Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

MaddAddam (2013) is the third book in Atwood’s dystopian trilogy about a world in which the human race has been all but destroyed by a pandemic. The first two are Oryx and Crake (2003), which I reviewed here, and The Year of the Flood (2009), reviewed here. Although there is a brief summary of the two earlier books at the beginning of this one, I strongly suggest you read the other books first; both characters and situation are much easier to appreciate with a knowledge of what has gone before. Even having read the previous books it took me a while to reconnect with the story.

This book starts where The Year of the Flood finishes. Toby has met up with the handful of other survivors of the pandemic – some of the MaddAddamites and God’s Gardeners from the previous book – and the group of ‘gene-spliced quasi-humans’ created by Crake – hence called Crakers. Not all the survivors are friendly; there are also two semi-crazed ‘painballers’ on the loose. Some of the genetically modified animals now roaming free are also dangerous. The Crakers love stories, and it becomes Toby’s role to tell them. But, she realises, ‘There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told.’ These three elements make up the book. The on-going ‘story’ she tells the naïve and trusting Crakers is a much modified version of the reality of things before the ‘waterless flood’. The ‘real story’ behind what she tells them is mostly flashback told to Toby about the pre-catastrophe lives of Zeb, the leading MaddAddamite, and Adam One, head of the God’s Gardeners. And the ‘story of how the story came to be told’ takes up the struggle to survive in a perilous world where everything has to be improvised: ‘physical objects have shucked their tethers’. ‘Once there were too many people and not enough stuff; now it’s the other way round’ – though little enough of the scavenged ‘stuff’ is useful. What sort of future can be possible for them?

MaddAddam has been criticised on the grounds that depicting a dystopian reality after a world catastrophe is a commonplace in science fiction. ‘It is not simply a question of the broad outlines being well-worn,’ writes one critic, ‘but of the numerous tropes deployed: the mad scientist releasing the virus; the millenarian cults and cannibal gangs; the survivors subsisting, ironically, on throwaway consumer items; the tech-noir and cyber-punk stylings; flooded cities; the vine-wrapped skyscrapers.’ This criticism seems to me to miss the point; Atwood isn’t really writing science fiction. ‘If I were writing about Planet Xenor, that would be different. It is our world, except with a few twists,’ she says. In the acknowledgements, she writes that: ‘Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or not possible in theory.’ So this isn’t the creation of an imaginary world – which I take to be an essential ingredient of science fiction. It is written as a dire warning about the directions we are taking today, and where we could well end up.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some problems with the book. Having the three ‘stories’ is a bit clunky, especially the stories Toby tells the Crakers. And though Zeb and Adam’s story is interesting, it seems like a diversion rather than an integral part of the ongoing story. Then there’s the Crakers; what is Atwood saying about quasi-humans? Maybe that we should accept differences without too much prejudice? Certainly in this story they are going to be a part of any ongoing human race. And the Crakers do evolve during the story – as someone says, their brains seem more malleable than might have been anticipated – and they have unexpected powers. On the other hand, Toby – whose Gardener name was Eve Six – wonders if teaching them to read and write might ultimately harm them. Is Atwood making a sly allusion to the forbidden apple of knowledge in the Garden of Eden? It’s as if Atwood is throwing off ideas like sparks – a dramatic show, but ultimately a bit of a fizzer. There’s also rather a lot of coincidence and a lot left unexplained; the device of Zeb telling his story to Toby means in theory that Atwood gets away with gaps in what Zeb knows, particularly about Adam, but in practice this can be frustrating for the reader.

Atwood is a great writer, and no unease about the structure and intention of the story can undermine my pleasure in her use of language, which is sometimes expressive, and sometimes sharp and acerbic. Describing the pleeblands: Zeb looks out of a sealed bullet train window and sees ‘gated communities … fields of soybeans, frackware installations, windfarms, piles of gigantic truck tyres, heaps of gravel, pyramids of discarded ceramic toilets. Mountains of garbage with dozens of people picking through it; pleebland shanty towns, the shacks made of discarded everything.’ Zeb says of his crooked father: ‘You have to give the guy some credit. He was twisted as a pretzel, he was a tin-foil halo, shit-nosed frogstomping king rat asshole, but he wasn’t stupid.’ But I agree with the critic who suggests that Atwood’s tone in this book is ‘whimsical rather than moving’.

Overall, I didn’t think this was up to the standard of the first two in the trilogy, or to her usual standard, for that matter. In the end, I couldn’t help but agree with the critic in the Guardian who wrote: ‘MaddAddam is slightly crazed, usually intriguing and often great fun. I would have enjoyed it even more, however, were it not for the nagging voice that said: instead of this, we might have had another Alias Grace, or another The Blind Assassin.’ You can read what I said about The Blind Assassin  – one of my favourite books – here.

You can read more about Margaret Atwood here.

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A while ago now I wrote a blog about Thrones, Dominions, the unfinished 1936 Dorothy Sayers mystery that Jill Paton Walsh successfully completed in 1998. For all that the world of Lord Peter Wimsey could be called dated and snobbish, I enjoyed the clever story and the continuation of the love theme between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. It seems that lots of other people liked it too; now there are three more Vane/Wimsey novels from Paton Walsh, A Presumption of Death (2002), The Attenbury Emeralds (2010) and The Late Scholar (2013).

In Dorothy Sayers’s novels, the recovery of the Attenbury Emeralds is occasionally referred to as Peter’s first case, but she never wrote about it. This Attenbury Emeralds is set in 1951, though nearly all the first half of the book concerns the fate of the emeralds, lost twice and retrieved both times with Peter’s involvement in the 1920s. The rest of the book is about his third involvement with the jewels post World War II, and relates back to their earlier history. The emerald that is important in the story was once owned by an Indian Maharaja; now he would like to buy it back. But it mysteriously disappears at an upper-class house party. Shades of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (which I wrote about here)? Well yes, Paton Walsh makes the connection, though this jewel wasn’t stolen from India; ‘Attenbury owned it with a clear conscience … it was no moonstone.’ The second loss echoed the first. But it is the third involvement that creates the real mystery in the story, and I’m not going to tell you what that’s about –it’s a genuine puzzle story of the ‘golden age’ variety. There are clues scattered throughout, though mostly of the kind I only recognised after I found out what happened.

I think Paton Walsh must enjoy writing as if she were Dorothy Sayers, as she certainly seems to have some fun doing it. Because the earlier history of the emeralds is being recounted to Harriet, Peter and his assistant Bunter are telling her what they remember happening – meaning there is a lot of dialogue. Harriet asks my favourite question about how people can remember long ago conversations so accurately. ‘Unless you have been making half this up, you have an extraordinary memory,’ she says. ‘Of course I’m not remembering everyone’s remarks verbatim,’ Peter replies, ‘I’m making a good deal of it up, but the drift … is all right.’ Well, nice to have that admission. Peter expects to have to run ‘the gauntlet of literary criticism’, and Harriet, a detective novelist herself, is well placed to notice that they have reached ‘the Little did they know juncture’ – a ‘good teaser’. She also comments on coincidence: ‘You can’t have coincidences in detective stories … Readers simply can’t accept them.’  But she goes on: ‘Though in real life they do keep happening’ – as they do in this story. ‘Clever readers,’ says Harriet of her own work, ‘would have seen through the whole thing’; as noted above, I didn’t see the main twist coming in this story, though I’m not sure even a ‘clever reader’ would have done so. Peter is right; in puzzle mysteries, ‘when you know how you know who.’ And I loved Paton Walsh’s faintly self-mocking comment when Harriet is complemented as having ‘the finest mind in detective fiction’; she replies ‘I can’t compare with Conan Doyle, or Agatha Christies, or Dorothy Sayers …’

Peter at sixty and Harriet, who is a bit younger, are very much the same characters as they were in the original Dorothy Sayers stories of the 1930s, though marriage and parenthood have mellowed them. There is however, a considerable change in the world they live in. ‘That vanished world … all seniors talk so fondly about’ is the time before World War I, rather than between the wars. Paton Walsh has Wimsey talk quite bitterly about the lack of real change post World War I: ‘the fact was,’ he says, ’that all the suffering and death had produced a world that was just the same as before. It wasn’t any safer, it wasn’t any fairer, there were no greater liberties or chances of happiness for civilised mankind’. The real change, for the upper classes at any rate, seems to be occurring as a result of World War II (which is dealt with in A Presumption of Death). Death duties are breaking up the old estates, social relations are changing: ’the iron age of distinctions between servants and family was over’. ‘I think I can feel the social weather changing as we speak’. This doesn’t mean that there is a change in the relationship between Wimsey and Bunter: they still ‘sound like a script by Noel Coward.’ But Bunter wants a different life for his son – including a degree from the London School of Economics.

Paton Walsh says at one point that Peter and Harriet’s old fashioned habits are a form of ‘affectionate nostalgia’ for the old ways. I rather think my fondness for the book is rather similar. Who writes puzzle mysteries these days? Who has an aristocratic detective with a supremely resourceful and self-effacing servant? This is comfort reading. And after all, who wouldn’t like a Bunter of their own?

You can read more about Jill Paton Walsh, who, by the way, is 77, here, and an interview with her about channelling Sayers here.

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I’ve done here what I often advise against and have picked up a book that is the most recent in a series. The Dead Season (2012) is the fifth of Kent’s Sandro Cellini stories. I guess it doesn’t really matter; there’s probably nothing you really need to know about what has gone before, though some of the characters are ongoing. Cellini has fairly recently been forced to take early retirement from the Polizia dello Stato in Florence; I think he may still have been in the force in the first book. This may have told the reader more about the work he did as a police officer; what is said here suggests he was a first responder rather than a detective. But he’s a detective now – a private one. And the circumstances of his departure may have shed light on the kind of police officer he was.

This story takes place in Florence in the middle of a heat wave, and the oppressive weather is a constant element in the story. Kent, who has lived in Florence, is probably thinking of the summer of 2011, when Florence experienced its hottest day on record – 42.1°C. Sandro’s friend (from a previous book?) and sort of part-time assistant Giuli brings him a client she has met at the Women’s Centre where she also works. Anna Niescu is eight months pregnant and her fiancée has disappeared. Can Sandro find him? Alongside this we meet Roxana Delfino, who works as a teller in a bank. A regular client doesn’t come in to deposit his takings; Roxana feels ‘a minute, sudden unexpected nudge of panic’. Then the manager of her branch is found dead. We know that there will be a connection between the two strands of the story; the interest of the book is in part how this is worked through. I really like clever plotting, and overall, this is pretty good.

Part of the interest is also in the characters. A review I read of an earlier book suggested that the pace was too slow, but I didn’t find this one dragged. Either it is better paced, or the characters are well-drawn enough in their own right to carry the story. For a start, Sandro makes an interesting private detective. He is uneasy about his new role: ‘he couldn’t go on like this, apologizing for himself, telling himself how low he’d sunk,’ he tells himself. ‘There had to be a way of being a private detective that he could live with.’ He still is friends with his former partner in the police force, which gives him access to rather more information than the ordinary private investigator is likely to have. But he is aware that the interests of his client may not always be the same as those of the police: ‘whose side was he on, exactly?’ he wonders. He is in his sixties – unusual in itself – and needs to be clever rather than brash and pushy – the modus operandi of many younger private eyes. ‘Oh Jesus. I’m too old for this’ he says at one point. But being clever isn’t easy in the heat: ‘there was information in his head, but unfortunately it hadn’t come in the shape of facts arranged in useful, neat columns: more like a swarm of wasps, circling and scattering, forming and reforming.’ He isn’t into high tech stuff: ‘there’s no substitute for getting out there and talking to people’. He operates partly on an assessment of people that is almost instinctual, but are instincts sometimes ‘the wrong thing to pursue’? He does so, nevertheless; his ‘wobbly, imprecise … lopsided building of a theory’ about the case is constructed on instinct. This is because at heart, he is on the side of ‘the defeated, the not quite competent, the stupidly soft-hearted’. You can’t not like him.

There are of course a range of other characters, most of whom are also well drawn. Kent is good on personal relationships and the tensions within them. Relationships between parents and children – or substitute children – are important, as is the ability to have them; pregnancy is a sub-theme in the story. Not all characters can be fully fleshed out, because someone has to be the hidden villain, but Kent does quite a good job of keeping the reader guessing.

There is nothing particularly outstanding about this book, but I enjoyed it more than many crime stories. I think this is partly because I like the way Kent writes. It’s hard to say what beyond a general competence is good about her writing style, but for me, she rarely puts a foot wrong.  On the other hand, I wasn’t particularly moved – frightened, elated or thrilled – by it, so there’s probably an element of safety or comfort in reading it. Sandro is a safe and comfortable hero.

I can’t help noticing that there are quite a lot of Italian detectives – mostly police – around at the moment. As well as Sandro Cellini, the is Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti in Venice, the late Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, who seems to get posted all over Italy,  the late Magdalen Nabb’s Marshal Guarnaccia, who spends at least some time in Florence, and Timothy Williams’s Commissario Piero Trotti, who operates in an unnamed city in the north of Italy. There are no doubt many Italian crime writers as well. But I also can’t help wondering if somewhere in Italy there is a writer beavering away on a series in English about a detective in Halifax or Huddersfield.

There is remarkably little on the internet about Christobel Kent, but here is an interesting blog she wrote about Florence.

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After complaining in a recent post that too many police procedural crime stories are about psychopaths and serial killers, the next one I pick up isn’t like that at all. Beams Falling (2014) is Newton’s second novel in a series featuring Detective Nhu Kelly (inevitably known as Ned) of the NSW Police. Like the first one, The Old School (2010), it is firmly set in the burgeoning underworld of gang and drug crime in Sydney. If you are going to read either of them, read The Old School first, as this story follows on from the end of that one. And don’t read any more of this review, as I can’t help giving away some of what happened in the first book. Here’s the link to it.

Ned is slowly recovering from being shot in the line of duty. Physically she is well enough to return to ‘light duties’, but she is still suffering psychologically from the trauma. She feels an overwhelming need to take her gun everywhere with her, though this is against police procedure. But is she in a fit state to carry a weapon? She is also driven to return to policing by the belief that she knows who killed her parents in an execution style shooting when she was a child. She is sure that Old Man Liu, a rich crime boss turned ‘respectable’, and his son Sonny are responsible, but they seem to be beyond the reach of the law, protected by members of the very police force Ned works for. (I like her comment: ‘Sydney. You were only a crook until you made enough money, then you were promoted to ‘colourful local racing identity.’) She is disappointed to be assigned to a task force dealing with Asian crime in the western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, as this is the home of Vietnamese, rather than Chinese gangs. But maybe they will lead her back to Chinatown and the Lius.

The story is set in 1993, though there is little to indicate this apart from a mention of a federal election and the absence of mobile phones. As in the previous book, the action takes place against a backdrop of internal police politics and external and internal investigations of police corruption. But they play a much smaller part in this story than they did in The Old School. Shades of bending the rules, ‘playing a bit rough’ and even of corruption, do add to an air of suspicion and mistrust that makes Ned feel an outsider. ‘Secret fucking squirrels,’ she thinks. ‘Last thing she wanted to do was to get sucked into whatever that lot were up to. Even so, being excluded, making it so obvious, it touched a nerve.’ Here the focus is much more on Ned herself, and her battle to deal with the effects of her injury. There is also more exploration of police culture, with several minor sub-plots designed both to illustrate and to undermine the idea of the force as a family that looks after its own – what she calls ‘the false sense of intimacy of the Job’. I guess this is where Newton’s own experience as a police officer comes in; she spent over a decade as a detective in Sydney, and must have a pretty good idea of what it’s like – particularly what it’s like to be a female police officer. Nhu of course has the further ‘difference’ of being part Vietnamese. I also wondered if Newton sets her stories in the early nineteen nineties because she feels more comfortable putting a bit of distance between policing then and now.

One of the strengths of the book is the daily round of police work which Newton is well able to describe. But the story is told from Ned’s point of view, so this means that she only sees scraps of the whole. Perhaps because of this, I found the plot a bit confusing at times, and though it did eventually come together, I thought the book lacked the narrative drive of Newton’s first one. The role of Detective Sean Murphy, from under-cover police operations, is vague, perhaps deliberately so, but you really need to have read the previous book to understand Ned’s relationship to him. There are lots of characters; I couldn’t always keep track of them. Several characters have a role – in either the action or the police culture – but then just disappear. The relationships between the various branches of the police are a bit befuddling too. Some things are left open-ended; it could be argued that life, particularly as far as police investigations go, is like that. It could also be that Newton will take them up in later books.

I thought at first that the emphasis on Ned’s state of mind had come at the expense of the social comment I valued in The Old School. But thinking about the book, I realised that Newton’s depiction of the drug wars in the Vietnamese community in Cabramatta is itself social history. There is a poignant picture of the fracturing of Vietnamese families and culture in collision with the unpleasant realities of crime and drugs. The young gang members – the ra choi  – which literally translates as ‘coming out to play’, but here means the foot-soldiers of the drug wars – are the children of Vietnamese migrants who struggle to give them a better life; the sound of the sewing machines of Vietnamese outworkers can be heard in the streets. Why have they rejected their parents’ values and chosen to ‘play’ with drugs and guns? Newton’s questions are well worth asking.

You can read a bit more about P.M Newton here. To understand the title, try reading Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1929).

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Yes, you’re seeing straight. This is Sense and Sensibility – 2013 style. It is the first instalment of the Austen Project, a series that rewrites Jane Austen’s six novels for the modern age. I don’t usually like prequels and sequels to Austen’s work, let alone the ridiculous vampire version of Pride and Prejudice. But Joanna Trollope is an interesting choice because in her own work she is very good at catching the speech and behaviour of the modern English middle class. She should be able to do a make-over of the 1811 original if anyone can.

Everyone pretty much knows the story, and Trollope sticks closely to it. It is a romance in which there are obstacles to the happiness of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in the shape of initial wrong choices of partner – ie wrong choices by Edward Ferrars and Marianne herself. Elinor reacts with sense to her situation; Marianne gets into hers by excessive sensibility. But as in all romances – see my discussion of romance novels here – it comes right at the end. Trollpe’s version includes most of the original scenes, translated into a modern setting. Norland is not left to Mrs Dashwood and her daughters at least partly because she isn’t actually married to Henry Dashwood, who hasn’t left a will. Barton Cottage is a rather ugly new house. Sir John Middleton has turned Barton Hall into the location for a high-end clothing business. John Willoughby arrives to rescue Marianne in his Aston Martin, not on his horse. On their visit to Allingham, they have sex. Marianne’s humiliation by Willoughby is recorded and posted on Facebook. Willoughby tells Elinor that he really loved Marianne at the hospital where she is recovering from an asthma attack, rather than the fever she suffers from in the original. Why asthma? Modern medicine says you can’t catch a fever from being wet.

The characters are also very much true to their originals. Elinor – often called Ellie – is practical and considerate of others. She gives up her architecture course to get a job to support the family. Marianne – often called M – wants to be ‘overwhelmed’ – to drown herself in emotion – and is scornful of anyone who doesn’t meet her romantic standards. The modern M is perhaps even more disdainful of others than the original. Margaret – here Mags – is a typical young teenager, convinced her family want to ruin her life; she gets rather more exposure than Margaret does in the original. This is also true of Bella – Mrs Dashwood, from whom M has learnt her love of drama and impulsiveness. She is more fully drawn, with her ‘gift for bohemian home making’, and maybe even a bit more demonstrative than the original. The adaptation of Edward Ferrars is possibly the least flattering; a man who is ‘of no profession’ in Austen’s day is a gentleman, whereas today he looks more like ‘a waste-of-space man’, sweet, but ineffectual.

It goes without saying that Trollope has done a great job updating the language of the book. Two examples will suffice. When it first seems that Edward is attracted to Ellie, M says ‘Wouldn’t it just completely piss off Fanny if you and Ed got together?’ And M is relieved to find that she wasn’t wrong in trusting that Willoughby loved her – he wasn’t just ‘a shagbandit’. Trollope’s ear for the idiom of the young – and not so young – middle class hasn’t deserted her.

But what has she managed to do with the social mores and expectations Jane Austen was working within? Clearly respectable marriage is no longer the only acceptable path for a young woman, though of all the major female characters, only Elinor has a job. Marriage – or at least romance – is still shown as a priority for women. ‘Do we have to have boyfriends?’ asks Mags. And Elinor replies ‘Of course we don’t have to. But we seem to want to, to need to, don’t we?’ But she agrees there’s no need ‘to make them our whole world.’ Money also remains important: Trollope has a little bit of fun here. When Elinor says: ‘this isn’t 1810, for God’s sake. Money doesn’t dictate relationships’, her mother replies ‘It does for some people.’  Willoughby deserts Marianne for a Greek heiress, and Lucy is after Ed for what he might inherit. Bill Brandon eventually finds Ed a job, but it remains unclear why he didn’t have one already. His dependence on his mother, OK in the nineteenth century, looks like weakness in the twenty-first. And Elinor can’t help finding his honourable nineteenth century behaviour in sticking to his engagement with Lucy as ‘utterly idiotic nobility’, as indeed it seems. Lucy’s decision to marry Robert, a gay party planner in this version, doesn’t have much justification other than to manufacture a happy ending – but I guess this was pretty much true in the original.

And what of ‘sense’ and ‘sensibility’? Ellie finds her role as the sensible one even more trying than Elinor does, and she wonders if she can go on coping with it. When she hears that Lucy is married, apparently to Ed, she is really upset; has she overdone ‘not wasting emotional energy in yearning’? ‘Serves you right,’ she says to herself. ‘Serves you completely right, stupid stupid Miss Sensible.’ Both Marianne and her mother come to see, as in the original, that there is more to ‘the good life’ than ‘allowing emotion to prevail over everything’. But there is a bit in the original, where Marianne is talking about how she bitterly regrets her misplaced devotion to Willoughby and her slighting of everyone else that is not in this version. Elinor asks her if she compares her conduct to Willoughby’s. Marianne answers ‘No. I compare it to what it should have been. I compare it with yours.’ In this passage it seems to me that Austen is endorsing sense over sensibility. I think Trollope is sitting a bit more on the fence.

And does this revised version suggest the Austen Project is worthwhile? I can’t see this book leading anyone to read the original. It’s fun in its own right, but I’d choose the original any day.

You can read more about Joanna Trollope here. The references to the tree house come straight from Ang Lee’s delightful 1996 film – a must-see if you haven’t already.

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After reading Evie Wyld’s traumatic but powerful All the Birds Singing – see my previous post – I was looking for something a bit more relaxed. But having found it, am I sure I really prefer comfortable?

Goddard is a well-established writer of mystery stories, where an ordinary person finds himself (and yes, all his heroes are male, as far as I can remember) having to uncover some dark secret.  Most of his twenty or so books deal with the impact such secrets from the past have on the present – see for example my review of the book before this one, Fault Line (2012). This one (2013), however, is set fully in the past. And a sequel to it – The Corners of the Globe (2014) – has already been published, going on from where The Ways of the World leaves off.

It is 1919. James Maxted, recently a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, wants to start a flying school. But his plans are interrupted by the death of his father, Sir Henry Maxted. Sir Henry was a retired diplomat recalled to service at the Paris Peace Conference. According to the French police, he died in an accident. James goes to Paris to bring his father’s body home, but soon finds there are enough ‘oddities and inconsistencies’ to throw doubt on the official version of events. He feels he has to investigate further. And one thing leads to another. What is the meaning of a mysterious list Sir Henry has left with a beautiful young widow? Why does the British Secret Service have an interest? Who else in the diplomatic community may hold a clue to Sir Henry’s death? You get the picture.

One of the things that interests me about ordinary person mysteries is the motivation of the main character to undertake the always dangerous task of uncovering the truth. Is it credible? Here, Maxted wants to find out why his father died; he feels driven by a sense of family loyalty. I don’t find this totally convincing in the sense that Maxted is rather braver than the average ordinary person. Goddard accounts for this in terms of his war experience: flying small planes over a battle field was not for the faint-hearted. He has been ‘forged by the fire, not consumed.’ When someone suggests he should be afraid, his response is: ‘I seem to have lost the knack’. But I think I’d be more convinced if Maxted wasn’t a bit of a cardboard cut-out – steadfast, loyal and resolute – in striking contrast to his stuffy older brother who just wants to avoid scandal. This is Boys Own stuff. Goddard actually describes Maxted’s actions at one point without apparent irony as ‘derring-do’, a phrase I thought was only ever used facetiously. Goddard hasn’t drawn any of the characters with any depth, which is disappointing. They are there just to make the story work.

And does it? Narrative is one of Goddard’s mains strengths, and he has crafted a clever enough plot. It moves along quickly, the short chapters adding to the pace. As with other amateurs, Maxted’s main way of operating is to ‘keep pushing’ and to see ‘who’s pushing back’. There is treachery and betrayal – common Goddard themes – and Maxted isn’t always right in his assumptions. There is a degree of happenstance and luck. But Goddard has also used the idea that ‘the things we think are unimportant are often the things that catch us out.’ In one case, what would otherwise be a gaping hole in the plot is covered by the explanation being deferred till next time. There are also some very loose ends, presumably deliberately left so that they can be taken up again in the next book. Indeed it may well be that some of what looks a bit like padding – Maxted’s expertise in flying, for example, or his period as a prisoner of war in Germany after his plane was shot down – will become relevant in the next book, to which this one is clearly a prelude.

It may also be that the relevance of the Peace Conference comes into sharper focus in the next book. It’s clearly an interesting time, and not one I’ve read about elsewhere. But apart from being an occasion bringing together a number of diplomats, and a matter for concern about the security of the various delegations, the Conference, and what it is trying to achieve, doesn’t play much of a part. Nor has Goddard put much work into the social setting of post-World War I England and France. Maxted’s off-sider, Sam Twentyman, his sergeant and former mechanic, finds it hard not to call his former officer ‘sir’; class is still alive and well, but is glossed over. Paris is cold and bleak, and there are demobilised soldiers begging on the streets, but there is no real sense of post war trauma.

This is perhaps disappointing, because as I noted in the earlier post on Goddard, he set out with higher standards than he seems to be achieving here. He says ‘I was inspired to take up writing by a growing dissatisfaction with much contemporary literature in which I detect a growing rift between technique and meaning. By wedding richness of language and intricacy of plot to narrative drive and dense imagery, I seek to heal that rift’. Well, there’s intricacy of plot and narrative drive, but the richness of language – and of characterisation – seem to have got lost along the way. Some of his earlier novels were better. It seems I need a book that is a bit more of a challenge for real satisfaction.

You can find more about Robert Goddard – and the next book – here.

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All the Birds Singing is the winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award, given to a book judged to be ‘of the highest literary merit’ which presents ‘Australian Life in any of its phases’. I don’t have a very good history with literary prize winning books, and I’ve only read one of the other five short-listed booksEyrie, by Tim Winton (and you can see my post on that book here). But I think this time they’ve got it right. I can’t really say I enjoyed the book, but I found it utterly compelling.

The structure of this book is crucial to its power. In the first chapter, we meet Jake Whyte, a young Australian woman living on her small sheep farm on an unnamed island off the British coast. She welcomes solitude and avoids the locals as much as possible, her only company being a dog called Dog. But something is killing her sheep. The second chapter takes the reader, quite without warning, back to a sheep station in Australia, where Jake is working as a shearer. The next chapter is back on the island, the next in Australia and so on. The chapters set on the island deal with Jake’s life there and her determination to protect her sheep. She is the narrator, and the story moves forward in time, though it is told in the past tense. She also narrates the chapters set in Australia, but in the present tense. These, however, move back in time. They tell how Jake comes to be working as a shearer, why she has fled to Britain and how she got the terrible scars on her back.

This structure was a little confusing at first, but I quickly came to feel that the story couldn’t have been told in any other way – surely the mark of excellent writing. Instead of spoiling the tension by revealing what has happened, the Australian chapters incrementally increase the tension as each chapter hints at what happened earlier, leaving the reader hungry to know more, and increasingly anxious about what they may find. It also increases the poignancy, with the reader knowing that some hopes and expectations are doomed to be unfulfilled, as their outcome has already been revealed. And it turns out there is every reason to be apprehensive.

You know right from the start that there is a lot of pain in this story – though I don’t know what the quote on the front cover, that ‘Wyld has a feel both for beauty and for the ugliness of inherited pain’, actually means. Inherited pain? But the eviscerated sheep on the first page isn’t a one off; there are animal deaths of one kind or another in nearly every chapter, as well as human misery. Jake gives animals feelings, often enough of panic or terror. Her personification of Dog, on the other hand, is one of the delights of the story, though it is also an illustration of her loneliness and alienation from human beings.

Some critics, and the Miles Franklin judges, see in the story ‘perhaps, some form of redemption,’ but I didn’t really find much comfort amidst the bleakness. As Jake says, ’Stupid to think it wouldn’t all fall to shit.’ The incident that sums up all the desolation for me is the one where she hits a kangaroo while driving. At first she thinks the animal is ok: ‘I laugh out loud at how wonderful life is that takes a hell of a knock like that and it’s just fine,’ she says. But it isn’t. The kangaroo is fatally injured, and she has to finish it off with a crowbar. I suppose the point is that she takes responsibility for what has happened, rather than just driving away and leaving the animal to die in pain. But then there are the circumstances in which Jake gets the wounds to her back. Can the reader feel any optimism for her after what happened? Again, maybe it is the responsibility she feels for the sheep in her care on the island that will be her salvation.

When I recently read and reviewed Victoria Hislop’s The Island, my immediate response was that it was not well written. This time, the language feels just right. What’s the difference? What is good writing? The Miles Franklin judges, and other critics, emphasise the ‘deceptive sparseness’ of the prose. I think it’s also that the tone is just right – or ‘perfect pitch’, as another reviewer called it. Jake speaks and thinks exactly as she should for who she is. Thinking about what makes some writing good and some just ordinary, I often fall back on John Carey’s definition of literature: ‘writing that I want to remember … those particular words in that particular order’. That sounds about right for this book.

Having said all that, there are still a few things that nag at me about the story. While the British chapters are continuous in time, the Australian chapters jump back irregularly, so it is sometimes hard to get a sense of how much time has passed between the events being described. The practical part of my brain wonders how Jake became such a competent shearer in what seems like a relatively short space of time. And even though the reader knows she has been left some money, how is she able to buy the British sheep farm? How did she even get a passport? If the story is, as has been claimed, a ‘moral fable’, maybe this level of social realism isn’t relevant, but I still can’t help wondering. I guess it’s because Wyld has made Jake such a real person for me.

You can read more about Evie Wyld here. This is her second book. I’ll take a deep breath and read the first one, but I might look for a little bit of light relief first.

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