The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles (1969)

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If you had asked me 30 years ago to list my favourite books this would have featured prominently.  I’ve always felt an attachment to it because it was one of the first novels I read when I went away to college and an essay on works by John Fowles (of which this was my favourite) scored me a rare A-Grade.  I’ve read it a couple of times since but not for many years.  Last summer I went for a day trip to Lyme Regis and walked along The Cobb which has a prominent part to play in the novel as well as in the 1981 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons and whilst doing this felt once again that I wanted to be immersed in Fowles’ 19th Century world.  My copy was ancient and yellowed so I treated myself to a new one at Serendip, one of Lyme’s healthy smattering of book shops and have spent the last week or so discovering whether time has been good to this novel.

What remains impressive is how Fowles has condensed the foibles of Victorian society  in a way which makes it seem authentic.  This has been done many times since, most splendidly in Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White” and in other titles which tend to feature highly in my end of year lists.  What I hadn’t experienced before reading this the first time was Fowles the modern author stepping back from the Victorian novel to comment and digress using a modern perspective.  Once again this is a common trick now but when I first experienced it (and perhaps even more so when it was published a good decade or so before I got round to it) it seemed radical.    It’s enough of a feature of the novel for them to attempt to convey something of this in the film (not wholly successfully) by having a modern strand which stepped back showing the making of the film and depicting actors playing Fowles’ characters, so Meryl Streep was both playing Sarah Woodruff and the actress chosen to play her.

Charles Smithson, a keen fossil-hunter and fan of Darwin spends the summer of 1867 in Lyme Regis where his betrothed, the somewhat vapid Ernestina is holidaying with her aunt.  There, on The Cobb, which stretches out to the sea they encounter a swathed, mysterious figure known locally as Tragedy, reputedly waiting for her French lover to return.  Charles becomes obsessed with this woman which challenges Victorian beliefs in decency, class and duty with the double standards we now expect from this period.

I love the plot.  Fowles, however, does like to move away from it and remind us of the artifice of his fiction.  At one point he inserts himself into the action observing Charles in the midst of his dilemmas.  It is a very intelligent work which does make demands of the reader and on this re-reading I must admit it does occasionally seem a little too clever for its own good (perhaps that was also true of the me who read this many years ago!) and occasionally a little inaccessible.  This accusation could be levied at other of Fowles’ work which may explain why his reputation has faded in the years since his death in 2005.  There were a couple of titles I can remember abandoning (and this from someone who has done this very rarely) due to this inaccessibility, although I do have a copy of “The Collector” (1963) which I also loved and should get round to re-reading to see how that holds up.

This is an impressive novel of great richness and worthy of a five star rating yet it still has flaws which seem a little more  obvious this time round.  I’ve never fully got my head around the multiple endings which makes the last third of the novel less satisfying.  I could tell from my trip to Lyme that the townsfolk are still proud of this novel (as they are of Jane Austen who features it in “Persuasion”) and actually it is only when it moves away from Lyme that it slightly falters.  I still feel very attached to it, however.

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman was first published in 1969.  I read the Vintage paperback edition.

The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein – Peter Ackroyd (2008)

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This book pushes Peter Ackroyd above Charles Dickens to become my second most read author of the last 25 years. (Christopher Fowler is a few books ahead of these). Ackroyd’s work spans both fiction and non-fiction.  His best as far as I am concerned is his mammoth, superbly researched “London: A Biography” (2000) (My Book Of The Year in 2002) with other titles “Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem” (1994), “The House Of Doctor Dee” (1993) and non-fiction works such as “The Life Of Thomas More” (1998) and “Albion” (2004) all featuring strongly in my end of year Top 10’s in the year I read them.  I do tend to favour him as a non-fiction writer as some of his novels haven’t really blown me away.  In fact the one I liked the least was the work which made his name “Hawksmoor” which I was disappointed in when I read it in 1998.

“The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein” is a reimagining of the classic horror story.  The titular narrator is Swiss who comes to Oxford to study and there meets Percy Bysshe Shelley whom he follows to London.  It’s a time of scientific study and intellectual debate and Frankenstein becomes obsessed by the possibility of reanimating a corpse.  This mixture of a fictional character amongst real lives feels a little odd on this occasion.  At one point Frankenstein is staying with Lord Byron, and both Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley (his actual creator) at the time when they decide to tell each other ghost stories from which the seeds of Mary Shelley’s novel were sown.

Basically what we have here is a fairly straightforward horror-tinged thriller which will seem familiar to readers because of its strong place in our popular culture.  I’ve never actually got round to reading “Frankenstein” so I’m not sure how close to the source material this goes but all of us will know about the experimentation and that if a corpse is actually brought back to life it is not going to be happy and it is not going to end well.

I think it’s the concept of this novel rather than its actual story-telling which stopped me being totally captivated by it.  Frankenstein’s account is well written and it’s a pacy narrative.  The sense of dread is conveyed well and London, as in a number of Ackroyd’s works, is a fairly vibrant character in itself.  It has whetted my appetite to wanting to find out more about Mr & Mrs Shelley and when I get round to the original novel (this is something I have always planned to do) this may be worth re-reading to compare the two.  On this reading it just misses out on being something special.

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The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein was published by Chatto & Windus in 2008.  I read the 2009 Vintage paperback edition.

Box Hill- Adam Mars- Jones (2020)

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1975- A Bank Holiday weekend and Colin, the narrator, is spending his 18th birthday at Box Hill, near Leatherhead Surrey.  He’s got there on the back of his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s motorbike.  He has been taken out for the day because his mum is in hospital and he has had a row with his Dad.  Box Hill is a meeting place for leather- clad motorcyclists and whilst on a walk Colin trips over the feet of Ray and from that point on his life is changed.

This was a title I highlighted as one I wanted to read in my post which looked forward to 2020 publications (I’m doing rather well with these having now read 50%).  A copy I ordered from Waterstones went astray in the post and so I purchased it on Kindle.  (It was later returned to Waterstones who were very good at reimbursing me).  That did mean I missed out on the physical sensation of the classy blue-covered Fitzcarraldo edition (I had been wanting to read one of this independent publisher’s books for a while because there is something very impressive in their stark appearance).  This is obviously a publishing house who really wants the content of the book to do the talking.  If you are not sure what I am talking about have a look at their website to see what I mean. It is pushing this to call it a novel.  At 128 pages in the paperback edition it is no more than a novella which I read in a couple of sittings.

I’m not sure what I was expecting having never read Mars-Jones before but I was surprised how accessible this work was.  I think I was expecting it to be somewhat literary and impenetrable.  It is written in a highly endearing chatty style which looks back on the events of 1975 from a viewpoint of almost a quarter of a century.  The author has subtitled this “A Story Of Low Self-Esteem” and this is certainly the case as the narrator enters a relationship where he is certainly subservient and has little real knowledge about the life of his partner.  If this might seem far-fetched consider Colin’s youth leading him not knowing what to expect; the age difference between them and the 1975 setting where to live as a gay man was very different to how it is nowadays actually makes it chillingly plausible.

Colin is happy to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor by the side of his lover’s bed and never questions any actions or strange behaviours because he does not know any different.  This is a love story but to our modern eyes it is disturbing especially when  Colin becomes a mascot for the motorcycling group and wholly accepts behaviour which would nowadays be considered abusive but for him it is a great romance.

I really liked how this was written.  I liked the details which cause the narrator to step back from the past.  There’s lots of little asides- an incident with alcohol causes him to look back to childhood Christmases with his parents and their tipple of choice, advocaat.  So as their child is not left out he is given a glass but his is custard.  A small moment which I felt said a lot about this character.

I was never less than intrigued by this story.  My main quibble comes with the novella form.  I end up feeling slightly short-changed and here I would have liked the plot to be fleshed out into greater length.  There was certainly enough material here for this to have happened and especially as I was enjoying the writing so much.  Some of Adam Mars-Jones’ other fiction is quite substantial so now I feel I’ve dipped into his writing and been enthralled that I would benefit from exploring further.

four-star

Box Hill was published by Fitzcarraldo in 2020.

Elizabeth – J. Randy Taraborrelli (2006) – A Real Life Review

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This is the fifth showbiz biography I have read by J. Randy Taraborrelli. Around this time last year I was enjoying his 2015 publication “Becoming Beyonce” knowing that I had this earlier work on my shelves.

Taraborrelli’s study of the life and work of Elizabeth Taylor was published five years before her death at the age of 79 in 2011. Reading this confirmed something I’d always felt about her- it was amazing that she lasted as long as she did. There were so many health scares throughout her life, so many times it was reported that she was teetering on the edge, the first time fifty years before her demise when in London she collapsed from pneumonia and according to the author “thousands gathered in the streets in front of the hospital to hold vigil for her.” She bounced back (until the next major health crisis), a true survivor.

I realised when I started this book that I didn’t know a huge amount about Elizabeth Taylor, I just thought I did because of the amount of publicity she stirred up in her lifetime. Born in England (which was why in 2000 she could be made a Dame) I never knew her American heritage, that both of her parents were American and who returned home with their young daughter as war was breaking out. I have seen a number of her films over the years. I of course knew about her relationship with Richard Burton (recently re-watching the involving “Burton & Taylor” TV dramatization with Helena Bonham-Carter and Dominic West piqued my interest enough to pick up this book). I also knew about her AIDS work, her jewellery, her perfumes all of which gave her greater celebrity at an age when most actresses would be finding leading roles harder to come by, but to me she was always one of those larger-than-life people who do not seem to function in the real world. I needed Taraborrelli’s work to give me a grounding of her reality, what it really meant to be Elizabeth Taylor.

I never fully appreciated how devoted her fans were towards her, especially in America. In a lengthy film career her movies nearly always made money, no matter how patchy they were (even if it took years to turn a profit like the expensive “Cleopatra”). She was forgiven for breaking up the marriage of sweetheart showbiz couple Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher despite this being a huge scandal at the time. Taylor was still reeling from husband Mike Todd’s death in a plane crash turning to Eddie, his best friend, with him too rapidly becoming husband number 4 (and the one she had so little positive to say about in subsequent years).

The relationship with Richard Burton was central to Taylor’s life and career in the public eye. Everyone knew of their passion, their turmoil and manipulations of one another during their two marriages. He was the man Taylor could not let go. The section in the book which focuses on their marriage is perhaps the least absorbing. It was the time before, in-between and after the marriages which makes for a far more fascinating depiction of two people who just couldn’t stay away from each other and for whom the other person was both essential and toxic. Taraborrelli is too awe-struck by his subject to really join in with the tabloid frenzy some of Elizabeth’s actions stirred up, her friendship with Michael Jackson is played down as two kindred spirits with troubled childhoods and husband #8 (I’m counting Burton twice) Larry Fortensky, a younger construction worker she met in rehab which provoked an avalanche of sneering is handled sensitively and Fortensky (who died aged 64 in 2016) certainly does not get the ridicule he got at the time.

In fact, Taylor crammed in so much into her life that it’s hard to keep up and this book could easily have been twice its length. There’s a whole section on references and acknowledgements which goes on for 40 pages where Taraborrelli cites his sources. Elizabeth Taylor certainly generated a phenomenal amount of copy in her lifetime and we will never see anyone quite like this unique woman again.

four-star

“Elizabeth” was published by Sidgwick and Jackson in the UK in 2006.

Nine Elms- Robert Bryndza (Sphere 2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Nine Elms: The thrilling first book in a brand-new, electrifying crime series (Kate Marshall)

This is a grisly crime novel with three characters who are wholly evil. That’s quite a lot of evil for one book and it might be a little full on for the times we are living in now. This is the first of a projected series featuring Ex-Detective Constable Kate Marshall from British author and Slovakian resident Robert Bryndza. I haven’t read him before but he has already had a best-selling crime series of 6 novels to date featuring Detective Erika Foster and has also written romantic comedy novels. The second instalment of this new venture is due to be published in November 2020.

The novels begins with a short section in 1995 where Kate’s direct involvement with a serial killer known as The Nine Elms Cannibal leads to her departure from the police and as the novel shifts to 2010 Kate is now a lecturer in Criminology at Ashdean University with a young assistant, Tristan, helping her out. Kate’s much publicised connection with the Nine Elms Cannibal, now incarcerated in a secure mental institution, leads to parents of a long-time missing teenager to ask her to carry out some private investigation work. At the same time a copycat killer begins recreating the Cannibal’s crimes and once again Kate is forced to face her past and fear for her future.

Before reading this I might have said I’d had enough of abduction and gruesome murders of teenage girls but this book did grip me, a couple of times I felt unsure about this as it hovers towards torture porn but Bryndza can certainly structure a gripping tale and there is considerable depth in this crime novel which makes it stand out.

I liked the past and present crimes overlapping and I actually responded better to the PI work of Kate and Tristan more than I did to the more prevalent copycat thread which is actually a good sign as this is the direction the series is going with. I particularly liked the blank canvas of Tristan and feel there is much mileage between the relationship of these two characters.

Elsewhere the copycat theme strays into horror territory in very much the way “The Silence Of The Lambs” did and there were echoes of this crime classic and if you enjoyed that then this is worth considering.

It is a strong series opener from a writer confident in this genre. I would certainly look out for the follow-up.

four-star

Nine Elms was published by Sphere in November 2019 with the paperback due on June 25th 2020. Many thanks to the publishers and Secret Readers for the review copy.

London Belongs To Me- Norman Collins (1945)

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This is a book I read as a teenager. I can remember the quite plain but striking blue covers of this British author’s work in the public library of my youth and I either read this just before or after an ITV adaptation from 1977 which featured a very memorable Patricia Hayes and which I loved. There’s also a 1948 film version which stars Alastair Sim and Richard Attenborough which is good but hasn’t lingered as long in my memory as the book and TV series.

These memories were brought to the forefront when I found Norman Collins listed as one of Christopher Fowler’s picks in his “The Book Of Forgotten Authors” (2017). Collins (1907-1982) was a fascinating, very twentieth century character. His writing career saw him working for the Oxford University Press, editor of “The Daily News”, a role which Charles Dickens (quite significantly) had taken before him and deputy chairman of Gollancz publishing firm. Moving to broadcasting in the early 1940s he moved up the ranks in the BBC to being in charge of the Radio Light Programme where he created the immortal “Dick Barton-Special Agent”. Not long after this novel was published he was Controller of the fast-growing world of television and in the early 1950’s helped set up the Independent Television Authority becoming one of the important early figures of ITV. Throughout this time he was publishing with a total of 16 novels and two plays of which the vast majority are now out of print. This book and his London set “Bond Street Story” are the most significant of his works.

Rereading this many years on I think it is excellent. I highlighted the Dickens reference earlier because Collins’ writing style is reminiscent of a mid-twentieth century Dickens, the way he pulls back as narrator, gives us overviews and then focuses back on a set of very memorable characters in this London setting feels appropriately Dickensian. It’s a real warm hug of a book focusing on a group of residents of 10, Dulcimer Street, Kennington over two years from Christmas 1938 to Christmas 1940.

It is a closely observed novel with no real ongoing narrative drive or issues other than the lives of the characters. This gives it a feel of early soap-opera and that again has the feel of Dickens. It doesn’t have the burning social issues of the Victorian novelist but it works beautifully as a commentary on everyday existence. With its focus on ordinary folk at a time of uncertainty making their preparations for war it is first class and its sense of impending doom whilst the everyday continues resonates with our recent events.

And there’s great characters. The kindly, stolid, central Mr Josser, struggling home with a retirement gift clock at the very beginning, the canny canary-loving Miss Coke and the charlatan spiritualist Mr Squales will linger on in the memory. There’s a German spy who pops in for the odd vignette who seems a little out of place and the adenoidal glutton Mr Puddy’s speech patterns might have worked better in its day but he is still a character to be reckoned with. There’s also the unsettled youth Percy Boon whose involvement in a crime is the closest the novel gets to a central thread involving all the characters in some way.

At over 700 pages of quite small print in the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition this is lengthy but it’s a real treat and I felt quite sad coming to the end. If Norman Collins has other books of this quality in his canon (Christopher Fowler’s favourite is “The Governor’s Lady”) then this is a seriously under-rated author due for a revival with this five star twentieth century classic leading the way.

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London Belongs To Me was first published in 1945. I read the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition.

My 700th Post! What I Have Been Watching- The Gems Of Lockdown

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With the prospect of going back to work looming on the horizon at the end of this month (I have been working from home) I thought for my 700th post I would look back on what I have been watching since lockdown started, picking up a few choice items which have kept me sane over these weeks.  One thing I  can say about this time right from the start is thank goodness for Netflix, who really have come up trumps during this period with new programmes and easy access to things I missed out on when they first appeared.  The main TV channels have become too coronavirus obsessed to give any lasting pleasure and although I have Amazon Prime I still struggle to find things I want to watch compared to Netflix (although they do have Season 3 of the excellent “This Is Us”).  Of my five choices four of them I have watched through Netflix in the UK, although I think I will start with one which I watched through my Sky box.

Gangs Of London (Sky Atlantic 2020)

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Looking back I’m fascinated as to how I responded to the lockdown situation.  Reading wise I wanted comforting stuff, nothing too challenging as I was finding it hard to concentrate initially and was generally choosing lighter fare or books I had read before. However, TV viewing told a different tale.  I wanted loud, violent more action-based choices than I would normally make.  In rapid succession I watched the Gerard Butler trilogy of films in the “Fallen” serious.  I watched movies with earthquakes and natural disasters (but not going as far as “Contagion” one of the big viewing hits of early lockdown which with its virus theme was too much too soon) and then from Sky Atlantic we got this.  I wanted brashness and violence and they didn’t come more brash and violent than this.  I never binge watch.  I have never before streamed programmes before their actual transmission but I just couldn’t wait for the weekly episodes of this and did all ten in less than a fortnight.  This was so good.  A tale of a London crime family whose lead member is killed and those that are left struggle to fill a vacuum of power, this was heightened, almost Shakespearean drama. A great central performance from Joe Cole as the grieving son this was also very much an ensemble piece of strong acting in strong action.  Occasionally, the violence became cartoonish but that actually give it a strength which made it watchable.  Once I had finished this series my taste for seeing the darker sides of human existence waned so thanks to Sky for getting me out of this phase of lockdown when I needed to see people responding to the harrowing and extraordinary.

Toyboy (Netflix 2019)

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This was my summer holiday.  13 hours spent in sunny Malaga in the company of the stunning Jesus Mosquera as male stripper Hugo who tried to prove his innocence of a murder he had already been incarcerated for.  This is a gloriously tacky series, dubbed from Spanish with subtitles which do not exactly match the dubbing almost giving two separate narratives for the price of one.  It was glossy, undemanding and yet totally involving and you’d know that at some point of the action the male dance troupe would at some point get together to gyrate and rip off their clothes.  I really missed this series when I got to the end.  I’m now watching another Spanish drama the earlier “Money Heist” (2017) which does have a couple of the same cast members, most notably the very watchable Maria Pedraza who goes from school girl here to love interest solicitor in “Toyboy” but its leisurely pace and incarceration theme isn’t cutting it nearly as much as this series did.

The Big Flower Fight (Netflix 2020)

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“Bake Off” has had to be temporarily abandoned and who knows when filming will resume but “Great British Sewing Bee” has given us a bit of non-threatening competition but it’s still just sewing isn’t it.  Atypical of much of Netflix’s fare is this really enjoyable format helmed by Vic Reeves and Natasia Demetriou where teams of two (supposedly worldwide pairings but that’s pushing it a little) flower- arrange gigantic outside structures with one pair getting knocked out each episode until one remains with the prize of the chance of building a floral structure for Kew Gardens.  The format was fine, the hosts good, a fascinating resident judge in the form of Kristen Griffith-Vanderyacht, some interesting choices as guest judges and people doing fairly extraordinary things in the big outdoors making it a perfect lockdown choice.  It had the healthy competition and camaraderie and good interaction with the hosts which is what we are missing with no “Bake Off” around and filled the bill spectacularly.

Schitt’s Creek (Netflix 2017-2020)

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People had been recommending this Canadian comedy series to me for quite a while now, but I think I was put off by the title but it is a little character-based gem of half hour shows (just over twenty mins on Netflix without any adverts) which is now in its sixth and final series.  I’m only on Series 2 so no plot spoilers please but this tale of a rich family fallen on hard times and having to live in a motel in a small town they bought as a joke because of its name and now having to survive among its residents is such a treat.  Great performances from the family members and it is really a family based thing through and through as father and son Eugene and Dan Levy (Dad Eugene best known for his turn as the beleaguered father in the “American Pie” movies) created the series and appear as father and son.  Dan Levy as pansexual David Rose is one of the best comedy creations I have seen for some time.  I hang on his every line.

The Lovebirds (Netflix 2020)

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A Netflix Original movie which probably would have opened in the cinemas if it were not for this pesky lockdown.  I would never have gone to see this at the cinema but I laughed throughout at this mash-up between crime movie and rom-com with a couple of sparkling performances from Kumail Nanjiani (best known for the movie “The Big Sick”) and the real revelation of Issa Rae.  It’s a combination of great chemistry, lots of laughs, a fairly outrageous implausible plot which makes this a home-viewing winner.  It starts a little abrasive and I thought I might not enjoy it but it really drew me in and it kept me with a smile on my face for at least a day afterwards which in this current climate is very good indeed.

A couple of special mentions for outstanding forthright teen comedy/drama “Sex Education” which I came to very late and which when first appearing on the Netflix platform gave viewing figures so high that the company shared them which it had been reluctant to do for any show up until that point.  (I think it was something like 40 million worldwide viewers in the first few weeks after its appearance).  It depicts a British school which is unlike any other I’ve seen depicted with such strong American high-school influences that it might unsettle some but it is full of heart with jaw-dropping scenes  from Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson and the break out star of the whole thing, the excellent Ncuti Gatwa (shortlisted for a Bafta) for his portrayal of black gay teen Eric.  I also wanted to mention BBC 2’s “Charlie Brooker’s Viral Screen Wipe” which was shown at just the right time which gave us the permission and chance to laugh at some of the unprecedented events that have been happening.  It seemed right to laugh at Charlie Brooker’s perspective as the virus had become this all encompassing thing that had largely stifled our ability to find anything even remotely amusing.  There’s also the reassuring (although not as regular) visits to “Coronation Street” where the pandemic has not even hit yet, “Gogglebox” (the non-celebrity version) which gave us a view out of our living rooms into some other now very familiar living rooms which felt very reassuring and almost like a night out so thanks Channel 4 for that (even if it did stir up social distancing concerns for some viewers) and the before and after straddling of “Rupaul’s Drag Race” which began as normal, although with a more political edge and a disqualified drag queen who they couldn’t quite edit out as much as they may have wanted and culminated in a lockdown finale which was the best use of the Zoom based format I have seen and which worked magnificently.

These are strange times and I just wanted to use my 700th post to just anchor some of those feelings through the television I have been using to escape.

Thanks  for all of you continuing to read my posts.  Another aspect of this lockdown is that it has given me (and no doubt many other bloggers) my highest amount of readers ever so those who are new to reviewsrevues.com and those who have been following me over the last 5+ years and everyone in-between I send my warmest wishes.

A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom- John Boyne (Doubleday 2020)

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Here is an author who, in my eyes, achieved virtual perfection with his “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2017), certainly one of my all-time favourite novels. I still have plenty of John Boyne to read, having only read three of his children’s/young adult titles and two of his adult works but I’ve experienced enough to know that his latest is a marked departure from what I’ve read before.

This Irish writer is no stranger to the historical novel but here, in a book which can truly be called epic, he has taken on the whole of world history starting from Palestine in AD1 to the present day and beyond to 2080. This has been done, and here is the conceit of this novel, with ostensibly the same main character, or different manifestations of this character throughout history. It can certainly be seen as a novel of reincarnation with the main character (never named) moving on with his life in different times and different locations. There’s an obvious spiritual element here with its implied growth towards wisdom which initially made me a little nervous as to make this too explicit often results in leaden writing I’ve found (Paolo Coehlo springing to mind). I hoped Boyne would handle this with a lightness of touch to make it work.

He has to a very large extent. The novel reads like a series of interlinked short stories. At one point we move from Sweden in 1133 to China in 1191 and to Greece in 1223 with the narrative thread remaining fairly constant and with easily identifiable characters having regional variations of their names so the reader can pick up from where the plot left off each time adapting to the new setting and the often subtle changes which keep the narrative appropriate. This sounds confusing but it works well and builds an involving plot. Admittedly, there were times when I was enjoying a tale so much that I felt disappointed when it shifted onwards. He really has written 52 mini-novels in one, the amount of historical research must have been phenomenal.

This shifting means Boyne can have us visiting significant places at significant times introducing us to characters such as Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Attila The Hun and Donald Trump (he’s certainly not going to like this book!) This at times does run the risk of feeling laboured, a literary version of the TV series “Quantum Leap”. I actually prefer this novel when the historical figures are in the background and the location imbues the narrative with its sense of time. There are also occasional echoes of former lives through a sense of déjà vu with the Mayan figure Spearthrower Owl periodically creating a presence.

I’ve read books with a similar epic scope in terms of time (Edward Rutherford likes to do this) but nothing as ambitious as this which is extraordinary and I’ve begun to expect nothing less from this man but as a reading experience it is not quite up there with his very best. I think it just falls short of my rarely given five star rating. If you are interested in historical fiction and can’t quite decide what era to read about this is a perfect entry into discovering whole new literary worlds.

four-star

A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom will be published in hardback by Doubleday on    23rd July 2020. Many thanks to the publishers for tracking me down and providing me with an advance review copy.

The Rough Guide To Soul And R&B – Peter Shapiro (2006) – A Real Lives Review

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I’ve read this before back in 2008 when I thought it was okay but this is a book which cranks up to another level in this music streaming era. An alphabetical listing of key figures in Soul and R&B over a span of approximately 50 years with recommended albums and playlists of their best work. Back when this was written it meant downloading tracks onto I-Pods or splashing out on CDs which would have turned out to be prohibitively expensive. Nowadays, it’s risk-free with streaming services. That is why after reading this a second time I now have placed the massive total of 101 albums into my Spotify playlists to see if I agree with the author’s judgements.

I wasn’t really intending to re-read this. First time round it was a library copy but I spotted it pre-lockdown in a charity shop and thought it would be a useful book to have as research (I do use another of Shapiro’s books“Soul: 100 CDs” quite a lot) . I just pulled it off my shelves this week to browse and found myself reading from cover to cover.

I have read Peter Shapiro before and he does come across as quite grumpy for a music fan. There’s loads of opinions here- very few artists seem to come away with unqualified praise, he is often dismissive of their bigger commercial hits, he’s certainly not a huge fan of much of 90’s R&B especially anything resembling “piercing whining” or excessive melisma or histrionics (Boyz II Men get a rough deal here and actually I have no issue with this). He can be sniffy about the type of soul music favoured in the UK and Disco can be love it or hate it (surprisingly as he wrote one of the seminal works in this genre in his study of the Disco Era “Turn The Beat Around” (2005) I actually felt that his individual style was to the detriment of this book. I said of it “He praises and snipes in the same sections. It’s obviously the journalist in him which is leading him to be controversial and overstate matters.”. Here, because his brief is wider and he cannot be expected to like everything from Aaliyah to Zapp it didn’t grate as much and I occasionally laughed out loud at his viewpoint. He is good with adjectives, which certainly gives his work his personal slant. Take Diana Ross, after acknowledging her star power and “unquenchable force” we get “wretched”; “surprisingly acceptable”, “mediocre”, “uptight”’ “disastrous”, “ generic, “rather hideous”, pointless” and “shockingly awful” all for an artist he acknowledges as significant and even can form a recommended playlist for. (True, it is only 8 tracks when he normally gives 10). Slightly more disturbing are textual inconsistencies, an example of this is Stevie Wonder and his 1972 album “Music Of My Mind” which was the first time he was given more control and independence by Motown. In the Wonder entry it is described thus ; “It was no masterpiece, it didn’t have the songs to back up his mercurial wanderings across the boundaries of texture, timbre and taste.”. Underneath the entry it is highlighted as one of his greatest recordings saying “he unleashed a set of songs that demanded attention, incorporating soul and gospel, melody and funk, every track is a smash.” Now we can all change our minds, but on the same page?

I do like the format of these musical Rough Guides but I think that this is the only topic that I would be interested about in reading all the way through. Shapiro also authors “Drum N’Bass” although it does seem that the company has abandoned its music titles in favour of the obviously more lucrative travel guides with none of them (on the back cover Jazz and Hip-Hop are advertised) being readily available. I would certainly pick up other copies if I came across them. I’ve enjoyed this more as a re-read than I did first time round and expect it will be staying quite a bit longer in my collection.

four-star

The Rough Guide To Soul And R&B was published as a Rough Guides paperback (distributed by Penguin) in 2006.

Little Gods – Anna Richards (2009)

littlegods

I remember this book coming out with a big buzz around it (gosh, was that really 11 years ago?) A debut novel with an on-cover recommendation from Ali Smith and comparisons to John Irving and Michael Chabon this British author looked set for very good things.

All too often it doesn’t always go to plan. This book is still in print but there doesn’t appear to have been any further publications by this author in the intervening years.

Right towards the end of the book Anna Richards puts her title into context. “Love makes little gods of us all. It awards the power to shatter the existence of someone who, by loving, has made themselves glass.” There are a lot of emotionally fragile characters in this novel.

I say emotionally because physically main character Jean is a robust giant of a woman whose sheer physical presence unnerves people. An unwanted child, her mother Wisteria is almost a caricature of a neglectful mother and has no redeeming features which makes for some difficult reading early on. Jean is redeemed in the early days of World War II when an explosion destroys her house and allows her to start again with her best pal from the sweet shop, Gloria. Their tale turns in a very unpredictable fashion, unsurprisingly, as it is set in very unpredictable times, which takes the women to new situations in the post-war years. Richards is determined not to allow us to get comfortable with these characters in this well-structured work. Jean, especially, is pushed onwards into these new situations even before she can adapt to her present. Plot-wise this can at times be a little frustrating as it shifts the tone of the novel but Jean is a great character who the reader wills on to succeed.

It’s bold and brash, not always rooted in a sense of location which can give it a kind of fairy-tale feel and this can be both enthralling and distancing. That is, until life deals Jean another bitter blow and we are hurtled back to reality. I enjoyed it and feel it is a highly promising debut which would re-read well, which is often my criteria for a four star rating. I think it would go down well as a reading group choice as there would be so much to discuss.

four-star

 

Little Gods was first published by Picador in the UK in 2009