The Tale Of Raw Head And Bloody Bones – Jack Wolf (2013)

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Are you still with me or has the title put you off?  It all sounds very lurid and might suggest a slasher-type horror story but British author Jack Wolf’s novel is a solid literary debut. It’s the mid 18th Century and Tristan Hart tries to stifle his sadistic desires by channelling them into experimentations in medical science. Along the way he lodges with Henry Fielding, author of “Tom Jones”, in a London on the threshold of developing into a modern, scientific city. Hart is unable to escape his more primitive beliefs from his rural upbringing and tales of legendary characters (the goblins mentioned in the title), magic and changelings dominate his thoughts. Is this madness or is there something behind all this?

There’s a good feel for the period and some involving and enigmatic characters and behind it all there is an effective examination of Britain at a time when the rational and irrational were at loggerheads, when traditional beliefs were being questioned to fit in with enlightenment. There are times when the plot does not move quite as fast as it could and the unanswered questions became a little frustrating for this reader. It’s not quite the triumph I was hoping for but Wolf’s ability to combine the historical novel with his obvious love for fairy tale is original and I will certainly be looking out for future novels.

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The Tale Of Raw Head And Bloody Bones was published in 2013 by Chatto & Windus

How things are going…… (Blogging 101 Introductory Assignment)

I wrote my first blog post just over 5 months ago and I had little idea really as to what I was doing.  For the next few weeks I am taking part in the Blogging 101 Course run by WordPress which will hopefully answer those little niggling questions as to how to do things I’m still finding problematical.   Hopefully, you will see the benefits on this site.

As a way of introduction to those who will come to this site via the Blogging course.  I thought I’d take stock of the last few months of blogging three or four times a week.  Looking back at my very first post, the introductory one at the top of this page I have been really pleased that I’m more or less doing what I said I would.

This is going to be my 75th post.  I have reviewed 73 books and 10 CDs.  I haven’t got round to reviewing any films yet, but that’s probably because my time for film viewing has dropped considerably because of all the reading I have been doing.  I have been accepted as a member of Netgalley and I am absolutely thrilled to have readers from all around the world.  By following me I hope to be bringing you more of the same over the coming months plus a few new ideas which I’m not going to give away just yet, but I think they are exciting developments.  I do always welcome comments on reviews etc. so don’t be shy.  Hopefully, I’ll get to learn to be more adept with the technical aspects, which generally look fine on the website but sometimes can take quite a while for me to get right.

The summer season is beginning to kick in on the Isle of Wight, after a slow start, and the warmer weather means that the cats are spending marginally less time on my lap. At the top of the page it is Tara helping me with reviewing tasks so I’ll give my other cat, Archie, Tara’s son, the chance.

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100 Essential Books – The Luminous Life Of Lilly Aphrodite – Beatrice Colin (2008)

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I’ve just finished reading this and here it is – a serious contender for my Book of The Year. Set in Berlin and spanning from the start of the twentieth century to the build up of World War II this is a big achievement of a book. It is superbly written. The title character is vibrant and captivates the reader from the outset when she is a little girl in an orphanage. There are also great characterisations in the supporting cast, Lilly’s friend Henne, whose choices send her down a very different path once the orphanage is no longer there for them; Sister August, the nun Lilly is so desperate to please; Eva, the radical lesbian and her brother Stefan and Ilya, the Russian film director who sees Lilly’s potential.

This is very much Lilly’s story and I do not want to give too much away. It is also the tale of rising above the hardships of a country battered by the decisions of its leaders. It is also a depiction of the developing film industry. Each chaper begins with a film-related vignette, which gives a sense of what is happening in German cinema and Lilly’s role in that does not become clear until a good way into the novel. I found this a rich, rewarding read.

Berlin has authenticity and functions as a character in the book, one, which in the first half of the century is in continual change. It’s a vast metropolis to the impoverished orphan; a place to starve or survive during the Great War; a place of potential demanding to be conquered by its citizens between the wars but also harbouring a bitterness which becomes all too evident when Hitler begins his rise to power. This is a book that ticks all the boxes for me in terms of characterisation, plot, structure and achievement. Expect to see it feature in my Best Books I’ve Read This Year Countdown at the end of the year and this book has just been sitting on my shelves waiting to be read since publication. Shame on me! Beatrice Colin is a writer and journalist based in Glasgow. Since the publication of this book she has written “The Songwriter”, a Jazz age novel which is being added to my To Be Read list.                fivestars

The Luminous Life Of Lilly Aphrodite is published by John Murray

 

Baileys Women’s Prize Winner – How To Be Both – Ali Smith (2014)

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Yesterday we had the announcement of the winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Huge congratulations to Ali Smith for her “How To Be Both”. Ali was presented with the £30,000 prize at the ceremony at London’s Royal Festival Hall. It was perhaps not that big a surprise (although it was for Ali) as the book has already won the Costa Novel Award, the Goldsmith Prize and was on the shortlist for the Folio and Man Booker.

When I blogged about the longlist back in March I said I was hopeful that I would get round to reading a number of the books – unfortunately, I have only managed to read one (why haven’t I got round to reading “The Paying Guests” yet? I love Sarah Waters!) but that one was none other than ……… “How To Be Both”. I have been sitting on my review because, confession time, it didn’t blow me away like I was expecting it to. I’m feeling a bit like the bad fairy at the christening, but being swept along by the excitement of the announcement I thought I’d blog my review today.

Firstly, I’m not saying it didn’t deserve to win (especially as I haven’t read the others) nor that I didn’t enjoy because I did and I found it very thought-provoking about what we expect from the books we read.   “How To Be Both” has a clever narrative structure. The book is printed in two different formats. There are two narrative strands one set in the fifteenth century and one modern day. Half of the books published start with the modern section, half with the fifteenth century. The copies of the books look the same so it is random which format you will get. My copy began with the fifteenth century and moved into the modern day section. I’m not sure how much my enjoyment of the book was dictated by this. I suppose to find out I would have to seek out the other version to see if it makes a difference to the reading experience, but I suspect it wouldn’t.

My problem with it (and this is the first Ali Smith I have read so I am not familiar with her style) is that it felt too much like a technical exercise and that held me back from really getting into the book. This distance started right from the cover, which made me feel a little uneasy. I had heard about the book, but not seen it, yet walked by it a number of times, not recognising that this “Georgy Girl” type cover was on the book everyone was raving about. I confess to almost finding it a little embarrassing purchasing it, but once reading it I discovered that the cover photo is significant. On the front cover is a picture of 60’s French pop chanteuses Sylvie Vartan and Francoise Hardy, on the back a detail from a fresco by Renaissance artist Francesco Del Cossa. It feels like someone has asked Smith to write a book around these two disparate photos in a kind of creative writing exercise and attempt to tie these pictures into one plot and this she has done admirably, but for me the mechanics of the book were made a little too clear.

Del Cossa, in for me, the first section of the book is reimagined by the author as a woman passing as a man embarking work on the fresco. Towards the middle we get glimpses of Del Cossa in purgatory observing a modern teenage girl who becomes the focus of the second section (or vice versa). George is mourning the death of her mother who had taken her to Italy especially to see the fresco paintings which she had fallen in love with. A new friend gives George the photo of the French singers because one of them resembles George and the friend has romantic designs. The girls themselves begin to explore the life of the painter, initially for a school project but then because George’s mother had loved them.

This is a tale of Art and Creation; the influence of art upon our lives and of female longing. At times I did find it a challenging read and at other times I couldn’t help but detect what I sensed to be style over substance and it was that which stopped me having a consistent emotional attachment to this book.   For me, that emotional response is the most important thing as a reader and when it’s not there I get a bit disappointed. And I know it’s a personal thing, which is what makes reading so wonderful. On this occasion I didn’t get it from this book –that is not to say I wouldn’t get it on a re-read at some other point in my life or from one of Ali’s other novels. If I’d discussed this with a reading group I probably would have got a lot more out of it but it was just me reading with a cat on my lap. Ali Smith is in illustrious company. After reading this I had my first ever experience of Virginia Woolf in “To The Lighthouse” (1927) and I felt exactly the same (actually a lot more so). I was beginning to think something had happened to me as a reader and that I’d never get that total immersion back………………….. (Reading this back I can appreciate why the Baileys Prize insists on an all-female judging panel!) threestars

How To Be Both is published by Hamish Hamilton in the UK

My Old Man – John Major (2012) – A Real Life Review

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Although I’ve read a book by an American President before (Barack Obama’s excellent “Dreams Of My Father”) I’ve never picked up anything by a British Prime Minister. This is despite both Disraeli and Churchill being considered good at this writing lark. So what did I choose for my first Prime Minister penned book, one by John Major, a minister I certainly never admired nor ever felt any affinity with- so his achievement in producing a book I really enjoyed is considerable. I saw this book sat on the shelves of the local public library and it was the subject matter that drew me to it- the English Music Hall. I actually didn’t recall that much being made of Major’s background in any positive way during his premiership (I had a vague idea that he came from a family of trapeze artists and circus performers) so it was good to see Major redressing the balance and making his father the central character of this book.

Major’s father was 64 when the future Prime Minister was born and had lived a full life, being a reasonably well known Music Hall act with his first wife. Music Hall was a curiously British, incredibly popular form of entertainment, close to American vaudeville but not quite the same. The first wife had died as a result of a serious onstage injury after a steel girder hit her. The act was known as Drum and Major (which is where the surname came from as the family name was Ball). It was initially a baton-twirling, dance type act but as they evolved they introduced songs and sketches and became popular. John Major here combines what is he knows of his father (realising that he hadn’t asked him that much when he was alive – the same old story) with a very readable general history of Music Hall and its stars. It feels very readable and written with insight and humour (it does occasionally stray off subject but the Music Halls are generally kept centre-stage). He is not always brilliant at citing references and lacks the comprehensive knowledge of say, Roy Hudd and even I spotted a howling mistake . It was Herman’s Hermits who had a hit with “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am” (extraordinarily an American Number 1 hit single) and not Manfred Mann, but that was a bit off subject, so I’ll forgive it and it’s probably been pointed out now a thousand times and may have even been corrected in editions later than my library copy. As a popular history of Music Hall, however, it would be hard to beat.

It is a lost world he explores- recording technology was there at the latter stages but unable to capture these people at their best. We may know the names of Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, Harry Lauder, George Robey, Little Tich, Dan Leno and the like and we may know some of their songs but Major has done a good job at making these performers (and his own background) more accessible. If only he had been as competent at running the country. fourstars

100 Essential Books – The Noel Coward Diaries – Edited by Graham Payn & Sheridan Morley (1982)

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For many years the work of Noel Coward passed me by. I remember being impressed by the film version of “Calvacade” and I went to see a sparkling theatrical revamp of “Design For Living” starring Rupert Graves and Marcus D’Amico without really taking on board how much Coward had been left in the revamp. I had a vague awareness of some of his songs but I probably knew him best for cameo roles in films made at the end of his career such as “The Italian Job” and “Bunny Lake Is Missing” (which scared the living daylights out of me when I saw it on television when I was young). This all changed when I read his diaries and after that I found myself reading his autobiography, his plays and works about some of the myriad of characters I read about in his diaries in rapid succession. I had the book sitting on my shelves for some time and it wasn’t with a huge amount of enthusiasm that I began to read it. I am sure that I had read somewhere that his diaries were largely more of a record of engagements than anything else. To an extent, this was the case, but I was soon drawn in to Coward’s social whirl of places visited, plays seen, films watched and dinners, parties and soirees experienced from 1945 to a few years before his death in 1973. This is not a mere list, you do get some sense of Coward the artist, dashing off plays at a rate knots, confident in them becoming a “smash hit”.

Here is a man whose confidence as a National Treasure shines through.   He is an inveterate name dropper (well, if you can’t drop names in your own diaries where can you?). It is some life and if we don’t get to see the real person as clearly as we do in other great showbiz diaries, for example, Kenneth Williams and Joe Orton, there are more than a few glimpses in his incredibily detailed accounts. He had the knack of being able to fit so much and so many people into a short space of time it can be quite an exhausting read.

Here is just a randomly selected day to illustrate the point – Tuesday 11th December 1951.

“Stayed in bed feeling pretty exhausted. Rewrote the lyrics of ‘Old Records’ for Mary and me to do at the Café on 13th January. Boy Browning came for a drink.

Dined at Clarence House with the Edinburghs. Sat on Queen Mary’s right and she was perfectly enchanting- in more than full possession of all her faculties and did not miss a trick. She is a very great old lady. The rest of the party were Dickie, Edwina and Pamela (the Mountbattens); Princess Alice and Lord Athlone; Lady Constance Milne-Gaskell, who is a dear; and two gents whose names elude me. After dinner in the private cinema we saw “High Treason”. I did not let on I had seen it before because Princess Elizabeth seemed to think it was a new picture.

The Duchess of Kent was at the Café and has promised to come on the thirteenth. Had a drink with her, then with the Dockers and lastly with Mary Spears.”

It was a hard life!! And this was on a day that Coward felt exhausted! If, like me, you could cope with years worth of entries like this then this is a book for you.fivestars

The Noel Coward Diaries was published by Weidenfield and Nicholson in 1982. I read the 1998 paperback edition published by Phoenix.

 

World Book Night Special – 100 Essentials – The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007)

 

It’s World Book Night with thousands of free books being given out (form an orderly queue please!)  I confess I missed the deadline to volunteer to be a book giver but I have just discovered the organisers suggestion that we buy our favourite book to give to someone else.  That got me thinking (and unfortunately that’s all it would be for today as I am not near any bookshops) – favourite book – “The Book Thief” to be given to my friend Val who volunteers with me at the local library and has seen the film but not read the book.  So here for World Book Night is a special 100 Essential Book Review.images
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My Hopes For The Book Thief

1. That Everyone Reads This Book

2. That I don’t end up ever watching the film

Please excuse the bold type above. It’s a little device which is used so effectively by Markus Zusak in his 2007 publication “The Book Thief.” This original, thrilling novel is one of my all-time favourites and with each re-read I am blown away as to how superb it actually is. Excellent use of descriptive writing makes reading this a multisensory experience. Zusak’s narrator is none other than Death himself whose function is to gather up the souls of the departed. Kept very busy by World War II, he finds time to pick up an abandoned book written by a young girl he has had his eye on for some time. This is the writings of Liesl, the Book Thief. Death, as one would imagine is not a perfect narrator. He playfully toys with us, gives hints, makes lists and asides and reveals events before he should, but there is no doubt that he is captivated by Liesl and the residents of Himmel Street in the German town of Molching. He is not the only one. There are few characters in fiction I care for more than Liesl, her neighbourhood friend Rudy, and her foster parents, the accordion playing Hans Huberman and his wardrobe-shaped, potty-mouthed wife, Rosa.

Death narrates a tale which is full of memorable incidents which come to define the characters; Rudy’s obsession with Olympic athlete Jesse Owens which is taken a little too far; Hans’ acts of recklessly selfless kindness and for Liesl; the theft of books. Anyone who has a love for books should read this novel as it is undoubtedly the best book about books. Liesl’s first theft occurs in tragic circumstances in an icy cold cemetery, a useless acquisition for the illiterate nine year old but that inappropriate volume becomes her lifeline and when she learns to read from it her need for futher reading matter grows. There are a number of books within this book.   Zusak gives us the chance to experience a wealth of other titles, some stolen by Liesl and some produced for her by other characters. There is no greater testament to the power reading and words can have on our lives and for that alone Zusak should be celebrated. On a previous re-read I noted in my Book Journal that I hoped they would never make a film of it. It could only dilute the power of the book. At the start of last year the film I didn’t want to see made opened to a muted response and mixed reviews. I do not want to see it. I don’t like that there will be people out there who will say, “I’ve seen the film, I don’t need to read it.” You do. If you loved the film I’m sure the experience of the book will be even better, if you didn’t like the film just try and wipe it from your mind and give the book a chance. Hopefully it will find a permanent place on your shelves.

A SHORT LIST OF OTHER FILMS I AM UNABLE TO WATCH BECAUSE I LOVE THE BOOK TOO MUCH

  • The Time Traveller’s Wife
  • The Golden Compass (Northern Lights)
  • The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  • The Grapes Of Wrath (even though I know the John Ford 1940 version is an acclaimed masterpiece)
  • The Narnia books

 

“The Book Thief” is a beautifully told story, which will make you laugh, cry and fall in love with the characters. It offers the perfect reading experience.

Let me know what other books you would add to my short list of “love the book don’t want to see the film”……..  Do you agree with my suggestions?

This review appears in a slightly edited form in the current edition of  newbooks magazine (nb84) as my contender for the Best Books of The 21st Century.

 

In Plain Sight – The Life And Lies Of Jimmy Savile – Dan Davies (2014) – A Real Life Review

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Sometimes you read a book and you just have to unburden yourself- so here goes. I had seen this book on various Books Of The Year and when I saw it on the shelves of my local library I found myself checking it out.

I was never a huge fan of Jimmy Savile. I never minded him taking his turn presenting on “Top Of The Pops”, I did use to quite regularly listen to his Sunday afternoon radio shows, most often the old chart countdowns but occasionally the talk shows, “Savile’s Travels” and “Speakeasy” with its “Yakety Yak” theme tune. I did, however, find “Jim’ll Fix It” a little disturbing. There was always something slightly menacing and inappropriate in Savile in this family friendly show. Maybe it was the “oddness” which Savile always proclaimed he had but I suspected something more and there were always playground rumours which suggested there might be something else about this man that we weren’t seeing on the BBC. I wasn’t the only one to think so. As a child, Dan Davies was thrilled to go to watch a TV recording of “Jim’ll Fix It” but after watching Savile presenting the show and the way he interacted with the children Davies came away greatly unnerved and disturbed. This turned into, over the years, an obsession with the author making files out of interviews and news reports in a search for evidence that this man was not quite the shining beacon he was made out to be. Now a journalist he was eventually commissioned to interview Savile and get to see how this man operated at close hand, carrying out a number of interviews in the aging DJ’s twilight years. He stayed with him, went on a cruise with him and just about began to change his views on him.

When Savile died there was a public outpouring of grand tributes which for those who had other experiences of this man started to bring this travesty into closer focus. Davies is very good at outlining the sequence of events which shattered the Savile illusion and his reputation once and for all. Savile was a master manipulator who “groomed” virtually the whole country – politicians, royalty, the Church, local authorities, the BBC were all taken in by him- a man who is likely to have committed in excess of 1000 sexual offences, mainly on children. When Davies was researching this book there were still people who knew and worked alongside Savile who proclaim his innocence. The power base he built up in his life was incredible – trustee of secure mental hospital Broadmoor with his own set of keys and apartments both there and at Stoke Mandeville hospital; trusted adviser on the NHS for Margaret Thatcher; marriage guidance for Prince Charles and Princess Diana; broker of peace negotiations in Northern Ireland- the list goes on. He would regularly speak and write about his predilection for young girls. It was a sign of the times that this aging unattractive man could talk about his dalliances with “dolly birds” without too much controversy. He didn’t actually of course state that they were often twelve or thirteen years old but by putting it out there he created a smoke-screen which was both effective and calculating. With hindsight, you do not have to read between the lines too much in some of his weekly “Sunday People” columns but at the time it washed over most people. A blind eye was turned because he had people fooled, or intimidated or because he was such a huge source of publicity for good causes and for his fundraising. Savile often mentioned some kind of divine balance sheet as motivation for his charity work, stating that as long as the good outweighed the bad he would be alright. Nobody realised quite how bad his debit side was.

It can never and surely will never happen like this again- the rumblings of the Police Operation Yewtree may continue for some time as it strives to erase the era in British history when the notion of celebrity gave some kind of right for someone to rape and molest patients in their hospital beds.

I didn’t really follow the Savile case when it was unfolding – the daily revelations and intrigues and blame for cover-up were too much for me on a daily basis, so a lot of this was particularly eye-opening if not unexpected. Davies handles this sensationalist subject with a lot of sensitivity and thoroughness. The subject matter is difficult but demands to be read and it is engrossing stuff. I think now I’ve got all this out I can draw a line underneath it, move on from the disturbing tale of this hideous man and take the book back to the library. fourstars

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (2013)

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Now this really is a big book, in every way. Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and holds the title of the longest book to win that award. It really does take some reading, although, the feeling I got on completing the book was one of satisfaction. Reading this was a rewarding experience. Set in 1866 in New Zealand’s gold mining district where a group of twelve men meet to put together their stories of a rogue sea captain, a prostitute and the death of a hermit, later found to be rich. It is a densely plotted, shifting book with a swirling pattern of events and narratives, likened probably (although I admit to being a little vague on this aspect)to the night sky and astrological patterns. That aspect of the novel, the occasional chart and astrological chapter headings didn’t really grip me and I didn’t feel that it added to the experience of the novel. As a literary device it felt a little too artificial. What did grip me, however, were the memorable characters and the authentic feel of the novel. It did feel very much like a lost piece of mid-Victoriana. Perhaps most impressive was the author’s skill in leading us through her lengthy involved work with its twists and turns without getting the reader lost. I recently read a shorter, Man Booker 2014 shortlisted novel which would have benefited from Catton’s skill with this. It is ambitious, brave, literary and an unsurprising winner. However, I still harbour this lingering feeling that I had missed out on something (it’s the astrology theme again), that there was something allegorical I hadn’t been able to decode. I’ll keep it on the shelves for a re-read, but because of its length it won’t be for a while!  fourstars

I’ve just had a look at the previous winners of the Booker Prize (first awarded 1969) and have discovered I have read just twelve of them, which isn’t a particularly impressive total. I’ve read six of them this century, which is a little better but most of the earlier books have passed me by.

My top three Booker Prize winners

  1. Sacred Hunger – Barry Unsworth (1992)
  2. Line Of Beauty – Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
  3. The Life Of Pi – Yann Martell (2002)

with honourable mentions to Peter Carey, Margaret Attwood and Iris Murdoch.

100 Essential Books – The Spinning Heart – Donal Ryan (2012)

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This is an extraordinary debut novel. It is set in small-town recession-hit Ireland where everyone knows everyone’s business and the departure of a bankrupt builder leads to a great hole in the community. Ex-foreman Bobby, the central character is given first shot as narrator and then the tale is told by twenty other narrators, developing the plot. No one is given a second bite of the cherry. This unusual device works so well, as within a few pages Ryan superbly creates each character through their own narration.  It is a book of voices, every one clear and vibrant. Each section could be read separately as a high-quality short story but when read as a whole it becomes a compelling first-rate novel of contemporary Ireland. It is a slim book and deceptively simple. Reading groups would love that a little analysis shows what a complex piece of work this and marvel at how a whole community , could be created in so few words: Wonderful, economic writing. “The Spinning Heart” is a superb achievement by Donal Ryan. fivestars

This review first appeared in New Books – the magazine for readers and reading groups.