This book is different from most novels. It's about six friends, Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Louis, Neville and Jinny, from childhood to old age, but it sa...moreThis book is different from most novels. It's about six friends, Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Louis, Neville and Jinny, from childhood to old age, but it says little about their external circumstances. It is told entirely from the viewpoints of the people concerned, and is an internal description of how their friends and life affect them.
Describing it like that, it doesn't sound like much of a story. Seeing the world through six pairs of eyes, moving from one viewpoint to the other, sounds as though it will be like living in six separate boxes, but it isn't. It is a marvellous evocation of friendship. The trouble is that it is so evocative that my mind kept wandering, every paragraph at least, if not every sentence. When it describes the feelings of one character when leaving school, I was taken back to when I left school, aznd got so absorbed in the vivid recollection that I must have remained stuck on the same page for about 20 minutes or so,
It was the the same with the description of their leaving university, and I was taken back 46 years (gosh, was it as long ago as that) when I took the train from Grahamstown to Alicedale, and waited on Alicedale station for the train to Johannesburg, and the realisation suddenly struck me that I would never be a full-time student again. I hadn't been a student all the time before, but even working for two years full time I was still saving up to go to university, and suddenly it was all over. And Virginia Woolf captures that "it's all over" feeling brilliantly. To one character it's a drop of water gathering and growing, and then suddenly it drops, and life changes, irrevocably.
But at the same time there is a continuity. As the characters move from youth to age, so there are interludes describing, quite impersonally, the course of a day, the sun rising and setting over the sea shore, with the waves continuing to crash down, so there is also a repetition, and it reminded me of the verse of Psalm 41/42:
Deep is calling to deep as your cataracts roar; all your waves, your breakers have rolled over me.
Actually there is a seventh friend, Percival, who was at school with the boys. We hear of his unrequited love for Susan, and Neville's unrequited love for him, and he goes to India and is killed in a fall from a horse. But his viewpoint never appears, he is seen only only through the eyes of the others, and the effects of his life and death on them. (less)
When I was a child we had this work on our bookshelves, in three volumes, just like the one in the illustrations, but they disappeared in several move...moreWhen I was a child we had this work on our bookshelves, in three volumes, just like the one in the illustrations, but they disappeared in several moves, when my mother got rid of a lot of surplus possessions. I read many of the stories but my favourites, the ones I reread many times, were those in the "horror" section, and it was this book that gave me a taste for horror stories.
It was more than fifty years ago now, but the stories that made the biggest impression on me, that I read and re-read, were "The Wendigo" by Algernon Blackwood and "Couching at the door" by D.K. Broster. After the books disappeared I sometimes wanted to read them again, but I could only remember the titles, and not the names of the authors, and I thought I would never find them again.
And then along came the Internet, with its access to knowledgeable people, and other resources. A web search engine quickly found the authors of both these stories, and "The Wendigo" was available in downloadable form. (less)
I rinished reading this book a couple of days ago, and it's a classic whodunit combined with a love story. In this particular edition the foreword was...moreI rinished reading this book a couple of days ago, and it's a classic whodunit combined with a love story. In this particular edition the foreword was written by Elizabeth George, whose crime novels also feature an aristocratic detective and his love life.
In this story the amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, has married Harriet Vane, and their honeymoon is complicated by the discovery of the corpse of the previous owner.
I've read a couple of other whodunits by Dorothy Sayers, and while I've enjoyed them, I would not say that they are the best detective fiction I have read. Sayers is sometimes linked with the informal literary group the Inklings, and though not actually a member, she was a friend of some of the members, and they sometimes read her work at meetings.
When I read Sayers's novels, I am very conscious of the period they are set in, and in which they were written, and so I'm very conscious of it being another age, almost another world. It is the world of Downton Abbey. Indeed, perhaps seeing Downton Abbey enables one to appreciate her stories more.
But contrast, when reading books by Inklings Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis I'm not so conscious of the period in which they are set. Though Lewis's descriptions of Mars and Venus are nothing like what we now know them to be, one can suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. And even though Williams's novels are set on earth, there is nothing quite as dated as the descriptions in Sayers, perhaps because she gives more details of everyday life -- characters smoking, ordering food, taking care of wine and the like.
There's also a lot of erudite literary wordplay between the amateur and the professional detective, which is a bit spoilt by the slightly patronising tone. If course back then being patronising was regarded as a good thing, noblesse oblige and all that. But there's another thing -- the characters keep breaking into French, with no hint of a translation. I suppose back then educated Englishmen (of both sexes) could be expected to converse freely, if not fluently in French, but that too just makes one aware of how much times have changed. (less)
I've been reading this book to mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War.
The war could be said to have started a week earlier, on 28...moreI've been reading this book to mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War.
The war could be said to have started a week earlier, on 28 July 1914, with the Austria-Hungarian Empire's declaration of war on Serbia. Hostilities actually commenced on 29 July, with the Austrian shelling of Belgrade, but it was only on 4 August that German troops crossed the Belgian frontier, and only on 12 August that Austria actually invaded Serbia. German troops invaded neutral Luxembourg on 1 Agust, but the Luxembourg army did not resist, and German occupation was accepted under protest, but without fighting.
So 4 August 1914 was the day that rhetoric became reality, the start of the war that would be fought all over the world, and would last four years.
So this book, illustrated by the author, is a dramatic hour-by-hour account of the events of that day -- diplomatic, military and civilian.
The book was first published in 1970, a little over 50 years from the end of the war, and thus shortly after many of the restricted archival documents dealing with the war were released for public viewing. Thus the author can reveal not only Germany's public stand for peace and moderation with the deterioration of Austrian-Serbian relations following the assassination of the Archduke, but also that Germany secretly encouraged Austria to attack Serbia, in the belief that it would be a quick local war. When Russia began mobilising in support of Serbia, the Germans began to get cold feet, and urged restraint on Austria, but having been told that such peaceful utterances were for public consumption only, and were to be ignored, Austria went ahead anyway. German miliary planning required that France, Russia's ally, be attacked first, and the pathway to France lay through neutral Belgium, and so the fighting began, and brought Britain into the war. Many declarations of war preceded and followed this day, but this was the day on which serious fighting began.
Ian Ribbons bases his chronology on Greenwich mean time, so that one can see events that were happening almost simultaneously in widely separated places, and that only adds to the drama of the day. It would be a good read at any time, but on this day it is especially poignant. (less)
I enjoyed this novel about wannabe beatniks in Bedford, England, perhaps because I too was a wannabe beatnik. The point here being that a wannabe beat...moreI enjoyed this novel about wannabe beatniks in Bedford, England, perhaps because I too was a wannabe beatnik. The point here being that a wannabe beatnik is a wannabe wannabe, at two removes from the real thing. There were the Beats, a literary countercultural movement of the 1950s, and then there were their groupies, their hangers on, nicknamed "beatniks" by a journalist, by analogy with sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth, launched from the Soviet Union in 1957, the year in which Jack Kerouac's novel On the road was published. As sputnik orbited the earth, so did beatniks orbit the Beats.
The problem is that the characters in this book, Jack and Neal and Maggie and Mary are just about 40 years too late. Jack and Neal are not their real names, they have adopted the names of their heroes, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Jack, especially, is obsessive about being "cool" and "hip", and sees them as angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. But in the rather middle-class surroundings of Bedford it is rather difficult to picture them as those who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, to quote Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl. Ginsberg read his poem at a now-legendary poetry reading in San Francisco, which sparked off a poetry renaissance. So in the book Jack organises a poetry reading in the Bedford Public library, reading his own poetry, which even his admirer Mary has to admit is excruciatingly bad.
As Jack Kerouac's character Sal Paradise goes on the road, hitch-hiking across America, so Jack and Company go on the road... to Brighton, where they stay with a dead poet's uncle, and try to live up to Jack's impossible ideals of hipness and coolness, and will not acknowledge anything that has happened in the world after about 1966. But there is also a sense in which they get the time-frame wrong. Jack tries to follow the scenario of On the road, but though it was published in 1957, it was about the Beats of the 1940s, not the 1950s, and by the mid-1960s it was almost all over, though it had a kind of revival, in a form that Jack could not accept, in the hippie movement of the 1960s.
To say much more about the story would reveal too much of the plot, except that in the end even Jack comes to realise that he has been trying to live an impossible dream, and the shattering of his illusions has shattering consequences for them all.
The basic problemm, of course, is that to be obsessed with the ideal of "coolness" is the antithesis of cool, and the harder they try to adhere to it, the farther away it recedes. So Jack becomes a kind of Great Gatsby of the 1990s, trying to relive an imagined past.
I don't think you have to be familiar with Beat Generation literature to enjoy this book, but it wouldn't hurt to have read a couple of books by Jack Kerouac, and Ginsberg's poem Howl.
If the background is accurate, and there is no reason to suppose that it isn't, it perhaps serves as an introd...moreCases and anecdotes of a London lawyer.
If the background is accurate, and there is no reason to suppose that it isn't, it perhaps serves as an introduction to the British legal system and its terminology, in criminal law at least. It is clearly meant to be lighhearted and humourous, but a lot of the jokes fall flat, and there is a lot of repetition that grows tiresome after a while. I kept falling asleep while I was reading it, but I don't suppose I missed much. (less)
In a way it reminded me of The de Vinci Code in that the characters go running around in search of a myterious artifact, pursued by shadow villains, with secret ciphers that need to be solved. But The book of air ans shadows seems to be better written, and the plot holes are not quite so crass and annoying.
I suppose one of the reasons I found The da Vinci code annoying is that history is my subject, and that book was based on obviously bogus history. In The book of air and shadows the plot revolves around accidentally discovered ancient documents that seem to point to a hitherto unknown play of Shakespeare which might be found if only the coded letters can be deciphered. Perhaps the difference is that I know more about history than I do about Shakespeare and dramatic art generally. I mean I've read some of Shakespeare's plays and seen some of them performed on stage and screen and found them enjoyable enough but truth to tell I found author Samuel Beckett]'s Waiting for Godot or Jean Genet's The Balcony just as enjoyable, if not more so. No doubt this will mark me as a Philistine among the true devotees of Shakespeare, but I'm just saying that this is why my bullshite detectors were more sensitive to The da Vinci code, and if there was similar nonsense in this book, I was less able to detect it.
But The da Vinci code was simply ludicrous. A character who was supposed to be an expert cryptographer could not detect simple mirror writing, and they went on puzzling about it for several pages while the reader is urging them not to be so thick and just get on with it. In The book of air and shadows, by contrast just about every character has a go at deciphering the coded letters, and somehow manage to solve the puzzle with ridiculous ease.
Though there are plot holes, they are not quite as annoying as in some other books, and it is generally better written, and there are some occasional quite astute observations.
There are two main characters: a rich intellectual property lawyer, Jake Mishkin, and a poor book shop assistant, Albert Crosetti, who dreams of being a film director. They only meet about halfway through the book, and the lawyer's story is told in the first person, while the film fan's is told in the third person. At one point after they have met they are discussing movies and life, and Mishkin is interested in Crosetti's view that movies really determine our sense of how to behave, and more than that, our sense of what is real.
'surely not,' Mishkin objected. 'Surely it's the other way around -- filmmakers take popular ideas and embody them in films.'
'No, the movies come first. For example, no one ever had a fast-draw face-to-face shoot-out on the dusty Main Street of a Western town. It never happened, ever. A screenwriter invented it for dramatic effect. It's the classic American trope, redemption through violence, and it comes through the movies. There were very few handguns in the real Old West. They were heavy and expensive and no one but an idiot would wear one in a side holster. On a horse? When you wanted to kill someone in the Old West, you waited for your chance and shot him in the back, usually with a shotgun. Now we have a zillion handguns because the movies taught us that a handgun is something a real man has to have, and people really kill each other like fictional Western gunslingers. And it's not just thugs. Movies shape everyone's reality, to the extent that it's shaped by human action -- foreign policy, business, sexual relationships, family dynamics, the whole nine yards. It used to be the Bible but now it's movies. Why is there stalking? Because we know that the guy should persist and make a fool of himself until the girl admits that she loves him. We've all seen it. Why is there date rape? Because the asshole is waiting for the moment whem resistance turns to passion. He's seen Nicole and Reese do it fifty times. We make these little decisions, day by day, and we end up with a world. This one, like it or not.'
When I was 11 years old I went to high school and started Algebra. A couple of weeks after the beginning of the school term I was sick, and missed abo...moreWhen I was 11 years old I went to high school and started Algebra. A couple of weeks after the beginning of the school term I was sick, and missed about 3 days' classes, and must have missed something vital, because I never managed to catch up. In maths exams I did well in geometry, was mediocre in arthmetic and trigonometry (mainly because of careless mistakes) but very poor in algebra. So when I saw this book in the library, I thought it might be an opportunity to see what I had missed.
I found the first few chapters interesting and informative. I was amazed at how what I had learned about vulgar fractions at school came back to me, and made more sense than it ever had at school. Even the beginning of algebra made much more sense. Perhaps it was because more than 30 years of using computers had taught me the uses of variables, though with computers one usually assigns values to variables rather than trying to work out the value of variables in equations. Things I had learnt at school as arbitrary rules suddenly began to make sense. Perhaps they made too much sense, because I found sometimes I could not follow the reasoning in the book, but following my own reasoning was able to solve simple (very simple) equations in my head.
I began to think that algebra could make sense after all.
So I read on, and then came a section where there were a lot of arbitrary unexplained rules that would need to be memorised if I were to make any more progress. Nevertheless, I kept the book in the bathroom and read snatches of it in the bath. Some bits made sense, others didn't.
I don't think I'll finish the book because the time is drawing near when I'll have to take it back to the library. That's OK. I don't think I've used the little algebra I learnt since leaving school over 50 years ago, so I doubt that I'll have much use for it in the short time left to me. But I'd still like to read a book in which the reasons behind the rules are explained. For a few chapters I thought that this would turn out to be one of those books, but it wasn't. (less)
Guy Crouchback, lonely, divorced, and living in Italy, returns to the UK at the beginning of the Second World War, and tries to do his patriotic duty...moreGuy Crouchback, lonely, divorced, and living in Italy, returns to the UK at the beginning of the Second World War, and tries to do his patriotic duty by joining the army. Because of his age, however, no one will have him. Eventually, though an acquaintance of his father's, he joins the regiment of Halberdiers, and undergoes boring officer training. The war progresses, but nobody seems to want the Halberdiers either.
After training, they have a new commanding officer, who wants them assigned to Hazardous Offensive Operations, for which more training is required. Whenever he seems about to go into active service, Guy Crouchback is sidelined, by accident, injury or illness, or the need for further training for some new task.
This book was originally a trilogy of three novels, and was rewritten into one in the 1960s. While reading it, I wondered how Britain ever managed to win the war, as everything seemed to be stifled by red tape. At one level the novel is satirical, making fun of the military bureaucracy. But there is also something authentic behind the satire; this is indeed how many soldiers probably spent the war, with action brief and inconclusive, and much of the time just hanging around waiting for someone, somewhere, to give an order.
So the book is also something of a historical record. Many soldiers left diaries and memoirs, but what they told and what they chose to leave untold varied a great deal. Many may have recorded battles and action, but the logistics of preparing for the action gets omitted. Waugh seems to tell more of the story than most. This is what it was actually like, not in surreal fantasies like Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow or in the story of planning and carrying out of military operations, but in the experience of one soldier, and a few of the people he encountered, buth military and civilian.
I'm not an expert on military history, but some parts that touch on things that I have read about in history books, such as conditions in war-time Yugoslavia, seemed pretty authentic to me.
Guy Crouchback is a Roman Catholic, and so we are given a glimpse of the lost world of pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, to which Evelyn Waugh was a well-known literary convert.
It reminded me in some ways of Waugh's contemporary, Graham Greene, also a converet to the Roman Catholic Church, whose The power and the glory reflects on the challenge of being a saint. Guy Crouchback is nothing like the whisky priest in The power and the glory, in either his upbringing, his circumstances or his character. But he faces similar problems of conscience and ethical dilemmas, in which attempts to help others sometimes turn out well, and sometimes disastrously for all concerned.
As it is a concatenated trilogy, it's a long read, and when I finally reached the end, the overwhelming impression was of the futility of war. (less)
I had mixed feelings about this book, which is about a Nazi war criminal who seeks sanctuary in an English monastery, but is eventually brought to tri...moreI had mixed feelings about this book, which is about a Nazi war criminal who seeks sanctuary in an English monastery, but is eventually brought to trial.
Agnes Embleton, who is dying of motor neurone disease, writes down the story of her part in the French resistance to Nazi occupation, smuggling Jewish children out of France, using a monastery of the same order as that in which the war criminal has sought sanctuary. She writes the story for her granddaughter Lucy, in haste, knowing that she will soon lose the ability to write.
The snippets from reviews quoted in the blurb speak of the "complex" plot, but I was left wondering whether it was complex or just confusing. The behaviour of some of the characters is inexplicable, even when it is explained. It was an enjoyable read, but some aspects were not quite satisfactory. I wasn't sure whether to give it 3 stars or 4; probably three and a half stars, better than six out of 10, but not really deserving 8 out of 10.
Though Agnes is dying, she is not yet dead, yet all those involved in the war crimes trial, the prosecution and the defence, the witnesses and the judge, believe that she died in Auchwitz. Lucy Embleton, sitting in the court observing the trial, knows but will not say that Agnes is still alive, though dying. It seems that this is something only to be revealed after the trial, but why this should be so is never made clear.
Father Anselm, one of the monks at the monastery, is sent to Rome both to report on and find out about the war criminal staying at the monastery, and conducts his own somewhat bumbling investigation, but seems to take everything that people tell him at face value, or else draws the wrong conclusions about what he is told.
So there are lots of good ingredients, but the mixture never quite seems to work. William Brodrick was a monk who later became a lawyer, and so he gets the monastic and the legal bits right. This is his first novel, so perhaps in his second he will get the story-telling bits right as well. (less)
Another book that tells it like it was in the apartheid period in South Africa.
A comparison that immediately springs to mind is A dry white season by...moreAnother book that tells it like it was in the apartheid period in South Africa.
A comparison that immediately springs to mind is A dry white season by Andre Brink. In in Brink's book there is a kind of Kafkaesque horror that builds up relentlessly as a white Afrikaans-speaking school teacher gradually discovers what lies behind the mask of the society he lives in.
Jonty Driver tells much the same kind of story, but from the perspective of an English-speaking South African. In Shades of Darkness Jamie Cathcart, a school teacher who has been living in exile in England since the 1960s, returns to South Africa in the 1980s to see his brother who is dying of cancer. His return reawakens memories of the past, lost friends and lost love. In a way the cancer that was destroying his brother's life is an allegory of the cancer of the apartheid ideology that was eating South African society.
This book lacks the relentless build-up of horror in A dry white season, and in that sense it is more true to life. Much of the story deals with the ordinary things of life and death, health and sickness. For many white people who lived through the apartheid period, the underside of the society hardly intruded at all, and it was quite easy to ignore it and pretend that it was not there. For the protagonist of the story, however, it intrudes when some of his friends are detained by the Security Police, including one that he thought was completely a-political, and he becomes aware that he himself is under surveillance.
In some ways it is the story of my life and times, and at many points of the story I had a sort of "been there, done that" feeling. I don't have a brother, much less one who was dying of cancer, but the kind of society that Driver describes is real; it really was like that.
It is also one of the few novels I have read where I have known the author, though I did not know him well. Jonty Driver was an acquaintance, not a friend. He was president of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) when I was a student, so I met him at a few student gatherings in South Africa and in England, and at a friend's wedding. But after reading this book, I feel I know him better, because in the book I think I can see the world through his eyes, and it looks quite similar in many ways to the world I saw. It's also a human story of love and loss, joy and grief, revenge and mercy.
If you've never been in South Africa, don't be put off reading it. Many people have enjoyed reading Doctor Zhivago even though they have never been to Russia, so you don't need to have been to South Africa to enjoy reading this one. (less)
By the end of the first chapter, I wasn't sure I wanted to continue reading it, because it was all about ordinary people doing ordinary things. Ordinary middle-class people, that is. Actually fairly rich upper middle-class English people, that is, though one character had roots in Guyana.
It's about three siblings, their spouses and children, who have gathered to discuss their concerns about their mother, who has sold the house they grew up in and gone to live alone in a large and lonely house on Exmoor, the kind estate agents describe as "has potential" because it's in poor repair. Her children think she is crazy, but can't be bothered to go and see how she is getting on, because it's too far and too much trouble.
I thought that if I was going to be looking into the lives of ordinary people, I'd prefer to be doing family history research, because at least the people I'd be investigating were real people, rather than the product of some author's imagination. When I read fiction, I don't mind if the characters are ordinary, as long as extraordinary things are happening to them, but the things that were happening to this family seemed like very ordinary things. A sort of suburban Waiting for Godot. Banal thoughts, banal conversations, rather dull people. The only exciting thing is a children's game.
I don't much like reading about extraordinary people (Superman, Spiderman, He Man and the like). But I do like reading about ordinary people having extraordinary adventures. But the characters in the book didn't seem to be having extraordinary experiences -- at least for the first 150 pages.
Then mysterious things begin happening that rattle the comfortable birdcages, and their lives will never be the same again. To say too much about what happens would be a spoiler for those who haven't read it, and there are no Jack and the Beanstalk fantasy adventures. Everything that happens could happen in the everyday world, but they have a quality of being extraordinary nonetheless, and are as unpredictable to the reader as they are to the characters, except right at the end.
So I found the book more interested and enthralling as it went on, and well worth reading.(less)
A historical novel based on the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881. The assassination was carried out by members of Narodnaya Volya...moreA historical novel based on the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881. The assassination was carried out by members of Narodnaya Volya (The People's Will), one of the world's first terrorist organisations.
Andrew Williams explores the motives and the methods of the terrorists, and the use of violence as a political tool -- a tool that was employed both by the terrorists and by the secret police who tried to catch them.
The story of The People's Will is intertwined with the love story of an English doctor, Frederick Hadfield, who falls in love with one of the terrorists, and because of his association with her comes under suspicion by the secret police.
Though they were sometimes called "Nihilists", the political reforms that The People's Will wanted were rather mild liberal ones: representative government, freedom of speech, and things like that. In that respect the assassination was counter-productive, as the Tsar was about to introduce some of those reforms when he was killed, and the assassination led to increased state repression.
There are some parallels with South African history too.
Tsar Alexander II was a reformer, and one of the features of reform is that increases the demand for reform. Those who want reform demand that the pace of reform be speeded up, and so reform tends to encourage revolution. It leads me to wonder what would have happened in South Africa if F.W. de Klerk had been assassinated in January 1990, just before he announced his reforms, which included the unbanning of opposition parties and the release of political prisoners. It might have led to a period of even worse repression, as the assassination of Alexander II did in Russia.
I also compare The People's Will with the African Resistance Movement, a group of South Africans from the privileged classes who resorted to using violence to bring about political reforms. The difference is that they weren't dedicated terrorists, and lacked the dedication of the hard-crore revolutionaries of The People's Will.
The book thus raises questions about the use of violence and terrorism to achieve political reform. It doesn't give answers, though in this case history itself gave the answer. (less)
J.J. Kitching (known as "Kitchen Boy") is a war hero, and a famous Springbok rugby player, so when he dies at the age of 81, his funeral is a signific...moreJ.J. Kitching (known as "Kitchen Boy") is a war hero, and a famous Springbok rugby player, so when he dies at the age of 81, his funeral is a significant occasion. The action of the story takes place in the lead-up to his death and the funeral itself, and the memories of him that are prompted in the minds of his family, friends, and others who knew him.
In his final illness he shares some of his war-time memories with his grandson, Sam. Different people come to his funeral, and even his close family are sometimes surprised at the range of his contacts and acquaintances, from the homeless philosopher who lived in a culvert, to the teetotaller manager of a hotel chain who was a customer of the brewery where he worked until he retired.
I'd read a couple of other books by Jenny Hobbs before, and bought this one becazuse I was impressed by them, and their authenticity to place and time. Thoughts in a makeshift mortuary had in some ways a similar theme to this one, the parents of a freedom-fighter who has been killed by the police, as they keep vigil over the body of a child they hardly knew, thoughts prompted by death.
When I began reading this one, I was very impressed at the apparent authenticity. Most of the novels we read in South Africa are published overseas, and are set in far-away places, so one often doesn't know whether the descriotions are authentic or not.
But this one is set in Durban and Zululand, places where I have lived. The description of World War II soldiers and returning POWs wandering round Durban on arriving home sets the scene amazingly well. The description of Twiggie's Pie Cart in Market Square in Pietermaritzburg revived memories of 50 years ago.
I recalled my uncle returning from the War. I was four years old and we stood on Salisbury Island and watched the flying boat come in dropping over the harbour entrance, landing on the bay. Many of my friends had fathers who had fought in the war. And we also had several uncles who had fought in the war. It was part of growing up. So the memories of J.J. Kitching, and his friends' memories of him, were part of my growing up, and also part of the family history we have explored more recently.
My wife Val's father would never spoeak about his wartime experiences, until one day we pleaded with him to tell us the story of "Shit in Italy". He was captured at Tobruk and kept in a prison camp in Italy, from which he escaped. I wish we had had a tape recorder to record it, because we have now forgotten many of the details, but like the grandson Sam in the book, we were fascinated by the story.
Most of the memories are stirred and described during the funeral service, but that is where the story falls apart. The rugby players, young and old, are authentic. The ex-servicement, the MOTHs (Memorable Order of Tin Hats) are authentic. The homeless philososopher in the culvert may be stretching things a bit, but is plausible. But then the author has to go and spoil it all by introducing an altogether phony caricature of an Anglican bishop. The bishop is not an incidental character, because the funeral service is the setting for much of the book.
The funeral takes place in our time, no more than five years ago, but just about every detail rings false. I'm not familiar with the current Anglican funeral service, and haven't been able to find out much since I started reading the book, but if I were writing a book that revolved around a funeral service, I'd do a lot more research than Jenny Hobbs appears to have done. The words of the service swing from Elizabethan to modern English. I once knew an Anglican bishop of Natal who might have entertained ambitious thoughts like the fictional bishop in the book, but he retired forty (40) years ago, and what we are presented with is a caricature from the 1950s, or even the 1920s, in a story set in about 2010. It's OK to have a fictitious cathedral in a real city for the sake of the story. But it's a pity that when there seems to have been so much research into some of the historical details (like the diets of prisoners in German POW camps), there has been so little into the hub that the story revolves around. Anglican bishops in South Africa are never referred to as "His Grace", for one thing, and and there are numeous other bogus details.
Forty years ago I was present at quite a number of Anglican funerals in Durban, and even back then they were none of them like this. Sometimes they were pathetic -- five MOTHs bidding farewell to a dead comrade, asking to play the Last Post, and one of them pulling out a tinny little portable tape recorder to play it. But nothing as phony as the one in this book.
When I began reading the book, I thought I'd give it four or five stars, but the more I read, the more the rating dropped.
I suppose the best way to describe the genre of this novel is a Bildungsroman, set in the time of Zimbabwe's Second Chimurenga, forty years ago. Was i...moreI suppose the best way to describe the genre of this novel is a Bildungsroman, set in the time of Zimbabwe's Second Chimurenga, forty years ago. Was it as long ago as that? And the author wasn't even born then.
Tinashe is a young Shona boy who grows up in a rural village, ocasionally visited by his rich uncle from the city and his cousin. He dreams of going to school and university, like his uncle, but his cousin doesn't seem to value these things. Tinashe's younger sister, Hazvinei, is strange, and communes with spirits. Her brother, and other people, sometimes find her rather frightening, but he feels obliged to care for her, even when it threatens to disrupt his education.
In some ways it is like an African version of David Copperfield or The catcher in the rye, but it is also bound up with the surreal and unpredictabe world of Shona mythology, where the spirits can make people feel invincible at one moment and dash all their hopes the next. (less)
The book takes the form of e-mail correspondence between two former lovers, Solrun and Steinn, who meet by accident some thirty years after they parte...moreThe book takes the form of e-mail correspondence between two former lovers, Solrun and Steinn, who meet by accident some thirty years after they parted, at a hotel that was linked to the events that caused them to part. They reflect on the events that led up to their parting, which involve a mysterious "Lingonberry Woman", and the divergent interpretations of their shared experience, naturalistic and supernaturalistic, that eventually caused them to part.
The story is almost allegorical, with the main characters standing for two worldviews, a technique that is shared with some of Jostein Gaarder's other books. In the end, neither the philosophical nor the narrative mystery is solved, and both are left hanging. I can understand this in the case of the philosophical mystery of the natrualistic or supernaturalistic worldviews, but in the case of the narrative mysteries it makes the story a bit unsatisfactory.
Perhaps I am missing some literary allusions, but the title is one of the mysteries. All the action takes place in Norway, and none in the Pyrenees -- the closest the characters get to the Pyrenees is a trip to Normandy, which is mentioned in passing. And the "Lingonberry Woman" apparently has nothing to do with lingonberries (whatever they may be). She neither gathers them, nor eats them, nor offers them to the characters to eat. It might have been more appropriate to call her the "Foxglove Woman" since the characters are looking at foxgloves when they encounter her.
Marc Lucas is a social worker, miserable and grieving because he has lost his wife in a motor accident. He does, however, succeed in saving the life of a suicidal teenager. He sees an advertisement for a clinic that claims to be able to remove painful memories, and decides to visit it. He discovers that they are conducting memory experiments, and will give him complete amnesia, and then reload the pleasant memories, and decides not to participate, and leaves without signing anything. Then his nightmare begins.
It seems that his identity has been stolen. All the addresses have been wiped from his cell phone, his credit cards no longer work. He goes home to get medicine he needs to take because of the after-effects of the accident in which his wife dies, and the keys of his flat no longer work, but his wife answers the door, alive and pregnant, but no longer recognising him.
He is befriended by a woman who claims that she too is a victim of the same conspiracy, but then she appears to betray him, making him believe that she too is part of the conspiracy. The things that happen to him become more and more irrational and arbitrary, but the end, when all is revealed, turns out not to be like Dostoevsky or Kafka at all, but something far more prosaic, and far less believable. After reading the first few chapters, I was thinking that this would be a five-star book, but by the end it had dropped to three.
When I picked up this book from the shelf in the book shop I read on the cover the blurb, "The biggest challenger to Dan Brown's crown." Normally that...moreWhen I picked up this book from the shelf in the book shop I read on the cover the blurb, "The biggest challenger to Dan Brown's crown." Normally that would have been enough to make me put the book back on the shelf and look for something else, but I recalled that I had just read another book by Sam Bourne and it hadn't been nearly as bad as anything written by Dan Brown, so I thought I'd take a chance on it anyway. It was remaindered and going cheap so I wouldn't lose too much if it was a serious contender for Dan Brown's crown as a writer of trash.
But the cover blurb certainly influenced the way I read the book -- looking for comparisons with Dan Brown.
There are some superficial resemblances to The da Vinci code (the only Dan Brown novel I've read). The main characters are a man and a woman who meet and get hooked into travelling around ostensibly trying to solve a mystery together. Unlike Dan Brown's characters, they have more believable professions -- a doctor and a lawyer. And though it turns out that they are investigating a conspiracy, it is based on a real historical one, and not an imaginary bogus one.
Though the characters and many of the incidents in the story are fictitious, the historical setting is for the most part real. Like The da Vinci code, the story has several plot holes, but they are not as numerous and obtrusive as those in The da Vinci code. There are a couple of points at which the reader's credulity is strained, a sort of "this kind of thing just doesn't happen" moment, and then one thinks of former US President George Bush's "extraordinary rendition", and one realises that of course it does happen. As G.K. Chesterton once said, "Truth is always stranger than fiction, because fiction is a product of the human mind, and therefore congenial to it."
I won't say too much about the actual story, because of the danger of spoilers. A suspected terrorist is shot outside the UN headquarters in New York, but turns out to be an apparently harmless old man. Lawyer Tom Byrne, who formerly worked for the UN, is hired to offer hush money the victim's family so they don't make a fuss about it, but gets a crush on the victim's daughter, which complicates things. It seems that shadowy people are looking for something that they suspect her father of having had, possibly his World War II memoir of persecution of the Jews and resistance movements against Nazi occupation, which the old man had been involved in.
It's not outstanding, but it's quite a good read, and the tale is quite well told. In that respect, Dan Brown doesn't come anywhere near challenging it. (less)
It was on the "horror" shelf of the book shop, it had been reprinted, and was going cheap. I'd never read anything by the author before, So I thought...moreIt was on the "horror" shelf of the book shop, it had been reprinted, and was going cheap. I'd never read anything by the author before, So I thought it might be OK for some light bedtime reading. I suppose it does fit into the horror genre, just. It's also a sort of half-baked whodunit (one of the main characters is a detective, though he doesn't do much detecting.
I suppose in that there are some very faint echoes of Phil Rickman, who seems to hover uncertainly between the supernatural horror and whodunit genres, with his more recent works leaning (to my disappointment) to the latter. But Rickman's books have character and plot; this book has neither. And Shaun Hutson seem to try to cover over the lack of such things by playing the grossout card, right from the very first chapter, going over the top with blood and gore. Oh and the obligatory sex scenes with "throbbing members" -- it was, after all, first published in the 1980s, when most publishers seemed to make such scenes obligatory. In this book, however, they are combined with the "fetid stench" of still-throbbing freshly disembowelled entrails. The trouble is that when you have a "fetid stench" in every second chapter (and there are seventy chapters) one's sense of literary smell tends to become a bit jaded.
The book has a bunch of archaeologists who discover a cave with inscriptions and skeletons. Some of them meet with nasty accidents, which apparently serve no purpose in the plot other than to provide the occasion for another grossout. The archaeologists seem to know as little about archaeology as the detectives do about detecting.
I enjoyed reading Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom so my son gave me this one as a Christmas present. Winter in Madrid was a historical novel, set at t...moreI enjoyed reading Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom so my son gave me this one as a Christmas present. Winter in Madrid was a historical novel, set at the time of the Spanish Civil War, but this is an alternative history novel, set in 1952, in a past that never happened, where Britain lost the war against Germany in 1940, and was ruled by an authoritarian government allied to, and somewhat dominated by Nazi Germany, which was still fighting against the USSR in the east.
David Fitzgerald, a civil servant in the Dominion office, has been recruited to spy for the Resistance (led by Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee), but he keeps this secret from his wife Sarah, who, while not an admirer of the regime, is a pacifist, and so disapproves of the violence of the Resistance.
David has an old university friend, Frank Muncaster, who is being held in a lunatic asylum, and rumour has it that he may have a secret that would be of great interest to the Germans. David and another friend Geoff Drax are asked to visit Frank in the asylum to try to find out more. The tension in the story builds slowly but inexorably as the British Special Branch and their Gestapo allies begin to suspect what is happening, and become more and more interested in the information that Frank Muncaster is believed to have.
C.J. Sansom portrays well the kind of moral dilemmas faced by people who have to keep a secret life completely separate from their public lives, balancing the humdrum life of respectable civil servant with that of a spy.
In some ways the book reminded me of
by Arthur Keppel-Jones, which I read about 50 years ago. The difference is that When Smuts goes was written before Smuts went, and was looking forward to a dystopian future. Dominion is written with hindsight; it is easier to think what might have been if something had been different than to picture the future before it happens.
One of the things that makes the story so convincing is that what might have happened in Britain did, in many ways, actually happen in South Africa. The Special Branch is portrayed in a very true to life manner, as is the civil repression against dissidents. With the flood of reminiscences of Nelson Mandela prompted by his recent death, and right-wing people constantly trying to remind us that he was a violent terrorist, it is interesting to read in this book how Churchill and Attlee and the other Resistance leaders in Britain are portrayed in the same way by the right-wing rulers of the alternative Britain.
Things that actually happened in 1952 are included, such as the great London smog of the winter of that year, and some of the might-have-beens and might-not-have-beens. One of the might have beens is that one of the only makes of car mentioned in the book is a "big Volvo", used by David Fitzgerald and his associates in the course of their long flight from the police. The only other make mentioned is a Wolseley, used by the police (as they actually were, in London in 1952).
I found it a fascinating and absorbing book, and it seemed to reflect pretty authentically the nature of an authoritarian regime. (less)
As I read this book, I kept thinking that I had read it before, but then wondered why so much of it seemed quite new.
Detective Superintendent Roy Gra...moreAs I read this book, I kept thinking that I had read it before, but then wondered why so much of it seemed quite new.
Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is called on to investigate a serious hit-and-run motor accident, where the victim is an American student whose family have Mafia connections, promptin fears that they might take revenge on those they see as responsible.
Roy Grace has worries at home, however, as his girlfriend Cleo is having a difficult pregnancy, and has to spend some time in hospital. These were the bits I thought I had read before, and, having reached the end of the book I realise that that is because I must have read the next book in the series before this one, and in that one the pregnancy and its problems continue.
This is a police procedural rather than a whodunit, as you know who is going to do it even before it is done, but I think it is very well done, and is one of Peter James's best books I've read so far. (less)
Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers tries to help her neighbour Taymullah Azhar, whose nine-year-old daughter Hadiyyah has disappeared, apparently kidna...moreDetective Sergeant Barbara Havers tries to help her neighbour Taymullah Azhar, whose nine-year-old daughter Hadiyyah has disappeared, apparently kidnapped by her mother Angelina Upman. Since Azhar is not registered as Hadiyyah's father, it is not a matter for the police, so Havers puts him in touch with a private detective.
Angelina makes a reappearance when it turns out that Hadiyyah had been kidnapped from her mother, this time in Italy, and the action moves to that country, where a new detective hero emerges, Inspector Salvatore Lo Bianco, who has to battle with an obstinate superior who wasnts a suspect, any suspect, to get the media off their backs. He works with Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard to search for the missing girl.
It is a long story (over 700 pages), with many plot twists, and at several points the reader's credulity is strained as Havers breaks one rule of police procedure after another.