tispity: (Dice)
Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

'Stars?' Murmured Lucy. The obsolete word sounded ancient on her tongue and to our ears. But we all murmured our understanding. We'd heard about them, but not considered that we would ever be able to observe them in any meaningful way. As with the Pyramids, the Great Sweat, Chuck Naurice, Tariq al-Simpson, M'Donna and the Rainbowsians, we all knew they had once existed, but there was no record, or proof - they were now just labels on lost memories, cascading down the years from resident to resident, echoes of lost knowledge.

I'm a huge Fforde Ffan, and his literary detective Thursday Next has to be one of my all time favourite fictional characters. Shades of Grey is the first novel in Fforde's new series and marks quite a radical departure from the brand of absurdist literary fantasy that he made his own in the the Thursday and Nursery Crime series'. What we have here is a piece of dystopian world building with a much darker overall tone although Fforde's trademark charming absurdism is still abundantly present. Eddie Russett lives in a world that very well might be our own Earth at some point in the distant future, or on an alternate timeline. In the distant past some sort of disaster (referred to only as the "Something that Happened") eradicated earlier society (known only as "The Previous") and the new civilisation that has replaced partially resembles a nationwide grammar school with its system of prefects, assemblies, communal dinners and antiquated rules governing all aspects of dress and behaviour. If that wasn't nightmarish enough, it seems that colour is largely lacking from Eddie's society and so colour perception has become the primary hierarchical cue: society is divided and lives are determined by citizens' ability to perceive different colours with those seeing most purple at the top and the lowly greys carrying out all the menial labour. Complementary colours are strictly forbidden from marrying and those with a good score in their colour perception test can go on to become prefects or even ascend the heights to work for National Colour. Carefully applied colour swatches can also be used to treat medical conditions or abused for the high, called "chasing the frog."

Eddie starts the novel very happy to be a law abiding member of this strange colourtocracy. He knows he has better than average red perception and fully expects to marry into the lofty Oxblood family and take a cushy job. All that changes when he and his father are sent to East Carmine, a town in the Outer Reaches. There he meets and falls for a rebellious grey named Jane and begins to have his eyes opened to the dark truths that underpin his society. The pace of this novel is fairly sedate and exploratory until the final quarter, at which point it becomes a real page turner, a race against time with lives, and a whole ideology, on the line. The early chapters are fascinating too, though, as Fforde has conjured up such a novel idea for a dystopia - and one that seems fairly naive on the surface but becomes increasingly sinister as more details are revealed - it's good to have space and time given to get fully immersed in Eddie's world.

The novel leaves a lot of questions unanswered and there were some things that didn't fully make sense about the use of colour in the book. But Eddie's culture is such a confused and bizarre one that it was hard to tell whether these were genuine authorial oversights or just further evidence of the jumbled way in which the scanty and continually censored evidence of The Previous is appropriated and interpreted within the Colourtocracy. Dark and refreshingly offbeat, I will eagerly await the promised further two instalments...
tispity: (Book fort)
The Truth by Terry Pratchett

'Words are too important to be left to machinery. We've got nothing against engraving, you know that. We've got nothing against words being nailed down properly. But words that can be taken apart and used to make other words... well, that's downright dangerous.'

The Truth is the 25th Discworld novel and one of a very rapidly dwindling number - mostly those that don't fit directly into any character's particular story arc - that I hadn't read before. If I'm not mistaken the only adult Discworld world that I've still to read is Lords and Ladies. I wish there were still more than that! Many of the Ankh-Morpork based novels follow a particular pattern: a new (but recognisable in our world) phenomenon evolves on the Disc (e.g. movie-making, rock music, football, a banking service etc) and in a world sustained by magic energy that new feature takes on a powerful and unexpected energy of its own. But to identify Pratchett's formula is by no means to reduce its power, because the fact is, it's a brilliant device; one which allows simultaneously for some wonderfully comic and/or surreal scenarios and - increasingly as the series progresses - some really searching social commentary. This novel is no exception, exploring this time around the world of journalism.

When the dwarves invent a printing press, William de Worde, a young nobleman who has rejected his stifling, prejudiced family (though not as fully as he thinks) becomes the accidental editor of the Disc's first newspaper. As he and his assistant, Sacharissa Cripslock, become increasingly obsessed with the - far from complementary - goals of pursuing the truth and penning a good story, the pair become involved with a major political drama, some hired killers, a plague of dogs and a man who grows rudely shaped vegetables. The book manages to include a surprisingly astute commentary on the differences between tabloid and broadsheet style journalism, and Pratchett's simile of the press being like a vampire, constantly craving the fresh blood of never-ending news, is a very powerful one. But this being Ankh-Morpork there's a more literal vampire to be found here too and for me he absolutely stole the show. I'd met Otto Chriek in later novels but this is his first appearance. Otto is a great character: his career calling as photographer ("iconographer" in Disc parlance) is particularly difficult one for a vampire as he is reduced to dust every time he is exposed to the flash! Yet this doesn't stop him being passionate about light in all its (for him) deadly forms. I think Pratchett's greatest gift is in his ability to invent characters like Otto: quirky, flawed individuals that his readers really, really care about! Overall this wasn't my favourite Discworld book but it would feature certainly in the top half of my list. Although it does stand alone and doesn't really progress any particular long standing character arc I think that Discworld newbies would get more out of The Truth if they read it at least after all the early guards books and probably also the two earlier books set in Uberwald (Carpe Jugulum and Fifth Elephant).

tispity: (Book pile)
Bit behind on this!

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Graham-Smith

A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages; she must be well trained in the fighting styles of the Kyoto masters and the modern tactics and weaponry of Europe...

First published last year by Quirk Classics, this book really ushered in a new and bizarre genre: mash-up fiction. The novel expands Austen's famous tale of love and self-learning to include, as the blurb proudly proclaims, "all new scenes of bone crunching zombie mayhem." It's an insane concept, and what's more insane is that it actually works surprisingly well. The original story remains largely intact: trimmed of course but with the main plot and many of the key passages and conversations pretty much unchanged from the original. On the surface, the juxtaposition - between the gut-wrenching gore and filth of the shambling undead, and a society in which arriving with a muddied hemline is considered a scandal - is obviously the source of most of the novel's humour, but as I got further into the book what surprised me most was how well the zombie menace actually did fit with the feel of the original. Austen writes about a society that is already highly codified and restrictive; in this retelling ladies are expected to be as accomplished in martial arts as they are at music and needlework. As combat arts are also highly disciplined with strict codes, values and move-sets, that aspect of the book actually worked well with the existing plot, with Lizzy's willingness to bend the rules and marking her out as a formidable warrior as well as a witty discourser. Speaking of alleged wit, while there was plenty to laugh at here, what I didn't like were many of the added verbal puns. There were quite a few sex jokes and double entendres thrown in along the way and those seemed stupid in a different and less amusing way to the zombie thing. I probably sound like a bit of a prude for saying that, but in fact I've nothing against sex jokes at all (far from it) they just didn't feel right here, and as they didn't add anything to the horror plot either, they just felt cheap and pointless.

The book's blurb cheekily announces that Grahame-Smith's additions transform Austen's classic "into something you'd actually want to read" but actually, rather than improving the original, this mash-up had the opposite effect, reminding me just how quietly cutting, romantic and, well, just damn good, Pride and Prejudice actually is! The zombies were amusing, there were some good fight scenes and a few of the plot alterations (particularly those concerning Charlotte Lucas) kept me guessing as to what would happen next, but still the scenes I enjoyed most in this were those transferred almost straight from the original: Darcy's first, infuriating proposal scene, and Lizzy's fearless verbal sparring with Lady Catherine (though this becomes physical too here, it's the original reason for the encounter that still captivates most). It's definitely a sign of Austen's genius that her novel can undergo this sort of irreverent treatment without losing its original spark!

Quirk Classics are a fun idea and I think a surprising amount of thought went into this mash-up. I'm not sure if the same can be said for all the subsequent volumes. They do seem to be churning out this sort of thing at an alarming rate now so I wonder if they all hold together as well as P&P&Z generally does. I don't think my poor brain could handle too much of this brand of literary craziness at a time but that said, I am very keen to get hold of Quirk's Android Karenina as the idea of steampunk Tolstoy pushes so many of my awesome buttons!

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

He could smell the rich damp air coming in the tent-flap. He could feel the shape of the ground through his back. My own, he kept saying to himself. My place, Thornhill's place.
But the wind in the leaves on the ridge was saying something else entirely

A much more sombre prospect than my preceding read, this is a brilliant piece of historical fiction, exploring the early colonial history of Australia. I was already a huge admirer of Grenville's work but I think this is her best to date. Though simply told this story really balances on a knife-edge some hugely emotive and powerful issues. Grenville allows us to feel tremendous sympathy for Thornhill, her London-born protagonist: born into desperate poverty Thornhill doesn't have much of a life ahead of him until one hunger-inspired petty crime too many sees him and his young wife and child transported to the growing colony at Sydney. Earning his pardon, in this new land, Thornhill sees the opportunity to wipe the slate clean: here prosperity comes through hard work and strength of character, rather than from inherited status as it does, suffocatingly, in late eighteenth-century London. As a reader I wanted Thornhill - and particularly his vivacious wife Sal - to find happiness in their new small holding beside the Hawkesbury River, but at the same time, I knew from history that their prosperity would be bought at a terrible price: the displacement and, worse, slaughter of so many of the area's native inhabitants. I think this story could so easily have become a preachy piece about racial differences and the many injustices suffered by the indigenous Australians, but Grenville always manages to avoid that. She portrays the tribespeople Thornhill encounters with tremendous dignity: contrasting their very different way of life with Thornhill's capitalism as he seeks to ape the lifestyle of the rich gentlemen who have always previously oppressed him. But, though she doesn't shy away from describing the violence and atrocities committed by some of the settlers, many of them possess a resourcefulness and determination that attracts admiration too. Rather than clear cut "goodies" and "baddies" The Secret River, more accurately and depressingly, presents just "losers" and "other losers."

As an Australian herself, in crafting this novel, Grenville fearlessly drew on aspects of her own history and her message here, above all, seems to be one of remembrance. It is important to remember the conflict, carnage and courage that built modern Australia, just as, in the novel, Sal clings to her few mementos of London, singing "Oranges and Lemons" and teaching the names of the old city's churches to her growing brood of children - infants who have only ever known life in the bush, and who obligingly memorise the words as if chanting some alien language. As well as the amazing descriptions of the landscape surrounding the Hawkesbury, it is such small-scale domestic scenes that give the novel its melancholy power. Impressive stuff.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Well, Kevin has introduced me to a real foreign country. I can be sure of that, since the definition of the truly foreign locale is one that fosters a piercing and perpetual yearning to go home.

I've been putting off writing this one up because - as the title suggests - it's actually very hard to talk about Kevin! This is a deeply harrowing book, it's a real piece of train-wreck fiction. I knew what was coming, I knew I was going to find it upsetting and disturbing but I was on a one-way journey and there was no getting off before the end! The action unfolds through a series of letters to her absent husband written by Eva Khatchadourian in which she narrates and tries to come to terms with the life of her son, Kevin who, just before his sixteenth birthday kills seven of his fellow high-school students, as well as a teacher and a member of catering staff. In trying to rationalise her son's behaviour, Eva questions her own role and success as a mother. It was this angle that first attracted me to the novel. Lionel Shriver was interviewed by Nicki DeFago in Childfree and Loving It! in which she admits that she wrote ...Kevin partly to work through her own fears and reluctance to become a mother. Shriver notably still isn't a mother which probably isn't a surprise given the depth of the horror in her portrayal of Kevin, who really is a nasty piece of work, seemingly from birth. At least, that's how Eva portrays him but what's really clever about this novel is that Shriver keeps subtly reminding her readers that we only have Eva's side of the story, and Eva is far from being a reliable narrator. The nature/nurture debate rages large in this book: is Kevin really born evil or a product of his flawed society and upbringing? Shriver does an impressive - if sometimes frustrating job - of keeping this question open.

A lot of the responses to this novel on Amazon and other book blogs seem to round on Eva for being selfish, driven and cold. True, she isn't always a likeable character and is certainly flawed but I found her to be a very rounded and believable portrait of a conflicted mother. I would like to hope that Kevin is a less believable creation, but - drawing as it does on actual high school massacres (Kevin even passes judgement on some real cases) - there is a disquieting vein of realism in this book. I was glad to be done with this novel because it really did disturb me in places, but at the same time I'm glad to have read it. The plot didn't always convince, and Eva's easily distractable narrative style - though hugely realistic - did grate a bit in places I have to admit. But this is an important book, bravely raising issues that - however unsettling and however taboo - we do all need to talk about.

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Rites of Passage by William Golding

Why - it has become, perhaps, some kind of sea-story but a sea-story with never a tempest, no shipwreck, no sinking, no rescue at sea, no sight nor sound of an enemy, no thundering broadsides, heroism, prizes, gallant defences and heroic attacks!

Subconsciously, I'd imagine I was drawn to this because it's ostensibly a piece of naval fiction set in the early nineteenth century and there was a part of me still pining for all that (and if I'm honest, just to start reading The Terror all over again, but that would have been excessive). But this novel couldn't have been more different from Simmons'. For a start, and as my chosen quote suggests, very little actually happens here in terms of adventure and action. The story takes place onboard a rather aged and unnamed vessel, converted from a warship to a passenger vessel and now making the long and dangerous voyage from England to Australia. The voyage is already underway when the narrative begins and the novel ends before the ship arrives. Rather than high seas survival and derring-do, this is really a story about class tensions. Golding's protagonist is the priggish and snobbish Edmund Talbot, heading out to the colonies and a minor governmental position obtained for him by his godfather. The action is narrated as a series of entries in Edmund's journal which he intends his godfather one day to read. The book captures very effectively the minute sights, sounds and (often very unpleasant) smells of life on the waves. The close proximity of the ship's confines brings Edmund into close contact with people from all walks of life, from the pimp masquerading as a gentlemen, to the sickly families travelling in steerage and dreaming of a fresh start, through to the crew of the vessel itself, including its abrasive and avowedly unreligious captain. The main action concerns one newly frocked parson, the Rev. Colley, a very different sort of character from Talbot who suffers intensely as the ship slowly progresses.

As well as painting a very vivid picture of the painful conventions of the C19th class system, the novel deals with some major questions about the nature of faith and the power of shame. I have to say I found this pretty slow going and it took me a while to get through it, but once I finished it, the narrative - and particularly Golding's very powerfully realised characters - really stayed with me. Rites of Passage is the first part of a trilogy and though it does stand alone I think I will read the other two at some point. I don't feel a burning urgency to do this (the slowness of the long voyage somehow infects the narrative too) but I would like to find out what happens - or perhaps doesn't happen - to the unnamed ship and her passengers during the rest of their trip. A thought-provoking slow burner of a sea-story.

Childfree and Loving It! by Nicki DeFago

My choice to be childfree threatens people sometimes because it acknowledges a dark and hidden truth that our society cannot tolerate; namely that being a parent is not a nirvana for everybody. But saying these things - it's like confessing a dark secret.

My first bit of non-fiction for pleasure this year (boring library studies textbooks don't count). There are so many books out there aimed at prospective parents but not half so many that discuss the question of whether or not to become a parent in the first place. But I firmly believe this is a question that needs to be asked: a lot of people I know have fulfilled long standing ambitions by starting families in the last year or two and I'm genuinely happy and excited for all of them but this world is too overpopulated and there are too many unwanted children out there for anyone to have a kid just to bend to social norms. I believe that as far as possible all children should be genuinely wanted and welcomed. So this is an important book. Nicki DeFago is in no way a child hater, she just encourages women to think carefully about whether motherhood is really for them, and urges us to remember that there should be absolutely no shame in deciding it isn't because it's perfectly possible to lead a full and rewarding life without children of your own too. DeFago writes in a really chatty, friendly way and her book is stuffed with amusing anecdotes and facts. At times the diehard academic part of me would have liked a few more corroborated references to support those facts but hey you can't have everything and what Childfree and Loving It! is about, above all, is choice and providing a range of emotional perspectives and experiences. In this respect it really delivers: in addition to discussing her own relationship, DeFago interviews a fascinating range of people: childcare workers, lad's mags editors, feminist campaigners and opinionated teenagers, through doting parents, to the extremely elderly looking back on a happily childfree life ('free' implying choice, as opposed to the less deliberate sounding 'childless'). The book also goes into detail about environmental issues and questions of population control, something that I have to confess I worry about quite a bit already.

I didn't agree with everything in the book (DeFago's environmental argument for not reproducing is somewhat undermined by her section on how those without children have more freedom to travel the world) but it was an enjoyable as well as thought provoking read, and - as somebody who has been struggling not to feel guilty and/or a bit of a freak due to my own complete lack of maternal instinct when more and more of my friends are happily starting families of their own - I have say I did find myself nodding along to much of what I was reading. This definitely struck a very personal chord for me and it was reassuring to find in print so many of the same thoughts and emotions that have surfaced in my mind since, well, pretty much as long as I can remember really (I'm sure I've said before, even as a child I refused to play with dolls. Sure, I had a pram but I would only put cuddly bears and bunnies in it!) It seems to be the most militant side of the childfree movement that gets all the media attention but this book isn't like that at all. I found it an empowering read, aimed to encourage those who are uncertain about parenthood to think carefully and feel confident in their decision and life choices, whatever those may be.

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The Terror by Dan Simmons

It was a thrilling, almost erotic feeling - an illicit discovery of self separated from everyone and everything else in the cold and the dark - and he feels it again now, as he has more than a few times during his years of arctic service at opposite poles of the earth.

Quite simply, wow. As you probably gathered from the fact that I keep raving about it on here and on Facebook, I just adored this book. Reluctantly finishing it felt a bit like coming out of a relationship: the sort of relationship that you knew was always going to end tragically but was intense and amazing while it lasted. The Terror is an historical horror novel which tells the tale of the doomed Franklin expedition of the 1840s to find the fabled North-West Shipping Passage through the Arctic (a desperately desired, but ultimately non-existent alternative to the perils of passing Cape Horn). The hundred and twenty-odd men set off in two ships, Franklin's flagsip Erebus and the Terror captained by Francis Crozier, Simmons' protagonist. These reconditioned military vessels are in many ways ill-equipped and ill-prepared for the expedition, especially when they become frozen in the ice for many isolating and desperate years in a row. Many question marks still hang over the fate of the historical expedition - the abandoned ships have never been precisely located, and though mummies and remains (including some cannibalised bones) have been found, and no survivors were discovered the exact fate of many of the men is still not known.

Simmons' novel seems meticulously researched (I have been reading up on the subject myself since I finished it) and really brings to life many of the very different characters on the voyage: from the cooks, cabin boys, ice-masters and marines to the pretentious, aristocratic Franklin, or the likeably practical alcoholic Crozier. But he also brings an element of horror above and beyond the already pretty extreme horror of the cold, darkness, starvation and encroaching madness experienced by the trapped crews. The men are being stalked by another 'Terror' a huge, and terrifyingly intelligent creature on the ice is tormenting and brutally killing them one by one. The monster could so easily have been a gimmick, or outstayed its welcome (my frequent gripe with horror as a genre is that the scariness is too often stretched out so long it loses impact). But The Terror avoids both of these pitfalls: in this scenario, the drawn out nature of the suffering is the primary source of horror: the men must gradually face the prospect of their dwindling supplies, and the onset of scurvy. And Simmons finally reaches into Inuit mythology (albeit, from what I can tell, a rather fictionalised mish-mash of different tribal mythologies) to give the creature much more depth and power than your run-of-the-mill terror in a strange land.

I guess doomed polar expeditions don't make for the most uplifting reading but there are plenty of moments of tenderness and humour mixed in with the frequent gore and despair and the ending - from one perspective at least - contains more promise than you might expect. I really can't recommend this book highly enough. I will definitely be seeking out more Simmons to try but I do think that - though this was brilliantly written and plotted - it was the subject matter above all that truly captivated me. So, more Simmons recommendations will be received gratefully. Any more recommendations of novels of doomed polar exploration will be received rapturously.

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Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

They continued to make hurried, heartless siesta love in the evangelical shade of the orange trees. The mad-women encouraged them from the terraces with indecent songs and celebrated their triumphs with standing ovations.

Well this was certainly an enjoyable enough read - Marquez has a wonderful eye for the most quirkily sacred and profane details - but I have to say it wasn't a patch on his tenderly cynical masterpiece Love in the Time of the Cholera. Indeed, at just 160 pages this almost felt in places like Marquez-lite, an affectionate and accomplished pastiche rather than the real thing. The shortness is intentional as this story - of Sierva Maria, a neglected heiress bitten by a rabid dog who ends up incarcerated in a nunnery believed to be possessed by demons - is clearly intended to have a haunting, fabular quality to it. But one of things I've always enjoyed most about magic realist fiction is the sweeping grandeur of its scale: following its characters for years and years and frequently beginning at least a generation before the main protagonists are even born! Despite its epic themes of religion, love and madness, that sense of scale was somehow missing for me from this work, but that's not to say I didn't enjoy its overall premise. The parallel between the intangibility and madness of love and that of supposed demonic possession is an important theme in this book as Cayetano Delaura, the priest sent in to exorcise Sierva, quickly finds himself captivated by her. He also recognises her essential sanity: the demonic tongues in which she allegedly speaks are the tribal tongues of the black slaves who raised and included the young girl in a way her neglectful parents never did (and the novel has some important points to make about multicultural relations, although Marquez, unlike many of his ecclesiastical characters, never preaches). I also felt this novel lacked the uplifting - albeit brief and qualified - sense of redemption in Marquez's earlier work. It is clearly eighteenth-century Colombian society as a whole that needs healing, not poor Sierva Maria, although Cayetano Delaura's attempts to convince his superiors of this are a tragic and thankless task.

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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

His obtuseness is ignorance. His arrogance is ignorance. He is ignorant of us; we of him. He is infinitely a stranger, and I a fool, to let my shadow cross the light of hope he brings us.

This was my birthday present from Barry and he chose brilliantly (I suppose he ought to have a pretty good idea of my tastes after nearly ten years). The Left Hand of Darkness deserves its designation as a science fiction masterwork: it is is also an unconsummated love story, a profound meditation on gender, a tale of political intrigue and a thrilling piece of polar adventure/survival fiction all rolled into one. The action is set on the distant planet of Winter (Gethen in the parlance of its natives) a world like Earth but with two major differences: the planet is still in the grips on an ice age and its humanoid inhabitants are all of one gender. Gethenians are capable of both mothering and fathering offspring, adopting the necessary sexual characteristics to do this only when they come into heat or "kemmer." The rest of the time they are without distinguishing sexual characteristics or drives. The book tells of the coming of the Earth man, Genly Ai, an envoy for the Ekumen, an organization of more than eighty worlds, who hopes to persuade Gethen to join. The story of his mission and his observations of the alien Gethenians is interspersed with chapters telling tales from the planet's history and mythology.

I think Ai's profound sense of isolation - alienation in it's most literal sense - is shared by the reader in the earliest chapters. Le Guin's world-building is so dense and detailed that the book seems quite hard to follow, but it's absolutely worth persevering: soon, like Ai, I found myself feeling more at ease with the alien words and terms, and by the second half of the novel I was absolutely hooked. Gethenian biology of course allows Le Guin the opportunity to air some profound meditations on gender. It is significant that there is no organised warfare on the planet, the lack of sexual competition removes this militarising urge - although the Gethenians find plenty of less organised ways to kill each other. Le Guin's aliens remind us that we all should be people first, men and women second. It is an important lesson and the reason this book is regarded as a feminist classic. However, what I enjoyed most in The Left Hand of Darkness wasn't its anthropological musings so much as just the sheer gripping excitement of its final section which chronicles a gruelling quest for survival as Ai and his one true Gethenian friend undertake an epic journey across a glacier in the depths of the planet's darkest months. I love polar survival fiction anyway, Beryl Bainbridge's The Birthday Boys (about Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition) is one of my all time favourite novels. But Le Guin gives the genre a further twist, as all the challenges of the elements and the scarcity of food brings Ai and his companion much closer together, beginning to forge and understanding and trust despite the gaping chasm of their biological, social and cultural differences. It's an incredibly moving account and one that will stay with me for a long time to come.

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Miss Garnet's Angel by Salley Vickers

The silence was holy. What did 'holy' mean? Did it mean the chance to be whole again? But when had one ever been whole?

A bit of an odd mixture this one, and I have to say that I wasn't always sure exactly what Vicker's was trying to achieve with it. On one level this is a gently paced and sensitive novel about growing old: Julia Garnet is a retired history teacher, and a confirmed spinster. When her flatmate and companion of thirty years dies she flees to Venice to recuperate. It is amongst the canals and piazzas of this unique city that she finds the space and strength to take stock of her life so far, finding also that it is not too late to find her former cautiousness, coldness and communist leanings challenged to the core. I enjoyed this character-focused aspect of the novel a lot. Vickers paints her melancholy protagonist in strokes that are, while not always flattering, still tinged with compassion. I also enjoyed the novel's biblical forays: Julia's exploration of the city brings to her attention a scene from the apocryphal story of Tobit, the biblical exile whose son, Tobias, is watched over and aided by the angel Raphael. Although I'm not religious I do enjoy many of the bible stories. Tobit was not one I'd previously been familiar with, so I appreciated the chance to hear this very interesting story retold (Tobit and his son's first person narratives are interlaced with chapters on Julia). What I found less convincing was Vickers' attempt to weave these two rather disparate plot threads together by attempting to make Julia's experiences in Venice parallel those of the apocryphal story. Many of the other people Julia meets seem to echo characters from Tobit, yet not strongly or coherently enough to really convince. Vickers notes at one point "perhaps when a thing is true it went on returning in different likenesses." It's a fascinating idea but not one, I felt, that is ultimately played out in the novel with any real depth or persuasiveness.

For me Miss Garnet's Angel is a slightly confused novel that never quite lives up to its grand intellectual conceits. But before I put you off totally, some of the descriptions of Venice are truly breathtaking. I've never visited the city myself so can't really comment on the accuracy of Vickers' depictions, but you absolutely can't fault the author on her passion for the place. Venice itself is really the main character in this book, and those of us who can't afford a trip there any time soon could probably do a lot worse than to read this book in order to enjoy a glimpse of its famous art, impressive architecture and troubled history.

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Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

'Yes, I do believe in something. I believe in being warm-hearted. I believe especially in being warm-hearted in love, in fucking with a warm heart. I believe if men could fuck with warm hearts and women take it warm-heartedly, everything would come all right.'

Since I'm currently meant to be writing an essay on censorship for my library course, it seemed like a good opportunity to visit one of the most famous banned books of all time. First published in 1928 - in Italy rather than Lawrence's native UK where it could not be published openly until 1960 - Lady Chatterley's Lover has become notorious for its then unprintably coarse language and its graphic descriptions of an adulterous sexual relationship between an aristocratic woman and her husband's gamekeeper. I can imagine that this cross-class relationship was originally every bit as shocking - if not more so - than the sexual language; certainly that's how characters in the novel respond, Connie Chatterley's father and sister are far more concerned at the scandal of her class-betrayal than of her adultery. But this isn't a book designed purely to shock, it's thoughtful and thought-provoking on so many levels, as well as being a vivid snapshot of British society still reeling from the First World War and in painful transition from its smoggy industrial heyday to a more service based economy. The novel essentially deals with the contrast between intellect and physicality, and the realisation of its protagonist, Connie, that she cannot live through her mind alone; she must also be alive in her body. This choice is represented by the two men in her life: her husband, the colliery owner Sir Clifford, who has been paralysed from the waist down and now lives a purely intellectual life as a writer, and the game-keeper, the sensual Oliver Mellors who lives in quiet isolation after an unsuccessful marriage and string of disappointing affairs.

I found this book hard going at first, as the book opens to a lot of quite academic generalisations about male and female nature but Connie becomes a more engaging character as she moves from cold intellect towards passion, and I appreciated the honesty and realism of Lawrence's prose. Connie and Mellors find tremendous fulfilment in each other but even their love-making is far from perfect and the novel describes the mental distances between them just as vividly as it does their unions. Lawrence's working title for the book was at one point, "Tenderness" and this does seem to be the philosophy that Lawrence promotes above all. It's an important message, and the novel, overall, resembles the "Lover" of its title: with a famously coarse exterior masking much that is tender and noble.

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The Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick

Cut because it's impossible to review this without including some spoilers )

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

Obscurity is Japan's outermost defence. The country doesn't want to be understood.

Well, I had extremely high expectations of this, the fifth novel from one of my all time favourite authors, and I was not disappointed. In fact I can easily say this is the best book I've read so far this year. Mitchell has chosen a fascinating location and period of history for this panoramic piece of historical fiction: the beginning of the C19th and the artificial island of Dejima, a Dutch trading outpost at Nagasaki, and the single European trading link to the isolated, closed world of Shogun-era Japan. Mitchell's protagonist, the titular De Zoet, is a clerk employed by the Dutch East Indies Company, originally hoping to make his fortune so he can return home and claim the hand of his native sweetheart. Life, however, has other plans for the naive but intensely moral clerk and during the course of his time on Dejima he must grapple with company corruption, religious censorship, cultural and linguistic differences, naval attacks, a shadowy Japanese abbot and the emotional assault from within as he finds himself unwillingly falling for Orito, a Japanese midwife studying Dutch medicine on the island. Just as Jacob finds the courage to make a move, the midwife is spirited away to become a sister at a remote shrine that harbours an incredibly dark secret...

While The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet seems rather more straightforward and more accessible than Mitchell's first three novels at least, the author has lost none of his linguistic playfulness (many puns and plot points centre on translation between Dutch, Japanese and English), his ability to shock and captivate (there is a very dark core to this book and he does not shirk away either from the gory details of Orito's midwifery) and above all, his remarkable ability to tell a tale through a myriad of different voices. Although Jacob's experience is dominant one, a host of other characters share the narrative duties and each unique voice is utterly convincing.

This is truly a novel to savour. I wanted to read it slowly anyway so I could get my money's worth having paid full hardback price for it, but the novel actually rewards that kind of attention to detail: Dejima and Nagasaki are such alien worlds that it really helps to absorb fully the minute sights, sounds and smells of these fascinating locations. Also - be warned - the novel features a huge cast of characters mostly with complicated and (for me) unusual Japanese or Dutch names so it helps to pause regularly to keep track of who's who. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet deals with some massive themes: progress, the nature of commerce, spiritual vs physical medicine, isolation, but above all, this is a novel about the clash of cultures (Mitchell who has a Japanese wife himself writes from the heart when he talks about inter-cultural relationships) and that imperceptible line between enlightenment and progress, and corruption and decay. I think overall my favourite Mitchell book is still the frenetic number9dream but this new one is very good indeed, in fact I can't recommend it highly enough! Mitchell really does have the most incredible mind!

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Rule Britannia by Daphne Du Maurier

That is what happens to people, Emma thought, bewildered, when they lose their identity, when they stop being themselves; it happens to individuals when they fall in love with the wrong person, the personality doesn't develop, it gets swamped, and it happens to communities, to villages, to countries, under invasion, however benign the intention, however all-embracing the ultimate design.

This, Daphne Du Maurier's final novel, is far from being one of her best. I struggled to get through it in places because the extreme naivety of the novel's heroine is often grating (she's meant to be twenty but frequently comes across as being much younger) and the supposed comic relief mostly takes the form of crudely racist stereotypes, which - thankfully - have absolutely not stood the test of time. Despite these not inconsiderable weaknesses, however, Rule Britannia is still worth reading just for the contrast it provides to Du Maurier's more famous works like Rebecca. In this novel, though the scene is still Cornwall, we are a very long way from dreams of Manderley. The action takes place in a might-have-been political future in which Britain withdrew from the common market shortly after joining, a decision that has left the country financially crippled. In order to relieve the situation the coalition government agree to an alliance with the US, creating the new USUK, a 'friendly' union that is belied by an alarmingly large and violent military presence. These events are seen through the eyes of young Emma and her eccentric family: "Mad" (Madam) Emma's aged thespian Grandma, with her unruly brood of six adopted sons. Living in isolated Poldrea (a thinly fictionalised version of Cornwall's Par) the family are on the periphery of this brave new political world and at first struggle to find out the meaning of the power cuts, road blocks and battleship in their bay. I enjoyed this thriller-type aspect of the novel and feel Du Maurier captures well the uncertainty, fear and internal conflict of a rural community under invasion.

As the villagers begin to rebel against the new regime, Rule Britannia becomes a satire on the Kernow separatist movement, for whom Du Maurier was known to have moderate sympathies. The whole story is somewhat oversimplified with rather too much emphasis on eye-for-an-eye justice and above all, plucky gung-ho Celtic spirit. So not a great novel, but one with, at least, I felt, an interesting premise which does still feel surprisingly topical, given the military and political events of the past ten years or so - particularly during the Bush and Blair years.

Man Crazy by Joyce Carol Oates

I don't play games, I never did. Crazy for men they say it's really your own daddy you seek. I hope this is so, maybe one day I'll find him.

A relentlessly dark and brutal portrait of a romance - and a life - gone horribly off the rails. I just picked this up out of curiosity in my lunch break one day and found myself at once captivated and wishing I'd never started it. Rather like watching a train-wreck, this novel is gut-wrenchingly violent but so gripping that it's very difficult to tear away from. It tells the story of Ingrid Boone: aged nine, she is used to being hauled from one depressed US town to another by her beautiful young "white trash" mother while her Vietnam-veteran father ducks and dives from the law. As she grows up Ingrid transfers her affections idolising her absent father to seeking the attention - and brief ego-boost - of a string of liaisons with men. This behaviour culminates in her abusive relationship with Enoch Skaggs, the charismatic but evil leader of a Satanic biker gang. Oates does not shy away from depicting Ingrid's extreme physical abuse in the clutches of the gang and this novel is very far from being an easy read. According to one review I read Oates herself justifies the horrors she chronicles in the following way: "if you are going to write about a romance that is evil, and the character is redeemed, then there must be something she is redeemed from, so I felt the imagery of the novel was justified." I think that makes a lot of sense, and ultimately, as the quote suggests, this is the story of Ingrid's redemption, ending with flashes of hope rather than darkness.

Although Ingrid's is (I would hope) a very extreme story, Oates' unflinching honesty throughout the book makes it easy to relate to at least parts of her experience: if not the promiscuity, drug-abuse, and enslavement, at least the longing for an absent parent, the endless popularity contest of school life and the desire to be desired. Indeed, more than anything, this is a novel about the love and loss: the eternal craving for one and the devastating effects of the other, and that is something that touches all our lives.

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Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

"Take birds - in a lean season they cut down on the eggs or won't mate at all. They put their energy into staying alive themselves until times get better. But human beings hope they can stick their souls into someone else, some new version of themselves, and live on forever."
"As a species we're doomed by hope, then?"
"You could call it hope, that or desperation"

As a rule I don't re-read books as I'm cripplingly aware of all the books out there that I haven't yet approached for the first time, but Atwood is a worthy exception to that rule as I always find her works even more powerful the second time around. Oryx and Crake was certainly no exception there. The first time I read it, shortly after it came out, I was just swept along by the tremendously gripping plot, which begins with "Snowman" a weary and resentful man struggling to survive on a beach in the wake of some unspecified disaster which has wiped out most, perhaps all, other human life. I was captivated by this depressing premise and devoured the book quickly to find out what the disaster was, who caused it, how Snowman had survived, and who were the mysterious Children of Crake" the small evolved/post-human colony who inhabit the shoreline and revere Snowman as a prophet. The second time around, I knew the answers to these plot-related questions and was able to read more slowly, really savouring Atwood's extraordinarily powerful language. This book is just stuffed with intensely thought-provoking and quotable lines. Almost every page had one or more sentences I wanted to preserve and choosing a key quote to head up my review was a real challenge!

This is not a cheerful book; in it, Atwood presents a dystopian future that feels depressingly plausible, but it is a brilliantly engaging read, wise and very knowing in its depiction of human nature in all its flawed glory. If you enjoy sci-fi and speculative fiction then you absolutely should pick this one up. Having now also read its sequel/sister volume The Year of the Flood I can say that Oryx and Crake is the technically better of the two: the second one lacks the tremendous power of the first, and though set in the same horrifying world it somehow presents a softer, more hopeful vision of it than the original. Yet having said that, they are worth reading as a pair, it's certainly interesting to get a very different - and much less sympathetic - view of Snowman in the second book.

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

Even he, with his still-flawed understanding of English, could admire the economy with which this question was expressed. And he wrestled with the thought that if only language could always be as simple, as sweet and unambiguous as this, then life itself would somehow be less complicated.
'To be, or not to be'

The reviews of this book on Amazon are extremely divided: lots of five star scores, lots of one star scores and little in between, which pretty accurately reflects typical reactions to the issue with which it deals. Essentially, The Road Home is an immigrant's tale: the tale of Lev, a middle aged man from a never specified Eastern European country (though the geographical description of his journey leaves few doubts that Tremain had Poland in mind) who comes to London, still grieving deeply for his dead wife, to earn money to support his aged mother and young daughter back home. In London Lev finds all his preconceptions about Britain shattered: he encounters racism, violence, mindless bureaucracy, vacuous celebrity culture but also true friendship and inspiration for his future. His finds his frozen heart thawed by a young British woman and pursues an intense affair with difficult consequences, before he finally finds a passion for the catering business, and develops the plan of saving up to open a restaurant back in his home country. Lev is a heroic and hard-working character who doesn't always do the right thing, but always commands our respect and sympathy. A lot of Daily Mail readers who see immigrants as little more than an unpleasant statistic should be forced to read this book, though it would probably be too challenging for a lot of them!

Much of the criticism directed at this novel, which was shortlisted for the Orange prize in 2008, focuses on Tremain's perceived use of stereotypes. And it's true that there are a lot of recognisable tropes here: the drunken Irishman, the driven and abrasive top chef, the vulgar contemporary artist laughing all the way to the bank at those who value and revere his work. Not being or really knowing closely any migrant workers myself, I can't comment on how realistic Lev's experience is. It certainly seems that he has a rather easy time with finding accommodation in a decent part of London, that sort of thing. But then I don't think Tremain intended this as a social documentary, more as a sort of modern fairytale (and there is a distinct fairytale quality to the way Lev's chance encounters come to help and aid him time and again) and an exploration of the journeys we all make in life. The novel touchingly explores issues of past and present, and what emotional, as well as physical, baggage we bring with us when we travel, and in that respect I have to say I found this to be very convincing. Rose Tremain is a writer of breathtaking scope: each of her books is set somewhere utterly different: a woman's experience of the New Zealand gold-rush; a hormonal teenage boy in modern Paris; a transsexual, born in Suffolk who moves to Elvis country, I am always impressed by the sheer range of her novels, but this one, I have to say is perhaps one of her most enjoyable, albeit gripping in a quiet, diligent way that mirrors the behaviour and attitudes of its main character.

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The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

We're using up the Earth, it's almost gone. You can't live with such fears and keep on whistling. The waiting builds up in you like a tide. You start wanting to be done with. You find yourself saying to the sky, Just do it. Do your worst. Get it over with.

I was so excited about reading this book, Atwood is one of my all-time favourite writers and her previous novel, Oryx and Crake is one of my all-time favourite books. Set in the same dystopian world that feels disturbingly close to our own in places, it could be said that The Year of the Flood is a sequel to Oryx and Crake but that wouldn't be quite accurate, at least not in the conventional sense. Neither is it a prequel. Rather it covers pretty much the same time period as its predecessor but from a very different point of view. The God's Gardeners are a religious sect who seek to combine science and religion (with varying degrees of persuasiveness) and make it their mission to live off the land and tend to nature in their rooftop gardens; their lifestyle is a radical alternative to either the artificial, consumerist orgy of the upper classes who live sequestered in sanitised compounds or the desperate hedonism and struggle for dwindling resources faced by the lower classes in the urban "Pleeblands." Adam One, the kindly leader of the cult has long warned of the coming of the Great Flood, a "waterless flood" that would wreak great havoc to the human race. The novel is largely set after that flood, the same ravaging infection described and artificially created in Oryx and Crake. While that novel was told from a predominantly male perspective, both the - very different - narrators here are female. Toby is a Gardener who has survived the flood by hiding herself in a health clinic where many of the products are edible, while Ren is a high-class sex worker locked in the seclusion unit of Scales and Tails, an exclusive club and brothel. Both women use their isolation to reflect on their pasts, the chain of events that brought them to this point, and wonder if any of their former friends and foes have also survived.

Many of the characters from the first novel also feature here, though in less central roles. And through Ren, Atwood offers a very different perspective on Jimmy, the main character from Oryx and Crake. I really enjoyed the interesting interplay between the two novels. I think the world building is solid enough that either could stand alone and be enjoyed separately but together they are even more powerful, although reading this did make me realise just how much of the detail of the first novel I'd forgotten with time (it was years ago I read it) so I'm currently in the process of rereading Oryx and Crake. If I have any criticisms of Flood it's that the world building is almost a little too thorough, or that too much of that background creation process is foregrounded here. Atwood has spent tremendous time and effort compiling the mythology and beliefs of the Gardener cult. Most chapters of the book are prefaced by their hymns (which read like a GreenPeace protester channelling William Blake) and by sermons from Adam One. These spark some really interesting ideas but sometimes the novel feels a little overwhelmed by them and the action, which is essentially a tense piece of futuristic survivor fiction, sometimes feels swamped by these religious inserts. Overall, though, a great book from a woman who well deserves that over-used accolade 'one of our greatest living writers.'

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Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

The thing he liked about tough women like Ripley and Sarah Connor (and yes he knew they were fictional) was that it didn't matter how kick-ass they were, their motives stemmed from a kind of maternal love, a maternal love for the whole world.

This powerful novel - the first in Atkinson's series about the private eye Jackson Brodie, which I have been reading out of order as and when I get hold of them - begins with a series of brutally shocking vignettes: a three year old girl disappears one summer's morning; a doting father is unable to prevent the violent murder of his eighteen year old daughter; and a depressed young woman struggling with the demands of her marriage and newborn baby goes psychotic with an axe. It's a dark, dark way to begin a novel. Indeed, I might have found the opening chapters all too much, but I didn't because I knew that Jackson Brodie would soon arrive to tie up the lose ends. Brodie is a wonderful character: absolutely hard-bitten and cynical but still a genuinely good man and somehow lovable to boot. Jackson's life is in a mess: he's still reeling from some of the horrors that marred his childhood, and he's struggling to help maintain the innocence and wonder of childhood for his own tweenage daughter, Marlee, as his battles with her mother become increasingly acrimonious.

I love the way Atkinson writes. She somehow manages to maintain a real vein of crisp, bubbly humour while at the same time exploring emotional trauma and the darker side of human nature. This is a crime novel, but one with a very literary edge. I don't think I enjoyed this quite as much as her third Jackson book When Will There Be Good News, that one genuinely shocked me with its twists and turns, whereas here I had pretty much sussed what had happened to most of the novel's plethora of missing persons quite a few beats before Jackson did. But despite that, I found Case Histories to be very gripping but tender too: this novel, like Sarah Connor, Ripley, and Jackson himself (who so ardently fancies those two cinematic women) has a tough exterior with a loving core.

Water Lily by Susanna Jones

Even expressionless, there was something that she couldn't get rid of, something that defined her as being Runa, a kind of hunger, she thought, or just plain badness. There was just too much of herself spilling out from behind her eyes and through her pores.

Jones has an amazing ability to create an atmosphere of mystery and suspense. Her debut novel, which I read earlier this year had me absolutely gripped. This, her follow-up, shares many of the traits of its predecessor: both are set in Japan and feature a bit of a bad girl protagonist, on the run from former relationships. This time around, the heroine is Runa, a young teacher who has stolen her sister's passport and identity in an attempt to escape scandal as her passionate affair with a pupil threatens to become public. She boards the ferry to Shanghai, hoping to start a new life in China. During the voyage, Runa's life collides with that of Ralph, a creepy middle-aged Brit, who is travelling to find himself a wife, a submissive "Oriental Blossom" like those described in his creepy mail-order catalogue. But Ralph, like Runa, isn't quite who he seems. It's a great premise but somehow or other Water Lily didn't quite deliver fully for me. It's one of those suspenseful novels that builds up and up, and then just rushes to end far too quickly and in a way that I at least felt to be far too obvious a cop-out, which was a real shame. I went from not being able to put it down to throwing it down in annoyance. I'm glad I read it, and her exploration of the mentality and desperation of somebody who would turn to mail-order brides is really convincing, but I hope Jones's third effort will be a bit more consistently satisfying!

tispity: (Book fort)
Small Island by Andrea Levy

The filthy tramp that eventually greets you is she. Ragged, old and dusty as the long dead. Mother has a blackened eye, bad breath and one lone tooth that waves in her head when she speaks. Can this be that fabled relation you heard so much of?

Not owning a TV, I completely missed the recent BBC adaptation of this, so if any of you have seen it I'd love to hear your thoughts as I'm tempted now to seek it out, having thoroughly enjoyed the original novel. Small Island deals with, among other things, the disenchanting experiences of Jamaican immigrants arriving in the UK after the Second World War; these new arrivals roll off the boat bursting with optimistic clichés about the warm welcome they would receive from their proud mother country but face instead only poverty and racism from the still-recovering inhabitants of a war-ravaged country. The action unrolls through the very disparate voices of the novel's four main characters, the Jamaicans, ex-serviceman Gilbert and his haughty new wife, Hortense; and the two main white characters, the refreshingly open-minded Queenie and her staid husband Bernard. What I particularly appreciated about Levy's narrative is the way that all four of these characters have their moments of greatness and their moments of behaving frustratingly, misguidedly and downright badly. In other words, all four of the protagonists seem very human, which is probably the most important message of all. Too many novels that are essentially about race-relations seem to simply the issue down to portray all members of one ethnic group as victims, the other perpetrators. True, there are some shocking incidents of racism depicted in this book but Levy's complex and considerate narrative never allows her readers to fall prey to the same oversimplified black and white logic embraced by too many characters in the novel itself.

Small Island should, by rights, be a much more depressing read than it is. There's so much horror, sadness and prejudice in this novel but at the same time Levy weaves through her action a wonderfully light touch of humour. The quadruple narrative technique also finds multiple characters detailing the same event and their differing perspectives can be equally tragic or hilarious, sometimes both in disturbingly close proximity. This provided an interesting contrast to the Ishiguro novel I read before it which deals with the Japanese experience of the same time period. So much fiction and memoir is set during the Second World War that I found it has been a refreshing change to read things dealing so vividly with the difficult post-war years.

tispity: (Book pile)
The Whole Day Through by Patrick Gale

With quiet ruthlessness, she brought him to see that what he had thought of as the historical truth of their shared history was only a version, a narrative he had unconsciously shaped to cause the least pain to others and least blame to himself

I picked this one off the free book exchange shelf at work and it'll be heading back there soon enough as, while I'm glad I read it and did quite enjoy it, it's certainly not a keeper. The Whole Day Through is a rather sombre, understated little novel about missed opportunity. The main characters are Laura and Ben, former university sweethearts, who had long since gone their separate ways, and rediscover each other by chance when, both now in their forties, they find themselves separately called to Winchester to perform the duties of a carer. Laura is looking after her aged mother, a formidable university professor, whose lively mind is repeatedly failed by her increasingly frail body. Ben, meanwhile, is caring for his younger brother, Bobby, who suffers from Mosaic Downs Syndrome, although it quickly becomes clear that his attentions are largely unnecessary. Indeed as he cheerfully emerges in the adult world, belatedly discovering and enjoying his homosexuality, Bobby is repeatedly the main ray of light in this otherwise mostly cheerless read.

Gale creates some great characters here who are quirky but always believable: the novel is worth reading for its portrayal of Laura's unusual childhood alone, particularly the way she recalls trying to reconcile her unusual parent's annual holidays to a nudist camp with daily life at school and her desire to be a "normal" child. As the title suggests, this book is loosely structured around the events of a single summer day, but overall, I didn't find this device to be terribly persuasive. As most of the action is played out in flashbacks, it felt like an unconvincing distraction to keep returning to the very same day, and I found it hard to believe that so many events of life-changing importance could happen in such quick succession.

A Pale View of the Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

Noises from the harbour followed us across the water - the clang of hammers, the whine of machinery, the occasional deep sound from a ship's horn - but in those days, in Nagasaki, such sounds were not unpleasing; they were the sounds of recovery and they were still capable then of bringing a certain uplifting feeling to one's spirits.

Ishiguro's famously restrained tone is perfectly suited to the subject matter of this, his debut novel which deals with a Japanese widow's memories of summer in post-war Nagasaki, a community struggling to rebuild itself after the horrors of World War Two. The novel captures perfectly the ambivalent mood of the period, particularly the way in which the Japanese people were trapped between outrage and shame, and an awareness of their nation as at once victim and perpetrator. Ishiguro is well-known for being an author who leaves his readers to do much of the interpretative work, and this novel is no exception. The story that unfolds here is filtered through the long term memories of Etsuko, a widow now living in England and attempting to come to terms with the suicide of her eldest daughter. Her efforts continually take her back in her mind to the summer in which, pregnant with her first child, her life collided with that of an enigmatic woman and child, living as vagrants in an abandoned cottage near Etsuko and her husband's apartment block. This little novel is permeated with such an air of sinister mystery that it becomes a real page turner and I read it all in just one day.

The ending, however, disappointed me. I generally enjoy open ended novels. Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, for example, left me energised as I tried to settle in my own mind exactly what had happened and, after much thought, I finally felt confident in my own interpretation of the novel's ending. A Pale View of the Hills is a little too startlingly open for comfort however. As I was reading I got to the point where I realised I only had a page left to go, and couldn't possibly find answers to half the questions buzzing around my brain. Ishiguro teases the reader with several particularly uncomfortable possibilities at the end of this book, but for each explanation there are factors that don't fit and the ultimate verdict is open. This, of course, is the point and the book delivers a powerful, and all too true, message about the devastating unreliability of memory, particularly those memories of traumatic events which often cause the rememberer to distance themselves from the event in striking and desperate ways. This is worth reading as a powerful and thought-provoking depiction of a difficult and intriguing place and period in history, but if you like your stories neatly resolved - or even partially resolved - then this probably isn't the book for you.

tispity: New Devon Army logo (Devon cow)
Lorna Doone by R.D Blackmore

What I want to know is something none of them can tell me - what am I, and why set here, and when shall I be with them? I see that you are surprised a little at this my curiosity. Perhaps such questions never spring in any wholesome spirit. But they are in the depths of mine, and I cannot be quit of them.

I would guess that even if they haven't read it, most people know the basic premise of this classic novel: that it deals with the forbidden love between John Ridd, a young Exmoor farmer, and Lorna Doone, a girl raised by a feared clan of local outlaws. But the novel is actually a lot more complex and sweeping than its renowned romance plot first implies, taking in as it also does a huge number of important real historical events from the seventeenth century including the great winter of 1683-4, the Monmouth Rebellion, and the rise of Judge Jeffreys. Indeed, Blackmore does an excellent job in mediating between the isolated microcosm of Plover's Barrow Farm and the turmoil of John's heart, and the tremendous unrest and political/religious rebellion gathering pace across the country as a whole.

Lorna is the novel's named protagonist and its central enigma: her origins are shrouded in mystery and the notion of a young maiden attempting to grow up with a pure heart in the midst of such corruption is an intriguing one, hence I have chosen some lines from Lorna's only section of first-person narrative for my key quote of the novel. Overall, however, I found Lorna rather overshadowed by two other characters. Firstly John Ridd (in local dialect "Jan"), her steadfast lover, and the book's narrator: John is a brilliant character, a giant of a man more suited to wrestling than philosophising, which makes the strength of his passion for her seem all the more real. A stereotypical "yokel," John's voice is a homely one: he lacks confidence in high society and his narrative is frequently derailed by observations about farming and local affairs. He is pure in heart, but doesn't always do the right thing, and I found that these realistic flaws made me warm to him tremendously. However, perhaps the main character in Lorna Doone is not a person at all, but rather an area: the bleak beauty of the Exmoor landscape is described with such vivid detail that this unique landscape becomes the novel's central character, mirroring in its rich and variable seasonal change the roller-coaster emotions of the humans who live within its rugged hills and valleys. It is certainly telling that, during the two sections of the book set in London, John pines for his farm as much as he does for Lorna.

I would certainly recommend this novel to any of you hankering to read some classic fiction as it really does offer a bit of everything: aching romance, mystery, humour, battle scenes, and some beautiful landscapes. However, I think I enjoyed this book on a more personal level than many people would as I am myself an Exmoor girl. I grew up just off the borders of the National Park, so all the locations in Lorna Doone were instantly familiar to me. Indeed, I have many fond memories from my teenage years of swimming with my friends in the very deep river at Doone Valley which is a real and truly beautiful place. I have a strong hankering now to go back there having read this book. The other funny personal thing in my reading of this novel, was that a lot of the minor characters speak in West Country dialect. Now Barry teases me about my very slight West Country twang, but I certainly don't have the full on Wurzels accent. My Uncle Steve, who is a farmer, however, does and he is absolutely priceless! So whenever I read the accented sections I could hear Steve's voice in my head and thus, in my mind, pretty much every minor male character became an Uncle Steve! It's probably not the effect Blackmore had in mind but that's how it worked out for me.

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HeroRats have revamped their website recently and they've asked all their subscribers to make an effort this month to spread the word by sharing their recent press release. I know most of my long term friends here know already all about Ziko and the amazing work of the HeroRats/Apopo foundation in Tanzania. But here's a rare public post from me to help spread the word a bit further.

There are currently 76 countries and territories around the world that are affected by landmines and/or explosive remnants of war. In many countries, mines block people’s access to roads, schools, health care, water supplies, jobs, and opportunities to get ahead. Landmines injure and kill innocent people every day, and sadly many of them are children.

Tuberculosis (TB) is the leading killer of youth and adults in the world, and every second someone new contracts TB. These are daunting numbers, but a local, cheap, and efficient solution exists: HeroRATs!

One HeroRAT can clear 100 square meters of a landmine field in 20 minutes; that same area would take two days work for a manual deminer. In Mozambique, HeroRATs and their human colleagues have returned 1,312,027 square meters of land back to the community and over 44,547 people have benefited from our mine clearance activities.

A HeroRAT can screen 40 samples for tuberculosis in seven minutes, equal to what a skilled lab technician can do in a day. In 2009, the HeroRATs found 561 people with active TB missed in the hospitals. If left untreated, the average person with active TB can spread the disease to 10 – 15 people each year. This means that through their work, the HeroRATs prevented 7,590 people from contracting TB in 2009 alone!

Learn more about the amazing work of these life-saving rats at www.herorat.org or read about the science behind it at www.apopo.org. You can also adopt a HeroRAT, to get an inside look at their work!

My husband and I have been sponsoring Ziko since Feb 2009. Through his regular updates we have followed his progress through all his training, and he is now deployed helping to counter the threat of landmines in Mozambique, as well as recently having become Daddy to three more (unbearably cute) HeroRats in the making. Sponsoring Ziko is probably the most rewarding £5 a month we spend.

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