Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

After Nam Le’s The Boat – see my last post – I needed something a bit lighter to read. Michael Robotham wouldn’t normally qualify; his crime stories are usually intense, complex and scary, as can be seen from my earlier posts on The Suspect (2004), Lost (2005) and The Night Ferry (2007). But Bombproof (2008) was commissioned for Books Alive, which is an annual, government-funded, month-long nationwide campaign to promote books and reading. Written for a more general audience, it is nowhere near as challenging as his other work – which was just what I was looking for.

Sami MacBeth is a twenty seven year old guitarist who wants to be a rock god. But his main talent seems to be being in the wrong place at the wrong time – ‘a talent for trouble’.  He’s already done three years in prison for a jewel robbery he didn’t commit. All he wants to do now is find his missing sister, Nadia, but after only three days of freedom, he’s in even worse trouble than that which landed him in goal. He shares the story with Vincent Ruiz, the now retired Detective Inspector from the earlier three books. Ruiz would like to help Sami find his sister; he has a thing about missing girls, though thinks he might be a bit ‘long in the tooth’. He also has some old scores to settle, and these might just have something to do with the trouble Sami’s in. ‘The behaviour of stupid, violent people no longer interests him. The behaviour of clever, driven, dangerous people is a different story.’

The story is quite complicated, but much less subtle than in the earlier books. It is as if Robotham has plotted out who has to know what, how they find it out, and how that drives the action forward, rather than writing a narrative that gives a sense of growing organically. Sami needs a place to hide so there has to be a character that can hide him. The baddies need someone on the inside of the police, and Ruiz just happens to lunch with that person on a regular (though infrequent) basis. Chance and coincidence play a much greater – or at least more obvious – role than in the best crime stories, including Robotham’s own. He makes up for it by fast-paced writing and the excitement of an incident-filled storyline.

Sami and Ruiz are both, in their different ways, likeable characters. Sami isn’t dumb; he just ‘has about as much common sense as a pork chop’. He’s fiercely devoted to his sister, and will go to any lengths to find her. He doesn’t really think about what he’s doing; he just reacts to circumstances. His resilience under enormous pressure is somewhat unrealistic, and he seems to get smarter – or at least more assured – as the story progresses. But this is a forgivable plot weakness – many ‘ordinary person’ main characters manage the extraordinary. Ruiz is smart, laconic and persistent, and not above using physical intimidation – which is not bad for a man of sixty-two. ‘Subtlety,’ he thinks, ‘was never one of his strengths as a detective’; he’d rather ‘rattle a cage’. And so he does. Most of the other characters are more or less stereotypes, sketched in to play their part in the story.

Even though Robotham is not writing at full stretch, I still enjoy his use of language. Written in the present tense, it has an immediacy that makes for easy reading (as no doubt Robotham intended). His view of the world is sardonic; what can go wrong will go wrong. ‘Sami isn’t just unlucky, he’s a walking jinx, a Jonah; he’s the one-legged man in an arse-kicking competition; he’s the Irishman who burnt his lips trying to blow up a bus. Forget master criminal – Sami isn’t even a minor one.’ His dialogue is also entertaining. ‘We could catch the tube,’ suggests Sami. ‘I don’t catch trains,’ replies Dessie. ‘Why not?’ ‘I just don’t.’ ‘We’re running a bit low on choices for you to be taking a personal stand.’ Dessie grunts. Sami takes it as a yes’. But this is a crime story, and Robotham never lets the reader forget that crime is essentially cruel, exploitative and violent; there is nothing gentle about his descriptions of the havoc caused by it.

This story feels a bit like Robotham just dashed it off, but it is probably fairer to say that he was consciously writing for an audience that doesn’t read much, and on this basis, I think he has succeeded very well.  I was looking for a good, undemanding read, and I got one.

You can find out more about Robotham here.

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Nam Le’s book of short stories, The Boat (2008), has received rapturous praise and seems to have won just about every literary award available to it. After the seagull incident about half way through the fourth story, Halflead Bay, I stopped reading, and only by an effort of will managed to pick the book up again, finish that story, and the other three in the volume. Powerful? Immensely. Enjoyable? No, though there is perhaps something cathartic about the tragedy of the stories.

The range of the stories is breathtaking. The first and last stories emerge from Nam Le’s Vietnamese heritage. He was less than one year old when he arrived in Australia with his parents on a refugee boat, but is understandably interested in the experiences of his parents’ generation. The ‘I’ character in the first story has a background and experiences similar to Nam Le’s own but whether or not the story is autobiographical is irrelevant. It is ‘true’ whether or not it is his own family’s experience. The last story, from which the collection takes its name, describes the journey of refugees fleeing Vietnam after the Communist victory and is similarly universal as well as personal. Between these two bookends are stories about a fourteen year old Columbian assassin, an elderly New Yorker who is hoping to meet his daughter for the first time in seventeen years, a young Australian on the verge of manhood, a Japanese child evacuated to a supposedly safe location just outside Hiroshima during WWII and an American woman visiting a dissident friend in Tehran.  The voice of each of the main characters in these stories is different, and each is startlingly true to its setting.

Nam Le says that each story is ‘a snapshot of a pivotal point in the characters’ lives’. The circumstances of these lives are often chilling. I suppose it’s not surprising that such moments often involve misery, failure and even death, but Le dwells to a depressing degree on situations that can only end in disaster. There is only one story where I felt the ending was in any way positive – and that was after a pretty miserable state of affairs for the rest of it (including the aforementioned seagull incident). These pivotal points often involve the relationship of parents and children, and mostly they are situations of loss, dissolution or mutual misunderstanding. It makes for bleak reading.

Le rightly notes that there are two ways of approaching the short story. One is ‘structurally orientated’, the other ‘deals primarily with language’. He is in the more ‘lyrical minded’ camp. Of course his stories have a beginning, middle and end, but he is not afraid to leave matters unresolved or endings merely implied.  As a reader, I’m more ‘structurally oriented’, so I find this a bit frustrating, especially when I can’t be entirely sure what actually does happen, as is the case in several of the stories. But certainly Le’s subtle use of language is critical to his success. He loves describing land and seascapes, as in ‘The sea breathed against the lip of the pale shore. Back from the water’s edge, flats and dunes encircling it, the town glinted like a single eye.’ But the language of his characters is equally arresting. ‘You’d think you’d get an awesome view from up here – of all places, right?’ It came out as a single quick exhalation: ‘But you look and you look and everything’s just shithouse.’  He has a wonderful ear for idiom, and seems entirely comfortable shifting between cultures, age groups and even genders. Characters’ thoughts and observations are also interesting. ‘The thing is not to write what no one else could have written, but to write what only you could have written. I recently found this fragment in one of my old notebooks. The person who wrote that couldn’t have known what would happen: how time can hold itself against you, how a voice hollows, how words you once loved can wither on the page.’ Not much danger of that, I would have thought.

On the cover of the Penguin edition, Barry Oakley, (who writes excellent satire himself), notes that for all his intensity and high seriousness, Nam Le can also ‘do funny’.  I just wish he would.

You can find a number of reviews of the book and interviews with Nam Le on his website.

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This may not be a great novel, but I think it is a very good one.

The ‘book’ is the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Brooks has taken the real life rescue of the Haggadah by a Muslim librarian from Serb shelling sometime during the siege of Sarajevo, 1992-1995, as the starting point for an imaginative exploration of how the book, created in her story in the 1490s (but probably even older) travelled from Spain to Venice then ultimately to Bosnia. The ‘people of the book’ are ‘the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it’.

The story starts in 1996 with Hanna, an Australian museum conservator, who is asked to ‘stabilize’ the rescued Haggadah so it can be displayed as a symbol of hope for the future in the shattered city. Hanna is technically good at her job. ‘But there is something else, too. It has to do with an intuition about the past. By linking research and imagination, sometimes I can think myself into the heads of the people who made the book.’ She finds tiny clues in the binding that give some indication of where it has been, and for each clue the narrative switches to an explanation of how and by whom this clue came to be left. Hanna’s exploration links the other stories, but she also has a story of her own which contains one last twist in the history of the book.

The history of the Haggadah’s journeys is filled with violence, intolerance and persecution. It is sobering to be reminded just how institutionalised anti-Semitism was in Europe throughout this period. Some of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 were accepted by the city of Venice, but were still restricted to living in the ‘Getto’, and forced to wear red caps as a sign that the blood of Christ was on their heads. The Nazi and Ustashe fanatics of WWII drew on a long history of persecution. The Roman Catholic Church, through the Inquisition, also played its part in the misery inflicted on the Jews. But there are also examples of generosity and bravery across cultures. Bosnian Muslims twice saved the Jewish book – in fact as well as in fiction – and there are other examples of love and kindness. That ‘diverse cultures influence and enrich one another’ is the real message of the novel.

The story is well crafted and highly readable. There is a sense in which the structure is contrived, in that the reader always learns far more than Hanna can possible find out through her investigation of the remaining fragments of the book’s history. But fiction is contrivance, to be admired when done skilfully, as it is here. I perhaps remain a bit unconvinced by elements of Hanna’s story: for example, did her mother have to be quite so terrible? But to describe it as one critic does as a ‘clichéd personal story’ is going a bit far.  And I can see why Brooks included the final twist which makes Hanna a participant in the long history of the Haggadah, not just an observer.

Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel March (2005) which speculates on the life of the absent father of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, away fighting in the American Civil War. She certainly can write. And her research for People of the Book (2008) seems meticulous. I was somewhat surprised therefore to read a suggestion that the story could be seen as some kind of up-market Da Vinci Code, only slower paced. Apart from both having religious themes, I can’t see that they have anything in common. This has a strong moral core entirely absent from Dan Brown’s work. If I were to make any comparison, it would be with the porcelain expert in Nicole Mones’s A Cup of Light, but I think this is a much better book – see my post on Mones’s.

One minor point intrigues me. The Sarajevo Haggadah is illuminated, which surprised art historians who had thought that Jews at that time shared the same prohibition as Muslims on using figurative art for religious purposes. As Hanna notes, the Sarajevo Haggadah changed this view. In Brooks’s story, its illustrated nature is almost accidental, not theological. Is she suggesting that art historians don’t really know what they are talking about?

You can read more about Geraldine Brooks here, and about the Sarajevo Haggadah here.

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I’ve written recently about the way books by Kate Atkinson and John Le Carré have been turned into mini series or films. My acquaintance with the work of Michael Dibdin happened the other way round. I saw three episodes of a TV series based on his books before I had read any of them.

The 2011 series was called Zen, and was named for Dibdin’s Italian detective Aurellio Zen. The three ninety minute episodes were based on his first three Zen books, Ratking (1989), Vendetta (1991) and Cabal (1992). I thought the first one (which was actually Vendetta), was excellent. This was partly because of clever way Zen was pressured by one set of authorities to solve the case and another to shelve it, and by the way the different strands of the story were brought together. But it was also because Zen was such a likable character- the classic outsider who sardonically observes the frailties of the world and goes his own way, regardless of corporate power or politics. Not for nothing was Dibdin a fan of Raymond Chandler. The expressive face of Rufus Sewell, the actor playing Zen, was perfect for the part. It’s true that the second two of the series didn’t impress me as much; their plots relied unduly on coincidence. But as I’ve noted before, it seems easier to get away with chance and luck on the screen, where there is apparently less obligation for reasoned explanation than on the written page.

So I tried End Games (2007). Zen has been sent to Calabria as acting Chief of Police in Cosenza. What began as the kidnapping of an American lawyer – ‘A traditional Calabrian crime, with its roots in the immemorial banditry of the region’ – soon turns into a very nasty murder, and Zen immediately comes up against the traditional code of silence. But he is determined to do his job; ‘this stupid, meaningless, utterly compromised job that I try to do as well as I can’. There is in addition a rather complicated sub plot about the search for the treasure of Alaric, a Visigoth who sacked Rome in the fifth century AD. Some of the same characters are involved in both plots, but others, like the peculiar American billionaire Jake Daniels and the flamboyant Italian film director Luciano Aldobrandini, belong only to the sub plot. Zen is an engaging character, as he is in the TV series; his whimsical approach is enjoyable. Dibdin writes well and there are many nice touches, such as Zen’s assessment of the notary Nicola Mantega as having the manner of a third rate tenor in a provincial opera house – ‘He had neither the range nor the volume, not to mention the subtlety, to tackle really big roles in Rome or Milan, but he could certainly ham it up and belt it out’.

Yet although it is well written and quite intricately plotted, I found it difficult to sustain an interest in the story. The sub plot is complicated to an unnecessary and unrealistic degree. The chief villain, who is always in the background, has improbable powers – even, one would have thought, for Calabria. There are arguably too many characters, particularly as a number of them carry the story for a chapter here and a chapter there, which gives them greater importance than is warranted by their role in the story. The film director, for example, seems completely superfluous.  It has been suggested that some of these characters are vehicles for Dibdin’s satire – Jake as the mindless, trendy, rich American with his evangelical wife Madrona and his Rapture Works enterprise, and Aldobrandini as the pretentious film director obsessed with his legacy. But if so, is this the only satire in the book? Is the view of Calabria satire? How is the reader supposed to know? I can’t tell if it is satire or stereotype.

Many other readers and critics would disagree with my less than enthusiastic assessment. When Dibdin died suddenly in 2007 – this novel was published posthumously – his obituaries gave high praise to his work, both his Zen series and his stand alone books. He was admired for his insights into ‘the changing face’ of Italian society, as well as the high quality of his writing and plotting. But this is one of the few times that I’d say watch the DVD rather than read the book.

You can read a different assessment of Didbin’s work here.

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If seeing the film of Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy has got you interested in George Smiley, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s a sequel – both as a book and mini series (starring Alec Guinness) – called Smiley’s People. This is just a gentle reminder for those who already know it.

TTSS was published in 1974; Smiley’s People came out in 1979. The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) which is also a Smiley story, came between them, and deals with the pursuit of another Soviet mole, this time in China. But while Smiley as Head of the Circus instigates the case, the main player is Jerry Westerby (who has a small part in TTSS); it is only incidental to Smiley’s battle with the Russian spymaster Karla. Smiley’s People resumes that struggle.

The book starts, as does TTSS, not with Smiley, but with the introduction of two of the minor characters, Ostrakova, a Russian émigré in Paris, and Villem, an English long distance lorry driver of Estonian extraction. But it is not long before Smiley is again called from retirement to tidy up after the murder of his former agents. This is Vladimir, once a general in the Russian army, now living in London and still in touch with the dwindling émigré groups who once provided important information to British Intelligence. The Circus in now prohibited from dealing with such groups; they just want Smiley to demonstrate that Vladimir no longer had links with the intelligence community. But Smiley soon has other ideas, and his quest to find out what information Vladimir possessed and why he was murdered leads him inexorably in pursuit of Karla. 

Le Carré is a master story teller. Smiley starts with a small piece of evidence, which leads to an encounter with someone who provides more evidence, which leads to a further encounter, and so on. About three quarters of the book is taken up with this quest. In the final section, Smiley acts on the evidence he has amassed. This is not the stuff of the ‘action thriller’; there is no ‘bang bang kiss kiss’, as Ian Fleming put it. There is menace and violence, and Smiley increasingly feels he is working against time. But he is essentially solving a puzzle, not, for most of the book, directly confronting an enemy. It is a very clever story in that little happens by way of coincidence; Smiley’s steps are all soundly based. Perhaps he has an ability not shared by others to see significance and draw conclusions, but even his guesswork is informed by knowledge and experience. ‘Instinct – or better a submerged perception yet to rise to the surface – signalled to him urgently that something about these cigarettes was wrong.’ Or on another occasion:‘Some questions are hazard, some are instinct, some – like this one – are based on a premature understanding that is more than instinct, but less than knowledge.’ Le Carré is too clever a writer to rely on chance to resolve his plots .

The quality of his writing also shows in the development of his characters. Some, such as Oliver Lacon and Connie Sachs have already been introduced in TTSS; others, like Ostrakova and Villem, are new. But old or new, all are fully drawn. Le Carré does not mind spending time filling in the details of their lives, even though these might not be directly relevant to the story. Connie Sachs, now old and ill, is looked after by her much younger lover, Hilary, a former cipher clerk in the Circus. Hilary had a violent breakdown (smashing furniture and writing graffiti) which Smiley witnessed when he was in charge. There is no need for this information in terms of the plot, but it heightens the sense of both Smiley and Connie as outsiders, even rebels against the intelligence establishment. Lacon is as he ever was: ‘sophistry was Lacon’s element. He was born to it, he breathed it, he could fly and swim in it, nobody in Whitehall was better at it.’ It’s wonderful writing.

As I noted in an earlier post, Le Carré was short listed for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize. It is books like Smiley’s People that earned him this nomination; in writing about espionage, he explores the human condition. 

You can read more about Le Carré here.

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I’ve now seen the Tinker Tailer Solder Spy film, and though I enjoyed it, I still prefer the book.

I think there are two different audiences for this film: those who have read the book and those who haven’t. None of my companions for the film knew the story; none had heard of the British defectors Burgess, McClean and Philby. All found it a bit confusing, largely because there were a lot of characters, and a fair bit of jumping about in time. They also commented – though not unfavourably – on the relative lack of action, compared to most modern spy films, and what they saw as a strong emphasis on George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman.

I was interested in how the film would play to someone who knew what was going to happen, and for whom therefore there was no suspense. Could the senior members of the Circus amongst whom the mole is to be found be portrayed in sufficient depth to make it possible that any one of them is the traitor? Could Smiley’s incremental discoveries that lead to the unmasking of the mole all be included? Could the ‘last clever knot’ that Smiley has to unpick be explained in the relatively short time available? 

I accept that the story needs to be compressed to work as a film, and overall, the compression is effective enough. Most of the dialogue, while abridged, is taken straight from the book, though the lines are sometimes given to different characters. The four possible conspirators – code named tinker, tailer, soldier, spy – aren’t developed as much as in the book, but they are all equally undeveloped, so even if you know which one is the mole, you can still admire the uncertainty and suspicion that are at the heart of the story. While my companions thought Smiley was central, I thought his role is somehow diminished. The trail he follows is compressed, some of the characters he meets with in the book having a different role in the film, but others being left out altogether. Jim Prideaux’s role is also much condensed, which further limits Smiley’s; there is no hidden pursuer for him to be half aware of. Some of the flash back scenes to Circus staff socializing together seem unnecessary, especially given that so much is left out.

My companions wanted to know the mole’s motive, which is not revealed, but then it is not really explored in the book either.

In terms of plot, the essentials are there. Smiley establishes the connection between ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘Operation Testify’, though you have to watch fairly carefully. ‘The last clever knot’ is there too, though again I’m not sure I would have got it if I didn’t already know.

So what did the visuals add to the story? I liked the moody interior shots of the Circus – seeing made it much more real. It made more sense of senior staff being an exclusive club on the fifth floor if you could see the rest of the rather rambling offices populated with all the lesser Circus workers. Because tinker, tailer, solder and spy can’t be as fully developed as in the book, their appearance and actions have to do the work for them; all do a good job. I didn’t think Lacon looks like the prim senior civil servant he is in the book, and I didn’t warm to Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux – too sinister, rather than rugged. The shots of ill-lit streets and dingy interiors capture the mood of the early nineteen sixties, reflecting Britain’s struggle to keep its great power status alive in the depths of the Cold War. The politics of espionage, and role of the Americans in it, are clearly brought out.

And what of Smiley? I wrote in an earlier post that for me, Alex Guinness, of the TV adaptation, is Smiley – ‘small, podgy and at best middle-aged’. Oldman clearly had to differentiate his performance from Guinness’s.  He is a younger, less eccentric Smiley, an almost self-effacing presence in the film, for all his central role. His old boss, Control (John Hurt) is a more colourful character. I suspect John Le Carre, who advised on the film, would have been happy with Oldham’s low key performance; he argues that espionage is not a flashy business. I think I still prefer Guinness – but go and see for yourself.

You can read some reviews of the film – all pretty favourable – here.

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Based on the subject matter, this is not a book I would expect to like. One of the main threads running through it is a computer game called T’Rain , which is a ‘massively multiplayer online role-playing game’ (MMORPG) something like the World of Warcraft – which I had never heard of until I read this book. A number of its characters are part of America’s gun culture – something else I’m not keen on. Also, it’s a great brick of a book – over 1000 pages. But it’s by Neal Stephenson, and as far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t put a foot wrong.

After years as a draft dodger and smuggler of marijuana across the US Canadian boarder, Richard Forthrast, known to his friends as Dodge, has developed a computer game which has grown into a multi million dollar enterprise with players all around the world. But a group of hackers – who could be located anywhere – have created a virus called Reamde that captures players’ files and holds them to ransom. This is an annoyance rather than a disaster until some information that belongs to Russian mobsters is inadvertently captured. This sets off a chain of events that draws in a cast of characters who find themselves in a wild adventure even more dangerous than tangling with the Russians.

The story is clever and intricate. Stephenson draws together his cast, disperses them to various distant locations, then brings them back together for the grand finale. Part of the length of the book arises from the detail devoted to the adventures of several people or groups of people, and such is the complexity of the story, it is hard to see that it could have been made any shorter. There is perhaps more about the game than I really need, though it plays an important part in the story, and there are nice parallels between the role playing and the real world. (At one point, Richard even compares his situation to that of his T’Rain character, the powerful but currently adrift wizard Egdod.) But others who know about such games will doubtless find it fascinating. Is he just being self indulgent? I rather think that Stephenson now has enough faithful readers that he can write at any length, and not put them off. And when he can present a plot twist that take’s one’s breathe away, as he does here, I’m not going to be put off either.

Stephenson says he wanted to write an adventure story that has interesting characters. He has gone about making them interesting in part by giving them a diverse range of backgrounds and circumstances. In addition to Richard, others include Zula, an Eritrean orphan adopted by Richard’s sister; Csongor, a Hungarian computer expert; Sokolov, a Russian security consultant; Yuxia, a Chinese Big Foot woman; Olivia, a British intelligence analyst and Abdallah Jones, a Welsh born jihadist. But it is also how these characters think and feel and react that makes them interesting. Jihadists, Sokolov reflects, have the advantage of being fatalists who believed God was on their side. ‘Russians, on the other hand, were fatalists of a somewhat different kind, believing, or at least strongly suspecting, that they were fucked no matter what’. Or, thinking about jihadists, Zula muses that ‘once they had left common notions of decency in the dust – once they had abandoned all sense of proportionality – then it turned into a sort of competition to see who could outdo all the rest in that. Beyond there it was all comedy, if only you could turn a blind eye to the consequences’. I really like the way Stephenson looks at the world through his characters. And I really like his ironic turn of phrase.

Stephenson certainly likes his games and his guns, and I don’t understand or relate to either. Clearly I wouldn’t enjoy the book if that was all there was to it. But fortunately it isn’t. On the other hand, I recognise that 1000 pages is a big ask if you aren’t already a convert. But if you’re prepared to try, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

You can listen to Stephenson talking about the book on his website here. And you can read my earlier posts on his books Cryptonomicon here and on Anathem here.

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My book group decided, after some discussion, to read – or more accurately for most to re-read – Jane Eyre. We were uncertain whether there is anything interesting we could say about a book that nearly everyone has read, about which so much has been written and which has been adapted so often for film and TV.

I first read Jane Eyre when I was about ten, and was caught up in her unhappy childhood and struggles at the detestable Lowood School. I now know Bronte was working out her anger and frustration at her own family’s experience at Cowan Bridge School for clergymen’s daughters, where her elder sisters Maria and Eliza both died of consumption. Helen Burns, in Jane Eyre, was based on Maria. ‘She was real enough’, wrote Charlotte later. ‘I have exaggerated nothing there’.  I enjoyed the happy ending – ‘Reader, I married him’ – but didn’t think much about the nature of the relationship between Jane and Rochester.

Later I read about the ‘romance formula’ for stories, whereby a woman and man meet, are attracted to each other, but have to overcome obstacles to a successful relationship. I realised that it was not so much that Bronte’s book fitted the formula – it was crucial in creating it. What better obstacle than a mad wife in the attic? Subsequent romance writers acknowledge their debt to Bronte. Georgette Heyer, for example, who herself inspired many other romance writers, admired Mr Rochester.  ‘Charlotte knew, perhaps instinctively, how to create a hero who would appeal to women throughout the ages, and to her must all succeeding romantic novelists acknowledge their indebtedness,’ she wrote.  ‘For Mr Rochester was the first, and the Nonpareil, of his type.  He is the rugged and dominant male, who can yet be handled by quite an ordinary female: as it might be, ‘oneself’.’  The formula, at its best, also requires the man and the woman to achieve a degree of equality. ‘It is my spirit that addresses your spirit … just as if we stood at God’s feet, equal, – as we are!’ cries Jane.  Much of the story of Jane Eyre is about how this equality is achieved.

It took me even longer to realise that this is also a story about sexual passion. There is no direct statement about anything sexual in the book, but it is there all the same.  Why does Rochester court Jane? Because he fancies her. While they are engaged, Jane has to find ways of keeping Rochester at a physical distance.  And once it is revealed that he has a wife still living, Jane finds it physically difficult to reject his plea that she become his mistress: ‘physically, I felt, at the moment, powerless as stubble exposed to the draught and glow of a furnace’, though of course she does resist.  Rochester clearly thinks of forcing the issue, but realises he would lose her if he did. ‘Conqueror I might be of the house; but the inmate would escape to heaven before I could call myself the possessor of its clay dwelling place’.  Jane runs away as much because she fears she can’t resist him as because she has been compromised by him.

This is a novel I have grown up with, and to me it is endlessly interesting, as I find something new and different every time I read it. I think we should have a good discussion.

Some of the group have also elected to read Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the story of Rochester’s ‘mad wife’, Bertha Mason in Bronte’s book, Antoinette Cosway, renamed Bertha by Rochester (who is never himself named) in Rhys’s. This book turns Bertha from a menacing obstacle to Jane and Rochester’s romance into a real person with a tragic history. More scope for discussion.

There is a wealth of information about Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre; you could start here. I’ve elaborated some of my ideas about romance fiction in an earlier post. And you can find out more about Jean Rhys – whose own life was pretty tragic – here.

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This is the first in the series of McCall Smith’s books about the residents of a block of flats in Edinburgh. I say block of flats, but Iain McIntosh’s illustrations suggest a rather charming Georgian house, once lived in by one family, now with flats on each floor.

McCall Smith explains in a preface that the book arose from an invitation to him in 2003 from The Scotsman to revive the art of the serialised novel that had been popular in the nineteenth century, though he was asked to write daily instalments – weekdays for six months. This posed considerable challenges; each segment had to be short, but interesting enough to draw readers away from what they normally read in a newspaper. There had to be a story, but it couldn’t be too complicated and it had to be light. And McCall smith wanted it to ‘say something about life in Edinburgh’.

In a book made up of daily instalments, the characters are all important in holding the story line together. The central ones all live at 44 Scotland Street, on the edge of ‘the bohemian part’ of Edinburgh New Town. There is Pat, a pleasant but rather shy young woman who is in her second gap year and works for Matthew in a nearby gallery. She shares a flat with Bruce, a good looking and vain young man who assumes all women will fall in love with him. Domenica, the voice of wisdom, is an anthropologist who describes herself as ‘a bit of a dilettante’.  And then there is the Pollock family – the ineffectual Stuart, the truly frightening Irene and their five year old son Bertie, who Irene is convinced is a genius – or can be made into one. She is giving him ‘the gift of freedom from gender roles’. There is a second tier of characters including Matthew, Bruce’s boss Todd and his wife and daughter, Big Lou who runs a coffee shop and Angus Lordie, a portrait painter. McCall Smith says the characters represent ‘human types’ he has met while living in Edinburgh and most of them act out their particular type, rather than being fully rounded. But their particular types are interesting, so this isn’t really a problem. Edinburgh itself can almost be considered a character: ‘Hypocrisy is built into the stonework here.’

The plot, such as it is, centres on the interactions between the characters, and the question of whether a painting in the gallery is by the Scottish Post- Impressionist painter, Samuel Peploe.  In the relative absence of a story, the thoughts and insights of the characters become even more important. McCall Smith’s intense humanity, and his gentle wit, show up here as he explores people’s motivation and actions – ‘so weak, and ordinary, and human as we all are.’  

Many people like this book very much. Reviewers talk about how comfortable and friendly the story is, and how likeable the characters. Charm, empathy and elegance are the sort of words often used. And as McCall Smith says in the preface, it is possible to use a small canvass to highlight larger issues like the meaning of friendship, trust and honour, the importance of childhood and the challenges of parenthood. And certainly he has succeeded in bringing Edinburgh to life.  

And yet despite all the good things, I felt there was something lacking. Perhaps it is just that McCall Smith is simply too nice, his humour too gentle; the book lacks bite. Or maybe the ‘human types’ are a bit too stereotypical. I wasn’t convinced by Pat’s relationship with Bruce, Irene is over-the-top terrible and Bertie – even given the time and attention put into his education – is surely far too articulate for a five year old. The Scotsman persuaded McCall Smith to continue with the daily serialisation, and six more books in the series have followed. But I don’t think I’ll be seeking them out.

You can read more about McCall Smith and the series here.

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This is a very good thriller, though it’s strong South Australian focus may not appeal to everyone. I can’t remember reading another thriller so intent on giving so much detail about the geography and sociology of the setting – down not just to the suburbs, but to the very streets the characters drive on. A rich background, or too much trivia? I like it, but then I’m a South Australian.

Steve West – Westie, naturally – is a former professional footballer who retired injured and is now a mining engineer working at an outback mine. On a trip to Adelaide for a week off, he is stopped at a police road block and learns that protesters have breached the fences of the Woomera Detention Centre, allowing a number of the asylum seekers interned there to escape into the desert. He is initially unconcerned, but is then persuaded by Kara, one of the protesters, to help Saira, a beautiful young Afghan detainee, to flee to Adelaide.  Soon the police, ASIO and some of the detention centre guards are after them. Why is Saira so important?

This is a traditional hunt/chase thriller where the hero has both to evade capture and turn the tables on the pursuers. Sarre does a good job of raising the tension through an escalating level of menacing incidents, building to a final confrontation. I always like a plot where the hero manages to find a way of counterbalancing the threats against him (or her), and Sarre has done this quite cleverly. I also like the way he deals at the end of the story with the love interest.

West is an ordinary person who gets involved more or less by accident. I am always interested in the capacity of an ordinary person to deal mentally and physically with the trials they face in thrillers. What motivates them to go on? I don’t expect a complete psychological analysis, but I do like motivation and physical prowess to be credible. Sarre is just inside the bounds here. West takes more physical punishment than is completely credible, and just happens to know a professional burglar who provides him with a crucial piece of evidence. His motivation is not openly discussed; it is more a function of the sort of person he is, and as such, is reasonably convincing.

West’s character is revealed through his actions, but the reader believes in him because of the way he thinks and talks. Sarre has a good ear for dialogue. West is laconic and down to earth, as in: ‘Geologically speaking, we’re driving through a boring-as-bat-shit dust bowl’.  He can also verbally quick and clever. ‘Where would you rank me now,’ he asks Kara. ‘Above garden slug, below rat?’ No,’ she says. ‘ Higher. Chimpanzee perhaps.’ Who can’t like him? Sarre’s irreverent writing style reminds me of Peter Temple’s laid back way of saying important things in a droll and sometimes crude way.

I am much more doubtful about West’s friend Baz. His motivation is much less convincing, and his function in the plot remains unclear to me, unless it is simply to prove that ‘plenty of nice people do evil things’ and that power corrupts.

Sarre is clearly interested in the politics of the asylum seeker debate. Kara wants to expose abuses in the Woomera detention centre, and her view is treated sympathetically. Characters who denigrate or mistreat refugees are portrayed as ignorant and brutal. West shows himself to be on Kara’s side more by actions than words, but this carries the message more strongly than words can do.  ‘Maybe you have to fight terror with terror,’ West muses. ‘Or maybe if you do you end up with something that is no long worth fighting for.’ While hardly a profound truth, it is one that seems often forgotten in the war on terror.

Overall I like the story and the way it is written. Given that Steve West played for the Crows – the Adelaide Football Club – and I barrack for their arch rivals – the Port Adelaide Football Club, I think I am being remarkably generous. Sarre is less charitable. Talking about Port Adelaide, West says ‘Mosquitoes were no longer the most annoying creatures there; that honour belonged to supporters of the Port Adelaide Football Club.’ Thanks Alastair. And speaking of being South Australian-centric, calling a dog Warren is purely an Adelaide joke.

There is not a lot about Alastair Sarre on the internet, but you can read a little about him here, and a short interview with him about writing the book here.

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This is a beautifully written and thoughtful book about important subjects. But I found it so depressing that it was hard to keep reading.

The story is set in the mid 1980s, mostly in Kalimpong, near the border of India and Nepal, at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains. It concerns the doings of Jemubhai Patel, a retired judge, Sai, his orphaned grand daughter, and their cook – who is never named. The experience in America of Biju, the cook’s son, forms a counterpoint to the main narrative. There are also flash backs to the judge’s marriage and the time he spent in England preparing to sit for the Indian Civil Service exams.

The judge has imbibed a respect for doing things the English way. He spends his time reading English newspapers and playing chess; he doesn’t even mix with the small Anglophile community in Kalimpong. He eats meat with a knife and fork in a country where most people eat rice and dahl with their fingers. Sai is a teenager who has been brought up at first in a convent and then in the judge’s house. She also speaks English and respects English customs. She is in love with Gyan, her maths tutor, a young man from the local college. The cook does his best to look after them in the proper English way. He is immensely proud of his son. Biju entered America on a tourist visa which he has overstayed, and is now working illegally – or rather, being exploited – in a succession of poorly paid jobs in dirty restaurants. Then one day a group of young men calling themselves the Gorkha National Liberation Front steal the judge’s old hunting guns, and nothing is the same thereafter.

Desai ties the small doings of the characters – going to the market, arguing over brands of cheese, reading the National Geographic, stealing guns – into the larger themes that concern her. These include poverty, ignorance and inequality in India, the legacy of colonialism and the alienation of Anglophile Indians from their society, the growth of globalisation and consumerism, the experience of emigration, and the attractions of insurgency. In all of these, nearly everyone in the story loses out, partly through their own choices, but more because of the shaping forces of these broader themes which they have inherited.

The judge is a horrible man, who covers his insecurity – so dramatically heightened by the hostility and prejudice he encountered in England – by shouting and abuse. In England, ‘He retreated into a solitude that grew in weight day by day. The solitude became a habit, the habit became the man, and it crushed him into a shadow’. ‘He envied the English. He loathed Indians. He worked at being English with the passion of hatred, and for what he would become, he would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians, both’.  Sai is a pleasant enough young woman, but she is drifting and purposeless. Biju is simply overwhelmed by the ‘unbearable arrogance and shame of the immigrant’ – the frustrations and miseries of his existence, inflicted, often enough, by his more successful fellow countrymen. The cook is kind, but his whole being is defined by his status as a servant. What happens to them, and to most of the other characters, amounts to misery piled on misery, humiliation on humiliation. As one character says, ‘There is nobody who won’t abandon you’. There is nobody who is redeemed. As for the Gorkha National Liberation Front, they ‘were living in the movies’. If they stirred up hatred, ‘extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event’.

Desai writes all this in a delicate and whimsical style. But that only makes the frustrations and misunderstandings, the betrayals and the losses seem even worse.

I know literature is supposed to tell us truths about ourselves, and this Desai does with a vengeance. Looking back at the end of the book, I couldn’t find one single untainted moment where happiness or hope wasn’t about to be disappointed. Things just are, and must be accepted. No wonder I felt depressed by the book.

The Inheritance of Loss won the Man Booker Prize in 2006. You can read an interview with Desai about herself and about writing the book here. For a different view of some of the same issues in India, see my post on The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008.

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This is a six part series based on three of Kate Atkinson’s books – Case Histories, One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News? Each episode is an hour long. Knowing how much I like Kate Atkinson’s writing, my daughter gave me the DVD for Christmas. But I approached it warily; compressing three complicated books into six episodes seemed like a big ask.

I like the series, but for reasons rather different from why I like the books. In my post on When Will There Be Good News? I noted that the TV series is coming, and hope that it wouldn’t concentrate too much on Jackson Brodie, who in Case Histories (the book), is working as a private detective. This was because I like the way that Atkinson gives weight to other characters who star in their own part of the larger narrative, sharing the limelight equally with Jackson Brodie. Since all Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels contain several loosely linked stories, as well as his own story, each book has several well drawn and often appealing characters from whose view point the plot periodically unfolds. These different perspectives are important, in my view, in positioning Atkinson’s work not as genre crime fiction but as literary ‘state of society’ novels.

Well of course the TV series focuses on Jackson Brodie. Other characters do carry the action forward, but he is central. The story has been changed to keep him working as a private detective, rather than falling into the role by accident as he does in the second and third books. This means that he is the key figure in all the cases and the primary link between them. While the changes that have to be made to accommodate this are relatively minor in terms of the plots of the episodes, it gives a whole different orientation to the series. His centrality is re-enforced by the ongoing flashbacks to the tragedy that destroyed his youth and shaped his adult life. His daughter also plays a more central role than in the books.

I really like the way Atkinson writes; she has what I describe elsewhere as ‘humour, a lightness of touch and a matter-of-fact style’. Some of this is conveyed in conversation, but the interior monologues that characterise her style are necessarily missing. Still, the screen Jackson Brodie is very much the character she has created.

Another thing I like about the books is their complexity, and the subtle way the plot strands are linked together. There is perhaps a bit too much coincidence, but Atkinson can usually write her way out of this. ‘You say coincidence, he thought. I say connection.’ The strands of the various cases in each episode still make for complexity, and I wonder whether if I didn’t know what was going on, I would always have been able to follow the action. This is really a question for someone who has seen the series but not read the books. I also find that TV series often get away with a good deal more looseness of plot than is possible in a book, no doubt because of the visual speed of the action, so maybe coincidence and unexplained connections aren’t seen as much of a problem in this medium.

So what did I like about the series? Well Jason Isaacs (aka Lucius Malfoy) makes a great Jackson Brodie. He has the physical presence, the toughness but also the gentleness and vulnerability required for the part, and I don’t think he puts a foot wrong. Good use is made of the dramatic Edinburgh landscape. And the cases are of course just as interesting as in the original books. It is probably true that this format even heightens the theme that runs through them all – the lost girls that haunt Jackson because of the loss of his own sister. ‘Sometimes it seemed to [Jackson] as if the entire world consisted of one accounting sheet – lost on the left-hand side, found on the right. Unfortunately the two never balanced’. But there is considerable satisfaction in following the stories of the ones that Jackson does manage to recover.

I think the trick, which I’m not good at, is to realise that reading and watching TV are different kinds of experience, and each can be enjoyed in its own way. Read the books, but also have a look at the DVD.

You can read my earlier posts on the books Case Histories, One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News? here, here and here. A further two episodes of Case Studies based on the fourth Jackson Brodie novel Started Early Took My Dog are in the pipeline. You can read my post on that book here. You can read more about Kate Atkinson here.

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It’s always tempting to speculate about what happened next in the lives of much loved characters such as Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. A number of writers have tried to cash in on this interest in Austen’s characters by writing ‘sequels’, though apparently few have succeeded in producing anything worth reading. (Here is a list of the attempts.) P.D. James is one of the more distinguished writers to take up her pen in this endeavour, and she knows she is being cheeky. ‘I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen,’ she writes, ‘for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation’. So does the result justify her impertinence?

A ‘sequel’ that is also a crime story has to do two things. It has to recreate the tone of the earlier book – it’s the characters and their social setting – and it should also be a good crime story. Here, I’m not sure that these two requirements aren’t mutually exclusive.

Elizabeth and Darcy are happy at Pemberley. They have two young sons, an exemplary household and Jane and Bingley live nearby. It is the evening before the Pemberley ball. Into this ordered world bursts Lydia Wickham, screaming that murder has been done. A body, an investigation and a prosecution follow. But have they got the right man?

As you would expect, James does a good job of setting the tone of early nineteenth century English society. Her use of language is pitch-perfect. The book opens with the observation that ‘It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr and Mrs Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters’, and continues in the same vein. Most of the characters in the story are already known to readers of Pride and Prejudice, and take their colouring from their originals. There is less of the wit and humour of the earlier book, but that is not surprising in a murder story. The point of view is mostly shared between Elizabeth and Darcy, which also gives less scope for Elizabeth; after all, she can’t attend an inquest, let alone a trial. Darcy has some struggles with family pride, but there is no change in the ideal relationship between him and Elizabeth, as there might be if this were a ‘relationship’ story. There is also a short section told from the perspective of one of the servants. This definitely is out of character for an Austen story, and seems more a way of giving the reader information than a sudden lurch into a more democratic view of narrative.

A problem that is perhaps endemic to sequels is how much of the back story from the previous book needs to be included. This story is tied quite closely to events in Pride and Prejudice, so quite a bit has to be repeated from the earlier book. I know P & P very well, so I found this –well – repetitious; it would probably not worry other readers.

I’m less happy with the crime story. It does a satisfying job of involving characters we know from the earlier book. But I think there is a bit much telling and not quite enough showing in relation to it. Some suspicious behaviour and some hints are dangled in front of the reader, but none of this is really developed. Its resolution relies on a death-bed confession – one of my least favourite crime writing conventions – and on a verbal explanation from another character. There is none of the investigation James suggests Elizabeth is involved in. I think this is because there is no one in the story who can investigate. Elizabeth and Darcy are both precluded from it by their social and family position. There is another character I thought might have been introduced to do the detecting, but that isn’t the case. So confession it has to be, with crime writing sacrificed to ‘sequel’.  

I was given this book for Christmas, and found it a very pleasant holiday read. So no doubt I’m being over-critical, but I can’t help wondering if the spirited Elizabeth of the original might have solved the crime where Elizabeth, the ideal wife and mother of James’s sequel, could not.

P.D. James is a great crime writer when she has a real detective. You can read about her, and her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, here.

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Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

I really like the way Neal Stephenson writes: it is clever and funny. But Anathem (2008) is a book I have to work at. I think the effort is worthwhile, but I’d understand if others didn’t.

I agreed in an earlier post with Margaret Atwood that her futuristic novel Oryx and Crake should be seen as speculative fiction, because it takes what is already happening and extends it, whereas science fiction changes the scientific rules to allow things that are not physically possible. On that basis, Anathem should be science fiction, but the boundaries of science and technology are in such flux that I hesitate to say that the scenario in this book is not physically possible. Quantum Theory? Philosophy? Cosmology? It has all these and more – and it is a great adventure story.

The setting for the book is the planet Arbre, which, Stephenson notes in a foreword to the reader, is in many ways similar to Earth. This planet has a recorded history longer than that of the Earth but some events in it recall those on Earth. We are now living in what in Arbre’s history is known as the Praxic Age, which was nearly three thousand seven hundred years before the events in the story. For thousands of years, groups of men and women who wish to study theorics – science and philosophy – have chosen to become avouts and live together in concents. At earlier days they were at the forefront of technological advances in areas such as sub atomic physics and gene sequencing.  Since the Terrible Times, which occurred at the end of the Praxic Age, the avouts have lived almost entirely closed off from the rest of the world, following an ascetic way of life with little modern technology.  The names of many recognisable things in this world are different – jeejah for mobile phone/network browser and Reticulum for the internet being two of my favourites. There is a comprehensive glossary, and key terms are defined in the text as extracts from The Dictionary, 4th edition, A.R. 3000. Stephenson has created a complete and complex society, both inside and outside the walls of the concert, in a way that I find quite brilliant.

The story follows the doings of Fraa Erasmus, first in his Concent of Saunt (as in savant) Edhar, then after he is ‘evoked’ – taken out of the concent – by the secular power to help meet a crisis threatening the planet’s future.  Erasmus is an endearing character and Stephenson is a master story teller; there’s lots of exciting action to enjoy, as well as the interest of the world he has created.

I do, nevertheless, have two related problems with this book. First, it is, like all Stephenson’s books, very long, coming in at around 900 pages. Does it really need to be so long? Is this self indulgence on the author’s part? Second, some of the length comes from fairly protracted philosophical discussions among the characters. These primarily cover the views of philosophers that can be recognised as Plato and Aristotle and their successors. There is the notion ‘that the objects and ideas that humans perceive and think about are imperfect manifestations of pure, ideal forms that exist in another plane of existence’.  Or, ‘Put simply’, says someone on the other side of the argument, ‘… language, communication, indeed thought itself, are the manipulations of symbols to which meanings are assigned by culture – and only by culture.’ There is also discussion of consciousness and language, and of various mathematical concepts, to say nothing of configuration space. This is a bit of a stretch for me. It would be bad enough if the real names were used, but I find having to remember which argument goes with which avout saunt distractingly difficult. Are these discussions really necessary to the plot, or are they just Stephenson having a bit of fun? They certainly slow down the pace. I can see the general relevance, but struggle with much of the detail.

Someone has created a Wiki page where everything in the story is given an earthly equivalent. This is quite interesting, but I find there is pleasure in teasing out for myself the ways in which words sound similar to other words, yet mean something rather different. The physics of how the same matter can develop in divergent ways to produce outcomes that are different but still similar is at the heart of the book, so Stephenson’s play with language mirrors this in a very pleasing way.  

And his command of the technology he has (I assume) invented is awesome.

You can read more – though not a lot more – about Stephenson here. If you haven’t come across him before, you can read my earlier post on his book Cryptonomicon (1999) here.

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If I asked you to name a book that is set in nineteenth century England and features a young man hired by a rich eccentric to mount his collection of prints, and who teaches the man’s niece to draw, I’d have a fair idea what you’d say. And if I added that there was a fortune hunting scoundrel and a mad house in the story, you’d be certain I was talking about Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. But there is another, equally correct answer: Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters (2002). 

In this story, Sarah Waters consciously dips into a recognisable pool of Victorian literary conventions. As well as those above, there is the confusion over identities, the missing heir, the kind-hearted but criminal mother figure – a baby farmer with the Dickensian name of Mrs Sucksby – and the scholar whose intellectual labour is sterile, like Dr Casaubon’s. But Waters is not content to borrow; in her hands each of these is refigured into something new, surprising, and often nasty. She looks beneath the surface at what life might really have been like – for example, in a mad house, or in the poor quarters of London. ‘Step to the window,’ says one character, ‘look into the street. There is life, not fiction. It is hard, it is wretched’. But of course it is fiction. Furthermore, the manner in which the story is presented plays with the way that personal narrative is, of its nature, fiction. Nothing is as it seems; nearly all the characters are ‘clinging to fictions and supposing them truths’. As one of them says, ‘When I try now to sort out who knew what and who knew nothing, who knew everything and who was a fraud, I have to stop and give it up, it makes my head spin’. Indeed.

The story is told in three parts. The first and the last are recounted by a young woman, whose name ‘in those days’, was Susan Trinder. She has been brought up by Mrs Sucksby in Lant Street, the Borough, London, then a den of thieves (now close to Little Dorrit Park and the Charles Dickens Primary School). ‘We were all more or less thieves at Lant Street. But we were that kind of thief that rather eased the dodgy deed along, than did it’, being baby farmers and receivers of stolen goods. So when Richard Rivers, who was born a gentleman but now lives by ‘thievery and dodging’, proposes a scheme whereby Sue will help him seduce a sheltered girl for the sake of her fortune, she goes along with it. In the first section of the book, Sue tells what then happened.

The second section is told in the present tense by the girl in question, Maud Lilly, who gives her version of the same events. And remember, nothing is as it seems. The third section reverts to Sue’s account of how the mystery was resolved. The plot is complex, clever, dark and ultimately very satisfying. It is also a love story.

Waters has a wonderful ear for language and the nuances of the spoken word – often more a gulf than a gradation – between the classes in nineteenth century England. For example, the Lant Street crowd call Rivers ‘Gentleman’ – that is Ge’mun, ‘as if the word were a fish and we had filleted it’. At one point Maud says ‘I can’t imagine  … that you mean me any kind of good, since you persist in keeping me here, when I so clearly wish to leave’. And Mrs Sucksby says admiringly ‘Hear the grammar in that’. It’s not just in conversation; Sue’s and Maud’s accounts are quite different. Both sound ‘Victorian’, a result all the more remarkable because it is achieved without recourse ‘thieves’ cant’ by the ‘low’ characters. I am always impressed by writers who can pull off the difficult feat of differentiation, and Waters excels at it.  

Others have also been impressed by this book. It was shortlisted for both the Man Booker and the Orange Prize, and won the CWA Ellis Peters Prize for Historical Crime Fiction. It is another of those books that deals with crime, but defies categorisation as part of the crime genre – just as does The Woman in White.

Some readers may have recently seen an adaption for TV of Waters’s novel The Night Watch (2006), set during the Blitz.  I gather there is a TV version of Fingersmith, too. You can also read my post on Waters’s most recent book, The Little Stranger (2009). And for good measure The Woman in White post is here.

You can read more about Sarah Waters here.

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‘A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story … A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price’.

The Angel’s Game (2008) is a gothic melodrama. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does.

The story is set in Barcelona in the 1920s. David Martin is a writer who is recounting the story of his life from a vantage point of fifteen years after the principle events he describes. As he tells it, he becomes a writer against the odds, being the only child of a drunken and illiterate father. With the support of a kindly bookseller and a rich patron, he begins writing stories for a newspaper under the general title Mysteries of Barcelona, and then is employed to write ‘penny dreadfuls’ under the general title City of the Damned.  After the real novel he has written is unfairly undermined by his publisher and the city’s literary critics, and the woman he loves marries his rich patron, he is told he has a brain tumour and only a short time to live. He then receives a mysterious offer from another publisher to spend a year writing a book which will ‘create a religion’. ‘Are you not tempted,’ asks the publisher, ‘to create a story for which men and women would live and die, for which they would be capable of killing and allowing themselves to be killed, of sacrificing and condemning themselves, of handing over their souls? What greater challenge for your career than to create a story so powerful that is transcends fiction and becomes a revealed truth?’ In despair, he accepts, and is immediately healed. He starts work on a story with an ‘iconography of death and flags and shields’. But is he directing the project, or is it directing him? And is he the first person to undertake this task? Murder and mystery await.

Looking back, Martin says that ‘uncertainty has been my only recollection’. His version of events is very different from that offered by the police Inspector investigating the crimes which seem to surround the writer. He is venial, and we have no reason to believe him. But can we believe Martin? By his account, the publisher can only be Lucifer; in a nice touch, he admits that what he wanted to be when he grew up was God. Martin has entered into a Faustian pact. The ‘religion’ he has created is obviously fascism: ‘the inferno promised in the pages I wrote … that has taken on a life of its own’. Martin has a number of strange experiences, but if they are illusion, what else is he deluded about? If they are ‘real’, then it is the reality of magical realism. By the end of the story, some events are given a concrete basis, but others are not. It’s a case of suspending disbelief.

I’m willing to do this partly because I like the way the book is written. I’m not sure whether any of this is due to the translation, which is by Lucia Graves (2009). She’s the daughter of Robert Graves, and has presumably been around good literature all her life. Although it is set in the 1920s, conversation in particular has a modern ring to it. The writing is lush, as befits a melodrama. The descriptions of Barcelona in particular are a joy. There are the slums of the dark old town, the mansions of the rich in the hills above the city, the lanes and squares, the churches and cemeteries and the crumbling houses, like the tower house Martin lives in. And in addition to the real Barcelona of the 1920s, we have such delights of the imagination as the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinth of stairs and tunnels in an old necropolis that houses ‘the sum of centuries of books that have been lost or forgotten, books condemned to be destroyed and silenced forever, books that preserve the memory and the soul of times and marvels that no one remembers anymore’. Those lucky enough to be initiates may choose one book to take away, but must protect it from harm. It is often said that the book chooses the reader, rather than the other way round. (Bit like a wand in Harry Potter.) All this is great fun, and compelling reading. But I’m still a bit confused.

The Angel’s Game is a loose prequel to Ruiz Zafon’s earlier book The Shadow of the Wind (2001, trans. 2004). This story, set in post–Spanish Civil War Barcelona, also turns on a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

You can find out more about Carlos Ruiz Zafon here.

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The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004) is the first in a series of mystery stories featuring Isabel Dalhousie, citizen of Edinburgh and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. I heard McCall Smith speak at the Sydney Festival of Dangerous Ideas – not, as he noted, that his ideas were particularly dangerous – and he seemed a thoroughly nice man. This is just the sort of book such a person would write. If you are after thrills, look elsewhere.

Isabel is interested in moral philosophy. She can afford to indulge her taste – she is forty-two and single and lives comfortably in a large house with a house keeper in one of the better suburbs of Edinburgh. She is interested in art, particularly in Scottish artists, and in literature and music. One evening at a concert she sees a young man falling from the highest tier of seats to his death below. It’s not just curiosity that makes her want to know what happened. She thinks that she was probably the last person he saw, and that this ‘creates a moral bond’ between them. So she sets out to find out about him, and how and why he died.

The story is slight by any standards. Isabel meets various people who were connected to the young man or to the firm he worked for, but though she has various theories about what might have happened, she finds little proof of any of them. There is some suspense, but it is more of the ‘when is something going to happen’ kind than the page turning kind. The truth is revealed more or less by chance.  I guess intricate and fast moving plots are not what McCall Smith’s legion of readers are looking for.

Despite her feeling of ‘moral involvement’, Isabel does not use philosophical reasoning to solve the mystery.  She ponders questions of truth telling, the morality of lying, hypocrisy and trust, but when she finally decides what to do, ‘the decision was really quite simple, and she did not need to be a moral philosopher to take it’. There is also a sub plot in which she is concerned about the faithfulness of her niece’s boy friend; morally, she knows she should remain silent. But here too her concern about what she should do is overtaken by what she does:  ‘she had not meant to say it – she knew it was wrong – and yet it had come out’. This doesn’t invalidate her musings, but it does bear out her conclusion that ‘All the great issues were reducible to the simple facts of everyday human life’.

I haven’t made this sound very promising, yet I found it a very pleasant book to read. McCall Smith is interested here in the same issue as he spoke on at the Sydney Festival – the loss of ‘moral compass’ in modern society.  Isabel may not always live up to her philosophical ideals, but she is deeply concerned about moral issues and tries to live a moral life. She is kind and thoughtful, she respects other people’s feelings and she is completely trustworthy. She may be fighting a loosing battle against the modern tide – ‘the word conscience was not one which one heard very much anymore’ – but McCall Smith makes her an attractive character with whom most readers can identity.

McCall Smith also writes very fondly of Edinburgh, home of the Scottish Enlightenment, but also of ‘rigid hierarchies and the deep convictions of Scottish Presbyterianism’, of outward respectability and hidden vice – ‘The story of Jekyll and Hyde was conceived in Edinburgh, of course, and it made perfect sense there’.

 This book wasn’t greeted with the universal praise that McCall Smith received for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective series. Some critics though they were being lectured, and that Isabel lacked the force and energy of Precious Ramotswe. The New York Times concluded that the novel is ‘the literary equivalent of herbal tea and a cozy fire’. But what’s so wrong with that?

PS.  I have no idea why this book is called ‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’. The club is mentioned, but doesn’t meet. Perhaps all readers are members of the club?

You can read more about Alexander McCall Smith and his books here.

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The Red Queen (2004) is a novel ‘of a kind’, or so says its author. Writing it ‘has been full of difficulties’.  This information is revealed in a prologue – the necessity for which suggests that there are indeed difficulties. Drabble has written a version of a memoir which she found compelling, and has created a character who finds the same memoir equally compelling. Some critics didn’t like it at all. I wasn’t sure right to the end whether it would come together to create a satisfying whole, but overall I think Drabble succeeds with it.

The first half of the book is a first person account of critical incidents in the life of a Korean Crown Princess, the Lady Hyegyong, sometimes called the Red Queen, who lived from 1735 to 1815. She wrote her memoirs in her old age; they are available in several translations. These memoirs are necessarily an interpretation of events, and while historians more or less agree on the facts of her life, they don’t agree on how valid her interpretation is. Drabble has appropriated these memoires and added another layer of complexity. She has given the Crown Princess an afterlife, and the benefit of ‘the knowledge of two centuries added to my own limited knowledge on earth’; she tells this version of her story in the light of modern political and psychological insights. But as Drabble notes, ‘None of us has full access to even our own stories’. Drabble hopes that her new story is a way of keeping the old story alive, and that the real Princess would have approved.

The Princess’s story is one of survival against the odds. She is taken from her family at the age of nine, and married to the Crown Prince, also aged nine. She thereafter lives almost entirely inside the royal Court, and endures its ‘speeches and ceremonies, hierarchies and protocol, discomfort and ritual, tradition and survival, robes and symbols, power and subjugation’. Korea is a ‘hermit’ state, frozen in tradition, cut off entirely from the West, and under the influence of China. The Court, which is almost entirely isolated from the rest of the country, is the site of arbitrary power, factional rivalries and summary executions. And if this were not enough, the Crown Princess has to deal with her husband’s madness and cruel death. It makes today’s North Korea a bit easier to understand.

The second half of the book introduces Dr Barbara Halliwell, an academic about to visit Seoul to give a conference paper on medical ethics. It is clear from the first half of the book that Dr Halliwell is to become the involuntary ‘ghost-writer’, or ‘emissary’ that the Crown Princess has chosen to keep her story alive. Barbara reads the memoires which she has somewhat mysteriously acquired, and is enthralled by them. She shares certain experiences with the Princess: ‘she, too, has been acquainted with sorrow, loss, fear, restriction, enclosure, premature death. She, too, has tried to live with madness.’ In Seoul, she visits some of the sites important to the Crown Princess, and has other adventures. These do not immediately appear to have anything to do with the memoires, and it was here that I started wondering where all this was going. But by the end, the reader can look back and see that there is a chain of events – most of which appear to be happenstance – that lead in a circle back to the Princess’s story. They also give some structure to Barbara’s story.

All this post modern playing around with narrative isn’t to everyone’s taste. Some critics thought that the Princess’s story was dramatic enough without the need to revive her as a ghost, though I wonder how many of them would ever have heard of her without Drabble’s version. And she didn’t set out to write history. ‘Instead, I have asked questions about the nature of survival, and about the possibility of the existence of universal transcultural human characteristics.’  These are questions that can be raised, but not really answered, by a work of literature. And we need to remember the Princess’s words, which are of course Drabble’s: ‘I am rather surprised that some of my readers seem to have missed the cautious and disclaiming note of irony that is and has ever been my dominant mode.’ Well, yes.

You can read more about Drabble here, an interview with her about the book here, and a variety of critical responses here. More about the real memoires can be found here.

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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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