Friday, 19 May 2017

Post 56: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

As promised in my last missive, I have been afforded more reading time this week.  Hubby did appear for an unexpected 24-hour pass after the cancellation of a meeting, but despite this interruption to my reading schedule (!) I have finished both The Miniaturist and The Jewel Garden. He's home tomorrow afternoon, so I may even be able to squeeze in another title before his key turns in the door!

Before I dive into The Miniaturist, I must say, that even as an English teacher, the spelling of Miniature is ridiculous!  If English spelling gives you amusement and/or despair, I must recommend the poem  I Take it You Already Know.

And so to the novel. The Miniaturist received a great deal of acclaim when it was published in 2014. It is one of those books that I have had on my shelves for a long time but never got around to picking up.  It was even downloaded on my Kindle, but something held me back. It was probably because I had heard a review on the radio that emphasised a mystical element to it, and I'm not really a fan of magical realism or portents...

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. (Have you ever noticed that low expectations sometimes garner the most satisfying experiences?  Shhh, don't tell school...that is not a growth mindset!)

Set in Amsterdam in the 17th century, the book gave a historically accurate glimpse of life as a merchant in a busy port.  Trade was largely controlled by Guilds and the Burgomasters and thus corruption was rife.  At a time when few black people were in Northern Europe, Johannes Brandt's domestic servant, Otto was looked upon with fear and derision in equal measure.  Hasty to point out that he was employed and not a slave, Otto forms an integral part of family life.  Loved by the house maid, Cornelia, she, along with Johannes and his sister Marin, is fiercely protective of him.

Into this tight household comes Petronella.  Married off to Johannes by her Mother as a good, wealthy match, 18 year old Nella finds herself as far removed from her rural upbringing as she could have imagined.  She is considered as a blessing and a miracle by Johannes and Marin, and yet, at the same time, she is both ignored and humiliated by them both.  She befriends Cornelia but even in this relationship there are secrets.  Nella feels alone and marginalised, despite her best efforts to be a wife.
Johannes sees this and seeks to make amends by buying her an extraordinary dolls house; a replica of their own home.

Given with good intent, Nella is insulted to have been presented with what she perceives to be little more than a toy.  She also has a blank cheque with which to furnish the house.  Marin insists that she does so and it is here that the story takes the turn towards the portentous.

The miniature furniture and dolls are exact replicas of those in the house.  The craftmanship is beyond compare, and Nella finds herself drawn to the figures.  Other commissions arrive at the house unannounced.  Their arrival is unpredictable, but it soon becomes apparent that the miniaturist seems to know everything about their lives, even things Nella did not know about herself.  Thus the packages become emblematic of the future and the novel creates intrigue by building on whether the talismans govern events or whether they are effigies that result from hands that can see into a future already mapped.

Nella becomes obsessed by the miniaturist, a woman she has never met, and this plot strand continues to the end.  But this is not the whole story.  The lives of Nella, Marin, Johannes and their household reveal much about trade and morality in Amsterdam at the time.  The church and the judiciary all play a part in making the novel exciting.

And it is exciting.  It is a gripping read.  Made up of short chapters, Jessie Burton ends each one with the desire to know more.  This structure makes for compulsive reading and it is a book that is easily consumed. For those of you who enjoy a detailed historical novel, this is not one of those.  It is a light read, a popular read. It is definitely a recommendation from me and I am certainly interested in reading her second title, The Muse.

And before I go, I must just give you a life update.  Child 1 has just heard that she has got her job of choice which will begin after university.  Very proud of her.  Indeed.  But... this also means that she will not be moving back into her own room and that the bank of Mum and Dad can look forward to closing pretty soon!

 Mmmm....perhaps I should start rearranging the furniture to give me more space for my library!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Post 55:Celebrations and Vigilantes

Dear Readers, I thank you!  In borrowing a little from Charlotte Bronte, I wanted to express my amazement and gratitude that my blog has now had over 10,000 hits. This counts as fame in my book, and yet I can still walk the streets without being beleaguered for an autograph! I have been reliably informed that my musings have influenced reading lists and present purchases.  This is incredible, and I get really very excited when I discover a new reader. The little map on my statistics page also suggests that I have readers in every continent except Antartica: if that is to be believed then the penguins are seriously missing out!

Now the nature of this business means that I don't know who most of you are, but I do know that I love being part of this bookish community.  As always, may I encourage you to comment and suggest other titles for me to read...though I confess my to-read shelf is committing the cardinal sin of having books led sideways to accommodate all my recent purchases....

However, I do find myself home alone for a whole week.  Hubby is hobnobbing in various hotels and family stop-off points before heading into a long weekend jolly with friends from Church, Child 1 is revising for finals in Sheffield and Child 2 is enjoying a term without exams in Oxford, (he's done them already...don't worry, the bastion of learning has not given up on examining their students!) The upshot of all this abandonment is bound to be an increase in reading time.  My aim is to complete The Miniaturist which I am currently enjoying and then I might treat myself to the new Maggie O'Farrell. I've had it for a couple of weeks and it is still in its postal packaging.  Delayed gratification!

To kick-start my week, I'm going to fill you in on my latest completed read, which was Shelley Harris's Vigilante. Some of you may remember that Shelley was the tutor at a creative writing day I went on at Faber and Faber last year.  More surprising was that she knew me!  In her teaching days, we had crossed paths twice, and I was the (only ever-so-slightly) older, wiser one!! Her debut novel Jubilee is reviewed here. Vigilante is totally different.  The audience is the same; I would hazard at predominantly female and generally favouring a light read.  I hesitate to say chick-lit because that seems to me to be a derisive term...and I tend to agree with Marion Kaye that no equivalent term would ever be tagged onto popular fiction written by a man.....

But this is a book that is easy to read.  I purposely chose it after the dense and evocative Gardens of the Evening Mist  as I wanted a quicker, light-touch book.  This certainly achieved that aim.  The protagonist, Jenny Pepper is a middle-aged wife, mother and charity bookshop manager.  The book opens with the provocative statement, "Before I was a superhero...I'd have been tidying up." And there you have the plot in a nutshell.  She is an ordinary woman, feeling her age, feeling hemmed-in by her life, and significantly, being defined by what she is to everyone else.

In many ways it is a familiar story of middle age.  The kids are growing up, the career has dwindled as family life has superceded ambition and we wonder how we got here, and more importantly, how are we going to get out! This is not about me by the way! Nor is it about Shelley Harris she assures us in the author interview at the back of the book, but she does say that she relates to the feeling of dreams squandered and having to find the resources to cope when life stares back at you with no interest in who you are anymore.  I read an article in the Times Sunday Supplement whilst clearing out the newspapers collected by an elderly friend of mine, and there was a humorous column on the joys of middle this she declared that past a certain point, you realise that you become invisible, indistinguishable, unremarkable.

But middle age is not that depressing! Shelley Harris acknowledges this in her plot.  Jenny Pepper, whilst walking to a fancy dress evening dressed as a superhero, complete with high heels, cape and a mask, serendipitously comes across an actual crime taking place.  Staying in character, she swoops on the scene and protects the victim.  Comedic, yes. Plausible? Almost.  It is certainly within the realms of suspension of disbelief.  But she becomes entranced by the possibilities afforded to her by the anonymity of the costume.  It releases her from being just Jenny and empowers her to be somebody different, somebody who effects things around her.

And so the story unfolds.  From a street mugging, the small town of Bassetbury becomes a hotspot
for increasingly sinister crime.  Undeterred by potential danger, Jenny goes out at night in full costume, patrolling the streets and becoming embroiled in an unbelievable number of skirmishes. This was the point where I did begin to lose faith in my ability to hold onto the storyline and stay with the character.  I couldn't find a place to suspend my disbelief long enough to accept that she would have continued to go out, knowingly putting herself in danger and believing herself to be more useful than the police.

But I was impressed with the shift to a pseudo detective genre as the novel progressed.  I wanted to find out if my hunch on whodunnit was right, and whether I had correctly identified the red herring. It was satisfying to come to the end and feel smug about my own detective skills, but at this point I must reassure you that not once did I leave the house dressed as wonderwoman!

I loved being taught by Shelley.  She is fun and talented and her classes are both inspiring and down-to-earth. This is a good light read, but it is not my favourite genre.  It is quirky, and I laughed out loud at the Conversation with Shelley Harris section when she quotes, "Certainly, when I walked down the streets of High Wycombe dressed as a superhero, I found that I was horribly nervous right up to the point that I put on the mask. Once I was wearing it, I felt in control..."

Anyone who is prepared to research their central character with such passion deserves a wide readership!  So...going on a plane, sitting on a beach, or just feeling a bit uninspired by daily life, then escape to a life of vigilante crime-solving with Jenny Pepper.  She is no Emmilene Pankhurst, but she does her bit for standing up for the girls!

Friday, 5 May 2017

Post 54: Garden of the Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Since my last post, I have spent a disproportionate amount of time walking!  I'm fervently hoping that my faithful boots, bought some seven years ago, will be able to withstand the beating and propel me over the finish line of our marathon in July. Some walks have been more adventurous than others, with this one, in and around Hambleden, finding us in the tiniest of public right of way gaps imaginable!  The Hambleden walk also saw us get lost  twice and extend what was meant to be a 10 mile walk to almost 16! The second woodland wandering off-track found us slap-bang in the middle of a Tough Mudder circuit.  Hubby was not amused as we found ourselves skirting obstacles only to re-emerge in yet another cordoned-off area.  Thank heaven for GPS which finally decided to work long enough for us to find an alternative way out of the woods and to the sanctity of tea and flapjack!

Now time for a reading confession.  I read much of Gardens of the Evening Mist by Tan Twan Eng on my Kindle, but I also listened to it on the associated audio file.  I put it out to my readers as to whether or not this is allowed to count in my reading tally for 2017.  I was roundly accused of cheating by my colleague when I admitted that I had listened to the latter half of the novel whilst out on a solitary walk along the Thames Path. So, does this count?  Please give your views!

I love a good audio book.  Many an hour was whiled away on long car journeys with the children as we listened first to a cassette with story recordings by many family members, progressing through to Dick King-Smith, Enid Blyton and J K Rowling.  Hubby does a lot of commuting and therefore much of his reading is actually listening.  But the advent of Kindle and audio synching has opened a whole new world.  I am still delighted when the audio knows how far I have read and the Kindle knows how far I have far as I'm concerned, this is magic!

For this book, the audio really helped.  It is a slow read, lyrical and quite soothing, but I found that, against all exercise of my will-power, it often put me to sleep.  The audio therefore, was an immersive experience.  It enabled me to focus all my attention on the story and gain a lot more reading hours in one go.

The book is beautiful.  It is a story told through the creation of a Japanese garden in Malaysia.  The designer is dead at the outset of the novel and so the story is woven in retrospect, building the lives of Aritomo and Yun Ling through their past experiences.  Aritomo had been gardener to the Emperor but had retreated to Malaysia. Yun Ling and her sister had been victims of the Japanese following their invasion of Malaya in 1941.  This little-known war preceded the attack on Pearl Harbour by just a few hours, and I am ashamed to say that I knew nothing of its history at all.

This is one of the beauties of the novel form.  It opens fictional worlds, but gives us a wider perspective on real history.  Aritomo is a construct, as is Yun Ling and her sister Yun Hong, but the facts of the invasion, the concentration camps and Operation Golden Lily are all historically accurate, giving us a window on the world we have inherited.

The story is deeply complex and opens with Yun Ling (known as Judge Teoh) retiring from the bench to warm accolades from her colleagues.  Her legal career began after she escaped the concentration camp, prompted to take a role in the war crimes trials to find out where she had been held prisoner and where her sister had met her death.  The whole story is a homage to her sister.  Yun Ling goes to the Cameron Highlands to meet Aritomo and ask him to design a Japanese Garden as a memorial to her.  The relationships are complex.  Her sister had never lost her love of the Japanese style of garden beauty; paths that lead to a particular view, hidden from sight until one reaches the optimum point, a balance of nature and control and punctuated by buried stones that speak simplicity and grace. Years of cruel imprisonment and routine rape had not robbed her of her sense of beauty. Quite simply, the dream of a garden kept her alive.

And so her sister, Yun Ling, spends most of her life dedicated to providing her with a legacy.  But it involves close contact with the enemy.  Aritomo is a beautifully conceived character. Tan Twan Eng introduces him as an archer, focused and controlled, "He drew back the bowstring...until he reached a point where he seemed to be floating just above the floorboards...Time had stopped: there was no beginning, there was no end." And this eternal force resounds throughout the story.  Aritomo never apologises for his country's treatment of Malaya and the prisoners who were taken.  He quietly wins Yun Ling's trust as he proves an exacting mentor in the art of Japanese garden design. He seems wise, intense and ephemeral. And it is the latter quality that provides the mystery at the centre of the novel. Is he who he appears to be?  He leaves so much more unsaid than stated and his death is as unconventional and controlled as his life.

The story is majestic in its setting of the Majuba tea estate in the Cameron Highlands.  The tea

plantation is owned by a South African. Magnus Pretorius who had know his own suffering in camps in Boer at the hands of the English, The setting itself is not peaceful. though it is almost disturbingly beautiful. Following WW2 it suffered repeated guerilla attacks that maimed, murdered and threatened inhabitants.  This is the backdrop for Yun Ling's apprenticeship with Aritomo. So it is against an atmosphere charged with political unrest, and a past scarred by terror and loss that the relationship between Aritomo and Yun Ling is built, Her return to Yugiri some decades afterwards gives us the vehicle for the complex story to unfold.

It is a story in which to immerse yourself.  Its complexity is beautifully told, but its pace is slow and deliberate, the author holding a mirror to the Japanese art of garden design. This was a satisfying book that opened a new page of history for me, and created characters that have not yet left my consciousness.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Post 53: Persuasion...a rumination on Jane Austen and the modern woman!

The unseasonable sunshine of the past weekend has seen me in my sunglasses on the decking with a
china teapot, Teapigs tea and a Jane Austen novel.  Bliss.  There is nothing quite like a pot of tea properly brewed and whilst, like most of you, I dunk a bag and run most of the time, a patient brew is the best.  Jane Austen novels have the same feel to them. These are not to be rushed, but to be savoured and enjoyed time and time again.

I was prompted back to Jane after seeing a competition to rewrite the ending of one of her novels in 500 words. This is easier said than done. The word limit means that you can't significantly alter the story, but more than that, Jane Austen, unlike many modern authors, actually completes her novels. All ends are tied and all the characters are rewarded or chastened as befits their conduct.

So it was that I revisited Persuasion. This was my first experience of Austen, taught for A-Level circa 1987! I had brilliant A-Level teachers.  They lifted my love of reading to an appreciation of literature.  I literally swapped Shirley Conran and Mills and Boon for E.M.Forster and Jane Austen. For that, I have a lifelong debt of gratitude to Messrs Williams and Naylor of Cirencester Sixth Form. It saddens me that the restrictions on curriculum and the unmitigated pressure to achieve exam success has lessened the opportunity for teachers to pass on the love of a subject.  My first term at A-Level consisted of Messrs Naylor and Williams teaching their favourite texts by way of an introduction to the course.  Such diversions are likely to deemed unjustifiable today and the students themselves would see little point if it wasn't on the syllabus.

I still love an Austen novel.  The array of characters, the liberal hope of independent thought amongst small-minded convention and the sheer pleasure of slowing down to the pace of nineteenth century gentility is a pastime all should indulge in every once in a while. It makes me want to address hubby as Mr Martin and spend my days walking and leaving the odd visiting card here and there!  Despite Jane Austen's own independent spirit, earning her own living and remaining single, her heroines are singularly in pursuit of happiness and some material security.  These desirabilities are inevitably to be found in the attentions of a good man.

Where the method may have changed in modern life, I think we still pursue contentment and security. But we are, thankfully, not so hemmed in by the very nature of our sex.  We no longer "live at home, quiet,confined.." whilst the men "are forced on exertion [with] always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or another."

What would Anne Elliot have done with the freedom of 21st century life?  I think she would have left her hapless father and superficial sister (who would have been an instagram sensation with lots of followers but no friends) and gone to university.  She would have gone despite the lack of funds from said father, and she would have paid her own way by playing barista in her spare hours.  I like to think though, that she would still have found her Captain Wentworth.  But she wouldn't have been open to the cautionary prohibition exacted on her by Lady Russell. She would have met him at 19, finished her studies and worked for a year or two.  She would have defied her family's disapproval and together they would have forged their way in the world, not even being too bothered that they were proving the others wrong.  But, because she is tenderhearted and kind, she would be a nurse or a doctor, a social worker or a family lawyer. She would care for others, love her man and retain a sense of self-respect and self-esteem that wasn't dependent on his approbation.

No more do we sigh at home and hope for opportunity.  No more do we faint away at the sight of an accident on the Cobb or lie-in for weeks on end because of a minor concussion. But at the heart of an Austen novel is always the potential for modernity.  Mrs Croft is the example in Persuasion; liberated enough to defy convention, remain childless and travel the world with her husband.  But she too, was defined by his role. The idea of total independence was perhaps a tad too radical for Jane.

As for an alternative ending, I'm not sure.  Jane Austen herself wrote two versions of the denouement which are readily available, (and a great example of good editing and redrafting for the modern writer), but the romantic in me can't conceive of Anne Elliott  forever without Fredrick Wentworth.

I may be a modern woman, but I am still a sucker for a conventional happy ending!

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Post 52: Anatomy of a Soldier

It is always a luxury to come to school holidays and be able to write a blog entry immediately after finishing a book.  I love that bittersweet feeling of turning the final pages.  The story is over, but the narrative carries on in your head for a little while afterwards.  You find yourself reflecting, wondering, extending the stories of the characters and letting them live on a little longer.

And that is where I find myself now.  I'm poised halfway between the reality of getting dinner ready for an hour's time, and the stronger urge to stay in the story I have just finished.  This book was a reward of patience for me.  I heard author Harry Parker speak at the Henley Literary Festival in the Autumn, and really wanted to buy his book.  Now loyal blog readers will know that I am a sucker for a signed copy, but I am, I must confess, also a lover of the paperback.  Hardbacks maybe majestic, but they mess up my shelves a bit, and to be honest, they are a little pretentious!  So I waited.  I dropped strong hints around my birthday by casually leaving my Amazon wish list open.And finally, not being fully confident in hubby's ability to pick up hints (!), I pointed out the title online, (possibly more than once!)

And so it was a delightful surprise, on my birthday, to open the only shocking pink book that I possess!  And it is this novel that I have just finished devouring.  Not sure why its cover is so lurid, but that's by-the-by.
Anatomy of a Soldier had me hooked from the moment Harry Parker explained his narrative strategy from the stage of the Kenton Theatre in Henley. Each chapter is narrated by an inanimate object. They tell their part of the tale and then sign off.  I love a unique narrative voice, and this intrigued me.

Chapter 1 opens with the story of the tourniquet used to stem the blood flow as"fear and pathetic hopelessness gripped BA5799."  This is a highly engaging start, as immediately the reader wants to know the identity and personality of the injured man.  The use of serial numbers, clipped sentence structure and rigid procedure evoke the military setting in which the story takes place. But the plot is not chronological and, through the objects, we get a full picture of life at base camp, the emergency military hospital,the intensive care treatment and the rehabilitation centre. Perhaps even more interesting is the wider picture gained of the war zone.  It is not named, but frequent contemporary news reports suggest that the dry landscape is that of Afghanistan.  Parker conveys, without romanticism or preamble, the tension of war in a landscape of insurgency.  The fighting is different, the violence sporadic and messy, and the fear constantly at the edge of consciousness. These complexities were portrayed with an honest voice.

As a former soldier who suffered horrific injury and subsequent amputation, it is clear that author, Hary Parker, drew on his own experiences in this book. He was adamant however, in the Q&A session at the festival, that protagonist, BA5799, or Captain Tom Barnes is not him.  He has, he insisted, fictionalised his life experiences.  But it cannot be doubted that such experience has helped to create authenticity.  Sometimes this is at the expense of empathy. At times, the objectified narration created a little too much distance between the reader and the action described, but when taken as a whole, with each story woven together to make the big picture, then a story is created that evokes understanding of insurgent, soldier and family members on both sides. It succeeds in creating a tale that is not self-piteous and doesn't result in the reader feeling sorry for Tom.  In short, it is an honest story of suffering, human resolution and determination.  These qualities are seen in BA5799 and in all the other players in this theatre of war.

I enjoyed this book and will be very interested to see how Harry Parker develops his writing career from this autobiographical starting point.  His style is succinct and the chapters short. Whether this is because of the nature of his narrative voice, or whether this will be a trademark of Parker remains to be seen.

I recommend that you read the book quickly.  If you sup at the odd chapter every now and then, you will lose the wider arc of the story.  I found the points where the plot evolved through being told by different objects quite exciting.  It was a bit like doing a jigsaw, (but WAY more interesting!)  The novel starts at the climax and then takes you back to the beginning and leads you through several strands of experience before the denouement and resolution.

Interestingly, I relate to the main character more as BA5799 than as Tom.  I wonder whether this is because he saw himself as a soldier first and foremost, or because many of the objects were etched in this identification mark.  It is only in England that he is referred to as Tom.  During active service, all the objects refer to him as his serial number, perhaps further dehumanising the whole experience of war.

A courageous, honest and well-constructed first novel.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Post 51: Tree Surgery for Beginners meets Five Rivers on a Wooded Plain!

It's been an indulgent couple of weeks as I've settled on our new "snuggle" chair to read the two books chosen by Child 2 for my birthday last month. His track record is good and he had unearthed a Patrick Gale I'd not yet come across and a new author he thought I might like...
And the snuggle chair?  Well, the idea behind it is that it is very cosy for two...or alternatively, it provides ample space to curl up by yourself and read for hours at a time!  The cat has also decided it is the best chair in the house for stretch room; we can sometimes be found vying for available space!

Since I last wrote, hubby and I have signed up for a 26-mile charity walk for Macmillan Nurses.  This takes place in July, so expect to get regular updates!  We are now the proud owners of bottle green t-shirts, and training has begun. We did have long-legged Child 2 as our pace-maker on a speedy 7.5-miler this weekend, so maybe we need to employ him to accompany us...for the first few miles at least. The astute amongst you will have realised that it is marathon distance, so we really need to pace it if we're going to complete the challenge in a day. We're aiming for about 9 hours, but we'll see.  Thanks to those who have kicked off the fundraising.  If you feel moved to spare a few coins, find us on

Now onto life's readathon.  Don't you find, whenever you are in a bookshop - whether it be somewhere huge like Foyles, a boutique like London Review of Books, an Oxfam charity shop or an independent that somehow survives despite Amazon - that you are struck by how many titles there are, and you know that your lifetime isn't going to be long enough.  There is so much to learn, so many stories to uncover and authors to discover.

My latest read is by a favourite of mine, Patrick Gale. The title is appealing in itself, and I found myself wondering if I might acquire a few woodland skills as I opened the pages of Tree Surgery for Beginners! It begins by setting the context of the town of Barrowcester and the protagonist Lawrence Frost, who has grown up there.  I have to admit at this point, that I wasn't as gripped by this novel as I have been with all other Gales.  It is indeed an earlier publication and if you haven't yet sampled any of his writing, I wouldn't start with this one.  The recent A Place Called Winter is significantly more accomplished.  I began with Notes from an Exhibition, and that is a splendid read.

Lawrence Frost discovers in the first chapter that his wife and daughter have disappeared.  It transpires that he may well be the cause of their departure as he recalls drunkenness, shouting and jealousy over a work colleague.  The story then takes many twists and turns, moving away from Barrowcester via a bridge cruise that takes in Miami,the Virgin Islands and California. If this geographical sweep isn't broad enough, there is also an incident with a tiger, the curiosity of an androgynous cabaret singer, a murder, a tragedy and long-lost relatives.  I'll concede that the plot isn't the strong point of the book.  But it does have a heart.  You can see the embryonic writer here, the Patrick Gale who will eventually guide you through people and their lives and emotions with total empathy.  There is hope in this novel, a hope that no matter what befalls us as a human race, we can love each other through it, we can help each other to heal.  It is not trite; the human angle is its strongest strand, but the story arc that supports its purpose is not comparable with the sophistication of his later novels.

From an early Gale to the debut novel of Barney Norris.  Cutting his storytelling teeth with a string of very highly acclaimed plays, this first novel is accomplished.  The premise is romantic; set in Salisbury where five rivers meet on a wooded plain, there is a strong sense that we are a part of a much bigger history. In its foreword chapter, The Burning Arrow of the Spire, Norris details how generations of settlers have been drawn to this corner of Wiltshire to live their lives. This big backdrop remains at the heart of the novel as he begins to tell the stories of five individuals whose lives merge in this place. But the novel is cleverer than that.  I was duped into thinking that I would have five separate narratives whose stories would conjoin at a given point, but it is more sophisticated; whilst there is a central device of a car accident, not all the characters are directly involved. More, it serves as a catalyst where we are privileged to be allowed access to their lives at a given point.

The first character is Rita the flower-seller, whose colourful language and existence serve as an antithesis to the romanticised depiction of Salisbury given in the preceding chapter. Her life seems to be over as she faces up to who she is and what she has done.  There is a swift change in tempo and writing style as Sam is introduced.  He is a teenager who is remembering the scared boy he had been, whilst the reader can still see the fear that lies just beneath the veneer of foetal maturity. His story is about him facing up to an unpleasant reality, and one where no-one has the words to explain or express themselves. In the middle of his story the car crash occurs.  He witnesses it and moves on.

Another character is a beautifully constructed elderly man in his eighties who has just lost his wife. The portrayal of loss and old age is finely drawn and written to evoke a natural empathy.  There is Liam, a drifter and a drop-out who is just sitting it out in his home town without really understanding why he is there or what he might do next.  And there is Alison, the army wife who lives in fear of the phone ringing or uniformed personnel turning up at her door to tell her of her husband's demise at the hands of insurgents.

The novel reads like a series of short stories with an integral thread. The centrality of the story is that we live for a mere whisper of a moment before we recede into history. The setting evokes such considerations, as Norris makes us aware of the number of people who have gone before: from the ancient settlers, to the druids, to the early christian populations and now the secular mass of modern commuters.  The cathedral is simultaneously a metaphor for the safe and the temporal.  Beneath its shadow people live their lives, occasionally coming in for succour, but mostly ignoring it.

It ends with natural imagery that fits perfectly with the vast backdrop of the plain and its five rivers;
"there is a grace to cupping your hands and catching your life as it pours past you, holding it close for just a few moments water, new time flows over..."

This is a novel that beats to natural rhythm of place and human experience.  The narratives are all singular and the changes in tone, pace and style make this a stimulating read. It is quiet and unprepossessing, and yet, as I turned the book closed, I said to hubby with a sigh that it was a novel that had got my heart.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Post 50 where I would expect a fanfare...

As I write this 50th post, I have just finished watching episode 1 of the 50th series of Gardener's World, my parents are just about to enter the 50th year of their marriage and I am not yet near 50!! It would have been nice and neat if I was on the 50th book of the year, but that really is pie in the sky!  Come on, it's only March! I'm proud of my 9 books so best start to a reading year ever. But I was looking through Litsy, a kind of Instagram for bibliophiles yesterday ( you can follow me there too, under the name karenmartinreads) when someone posted a photo of their 100th read of 2017...already!   There is a serious question here and I am going to take my 50th entry to ruminate a little on reading and perhaps even a little on life in general! Are books something that should be consumed and ticked off, or is there more to the whole process of reading?

I'm the first to recognise that if a book is read too slowly, even if it has the potential to become a favourite, it is likely to wither and die in your hands.  Some momentum is necessary.  a chapter a night isn't enough to fully engage with plot and character.  But as I was driving along recently, I caught a snippet of a radio 4 programme where an author said that he hated the idea of his readers reading too quickly. He pointed out that a novel took him a year to write and he didn't want it gobbled up in one sitting! Assessment of your reading enthusiasm should not be defined by the number of books consumed.  And it is that word consumed that holds the key.  Consumed has connotations of speed without pleasure. Even a chocolate bar, if consumed, goes down barely hitting the sides and we need another one, rather than savouring and enjoying the single treat. Maybe we all just need to slow down. With everything. Look around, breathe, take pleasure in things.

Snowdrops catch your breath at Welford
Modernity has got a bit lost.  We have forgotten to take pleasure. To experience rather than consume.

I work part-time in a full-time world and I see the ravages of overwork etched on my colleagues.  I like to think that I do my job well, that I care about the students that I teach, but I care as much about their experience of being in my classroom, under my direction, as I do about their end results.  I think I have this luxury because I can come up for air.

I do have stalwart colleagues though, ones who doggedly make time to read for pleasure amidst the clamour of increased targets in an under-resourced world. And reading does refresh you.  It can form escapism, fire new interests and hone empathy.  We all need kindness in a consuming world.

And so what have we been reading since the last blog?  My Head of Department was so evangelical about Guilia Enders' book, Gut, that she had all of us reading the biology of the stomach and wondering about our own eating habits, our toilet habits and the connections between belly and brain. It is very well written, not bogged down with science, but not pop-science only (in my humble, very non-scientific opinion!) I was most fascinated by the connections between our psychology and our gut; this is ground breaking research which is being studied in various facets of medical exploration.

Despite the fact that it was a good read, non-fiction is not my first love, so I'll direct you to The Independent Review of the book which discusses the bestselling qualities of a book that breaks the "poo taboo!"

More collective reading has been completed for the departmental book club. We have a resident youngster in the department who, I believe, joined the teaching staff in order to make me feel old.  I taught him when he was in year 9 and he now has the audacity to be 25 or thereabouts and walks around as a living reminder that I have been in this game too long! He is also our resident DNF in the book club. (Did Not Finish, for those of you unfamiliar with bookish acronyms!) So, we challenged him to choose the next read.  He did so with much trepidation, not wanting to foist a title on us that we would loathe....trepidation that was not without grounds!

When All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy was mooted, we found an online version of
chapter one to whet our appetites.  Reading aloud at the end of our last meeting, it was universally acknowledged to be a powerful start to a novel.  The protagonist is seeing his dead Grandfather for the first time and the repetition of "That was not sleeping" was more evocative a reaction to death than anything I have ever read. It communicated shock, sadness and natural human objection to the process which robs us of our loved ones.  We were all hooked.

Now I have to confess that it was downhill from here for me. Having tried to read The Road some years ago, I was wary of McCarthy's style.  He makes the reader work very hard, refusing, except in rare instances, to include narrative tags to his dialogue, so it is sometimes very difficult to work out who is speaking.  He is kind enough to set out his dialogue on separate lines, as per standard grammatical structure but he doesn't deign to use speech marks.  This winds me up!  I am not a total purist when it comes to Standard English writing; I acknowledge that deviation from the standard can be creative, but this I found totally annoying.  I should not be reading a story and be distracted by its graphology.

That aside, the novel itself has received high critical acclaim.  Time for a link to a positive review for comparison.  Do read it...there are no spoilers and it is a beautiful response to an evocative title.  But for me, there wasn't enough empathy built with any of the characters.  The premise of the novel is based on two young men leaving their home in Texas to go to Mexico.  They are on horseback and their love of horses and horsemanship drives their relationship, and indeed much of the plot.  They meet up with another traveller on horseback who seeks to fall in with them.  John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins reluctantly accept this addition to their adventure, and it is Blevins, the new recruit, who causes a series of disasters which form the backbone of the plot.

The mastery of description is undisputed.  I just thought there was too much of it.  Despite my earlier thoughts that a novel needs to be experienced rather than consumed, I found myself the master of skim reading.  I was using the Kindle, and was more interested in the hours left to complete than the story itself.  I found myself setting consumable goals...can I get reading time down by 30 minutes? So it became a challenge to complete rather than a pleasure to read.

But I have completed it. I remain unmoved by the characters and the events.  The Aunt at the hacienda seemed to be included only to move the plot forward and enable a potted history of the Mexican revolution.  She could have been interesting, but she wasn't.  The love affair that Cole experiences is a rite of passage, but despite its profound affects on him, held no heart for me.  At the climax of the novel they find themselves in prison and reunited with Blevin. It is dark and corrupt and was the most meaningful part of the tale for me. It was also the most character driven part, with more dialogue to balance the descriptive narrative voice, but I still wasn't moved to care very much about the characters or their fate.

Maybe cowboy stories are for boys....(brace myself for gender bias onslaught), maybe I missed something profound.  But if you're looking for effective description, profound relationships and exploration of itinerant life in the Americas,then go to Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. This, despite its bumbled interpretations by generations of O-Level and GCSE students, retains its brilliance.  For me, characters have to be convincing and have to be empathised with, otherwise a novel remains flat.

So apologies to Tom for my failure to engage with his book club choice, but I would also like to add at this point, that just because a book fails to make your must-read list, there is still no excuse for a DNF!

As always, feel free to comment, write and suggest.
Buds...take the time to appreciate the
world around us. Photo courtesy of
my Dad xx

Thankyou for reading.  It is so delightful to hear from my readers, and it is very heartwarming that some of you are using karemartinreads as a place to go to decide what to read next.

Reading has heart.  It is good for you.  Take the time and be refreshed.  This is not a guilty pleasure.