This is one of those books that I started with every expectation of hating it. It would be too pretentious, too clever for its own...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is one of those books that I started with every expectation of hating it. It would be too pretentious, too clever for its own good, and too full of itself, I was sure of it. And the central conceit, of living the same life over and over, has been done a few times before. But then, quite unexpectedly, the quirky charm of the characters drew me in, and the excellent writing raised my hopes. I ended up enjoying it far more than anticipated, with a couple of reservations.
The story follows Ursula, the third child of Silvie and Hugh, who is born in the middle of a snowstorm in 1910. And promptly dies, the cord being tangled round her throat. And is born again. This time, she’s saved and lives a little longer. There are a great many deaths, in a great many different ways (and sometimes the same way, repeatedly), and some are pretty depressing, but knowing that Ursula will be reborn every time makes this less fraught than it might be.
As these various lives come and go and come again, Ursula starts to have some memory of her previous incarnations. These are not clear memories, but vague feelings of dread when in a place where something bad happened in a previous life, or a strong feeling that she should (or shouldn’t) do certain things. Her subconscious attempts to mitigate the effects or avoid a situation altogether are fascinating, and she gradually begins to adapt her life towards certain specific ends. It’s almost inevitable, given the timeframe here, that the whole killing-Hitler-to-prevent-the-war scenario should raise its head, but I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing what actually happens (well, it was a surprise to me, anyway).
The first reservation I had was that the heavy focus on the second world war, and the graphic descriptions of the lives that Ursula lived, made the mid-section of the book appallingly miserable. Nothing good seemed to happen to her at all. In all her many lives, there was no life where she simply met a nice man, married, settled down into baby-infested domesticity and had a pleasant, if dull, life. No, time after time, she lived miserably and died horribly, and I really resented that. Although possibly that was the entire point of her existence, I don’t know. Or some deep philosophical point: life’s a bitch and then you die and then (lucky you) you get to go through the whole awfulness of it all again.
But then the ending rolled around and this is where things went slightly off the rails, because (and I’m going to be honest here) I didn’t understand it at all. There were hints that some of the other characters also had some vague memories, but it wasn’t at all clear (to me). And the last chapter – what was that all about? It’s been driving me nuts. The blurb on the cover seems to suggest that, in true ‘Groundhog Day’ style, there will come a point when Ursula does everything right and the endless cycling will stop. Yet the book itself appears to contradict that. Or does it? Dunno. And what does it all mean? Dunno again. But the writing is very effective, the characters have a quirky, and very English, charm, and on balance I found it an enjoyable read. The deeply depressing wartime scenes and cryptic ending keep it to three stars.(less)
My book group has a sadistic streak. They recommend chick lit and Booker prize winners and other deeply worthy stuff, and turn their noses up at perfe...moreMy book group has a sadistic streak. They recommend chick lit and Booker prize winners and other deeply worthy stuff, and turn their noses up at perfectly good fantasy. Why? I can’t understand it. ‘Wolf Hall’ would have been so much better with dragons in it (everything’s better with dragons). And here’s another of their good ideas: let’s do a proper classic. Now, I’d struggled with Hardy at school, but that was a long time ago. Surely it will be better now, with my greater maturity. So here’s the opening paragraph and a bit:
“One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot. They were plainly but not ill clad, though the thick hoar of dust which had accumulated on their shoes and garments from an obviously long journey lent a disadvantageous shabbiness to their appearance just now.
The man was of fine figure, swarthy, and stern in aspect; and he showed in profile a facial angle so slightly inclined as to be almost perpendicular. He wore a short jacket of brown corduroy, newer than the remainder of his suit, which was a fustian waistcoat with white horn buttons, breeches of the same, tanned leggings, and a straw hat overlaid with black glazed canvas....”
Right. This is going to need a lot of wine.
Now, the language is (not surprisingly) old-fashioned, since it was written in 1886. It’s not that difficult to follow, but it isn’t as readable as Jane Austen, who wrote more than half a century earlier. It’s quite dull, however, for a great deal of it is focused on turgid descriptions of the scenery. I know Hardy is famous for his poetic descriptions, but it’s that heavy mid-Victorian poetry that’s very much an acquired taste. And I haven’t acquired it.
Beneath the verbiage, there’s an interesting plot going on. A man gets drunk at a fair and sells his wife and child to a passing sailor for five guineas. Twenty years later, when he’s the eponymous mayor, the wife and daughter return. In the meantime, the man has had a liaison with another woman and promised to marry her, and when the wife dies she, too, turns up. To make the romantic entanglements complete, there’s a bright young Scotsman who becomes the mayor’s protégé, then falls out with him, and attracts both the daughter and the mistress. And that’s enough plot.
There are enough complications there to keep the average soap opera going for years. The most appealing aspect, to me, is that all the characters are well-meaning and trying very hard to do the right thing. They may make mistakes, but they do everything they can to correct them. The mayor agrees at once to court and re-marry his original wife. The wife agrees to it. The daughter, when she finds out the truth, goes along with it. The mistress agrees that’s the best thing to do. There are no villains here.
On the minus side, a great deal depends on coincidence. Important information is overheard. Secret letters are found. Characters fortuitously bump into other characters. Characters believed to be dead miraculously reappear. This all becomes terribly silly and quite incredible. Then there are the hordes of comedic yokels, wheeled out for a bit of local colour and stupidity from time to time. Combined with the heavy prose, this all became a bit much, and I gave it up at the 50% point. But the nice thing about dead authors is that their books are described in detail on Wikipedia, so I could read the entire plot without feeling I’ve missed anything (other than the comedic yokels, of course). One star for a DNF. (less)
This is one of those odd books that I found enjoyable to read at the time, but when I put it down, I lapsed into so-what? apathy. The premise is a fai...moreThis is one of those odd books that I found enjoyable to read at the time, but when I put it down, I lapsed into so-what? apathy. The premise is a fairly trite one. A mid-twenties man returns to his childhood home for a funeral, and spends the time reminiscing about growing up, being astonished at the changes that have taken place and equally astonished at the things that remain unchanged, and resolving a few loose ends from his departure five years before. So far, so ho-hum. The twist here is that the setting is a small town set in the northeast of Scotland, ruled in relative calm by two gangster families, and our hero was run out of town after almost marrying the daughter of one family.
The setting was one of the attractions for me. I live less than two hours' drive from the supposed location of the town of Stonemouth, and many of the descriptions of the beaches, forests and streets rang very true. Banks' descriptive prose is wonderfully lyrical, and captured the atmosphere beautifully. It was a little disconcerting that a major road bridge played a prominent role in the story; there are so few of those up here, that I kept visualising it as one of the known bridges - the Kessock bridge was my personal mental image - which pulled the book's geography out of alignment, as if the map was stretched out of true.
The childhood reminiscences worked less well. Some were funny and some were tragic but none of them really tore at my heart as perhaps they should have done. Some of main character Stewart's friends were, frankly, too stupid for words. The book interleaves the present-day events with vignettes from the past in order to keep hidden a couple of mysteries: what Stewart did to get him run out of town, and what really happened to the brother of his almost-wife? These were enough to keep me turning the pages, so they worked as intended, but frankly the revelations weren't particularly mind-blowing.
Stewart himself is rather a nothing character. He seems fairly blank, rarely expressing any emotion other than fear, although his continuing affection for almost-wife Ellie is rather touching. Of the others, Ferg the sardonic bisexual is far and away the most interesting. I'd have been happy reading an entire book about him, actually. The rest were either caricatures (Ellie's thuggish brothers, the stupid friends) or nonentities (like Ellie herself, drifting aimlessly through life), although Ellie's younger sister Grier probably rates a mention as having slightly more personality.
The final chapters are melodramatic, which seems to be obligatory these days, and the story then tailspins off into an implausible resolution for the main characters. The plot also fails one of my favourite tests: could most of the plot be resolved if the principals simply sat down and talked everything through? In this case, it was a puzzle to me why Ellie, in particular, didn't say to her family: I'll decide my own future, thank you very much. As she does, in fact, later on. The plot hinges on her being the sort of person who allows herself to be pushed around, but only until the plot requires her to push back. So that was a big fail, as far as I'm concerned. Three stars.(less)
This is one of those pleasantly sweet little books that could have been something really good, profound even, but instead is as delicately insubstanti...moreThis is one of those pleasantly sweet little books that could have been something really good, profound even, but instead is as delicately insubstantial as a soap bubble. Major Pettigrew is a widower living in a small English village of the type familiar to readers of Agatha Christie’s ‘Miss Marple’, and just as unrealistic. There’s the usual array of gossiping, interfering women, led (almost inevitably) by the vicar’s wife, the men huddled in the bar of the golf club, trying to avoid the women, and the implausibly nice local bigwig, Lord Dagenham. All of this could have been written any time from the fifties onwards. The one modern note is the village shop, run by a Pakistani lady.
And thereby hangs the tale, because (after a series of fortuitous meetings) Major Pettigrew discovers Mrs Ali to be an educated and articulate lady, sharing with him a love of classic literature. Since she is a widow... well, you can see where this is going, can’t you? It isn’t an insult to call this book predictable, because I imagine the market it’s aimed at wouldn’t want it any other way. So it follows the expected path to the expected ending, via a series of increasingly farcical and downright melodramatic set pieces, and diverting for a quite charming interlude in Wales, which for me was a high point.
The problem for me lay in the writing. The first half was filled with cardboard characters behaving implausibly, and a vague air of having been written by someone not familiar with the setting. There are odd outbreaks of Americanisms, and the vicar is referred to as ‘Father Christopher’, for instance. The old-fashioned air of the characters, particularly Major Pettigrew himself, seems to have seeped out of a novel from decades ago. This makes sense, however, when you discover that, although the author was born and raised in Sussex, she has lived in America for the last twenty years. I suppose she’s viewing her English home with a fond, if not quite accurate, memory.
The second half perks up a bit, so that some of the minor characters gain a bit of realism, and thankfully the vicar is more properly referred to as ‘Vicar’. The book is also lavished endowed with true British humour (that is, very dry and subtle), which I loved. There were many places where I laughed out loud. However, the melodrama of the dance and the episode on the cliffs was quite ridiculous, and I lost patience with it rather. The biggest failure, though, was in addressing the issues raised. The book is absolutely founded on the question of colour, religion and cultural differences, yet it never properly gets to grips with them, merely skating round the edges and using them for dramatic impetus without ever shining a light on them. The character of Ahmed Wahid was a missed opportunity to say something meaningful, but unfortunately the author chose to keep things light and fluffy. An enjoyable read, if you don’t expect too much depth. Three stars.(less)
I think I must be losing my tolerance for books written to a theme, rather than the author’s burning desire to tell a story. This one is about Raj orp...moreI think I must be losing my tolerance for books written to a theme, rather than the author’s burning desire to tell a story. This one is about Raj orphans, those children of parents busily engaged on the work of the British Empire in India or various parts of the Far East. While their parents swanned around the British Clubs and drank their gins and tonics and suffered from repeated bouts of malaria, the children were brought up by local ayahs or nannies, shipped home to relatives or foster parents at school age and shunted through boarding schools and Oxbridge until they, too, were old enough to be useful to the establishment.
And I’m sure it’s all deeply worthy and symbolic and all the rest of it. Parts of it are unexpectedly glorious, like little stars of perceptiveness in a velvet-black sky of nothingness. Trouble is, the whole wobbly edifice rests on the characters, and, frankly, I never cared about any of them. I like my fiction to tell a story, not be a collection of vignettes of eccentricity. Then there are outbreaks of unforgiveably pretentious writing: "...the train swayed insolently through Clapham Junction." I mean, good grief. I got through fifty percent before giving up. But it’s sold by the shed-load, and the most popular shelf on Goodreads is ‘book club’ so clearly it works for a lot of people. Just not for me. One star for a DNF.(less)
I really have no idea what to make of this. I don’t even know what genre it is. It comes complete with maps of an imaginary world,...moreFantasy Review Barn
I really have no idea what to make of this. I don’t even know what genre it is. It comes complete with maps of an imaginary world, with two continents with places like the Cetaline Mountains, the Seasand Desert and the Boiling Sea. There’s magic and sword-waving tribes and dragons, of a sort. So it must be epic fantasy, right? But then it has electricity, planes and trains and mobile phones (cellphones), and some kind of internet. The early chapters are focused on a boardroom squabble between two energy companies, one based on gas power, the other on solar. So it’s a corporate thriller? Energy-punk? Cyber-punk? Search me.
The story focuses around the Bracken family - Lowell, the head of the gas energy company, his ex-wife Tris, and his three children, Sierra, being groomed to take over the company, Randall, a politician, and Taylor, just off to university. They are wealthy and respected, so life seems set fair, but of course there are storms brewing. No surprise there. I found it rather pleasant to see a family as the hub of a fantasy novel. Usually the protagonist is an orphan, or at the very least scarred by his or her dark past. But these seem like normal folks with normal problems - Sierra struggling to make her mark at work and dealing with an obnoxious co-worker, and Taylor showing off to his college pals and trying to get laid.
I confess to having some difficulty with the juxtaposition of seemingly modern people and situations, yet with traditional fantasy elements in the mix as well. Much of the story concerns office politics (and some actual politics, as well), which feels just like a contemporary work, but sometimes the transition to an outbreak of magic or some difference between the created world and the real world was too jarring for my taste. It’s very difficult to invent a world which has many aspects of modern life yet still feels believably ‘other’, and for me it didn’t quite work.
A couple of problems. One is credibility. The CEO of one power company makes an arrangement to visit the CEO of his opposite number, something that’s never happened before. That would be a huge deal, with all the senior executives present, and a metric ton of minders on all the doors, just in case of trouble. But no, he walks into the boardroom unannounced and overhears a secret conversation. No, I don’t think so. Let’s not even mention the daughter who decides on a whim to take a bag lady home to live with her, just because said bag lady has a cute little dragon. Or the son who finds himself in the midst of a cult that wants to drink his blood: 'Oh, all right then...'. Who signs a blood pact without even asking any questions, like - will I survive? And will there be hideous long-term consequences?
Then there’s one power company boss’s brilliant idea to send someone overseas to buy up essential components needed by the other power company. It has to be someone who can’t possibly be traced back to the company. I know, let’s send the boss’s ex-wife, Tris. You know, the one who's never been abroad and who's only skill is in growing and arranging flowers. Just the ticket for a critical and highly secret corporate mission, and no one will ever connect her to the company... so that's really going to work well. Not.
The other problem is the, at times, heavy-handed writing style.
‘But Lux produced a much more intriguing weapon from the back of his pants: a gun with the hammer positioned to come down on a pale green stone, which was lodged against a small three-pronged rack feeding little metal pebbles into the back of the tube. “Oh my, that’s Florjium. You can only find it in Didjubus and it’s acidic,” [Tris] said. The man glanced at her, not comprehending. “When you hit that stone to shoot the metal bullets, the toxins from the stone also hurt you!” '
Florjium - oh my! From Didjubus, even. A couple of questions arise from that: how would Tris know so much about it? A flower or a strange plant she might recognise, but a rare mineral? And, even if she’s somehow an expert, all that explanation would be much better as exposition rather than clunky dialogue. Throughout the book, the writing style seems rather flat, and loses much of the tension from the action sequences.
None of this would matter if the plot worked, but for me it just didn't hang together. A lot of things happen to the various characters, but it all seems fairly random and none of it makes much sense. Everything that happens to Tris, for instance - why? Why do the people she interacts with treat her that way? Why is Taylor (the teenage son) of any interest to the blood-drinking cult? It makes no sense. I need to understand people’s motivations to really get swept up in the story, but here I was constantly saying: huh? Why would he/she do that?
The main characters all seem rather passive, too, simply going along with whatever is happening around them, and surrendering far too easily in the early parts of the book. Some of it was just plain dull to me - the corporate skullduggery, the teenage boy at college, the political machinations... I don't read fantasy for that stuff. Now, there are moments where things get interesting, with hints of magic or the little dragon, the hooded man and the weird cult, and a cool sword fight in the boardroom (yay for swordfights! if there has to be a boardroom then let’s have swordfights in there) - intriguing things that kept me reading to find out more about them. Frankly, I could have done with a lot more of that. And there was plenty of action going on, with suitably villainous villains doing villainous things to our heroes. If the villainous villains seemed a bit on the moustache-twirling end of the spectrum for my taste, there are plenty of readers who like their fantasy black and white, with no messy grey ambiguity to muddy the waters.
As the story plays out, several of the characters change from passivity to taking charge of their lives, and this is absolutely fine. It’s just a pity that in most cases the means for them to do this is simply dropped into their laps. Taylor and Tris simply reversed into their situations, without a single coherent thought, it seems to me, and even Sierra’s moment of decision happens by chance. Only Lowell decides to take measures to make his own good fortune.
On the plus side, this is a highly original blend of traditional fantasy with modern technology, and I applaud the author for the attempt. I like the idea of basing a story around a family, and the fundamental message is a good one, if portrayed a little heavy-handedly. There are some imaginative touches which work well, and if it wasn't really my cup of tea, there are many readers who enjoy this kind of straightforward tale of basically good people trying to make the world a better place (and get rich or laid at the same time). Two stars, and a small cheer for the swordfights; all corporate mergers and takeovers should be decided by the CEOs personally using swords, in my opinion.(less)
Well, I got through two thirds of it, by virtue of listening to the audiobook while I do other, more worthwhile, things. Like ironing. Eventually, I l...moreWell, I got through two thirds of it, by virtue of listening to the audiobook while I do other, more worthwhile, things. Like ironing. Eventually, I lost the will to live and stopped listening. I’ve been putting off writing anything about this in case I get a sudden urge to pick it up again and carry on, but it’s not going to happen.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this book. There are wonderful characters, caught at a crucial moment in history. The author has captured to perfection the sights and sounds and smells of the Tudor era. There’s humour, too, from time to time. But there’s just so much of it, every scene dragged out to many times the necessary length, endless discussion around meal tables with only a few meaningful lines. If it could have been distilled to normal book size, it would have been a very readable book. As it is, I found it plain tedious, especially after Wolsey’s demise.
For historians, it must be a thrill to see these important characters brought to vibrant life. For literary types, there is pleasure in the elegant language and apt turns of phrase. For me, as a reader looking for a story, it was a failure. There was no tension in the retelling of events to which every child knows the ending. The one character who needed to spring to life, Thomas Cromwell himself, was flatter than paper. He was described in the blurb as ambitious, and other characters mention him as a climber, yet we see no examples of it. On the contrary, he remains loyal to Wolsey to the end, and appears to luck into his role with the king. He’s hard working and intelligent, rather than conniving. We see something of his family life, but rarely see any signs of affection. And in the end, I didn’t care about him, either, or any of them, with the possible exception of Wolsey. One star for a DNF.(less)
This is a meandering tale that weaves together numerous strands of personal stories with the last fifty years of Scottish history, both political and...moreThis is a meandering tale that weaves together numerous strands of personal stories with the last fifty years of Scottish history, both political and social. The first character we meet, Mike, is a photographer and the son of a famous (and rather better) photographer, and his story I found interesting. He’s a fairly passive person, almost seeming to be an outsider in his own life sometimes, and surprisingly mature in his early years. When he discovers that he is gay, there is none of the angst or shock or even horror that might be expected in the early seventies. He simply accepts it, and expects everyone else to accept it too. The minor characters pop up at significant moments is his life, or to underscore the political events of the day, and therefore feel fairly contrived. Jean, in particular, seems almost unreal, a semi-mystical figure acting as a catalyst both for Mike’s personal life (such as introducing him to a boyfriend) and also in the political spectrum, the focus for debate. Everyone seemed to gather around Jean, and her legendary, almost mythical, stories.
The second character, Don, is a Mr Everyman, a survivor of the war living a quiet life with his wife, whose sole purpose seems to be to illuminate aspects of the life of Jack, an odd character who survived the Japanese prisoner of war camps physically intact but mentally scarred.
Then we get to Peter (also Jimmy) Bond, Jack's nephew, recruited into the intelligence service to (essentially) spy on the nationalists. Peter is more interesting, perhaps, because we see him at a point in his life where neglectful alcoholism is catching up with him, and he's only barely connected with reality. But there's a macabre humour to it - when he starts having hallucinations, he's relieved to realise that one of them must be a ghost, and therefore there's no need to politely offer a drink.
Then it’s on to Ellen, growing up in a mining village in the fifties. Every time we switch character, I lose heart. This book is long, it’s largely about politics which to be fair has some interest, but not at this length, and frankly it’s unfocused and rambling. Any one part of the book, telling the story of one character in depth, would have made a good book and illuminated a shadowy part of recent history, but trying to do too much makes it feel as though it ought to be a textbook, not a work of fiction. I struggled on, as the story threads became more and more intertwined, or perhaps tangled is a better word for it. All these many characters are somehow mixed up together, in a way that only grandiose fiction can get away with.
This is not a bad book. Rather, it’s over-ambitious, and it commits the cardinal sin of an author who’s done a great deal of meticulous research - he wants to get every last bit of it into the book, every major political event, every well-loved TV program or film, every disaster, every social change. It almost felt as if he had a checklist and was ticking off events. There are at least half a dozen terrific stories in here if the author could have brought his eyes down from the stars and focused instead on just a few of these characters at a time. That way, they would have become memorable, fully-rounded people instead of mere ciphers, stand-ins for this or that aspect of the changing face of Scotland. This is non-fiction with a thin veneer of rambling storytelling. And yes, I get the point about the story never ending, trust the story and all that. Still it would have been nice to feel there actually was a proper, novel-sized story in here, something with a beginning, a middle and an end, rather than a series of vignettes. On the plus side, it’s well written and there’s some interesting detail about the Scottish political scene which I enjoyed learning about. So three stars for effort.(less)
Goodreads has 42,945 ratings of this book, and 2,892 reviews. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said already, and considerably better than any...moreGoodreads has 42,945 ratings of this book, and 2,892 reviews. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said already, and considerably better than any combination of words I can come up with? Nothing at all, probably, but I’m going to have a bash anyway.
I first read this many years ago, and regarded it as one of the best books I’d ever read. This time, I tried the audiobook version, read by Dominic West, who has the appropriate gravitas for Stevens the butler. The plot - well, it hardly matters, being merely a vehicle to demonstrate the buttoned-up and rather tragic personality of Stevens himself, reminiscencing on the past glory days of the house where he serves. His memories of past events, coloured entirely by his own fossilised perspective of the professional nature of being in service, form the body of the story.
This has to be one of the finest descriptions of a single mind I have ever read. The author uses language with such skill that the reader completely understands Stevens and his world view, while also appreciating that the events described solely from his perspective are capable of alternative interpretations. While Stevens performs his duties with impeccable care, he is completely oblivious to the social nuances emanating from the people and events around him, which leads him occasionally to behave in misguided, almost wilfully blind, ways. Meanwhile his employer, Lord Darlington, is equally misguided in his efforts to promote the cause of Fascist Germany and equally oblivious to political nuances. Several times Lord Darlington is referred to as an amateur in politics, which contrasts elegantly with the professionalism of the butler.
I am not sure that I agree with the apparent suggestion of the later parts of the book that master and servant have both wasted their lives on inappropriate efforts. History is written by the victors, and if the war had turned out differently, then those who, like Lord Darlington, made approaches towards Hitler would have been fêted as heroes, not lambasted as near-traitors. And any employee who has done his job to the very best of his ability for many years can hardly be said to have wasted his life. I’m not sure that Stevens would ever have been capable of a normal life, regardless of occupation, so it seems unlikely that he made unreasonable sacrifices for his job. Frankly, I wondered quite what Miss Kenton saw in him.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, I still see little wrong with this book. The language is perfectly tuned for the voice of Stevens, the insight into his personality is profound and there is enough social commentary hidden below the surface to satisfy the need for depth. Five stars. (less)
This is an old-fashioned book, but that’s not a complaint. Written in the mid-1950’s, it describes a world almost as remote and alien to us now as the...moreThis is an old-fashioned book, but that’s not a complaint. Written in the mid-1950’s, it describes a world almost as remote and alien to us now as the medieval period or the Regency. Superficially there are resemblances - suburban houses, family life, schools with teachers and pupils, ‘difficult’ estates - but below the surface lurk strangenesses which are difficult to comprehend from a distance of fifty-something years. The style is odd, too. Modern novels insist on rigid points of view, so that the author stays firmly within the perspective of a single character for a time, before a clearly marked shift to another. Here, the author jumps from head to head with abandon, now telling us the thoughts and feelings of one character, leaping to another for three sentences and then on to yet another. So, this is not the easiest book to read, in many ways.
The plot revolves around a pupil and teacher at an east Glasgow school. Charles Forbes, the idealistic teacher, decides to take his star pupil, Tom Curdie, a slum child, on holiday with his family of wife, two children and mother-in-law. It will, he thinks, show the boy the possibilities of a better life. How this generous plan gradually unravels forms the essence of the story, although for modern readers the vignette of post-war life is at least as interesting as the story itself.
The characters are mostly finely drawn, particularly Charles and Tom, and it’s a pity that the slum-dwellers, namely Tom’s own family and his friends, are not much more than caricatures, simply wheeled on for comic or shocking effect. Gillian, Charles’s daughter, has a difficult role, being initially a jealous and spiteful thorn in Tom’s side, and later a sympathetic and compassionate helper, and the transition isn’t entirely convincing. The two women of the family, Mary, Charles' wife, and her mother, struck me as the most realistic, being a nice mixture of common sense, self-interest and prejudice which I found wholly believable.
The setting, a peaceful holiday resort and the gentle pursuits of the family, which the author brilliantly evokes, form a stark contrast to the inevitable disaster which concludes the story. It's obvious almost from the start that things are not going to end well, but still when the final moment comes, it's surprising and shocking. It's also a bit of a contrivance, depending on a whole series of coincidental events, as well as Gillian's somewhat implausible change of heart. This is in the nature of fiction, of course, to call on unlikely events, but I can't help feeling that a great deal of grief could have been avoided if some of the central characters had simply sat down and talked honestly to each other at key moments, and this strikes me as a major flaw.
On the other hand, perhaps reticence was too much a part of their characters, or perhaps it was just part of the social fabric of the time that adults didn't talk openly to children, or to each other, sometimes. Perhaps the gulf between classes was too great to be bridged under even the most favourable circumstances. And of course, it’s perfectly possible that the half century of distance makes it impossible for me to truly empathise with the characters and their dilemmas. Still, I felt it was a weakness, so despite the overall quality of the writing, that keeps it to three stars for me. (less)
This is a weird book, in several ways. It's written in the first person by a young woman who's obviously several sandwiches short of a picnic, and set...moreThis is a weird book, in several ways. It's written in the first person by a young woman who's obviously several sandwiches short of a picnic, and set in the sort of estate most of us are thankful we never have to live in. From the argot, I presume it's around Newcastle, but with few changes it could be any major city in Britain. Warning to those averse to bad language - there's a lot of it here, and also some moderately graphic sex, but it's totally in character and not gratuitous.
The protagonist writes as she would speak. Random sample: "The leaflet'd come through the door with that free Herald local newspaper. The newspaper'd been pushed through the door and left on the mat for a couple of days. I pick it up and two leaflets fall out. One's a leaflet offering a free garlic bread if you buy two pizzas from Nice Kebab. It's all glossy. I go in the front room and give the leaflet to me dad." And so on. Now, this could get seriously tedious, but somehow it has the same oddly hypnotic pull of the TV in the corner of the pub showing some random European football game or a quiz show - you just can't tear yourself away. Not sure how it would play with non-Brits, mind.
So I more or less got drawn into it, and as the story goes along, the complexities of life on the estate and the family life of Kate, the protagonist, became more interesting. There's a sort of horrified fascination at all the goings on, which are fairly bizarre but just close enough to most people's idea of sink estate life to be credible (which I suspect may not bear any resemblance to real life). It's a testament to the author's skill that she makes these slightly cartoonish people real enough to generate genuine pathos. Of course, since Kate isn't all there, there's also the amusement for the reader of working out the tensions and undercurrents and relationships that sail blithely over her head. So none of the endings come as much of a shock.
And that brings me to the book's big gimmick. Each chapter is titled as one of the 99 reasons ("21: the reason why I'm square" for example), but after number 88, there's a mini questionnaire, where you pick a colour, a number and an object, and are then given one of 11 possible endings. There are 9 in the book, another one on the author's website, and the final one will be hand-written and auctioned for charity. On the Kindle, you can choose a different ending if you like, and it's also possible to simply page past the questionnaire and read all the possible endings, one after the other. [Note: on the iPad version, there's a wheel to spin to get an ending, but I don't know whether you can see them all). They vary from happy ever after to - well, less happy. There's a certain amount of overlap, obviously, but all of them fit perfectly well with what's gone before.
Now this is all very clever, and the publishers are marketing the book as state of the art, new use of technology and all that, so that ebook readers get the ending they want. Which is nonsense, of course. Links in ebooks are very nice, but they aren't exactly a quantum leap away from 'turn to page 99' in a printed book. And as for getting the ending you want, what you actually get is completely random. Maybe there's some deep psychological theory as to why one combination gets you an upbeat ending and another gets you something tragic, but since you can immediately go off and read a different ending, it hardly matters.
The real problem with this sort of strategy is that it completely destroys any suspension of disbelief. Yes, of course we all know that there's no Kate Jones, no mam, no Uncle Phil, no Andy Douglas. But the whole point of telling a story is to make us knowingly go along with the pretence that there is, to the extent that we can feel real emotion for these completely imaginary characters. As soon as an author says: well, I could have a real prince come along and sweep the heroine off her feet, or I could have them all wiped out by a meteor (not a spoiler), what do you think? Well, then it just becomes an academic exercise. The bubble has burst. I'm sure this was an interesting challenge for the author to write, and it's definitely a marketable technique (I bought the book because of it, after all), but I really don't think it works for the story. Some of those endings would have been very affecting to read, had they been the only one, but being one of many reduces the impact.
On the plus side, the story is absorbing (up to the alternative endings, anyway), it's well written and the characters are genuinely interesting and (on some level) emotionally engaging. But the gimmicky multiple endings drag it down to three stars.(less)
I'm not sure what to make of this book. It's not the sort of thing I normally read - it's contemporary, and might perhaps fit the literary genre. I'm...moreI'm not sure what to make of this book. It's not the sort of thing I normally read - it's contemporary, and might perhaps fit the literary genre. I'm not even sure why I bought it now. The premise is a straightforward one: Rachel, a married woman with a son, gives birth to a stillborn baby daughter, and this event colours her family's life for years afterwards. She retreats into herself, her husband does the same, and the surviving child becomes the focus of all their attentions. There's also an event in Rachel's past, a childhood friend from a higher level of society, who died of a brain tumour, and that too becomes something which defines Rachel.
The problems with this book are the typical ones for the genre. Because the setting is very ordinary, there's an element of over-writing the descriptive passages to make them more evocative. Sometimes this works quite well, as the author is quite perceptive, but sometimes it just feels like... well, over-writing. Then there's the plot. Given the premise above, what would be the tritest, least original plot-line you could think up? Yep, that's exactly how it goes. I won't reveal it, in case there are two people left on the planet who might be surprised by any of it, but it's a total cliche-a-thon.
The biggest problem, for me, is that the story fails one of my standard tests for plots: if the entire plot would collapse if the characters simply talk to each other, then that's an epic fail. Romances typically depend on the author finding ingenious ways for the main characters to misunderstand each other, and fantasy depends on wizards or dwarves who talk in cryptic riddles, but in modern settings it all has to be done by character. Is Rachel believable as the sort of person who simply doesn't talk to her husband? Is the husband believable as a man who quietly accepts his miserable life for nine years? Is it really credible that Rachel's sister is such a cow, or that the man she confides in is a total jerk? Some people would probably let such issues slide by, but for me it just didn't work.
Ultimately, this is the sort of story a reader might well enjoy by simply accepting the characters as they are, and empathising with their tragedy. I was never tempted to abandon it, even when it descended from contrived plot devices into a farcical level of melodrama at the end. Up to a point, I even enjoyed it, but other people's miserable lives aren't that interesting to me, and there were just too many obstacles to full enjoyment so that for me it never rose above three stars.(less)
In honour of my new resolution to toss anything that doesn’t grab me in the first 10% or so, here’s another DNF. Now I’m sure this is a deeply worthy...moreIn honour of my new resolution to toss anything that doesn’t grab me in the first 10% or so, here’s another DNF. Now I’m sure this is a deeply worthy affair, covering the themes of identity, how others see us and how we see ourselves. It’s well-written and all that. But it lacked something. Plot, mainly. Interesting characters, definitely. Any kind of impetus to keep turning the pages, or to find out what happens to these people. I just didn’t care.
It started so well, too. This is the opening:
“After the accident, I became less visible. I don’t mean in the obvious sense that I went to fewer parties and retreated from general view. Or not just that. I mean that after the accident, I became more difficult to see.”
Now, that’s intriguing. How did she become more difficult to see? Or rather, why? I felt a frisson of interest. Was there, perhaps, some paranormal stuff going on? Fairly stupid response, right? In my defence, I have a lot of stuff lurking on my Kindle from way back, not sorted by genre, and I don’t check the blurb or reviews first, I just start reading. This had unintended consequences in this particular case. Since it’s written in the first person, I had no idea whether the main character was a man or a woman. I ran with the default – male. It was many, many pages before there was mention of a prom dress. Oops. Time for a quick adjustment of mental image. It was many more pages before there was a name, Charlotte. Dull name.
Anyway, it’s not paranormal, it’s just angsty chick-lit. After this interesting opening, we go back to the main character’s childhood, would you believe, and slog through the details of her best friend and her first boyfriends and discovering sex and all that stuff. It takes forever to come back to the present day. By then I’d lost interest. There was absolutely nothing about the main character to hold my attention or make me want to read on. For anyone who’s more tolerant of this kind of introspective story, I can tell you that it’s very well written and it’s had good reviews. It just wasn’t for me. One star for a DNF.(less)
This is an astonishing book, at a number of different levels. The surface story is of Elaine, a middle-aged artist who returns to her childhood home o...moreThis is an astonishing book, at a number of different levels. The surface story is of Elaine, a middle-aged artist who returns to her childhood home of Toronto for an exhibition of her work, which activates all sorts of long-buried feelings and memories, but as a summary, that doesn't even come close to capturing the essence. The approach is first person present tense ("I stand in the snow...", "I walk up the street...") for describing both present and past, which sounds confusing, but actually the switches in time cause only the slightest joggle before the mind adjusts. Using the same style for all eras of Elaine's life also works brilliantly to underscore one of Atwood's major points - that "Time is not a line, but a dimension, like the dimensions in space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backwards in time and exist in two places at once."
The prose is literate without ever being flowery or overblown, and Atwood has an uncanny skill for choosing exactly the perfect word every time. Whatever a reader may think of the story or themes, the book is a delight to read purely for the precision of the writing. Atwood writes with a painter's eye. "We wear long wool coats with tie belts, the collars turned up to look like those of movie stars, and rubber boots with the tops folded down and men's work socks inside. In our pockets are stuffed the kerchiefs our mothers make us wear but that we take off as soon as we're out of their sight. We scorn head-coverings. Our mouths are tough, crayon-red, shiny as nails. We think we are friends." And, like a painter, she carefully builds a picture of Elaine's life, brush-stroke by brush-stroke, layer by layer, to create a nuanced depth of character.
There are many different themes that resonate throughout the book. The art world. Gender roles and how women interract differently with men and women. The feminist movement. Childhood and adulthood. The nature of time. The casual cruelty of adults towards children and of children towards each other. The need for resolution. Science and art. Atwood takes sly digs at Toronto, old and new, and the modern world generally. Undoubtedly there are many more layers that whizzed over my head.
At a personal level, I felt an unusually strong affinity for the lead character. Certain aspects of her childhood life resonated with my own. Not that I was ever bullied, but the sense of dislocation from those around you, the desire to fit in at all costs and not make waves, the lack of connection with a childhood home and the unexpected connection with somewhere quite different (in Elaine's case it was Vancouver: "...as far away from Toronto as I could get without drowning", in my case Scotland). And I liked that Elaine was on the outside just a rather ordinary middle-aged woman, but her art seethed with violent emotions (not directly like me, there, but I can understand it).
But even without any personal connection, this book is a wondrous affair, every line a joy to read. The story itself is fairly slight, but the undertones have as much depth as the reader cares to draw out. And if it sounds dry, it's not, it's salted with humour that had me laughing out loud many times. I highly recommend it. Five stars. (less)
This ought to be a nice little story, an award-winning YA coming-of-age tale of fourteen year old Henry, set in a not-quite-settled post-war England,...moreThis ought to be a nice little story, an award-winning YA coming-of-age tale of fourteen year old Henry, set in a not-quite-settled post-war England, learning that his assumptions about people are not always accurate. Yet none of it worked for me. So what went wrong? Firstly, the characters are so simplistic it’s hard to take them seriously. There’s a harassed mum, a bratty sister, a truly nasty and parasitic gran, a working class stepdad studying to better himself. There’s the angelic Mrs Beaumont, who waves her magic wand and makes good things happen. There’s the inspirational teacher, Mr Finch. Henry himself is ridiculously dorkish to start with, before being shown the error of his ways.
And secondly, none of this is subtle. All those Henry despises - the illegitimate schoolfriend, the deserter’s son, the stepdad who has stolen away his mother and inflicted the bratty daughter on the house - turn out to be perfectly nice, sensible people. Those he likes - his dead dad, his granny - turn out to be less than nice. Maybe it’s meant to be allegorical or some kind of fairy tale reworking, or maybe it’s aimed at quite a young demographic, but I found it dull and predictable. I gave up on it, so possibly there are some dramatic twists further down the road, but I had no interest in finding out. One star for a DNF.(less)
I'm not exactly in the target audience for this book. It's described as an 'inspirational historical romance', and I don't do romance, I don't do hist...moreI'm not exactly in the target audience for this book. It's described as an 'inspirational historical romance', and I don't do romance, I don't do historical and I certainly don't do inspirational. So what on earth am I doing reading it? Well, the author, Jody Hedlund, writes a blog about her authorial and family life that I rather enjoy. She sounds like a nice lady, who writes in her spare time, while also home-schooling five young children. Presumably she doesn't chain them up in the cellar while she writes, so I daresay there's a tame husband in the picture too. I have nothing but admiration for those who manage to create something for themselves, as well as baking cookies, bandaging grazed knees and all the myriad other duties of motherhood.
That in itself isn't enough to make me rush out and buy her book, but I was fascinated to read the reviews, because they were almost uniformly glowing, and far too many to all be written by friends of the author. That was intriguing. So when I discovered that the Kindle version was a free download, I decided to find out for myself what it was like. It took me a while to get into it (did I mention it's not my usual type of thing?) but I was determined to give it a fair shot, so I kept going.
In historical terms, I have no idea how accurate it is. The Kindle version employs an irritating pseudo-archaic font with curly bits, and the text is sprinkled with 'twas' and 'besure' and 'mine own' and 'oft' and suchlike, which don't always sound totally convincing. I got very little sense of place - there are few descriptions of buildings or scenery or clothes, so I had to use my imagination a lot. I wasn't even sure if it was set in England for a while. But occasionally the author uses a term or describes an event (like the bread-making) which sounds completely authentic, so she's obviously done her research.
The romance is - well, the usual thing. Two people who absolutely positively don't even like each other, but after a series of trials find that they do, actually, quite a lot. The hero and heroine are a bit irritating to start with. Elizabeth is a curious mixture of determined assertiveness and maidenly helplessness. She's quite priggish with her sister, too, constantly nagging her virtuously to be more of a good person. John is quite gruff and snappy, but then he has just lost his wife, so perhaps that's only to be expected. He's supposed to be quite a charismatic character, but that never quite came across to me.
The inspirational part is not a problem. There's a lot of talk about doing God's work and submitting to the will of God, but that's very much in keeping with the setting. Maybe I'm cynical, but it surprised me just how often God's will turned out to coincide with exactly what a character wanted to do anyway.
I had some issues with the logistics of the plot. The initial premise that the local matrons would allow a baby to die rather than permit an unsuitable (read: not a virtuous person like us) wet-nurse seemed a bit of a stretch to me, and I couldn't totally buy into Elizabeth's excessive zeal to remedy the situation. And when she found the unsuitable Lucy, the matrons apparently do nothing about it. Then there is the evil Mr Foster. I know times were different then, but they were not quite lawless, and I find it difficult to believe that anyone, however rich or powerful, could get away with murder in broad daylight without any fear of retribution. In fact, the bad guys were far too bad altogether, and the good guys were a little too virtuous. Shades of grey are much more interesting and believable than outright black and white. But then, it's a book about Christians and persecution, so perhaps that's inevitable.
The other issue is that much of the tension in the romance part of the story hinges on the fact that the protagonists either misunderstand each other or deliberately refuse to talk to each other. Given that both of them are supposedly eloquent and persuasive speakers, it seems odd that they become so inarticulate with each other. The author makes a good attempt at explaining this away, but it remains a hindrance to credibility.
But despite these minor niggles, the story rattles along quite nicely and becomes a real page-turner. None of the minor characters have much real depth to them, although the shallow Catherine was more interesting than most. Elizabeth's suitor, Samual Muddle, is made into a cartoonishly ridiculous figure, but it seems to me that her dilemma would be given more pathos if he were less silly - a worthy but dull man, perhaps. However, the hero and heroine were quite well done, considering how difficult it can be to make such pious characters sympathetic (the villain is always easier to write, and to read about too!). There were some philosophical points in there, too, about who has the greatest right to interpret the word of God, and the effect on a highly structured society of working class people taking control of their own beliefs. Since the story is based (rather loosely) on the life of John Bunyan and his second wife Elizabeth, his ideas are bound to infuse the book. Some of the dialogue is apparently taken directly from his writings.
On the whole, the book was enjoyable enough and surprisingly readable - well, it surprised me. As a debut effort, it has some structural flaws, and the writing is sometimes a bit clunky, but the romance was nicely done, if a little overwrought at times, and the historical aspects were interesting. Three stars. (less)
OK, I’ll be honest: life’s too short to read stuff that just isn’t working. I don’t know whether this is brilliant and I just don’t get it, or whether...moreOK, I’ll be honest: life’s too short to read stuff that just isn’t working. I don’t know whether this is brilliant and I just don’t get it, or whether it really is the stream-of-consciousness writing exercise it appears to me to be, or whether it’s all terribly edgy and post-modernist (or something) and I don’t have the right receptors in my brain for it, but it doesn’t do anything for me, so I’m abandoning ship. Other readers, cleverer than me or more tolerant of weirdness, might very well get on better with it. One star for a DNF.(less)
This has been one of my comfort reads ever since I was a child - one of those books that always makes me laugh and cheers me up. It's the story of thr...moreThis has been one of my comfort reads ever since I was a child - one of those books that always makes me laugh and cheers me up. It's the story of three friends (and their dog) taking a boating trip up the River Thames in the late Victorian (or maybe Edwardian, not sure) era, describing their misadventures along the way and a sprinkling of other amusing anecdotes. The humour still holds up, and it's also an interesting snapshot of the times, a way of life that was ordinary and even banal to the participants, but which is endlessly fascinating from a distance of more than a century. It's rather like visiting a distant colony where the language and customs are tantalisingly familiar, yet bizarrely alien at the same time. If that makes any sense.
If the book stuck to the humorous anecdotes, it would be fine, but sadly the author occasionally feels the need to interject passages of purple prose musing on historical events and other philosophical ramblings. Sometimes he punctures his own pomposity by weaving these passages into the story (he is so engrossed in his own deep thoughts that he steers the boat into the bank, for instance), but all too often they are simply uninteresting waffle which drift on for pages. They are a small part of the book (although they feature more heavily in his other writings, which makes them much less readable), but still they drag it down to 3 stars. (less)
OK, I guess I should pay more attention to the size of books I download (even when they're free). I started reading to see what kind of book it was, a...moreOK, I guess I should pay more attention to the size of books I download (even when they're free). I started reading to see what kind of book it was, and in 5 minutes I was done. So this is a SHORT story, not a novel!
As a short story, it's OK but no more than that. There are a number of typos, and the ending is a bit meh. But hey, it's free.
This is a difficult book to review, because although I didn't like it very much and it felt like rather a chore to read, nevertheless I can recognise...moreThis is a difficult book to review, because although I didn't like it very much and it felt like rather a chore to read, nevertheless I can recognise the quality of the writing.
The story centres around a very small cast of characters in the orbit of Mary, a rather childlike woman who has a very close relationship with her brother, an unsuccessful one with her husband, and a whole raft of family secrets, about which she is reluctant to face up to the truth. Mary sets a chain of events in motion which will blow her family apart.
None of the characters is very likeable, especially Mary, who comes across as a spoilt and immature brat. The plot is quite flimsy and not totally believable. But what sets the book apart is the quality of the dialogue, especially between Mary and her brother, who talk in a sort of code.
The book seems quite dated now (it was published in the early sixties) but as a piece of social history and a portrait of life for a well-to-do family in the Scottish Lowlands, it is fascinating.(less)