Jacob of twenty-three in the Jacob of ninety-three, though perhaps none of us would recognise ourselves in our youth. There is a twist to the story as set up in the prologue which is clever, but ultimately seems to me a bit pointless. One reviewer thought it a ‘terrific revelation’, but I thought Gruen was cheating a bit.

What makes the book memorable for me are the details Gruen has plucked from the rich history of the American circus in depression era America. She has obviously done her research meticulously, and writes convincingly about moving the circus from place to place, feeding and training the animals – especially Rosie the elephant – and putting on the show. The period photos of circus activities which accompany the circus chapters are wonderful vignettes of a time gone by. She also does a good job with the social and economic realities – the rigid distinction between workers and performers (which Jacob to some extent bridges), the collection of ‘freaks’, the illegal alcohol consumption during Prohibition, the practice of ‘redlighting’ (pushing unwanted workers off the moving train) and the ruthless attitude to what is deemed expedient – whether people or animals. Indeed the wanton cruelty of some of the circus staff to animals is made painfully clear.

It is not surprising that few people questioned this cruelty in 1931; it was a brutal time. Indeed the circus could perhaps be seen as a metaphor for depression era America. ‘The whole thing’s illusion, Jacob, and there’s nothing wrong with that,’ one character says. ‘It’s what people want from us. It’s what they expect.’ But the illusion is built on exploitation of people and animals, just as in those years the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was an illusion built on hardship. One resident of the nursing home claims he once carried ‘water for elephants’. Jacob says this is a lie, though how he knows this is not explained. It appears in fact that no one carries water for elephants: they drink so much they have to be led to water. From this it follows that carrying water for elephants would be a very difficult task. Perhaps in the title Gruen is making a point about the difficulty of sustaining an illusion. But if so, she certainly does not pursue it, and I may be seeing more than is intended. She does not, furthermore, raise the issue of whether making animals perform in circuses is itself cruel. Jacob at ninety-three is as excited by a circus as he was at twenty-three.

You can read more about Sara Gruen here. A film, Water for Elephants (2010), has been made based on the book (2006), and you can see a trailer for it here.

PS. I noticed a review in the London Review of Books that looked in some depth at the relationship which I discussed briefly in my previous post between the book, the TV series and the film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. You can read it here.

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A film version of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) has just been released, and is being greeted with critical acclaim. I always thought it was a great book, so I’ll be very interested to see what they have done with it.

George Smiley has retired from ‘the Circus’ – le Carré’s name for British Intelligence – after a scandal involving a failed incursion by a British agent, Jim Prideaux, into communist Czechoslovakia, organised by Control, the former Circus head. The story starts with Prideaux taking up a teaching job in a prep school; he plays a crucial role in the story. But the main thread follows Smiley, who is called back to clandestinely investigate whether a mole has been planted by the KGB at the heart of British Intelligence. A mole, explains a Russian agent, ‘is a deep penetration agent so called because he burrows deep into the fabric of Western imperialism’. Control had narrowed the possibilities to five senior officers. Smiley finds himself on the same investigative road as Control was travelling before the Prideaux affair – Operation Testify – derailed him. Can he succeed where Control failed, and figure out the ‘last clever knot’ that has turned the Circus inside out?

The main interest of the book is its very clever plot – that is, how Smiley works out who is the mole.  He goes back over the recent activities of the Circus, meeting a number of people who all add something to his understanding of the KGB conspiracy.  Unlike the action thriller type of spy story, there is relatively little violence; there is no ‘bang, bang, kiss, kiss’.  However there are other things apart from the cleverness of the plot that make the book special.  Le Carré has brilliantly drawn the cast of characters, so that even those with only cameo parts seem like real people.  Smiley himself – ‘small, podgy and at best middle-aged’ – is a fully rounded and very sympathetic creation. And the atmosphere of doubt and suspicion that grips the Circus is palpable. Le Carré’s writing goes well beyond what is normally found in the ordinary espionage genre, as witnessed by his inclusion on the short list for the Man Booker International Prize for 2011 (over his protests, it must be said).

Le Carré was himself a spy, working for MI6 under diplomatic cover for about eight years, so it is no wonder he seems at home in the world of espionage. He probably worked under the British spy Kim Philby who defected to the Soviet Union in 1963; double agents, treachery and betrayal were much in the public mind at the time of writing. Smiley’s world seems so authentic that even its vocabulary has seeped into the language of espionage, the term ‘tradecraft’ for the mechanics of spying being a case in point. For all that, le Carré says he makes most of it up: ‘A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself,’ he says; ‘… nothing that I write is authentic’. I find this claim a bit unlikely, given his background. But perhaps it is the complete coherence and consistency of world that is so convincing; there is no need, as in so many other espionage stories, to suspend disbelief.

The new film is not the first screen version of the book. In 1978 it was very faithfully televised in a BBC production, recently re-issued, starring Alex Guinness as George Smiley. I love that series. For me, Guinness is Smiley. Le Carré himself acknowledges that Guinness’s portrayal of Smiley informed his writing about him in a sequel, Smiley’s People (1980). Given this, I’m not sure how I will react to a different Smiley. The new one is Gary Oldman, recently seen as Commissioner Gordon in the Batman films, and as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series; in none of these was he ‘small, podgy and at best middle aged’. But maybe he can rise to the occasion. I gather he is considered one of the best actors never to have been nominated for an Academy award. Perhaps this is his moment.

You can read more about John le Carré here, see a review of the film here and a trailer here.

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After eighteen books, Detective Inspector Rebus of the Edinburgh police has finally retired. What is Ian Rankin going to do next? Well, after a one-off crime story – Doors Open (2008) – Rankin has produced The Complaints (2009) which is the first in a new series featuring Detective Inspector Malcolm Fox. Fox is at first sight quite unlike Rebus. For one thing, he works for the Professional Standards Unit of the Complaints and Conduct section of the Lothian and Borders Police, a body that investigates police misconduct – a body Rebus might easily have fallen foul of himself, given his ambiguous relationship with the crime boss ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, (though I can’t remember he ever did). But they are in other ways alike: both are loners with failed marriages behind them, family ties that tug at them and a taste for the bottle – though Fox has now sworn off the booze. And their work environment – Edinburgh – is the same, with dark secrets lurking behind the glitz and glamour.  I know it’s a bit unfair to compare Fox to Rebus, but Rankin’s original series was so good that it’s impossible not to make the comparison.

Fox has just finished building a case against a Glen Heaton, a detective who got results, but only by cutting corners and doing deals with criminals. He is then asked to look into Jamie Breck, a detective who may be part of a paedophile ring. But Fox’s sister’s boyfriend is found murdered, and the detective assigned to the case is none other than DS Breck. Fox can’t help taking an active interest, and soon he and Breck become friends. But who is following him? And why do both Fox and Breck suddenly find themselves suspended? Fox knows that other police hate the complaints section; he’s been called a ‘twisted bastard’ and ‘lower than slime’ and accused of ‘shafting your own kind’. And Heaton’s boss is clearly out to get him. Fox sees the police force as ‘a series of connected mechanisms, any one of which could be tampered with’. Who can he trust? How can he fight back?

One of the things I always liked about the Rebus novels was that they dealt with crimes that were thoroughly embedded in the social and economic structure of Scotland, rather than treading the familiar path of serial killings favoured by many other crime writers. This is equally true of The Complaints. Edinburg is in recession. Everywhere building projects have stalled, developers are failing, banks and building societies are looking shaky and investors are counting their losses. Just as in the police world there can be a fine line between crime and its detection, so in the larger economy there can be a fine line between crime and legitimate business, particularly when times are tough. Who is calling in favours and who is seeking retribution?

This is a police procedural, not a thriller. Its appeal depends on the cleverness of the crime and its detection, rather than on high levels of tension. I got a bit lost at times trying to figure out who was doing what to whom, but the resolution works well. It also depends on the how sympathetic the main character is, and Fox passes this test too. Some police think the complaints section is for ‘the cold fish, the oddities, the cops who could never make it as bona fide detectives’, and Fox sometimes thinks of himself as a spectator, not someone who makes things happen. ‘A bear of a man … Slow but steady, and only occasionally to be feared’. But in the course of the story he becomes fully engaged, and proves that he is completely up to the task. He’s not Rebus, but he may turn out to be just as interesting.

You can find out more about Ian Rankin and The Complaints here. If by chance you haven’t already read the Rebus series, forget about the first few, which are early works, and jump in somewhere round Black and Blue (1997). You won’t regret it. A new Fox story, The Impossible Dead, is due out in October.

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The amazing thing to me is that this book was written in 2002. I hadn’t heard of the concept of moral hazard until the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, but had I read this book before that time, I would have been much better prepared to understand what was happening in 2008, and to grasp the implications of propping up dodgy financial institutions deemed too big to fail. It is almost as if Jennings predicted what actually happened. ‘It’s a time bomb’, as one character notes.

Kate Jennings is an Australian author who lived for many years in New York. This novel is heavily autobiographical; it is based on her time there working for the communications unit of a Wall Street merchant bank in order to make enough money to care for her husband who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. The actions of Cath, the protagonist in the story, are not those of Kate Jennings, but her experience informs nearly every page. ‘How would you have me write about it? Bloody awful, all of it.’

Cath gets the job through a friend, and is plunged into a world of derivatives, junk bonds, quants, hedge funds and risk management – or rather the lack of it. And then there are the bankers themselves, with their talk of liquidity, transparency, being pro-active, adding value and incentivizing. Unlike Cath, they have supreme confidence in the efficacy of the market. ’Markets overshoot. They correct’, one tells her, ‘[a]ccompanied by one of his keep-to-what-you-know, don’t-bother-your little-head smiles’.  And why worry, as they are supremely confident that any losses will be covered by other banks.  This is a text book definition of ‘moral hazard’.

But Cath faces other moral hazards. As the disease takes hold, she has to make a series of agonising decisions about how best to care for her much loved husband, Bailey. The facts may not be true, says Jennings, but ‘the emotions are’.

I really like the way Jennings writes. ‘I’d rather eat garden worms than be earnest or serious’, she says. This, mixed with her mocking attitude to the toxic corporate culture she works in, produces some gems. ‘Trickle-down gossip was much more efficient than trickle-down economics.’ Or ‘Leverage: perfumed word for “debt”.’ Observing a banker on his speaker phone, she sees him ‘whip out his comb and pull it through his hair, poke around in his ear with a pen, hitch up his pants, and then repeat the exercise, all the while laughing, doodling, gnawing on candy, consulting his computer. A marvel of multitasking.’ Or, more sombrely, ‘if I had one word to describe corporate life, it would be ‘craven’. Unhappy word.’ And finally, ‘the real nature of global financial markets: perilous, jerry-built, mortared with spit and cupidity, a coat of self-serving verbiage slapped on to tart up the surface and hide the cracks’.

This is a short book, and in a sense, not much happens. As I have noted in others posts, I like a good plot. But I don’t miss action here. This is partly because I enjoy the writing so much, but it is also because of the creative tension between the two aspects of the story. ‘I simply wanted to get across the idea of a person navigating her personal life and her professional life, going backwards and forwards’, says Jennings. Cath finds both sides of her life ‘equally demented, equally surreal’. But what choices does she have? Ultimately Jennings leaves the reader to make the moral judgements. It is a very sad story, but one not without hope.

Moral Hazard won the 2003 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award. It was also short-listed for the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, suggesting it was also appreciated in America.

Jennings doesn’t seem to have a home page, but you can read a conversation with her about the book here.

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I saw the BBC mini series (2009) based on Small Island (2004) before I read the book. But I’m happy to report that even knowing what happens, I still found the book immensely appealing. Perhaps I’ve hit on a new definition of good literature: a book that gives pleasure even if you’ve already seen the film.

Andrea Levy was born in London after her parents migrated there from Jamaica in 1948, and she draws extensively on their experience. The book moves back and forwards in time and place from before World War II to 1948 in England and Jamaica. The story starts in 1948 with Hortense arriving in London to find Gilbert renting a room in a house belonging to Queenie Bligh. Hortense reveres England as the mother country and Gilbert has experienced it as a volunteer in the RAF during the war. But will it live up to their expectations? Queenie is letting rooms to make ends meet. She married Bernard to escape a life of drudgery on a farm, but although he returned to England after serving in the army, he hasn’t come home. Each main character tells how they arrived at this point in their lives, and what happens next.

One of the reasons the book holds my attention is that it offers a more complete picture than the film. That concentrated on Hortense and Queenie; the book gives space to Gilbert and, to a lesser extent, Bernard as well. Each character tells their story in the first person, and each character has a distinctive voice. This means that the reader gets to see the same situation from two or even three different perspectives, and can understand the feelings and responses of each participant. Hortense’s and Gilbert’s misunderstanding of each other are part funny, part heartrending. Hortense’s coldness to Queenie is equally painful. Bernard is the least appealing of the characters, but even he has moments where redemption seems possible. Creating this web of interactions with understanding and compassion, humour and pathos, is no mean feat, and Levy has managed it very effectively.

A second reason for finding it compelling reading is the inherent interest of the subject matter. Racism is a major theme; Levy is interested in exploring what it meant to be black and British in London immediately after the war. She shows the variations of prejudice, first in Jamaica, where light skin is more socially acceptable than dark skin, then in its brutal manifestations in England during the war, where Jamaicans were included in the colour bar imposed by the US Army on its black troops and finally in the ignorant bigotry of the post war British population at large. Queenie is a wonderful exception, though even she cannot ultimately escape the general intolerance. The lesson is that the West Indian community has to rely on itself.

I also found the siren call of the mother country to her colonial subjects fascinating, especially when contrasted with the indifference and even hostility of the British to those subjects. Gilbert, for example, realises that while his education in Jamaica was British centred – he can name all the canals in England – few in England even know Jamaica exists, let alone acknowledge the right of its black inhabitants to live in England. Even though the country has been shaken up by war – all the bits that had been blown up ‘settling in different places’ – there is almost no understanding that changes in the empire will have implications for people in Britain. I wondered if the picture of herself Levy has included in the book is intended to underline the legitimacy of West Indian aspirations to European culture; it shows a smiling black girl pointing her toe, dressed in a frilly white tutu.

Small Island was the winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004.  Levy’s most recent book, The Long Song, was short-listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

You can read more about Andrea Levy here.

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This short book (2010) is one in the Canongate Myth Series, in which myths from all over the world are ‘re-imagined and rewritten’ by contemporary authors. Some of the other writers and myths in the series are The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood (Penelope and Odysseus), Weight, by Jeanette Winterson (Atlas and Heracles), Dream Angus, by Alexander McCall Smith (Aengus) and Girl Meets Boy, by Ali Smith (Iphis). Philip Pullman is an interesting but perhaps predictable choice to tackle Christianity, given the attack on organised religion in his major work, His Dark Materials, which I reviewed in an earlier post.

Pullman’s retelling hasn’t tried to modernise the story of Jesus Christ, and most readers will recognise the events and parables from birth to crucifixion as told in the gospels. But Pullman has imagined Jesus Christ as twin brothers: Jesus and Christ. Jesus, who is warm and generous, grows up to become a preacher and teacher, but Christ, a careful and reserved man, watches and waits. He thinks Jesus could win more followers if he did miracles and healing, but Jesus disagrees; he doesn’t think the word of God can be ‘conveyed by conjuring tricks’. An unnamed stranger, who Christ eventually decides is an angel, convinces him to write down the words and deeds of Jesus, and encourages him to edit these words, to clarify meanings and unravel complexities for the benefit of the ‘simple-of-understanding’. The stranger explains that there is history, and truth which lies outside history; it is this truth that Christ is recording. ‘In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history,’ he says. Soon Christ and the stranger agree that some kind of organisation – a church, headed by ‘a sort of regent of God on earth’ – will need to be established to preserve the faith. Jesus instinctively opposes this; worshiping God is the only task he is interested in.

Jesus is presented as a ‘straight talking’ and practical man who rejects the idea that he is the Messiah and makes no claim to be the son of God, though he believes the Kingdom of God on earth is imminent. Because of this he places belief in the Kingdom above the ordinary ties of family or the comforts of prosperity; it is the poor and downtrodden who will be saved rather than the rich and powerful. He knows his Jewish Law, and confounds the Pharisees and Sadducees with common sense answers to their tricky questions. Most of the miracles described in the gospels are treated as sensible responses by him to a particular situation. The gospel story of the loaves and fishes, for example, is explained as Jesus getting the crowd to share what each already had; it is Christ who records it as a miracle.
Pullman makes other changes to the story, such as having Christ rather than Satan tempt Jesus in the wilderness, and he tempts him with a vision of the future church, rather than temporal power. And there are things that Pullman doesn’t explain, such as the stranger who Christ thinks is an angel. He might equally well be seen as Satan (who, after all, is a fallen angel in Milton’s account), or at least a force for evil, which is how some angels – and Metatron, the regent of heaven – are portrayed in His Dark Materials. Towards the end of the story, Pullman diverges radically from the account given in the gospels, though I’m not going to say how because I don’t want to spoil it. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and a friend of Pullman’s, has reviewed the book sympathetically, but finds this divergence out of tune with the rest of the narrative, with nothing leading up to it.  I understand why he says this, but don’t share his concern; I’d suggest readers’ attitudes to this section of the story may depend on what they believe about Christianity, rather than on a literary judgement.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ differs from the retelling of other myths in this series in that the story of Jesus is not a myth in the same way that story of, say, Hercules, is a myth. But it is a story, whether or not you believe it carries some essential truth, and Pullman’s retelling of it is thoughtful and interesting.

You can read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s review here, and more about the series here. The next one, due out any day now, is A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok.

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I think with this one, I fell into the series trap – breaking into a long running group of characters with shared adventures from previous books, and knowing nothing of the back story. Inhuman Remains (2009) is the most recent in the series Blackstone crime stories. I gather that Oz Blackstone and Primavera Phillips met in an earlier book, solved some crimes together and were married long enough to have a child before they divorced and he married again. Somehow in all of this Oz got the part of a detective in a film and became a star, though this didn’t stop him doing some detecting on the side. This book, however, features his ex-wife Prim, and is apparently the beginning of new series.

The book starts with Prim and her son living in a Spanish village, where she fled after what she believes was an attempt by her ex-husband Oz to kill her in a plane crash. The back story of her survival is told, though it has no bearing at all on this story. Oz is summarily removed from the scene with a fatal heart attack. This seems a fairly drastic way of dealing with the hero of a number of previous books, but I have no way of knowing (without reading the previous nine) whether or not this was a fitting end for him. There are also quite a lot of references to other family members who are no doubt familiar to series readers, but seem to have little relevance here.

In this story, Prim’s aunt comes to visit and asks her to look for her son, Frank, who has disappeared somewhere inSpain. Frank has a dodgy past, and could well be in trouble. Prim agrees, and leaving her aunt to look after her son Tom, she sets out to investigate the company Frank had been working for, particularly its large scale financial dealings. She finds her cousin, but then her aunt is kidnapped, and she and Frank set out to rescue her. Fortunately she has friends in the local police, and contacts back inLondonfrom the old detecting days to help her. There are some twists I didn’t see coming, though perhaps I should have.

The story is told by Prim after most of it has happened. This allows for comments like ‘Was I nervous? Too damn right I was’, and partly explains her somewhat dismissive attitude to the danger she is in. Underplaying the danger, however, detracts from the urgency and tension of the story. The hunt/chase formula the plot is built around needs a series of crises, but the story doesn’t really deliver them. The twists come at the end, and though one of them is quite clever (the other main one being less realistic), this isn’t enough to rescue the rest of the rather pedestrian account. I wondered if some of the chatty friends-and-family digressions in the book are part of a world created throughout the series, and as enjoyable to series readers as the particular story.

Maybe breaking into a series is always problematic. Do you start at the beginning or the end? There are some series where the books are not merely stand-alone; they develop, at least in terms of the characters and their situation, as the series progresses. The best example I can think of is Ruth Rendell’s Wexford series, where the main characters in the early books are rather thin but in the later ones are complex and satisfying. But this is an argument for starting in the middle, not at the beginning. Alternatively I think it is better to start Sue Grafton’s alphabet series with A is for Alibi, rather than jumping in at P or Q.  On the other hand, I thought Patricia Cornwall’s Kay Scarpetta series started well but ran out of steam. For all I know, the earlier books in this series may be better, but I’m probably not going to find out. Can anyone else tell me?

Quintin Jardine also writes a series about Bob Skinner, a seniorEdinburghpoliceman. You can find out more about Jardine and his books here.

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The Moonstone (1868) has been called ‘the first … and greatest of English detective novels’ by no less a critic than T.S. Eliot. In fact it wasn’t the first – that honour going to The Notting Hill Mystery (1862-3) by ‘Charles Felix’ – but it was certainly the first really popular story about crime and its detection. Some of the devices Collins invented for this tale have been used by later detective writers, and there is a detective in the book. However I wouldn’t really call it a detective novel. I think of it as a mystery, and see it as the starting place for stories where someone who is not a detective finds the solution.

The Moonstone is an Indian diamond, stolen during the British assault on Serringapatam, and brought secretly toEnglandby Colonel Herncastle, who leaves it to his niece, Rachael Verinder – possibly as an act of malice, since the jewel seems to bring bad luck. The very day she receives it, it disappears. Has it been taken by one of the family? Or one of the servants? Or by the Indian jugglers who have been hanging round the house? After the local police prove useless, Sergeant Cuff from Scotland Yard is called in. He makes some discoveries, but is unable to find the diamond. As he later says, ‘It’s only in books that the officers of the detective force are superior to the weakness of making a mistake’. Franklin Blake, a guest in the house when the diamond disappeared, has a particular reason for wanting to know what happened, and sets about finding out. But there are nasty surprises and apparent dead ends in store for him in his quest.

The story is told as a series of witness accounts, with each narrator telling only the events of which he or she has personal knowledge. This helps make the story convincing. Narrators include Gabriel Betteredge, steward in the Verinder household, Drusilla Clack, an evangelical spinster, Mr Bruff, the family lawyer, and Franklin Blake himself. (He has asked for these accounts to be collected, by which we know there has to be a happy ending.) One of Collins’s foremost achievements is to give each of the major narrators a different voice. Betteredge is loquacious, opinionated but kindly; he is a self confessed sufferer from the disease of ‘detective-fever’. Clack keeps a diary to ‘discipline the fallen nature we all inherit from Adam’, and is pious with an underlying spite. Bruff is judicious and measured and Blake the educated nineteenth century gentleman. There is a good deal of quiet humour in all this, a useful antidote to such elements of melodrama in the writing as ‘she started up – the noble creature! – and followed me across the outer room …’ There is also real tragedy, and at times a real sense of menace, generated by the unlucky diamond.

Collins very cleverly poses what seems to be an insoluble riddle, and then shows just how to make sense of it. He subtitled the story ‘a romance’, by which he meant an adventure story – or as John Buchan later wrote, a story ‘where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’ – rather than a love story, though it is that too. The events which are the key to the mystery do rather defy the probabilities, but probably can’t be dismissed as completely unrealistic. And the pieces of the mystery all fit together brilliantly; whether or not it is strictly a detective novel, Eliot is certainly right that it is one of the great crime stories.

You can read more about The Moonstone here. And you can read my earlier post on Collins’s other masterpiece, The Woman in White, here.

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I’ll admit straight away that I have a mental block when it comes to philosophy. Even when I can understand most of the words philosophers use, I can’t seem to make sense of their concepts. This is a definite drawback in reading this book. Muriel Barbery is a philosophy professor, and she says she is interested in ‘exploring the bearing philosophy could really have on one’s life … that’s where the desire to anchor philosophy to a story … was born’. And here I can’t even understand one of the main words: phenomenology. The book, first published in 2006, was translated from French in 2008.

The story centres on two people who live in a posh Paris apartment block. One is the concierge, Renée Michel. She strives to appear as the archetypal concierge – dull and stupid, apparently – but has a hidden intellectual life and a broad knowledge of literature and films. The other is an intellectually precocious twelve year old, Paloma Josse, who lives with her family in one of the apartments. She also tries to hide her intellect, and has decided that since life is futile, she will commit suicide when she turns thirteen. The story is told by these two, each keeping a journal of sorts. Then someone new moves in, and Renée’s cover is blown.

There is very little plot. Both journals are more of a series of thoughts than a story. Renée, for example, asks ‘What is the purpose of Art? To give us the brief, dazzling illusion of the camellia; to carve from time an emotional aperture that cannot be reduced to animal logic’, and then goes on about the quintessence of Art and the certainty of timelessness. Paloma, for her part, muses on ‘motionless movement in the world’. What are we to make of this? Renée’s interest in Husserl, the father of phenomenology, no doubt informs many of her reflections about consciousness, but I certainly can’t put them together into any coherent whole. Other readers may find these apercus thought-provoking; I mostly find them frustrating.

Many readers may find the main characters attractive, but here again I am unenthusiastic. I can’t understand why Madame Michel wants to keep her erudition secret. The class barrier which both the residents and the concierge perceive to exist between them is demonstrated, but that does not seem a sufficient reason for her concern. Who cares what they think? And Paloma is a brat, who, in her own cleverness, despises nearly everyone else.

Oblique literary and film references abound. Marcel Proust was for a time a concierge. The end of the story makes reference to Roland Barthes. Renée betrays her knowledge of the classics through a reference to Anna Karenina. (And then there’re all the ones I’ve missed.) Given that the other occupants of the apartment building do not recognise Renée’s true elegance of mind, and are referred to as insensitive and spoilt, I find these references problematic. The Anna Karenina reference is to the first sentence of the book: ‘All happy families are alike’. The reference is explained a page or so later. If you get it without explanation, are you, like Renée, a member of the natural intellectual aristocracy? Because if you need it explained, surely you are on the same level as the other idiots who live in the building. You are either complicit in intellectual snobbery or moronic. This is hardly fair on the reader.

Some critics suggest that English readers like books where the plot is most important, whereas French readers are more concerned with ideas. (They point out that philosophy is a compulsory subject in French schools.) If that is the case, then I am thoroughly English in my tastes, though surely it should be possible to have both ideas and plot – see for example the work of A.S. Byatt.  Oh dear. I do seem to have got off on the wrong foot with this book. There are moments of humour and pathos. Maybe if I understood what Husserl was really saying …

You can read some other opinions of the book here.

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I noted in a recent post that American crime writers don’t seem drawn to police procedurals, preferring private or forensic investigators, or stories about crimes against the State. The Camel Club (2005) is one of the latter, being part crime, part intrigue among the Intelligence community, with the added spice of the threat of terrorism. It is the first in a series of five, of which Hell’s Corner (2010) is the most recent. Overall, David Baldacci has a written a total of twenty-two books, mainly in this genre. He has sold over 100 million copies, so this sort of story is clearly popular.

The Camel Club combines crime and intrigue with the trope of the mysterious loner with hidden powers (think most Westerns, think the mild manneredClark Kent or the suave Bruce Wayne). The leader of the Camel Club, (so called for the stamina of camels), is a man known as Oliver Stone. He spends part of his time outside the White House in a tent with a sign that reads I WANT THE TRUTH and the rest working in a cemetery. The other members of the Camel Club are all misfits too: a Vietnam veteran, a computer whizz with OCD and a librarian in the rare books section of the Library of Congress. They stumble on a crime that involves them in matters of national security at the highest levels. While this group is central to the action, the story is also carried by a number of other characters, including a Secret Service agent, various members of the (fictional) National Intelligence Centre (though there is a Director of National Intelligence) and an American hired gun who oversees a group of Middle Easterners clearly up to no good. It is a story of idealism, treachery and betrayal.

The story has a number of threads, each gradually developed by a character or set of characters. These threads gradually intertwine and ultimately come together in a final crisis. The action is chopped into short chapters, which are designed to build tension, as the participants in each thread face various threats to life or purpose. One of my criticisms of the book is that there are too many characters; I had trouble in the early stages in remembering who was who. (I also found the various intelligence agencies – mostly referred to by their initials – quite confusing.) Of course there is meant to be confusion – who are these people and what are they doing? But the need for all these characters to lay out their part in the story means there isn’t much tension in the early stages, and it all comes in a rush at the end. The short chapters make it easy to keep reading, but for quite a while, despite near misses and lucky escapes, the story isn’t really compelling. And there’s rather too much stodgy prose.

Baldacci isn’t writing a simple story about good and evil. Most of the more important characters are compromised in some way, or feel themselves comprised by past events. The issue of terrorism isn’t presented as completely one-sided; the nanny Djamila, for example, is given plenty of reasons for hatingAmerica. The response of the US government to the crisis it faces isn’t particularly edifying either. And the conspiracy at the centre of the story is based on an interesting and unexpected premise. Baldacci is clearly making a point here, though I think that his way of making it stretches the bounds of possibility rather too far. I can suspend disbelief to the extent of accepting the heroics of the Camel Club, but the motive for the action, and its effect on the story, is a bridge too far for me.

Overall, I’m fairly critical of this story. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading, particularly if you are in the mood for escapism.

I was interested to note that other writers Baldacci admires include Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith, and strangely enough, Anne Tyler.

You can find out more about Baldacci here.

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‘He belonged to that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women.’ Really? I disliked Michael Beard – his lusts, his greed, his domestic sloth, his utter selfishness – from the first sentence of McEwan’s most recent book, Solar (2010). Where can an author go with a character so little likely to command the sympathy of many readers? The options are to see him redeemed, or laugh at his downfall. McEwan has gone for a bit of both.

The story is told in three slices, set in 2000, 2005 and 2009. Some years previously, Michael Beard won a Nobel Prize for Physics for research on the interaction of light and matter. By 2000, already over fifty, he is more or less drifting, doing little real work and obsessed with the infidelity of his fifth wife. By 2005 he has a new solar energy project, a new girlfriend and a whole new set of complications in his life. By 2009, the project – and his life – are at a point where he will succeed brilliantly or fail disastrously, or maybe a little of both.  

There is of course a plot running through the book in the sense that there are connections between events over the three periods, so that decisions taken in 2000 come back to haunt Beard in 2009. This sort of clever plot architecture is characteristic of McEwan’s work – see my post on Amsterdam. But for a lot of the book, plot is not the major consideration. Instead, there are various set piece comedy scenes, most of which I didn’t find particularly funny. On a trip toSpitsbergen, his penis is frozen onto his zip. On a train inLondon, he inadvertently steals another passenger’s packet of potato crisps. He is attacked by feminists for some ill-advised remarks about the absence of women from the physics profession. I got one genuine laugh, but that’s not a very good return for effort. Perhaps others may find these incidents funnier than I do.

It might be argued that the true comedy of the story lies in Beard as an example of the human condition. ‘Never a complete cad’, he knows he needs to change, makes resolutions to do so, and is quite incapable of carrying them out. He knows that he is morally compromised, and not only goes ahead, but finds ‘masterstroke(s) of self persuasion’ to justify for his actions. ‘He thought he was an average type, no crueller, no better or worse than most. If he was sometimes greedy, selfish, calculating, mendacious, when to be otherwise would embarrass him, then so was everyone else.’ This again is classic McEwan territory, and there is a mordant humour about it. Beard’s self knowledge and its limitations don’t make him any more attractive as a character, though.

McEwan has a strong interest in empirical science. He has a bit of a tendency to show off his knowledge for its own sake, but he seems committed to the case for climate change. To begin with, Beard is indifferent to the issue: ‘A childless man of a certain age at the end of his fifth marriage could afford a touch of nihilism.’ During the course of the story, he is converted to the need to develop alternative energy sources in response to global warming. Admittedly he is interested in their commercial development, though the money doesn’t seem to matter much to him; more likely it is the fame. He may or may not have made the right choice of technologies (artificial photosynthesis), but McEwan has him put the general case very persuasively. I guess it is just another of his ironies that so important an argument is put by so self seeking and self interested a character.

McEwan has won many literary prizes and ‘book of the year’ citations. But as far as I know, Solar hasn’t won anything. This is fair enough.  For all that Beard’s weaknesses and failings are made plain, the whole exercise has more than a whiff of male fantasy about it.

You can read more about McEwan here, and some other views of Solar here.

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I recently wrote a post reviewing several British police procedural crime stories, and having enjoyed that, decided to do the same with several American police procedurals. But it was surprisingly difficult to find many to choose from. American crime writing abounds in private detectives, and a whole range of disciplines associated with police work, like forensic psychology or pathology. But there seem to be very few police detective series, at least that I know of.

The first book I’ve chosen is Fiddlers (2005), the last in the classic Ed McBain 87th Precinct series. McBain, born Salvatore Lombino, changed his name to Evan Hunter, and, starting in 1956, wrote this series as Ed McBain. Like all the books in this series, it has the following epigraph: ‘The city in these pages is imaginary. The people, the places, are all fictitious. Only the police routine is based on established investigatory technique’. The city is, of course, New York, and the 87th precinct is Manhattan. (NYPD Blue doesn’t count, because it was created for TV, and didn’t to my knowledge appear in print.) The story starts with a dead violinist, and involves fiddling in every sense of the word. Are the police just fiddling round? Can fiddling with someone else’s life get you into trouble? All of the detectives of the precinct contribute something to the solution of the puzzle, primarily through ‘established investigatory technique’, though McBain is happy to accept the importance of ‘the long arm of coincidence’, and there is certainly some of that. You don’t have to have read any other in the series, though familiarity with the characters probably adds something to what is essentially a fairly simple story. The language is a pleasure: theNew York accent leaps off the page.

My next choice is another classic in its way.  Hollywood Station (2007) is by Joseph Wambaugh, who was himself a member of the Los Angeles Police Department for fourteen years. Michael Connelly, whose crime writing I admire, considers Wambaugh ‘invented the modern police novel’. From 1971 to 1983 he wrote a series of books about policing inLos Angeles; this is the first to return to the LAPD since then. His characters clearly resent the changes which were forced upon the department after the Rodney King riots in 1992. King is described as ‘a drunken, drug-addled African American ex-convict’, and the rioters as taking the opportunity to ‘do some looting’. The book is in part a defence of the ‘beleaguered rank and file’. Wambaugh acknowledges ‘the terrific anecdotes and wonderful cop talk’ supplied to him by members of several Californian police departments, and a number of these anecdotes appear in the book. The reader is introduced to police – both patrol cops and detectives – as they deal with a variety of crimes, and with their own personal issues, against the background of a less-than-glamorousHollywood.  The story of two ‘tweakers’ on crystal meth and a jewellery robbery run throughout. Connelly thinks this book ‘sets the standard’. But I found it heavy going, and for once, I’m not really suggesting you read it.

One of Connolly’s own recent books is my third choice. Nine Dragons (2009) is the fifteenth in his series featuring LAPD Detective Harry Bosch. Harry is another in the tradition of maverick loners who clash with authority but solve the case. Earlier in the series he actually resigned from the LAPD and went private for a while, but he returned to the force and at least in the beginning of this story, is prepared to use the department’s established investigatory techniques. But when a seemingly run-of-the-mill case turns personal, things go terribly wrong. Established techniques are of no use, and he has only himself to rely on. Some exciting climaxes and clever twists make the book hard to put down, and critics say it is as good as any of the earlier ones. But I think there is something a bit mechanical and unconvincing about the story, and prefer The Narrows (2004) or A Darkness More than Night (2001).

These are of course not the only American police procedurals, but I am still left wondering why there are so few of them, compared with the array of British series. Is it perhaps the intense American individualism that prefers the private individual to the government employee? Or do the Americans simply not trust their police in the way the British do?  Or is it the ascendancy of the FBI, which appears so often in books about crimes against the State? I’m guessing of course. Anyone else got any ideas? Or American police procedural series they’ve enjoyed?

You can find out more about Evan Hunter here, Joseph Wambaugh here, and Michael Connelly here

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Anne Tyler is another writer who was on the Man Booker International shortlist. She is an American, but that must be about the only thing she has in common with the winner, Philip Roth. Her books deal with the personal and the domestic, rather than the broad themes of American experience – though arguably the domestic is important in the American experience, whatever critics think. Her main characters often find themselves at odds with their role in life, needing to come to terms with themselves in some new way. This is certainly true for Liam Pennywell, the protagonist of Noah’s Compass (2009),Tyler’s eighteenth book.

Liam is sixty, widowed, then divorced from his second wife, with three daughters. He has just been ‘downsized’ from his job teaching grade five students at a private school. Seeking to economise, he moves to a cheaper apartment, where on the first night, he is assaulted, and wakes up in hospital with no memory of what took place. He is distressed by his amnesia, and wants to find out what happened.

Liam is not an assertive man. If his back is agonizingly sore, he will tell the doctor he is ‘experiencing some discomfort’. Nor is he confident and successful. “But face it:” he says, “I haven’t exactly covered myself in glory. I just … don’t seem to have the hang of things somehow. It’s as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life.”  He has lived, it seems, on the margins of his family’s lives. Will this experience jolt him into a new direction?  But as he tells his grandson Jonah, a compass for finding direction wouldn’t have been of any use to Noah; he wasn’t going anywhere, he was just trying to stay afloat on the flood.

A major theme in the story is memories – lost and found. ‘The trouble with discarding bad memories’, Liam thinks, ‘was that evidently the good ones went with them’. Offered the chance to confront his attacker, he wonders how important the memory, if it returned, would seem in comparison with other things he has forgotten. ‘Where’s the rest? Where’s everything else I’ve forgotten: my childhood, and my youth, my first marriage and the growing up of my daughters?’ he asks himself. ‘Why, he’d had amnesia all along.’ But the story is also about contentment, and while this is  a less passionate state than happiness, Liam’s pleasure in his quiet, sparse life is one of the joys of the book, as he thinks to himself of what Socrates said about ‘the fewer his wants, the closer he was to the gods.’

I hope I haven’t made the book sound depressing, because it isn’t. Tylerwrites with quiet amusement about her characters and their various foibles. Some of the humour is achieved through the use of parenthesis, as in: ‘To be honest, Liam thought, the Pennywells were a rather homely family. (Himself included.)’, or ‘“You’re dismissive and sarcastic and contemptuous,”’ Louise – his daughter – says. ‘(Anger seemed to broaden her vocabulary – a trait Liam had noticed in her mother as well.)’ But everyone has their good side, even if they can appear inept or comical. There is no malice in the humour.

Tyler’s work attracts rather conflicting responses. Some admire her unassuming prose and empathy with marginal people.  ‘She chooses subtlety over grandeur; she thinks in minuscule rather than capital letters’, says one critic.  But others (perhaps including the Man Booker International judges) consider her bland and unchallenging: ‘our foremost NutraSweet novelist’, as one critic apparently called her. I don’t think memory loss is a bland topic. And I detect a bit of sexism here: if it is domestic, it can’t be important. But perhaps I’m over sensitive. And she has won a Pulitzer Prize – for Breathing Lessons, in 1989.  

You can read more about Anne Tyler here.

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