There's something about Nevil Shute's prose that is quite beguiling. It's not poetic or florid; more it's a quality of the way he scrutinises the emotThere's something about Nevil Shute's prose that is quite beguiling. It's not poetic or florid; more it's a quality of the way he scrutinises the emotions of his characters. His narration is cool, but much lies under the surface. The usual mood is reserve, endurance. But under that quiet exterior there is turbulence indeed.
The narrator of Round The Bend is Alan Cutter, an aircraft engineer, pilot and entrepreneur who starts an air freight business in Bahrain. The story is the account of his friendship with Connie Shaklin, an engineer who founds a new religion.
This is the second novel of Shute's that I've read. The first was the most famous; On The Beach. As with On The Beach, Round the Bend begins slowly and in an unassuming way. But this quality of observation is just acute and intelligent enough to keep you reading. And then something happens that strikes a lightning bolt through the life of the narrator.
Shute reminds me of another of my favourite novelists, Andrew Miller. They share the same quality of tenderising you. Their characters' interior landscapes draw you into a place of sensitivity. Shute's characteristic flavour is emotional burdens such as guilt or yearning, and especially missed opportunities. This book's plot is quiet, but you are still gripped by a sense of increasing pressure. Despite its title it is not meandering.
One of the triumphs of this book, for me, is the setting. It has great charm. The Bahrain airstrip is a stripped-down place of sand, hangars and engines. The main characters hop between the continents, delivering goods, setting up more export bases, leaving behind personnel who spread Shaklin's infleunce. Shute would never be so clumsy as to make the comparison with angels, these people who spend so much time in the sky in their machines, but you are drawn to entertain yourself with the idea. A charming, haunting story. ...more
A beguiling idea, written with great warmth. The writer's style is deft, graceful and funny. The central relationship, between foundling Sophie and heA beguiling idea, written with great warmth. The writer's style is deft, graceful and funny. The central relationship, between foundling Sophie and her guardian Charles, is three-dimensional, quirky and likable. The rooftop descriptions leave no doubt about their authenticity. Don't read it if you're scared of heights.
I felt the story lost some momentum at the end, though. It seemed to be building to something bigger that didn't materialise; either that or it didn't need quite so many loops. At times I felt we were being artificially kept away from the story's climax. But mostly, an enjoyable and touching read....more
**spoiler alert** I really liked this for two reasons: the characters and the narrative voice.
First, the voice. It's strong; so strong that it makes**spoiler alert** I really liked this for two reasons: the characters and the narrative voice.
First, the voice. It's strong; so strong that it makes the main characters sound pretty much the same. Usually such homogenisation is a problem, but here I find it works rather well. The blending of the personalities creates a pleasant bond in a mad world.
The tone is smartly judged. It's hilarious, yet quietly so. By this I mean I find myself thinking back to plot events and finding them insanely funny. (One example is the golf match in Papa-San suits.) At the time of reading, these hi-jinks are balanced by the grueling details of the work they were doing, not to mention its absurdity - repairing the horrific damage done to healthy young men. Much of the action is ridiculous, and the text approaches work and play with similar coolness. Hell raising and hell-repairing are narrated in the same tone.
Now the characters. The surgeons Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest are scornful, irreverent and flippant against authority, good souls who look after their friends and hilariously torment their enemies. And in spite of the detached tone, there is deep affection and loyalty between the characters, handled with enormous restraint - which of course roots it all the more deeply.
The structure is episodic, so it's not surprising that it made a long-running TV series. This means there isn't a strong overall arc in conventional story terms. The tale is bookended by the friendship - the day they first meet at the hospital, to the day they leave.
At times the control falters, though. New pivotal characters are added all the time, which can get a bit frustrating, especially as these new people don't seem to present challenges that are noticably different from earlier escapades. Indeed it would be hard to surpass the wicked genius of the 'black capsule' suicide scene that was a centrepoint of the film (here it's not in the middle, it's quite early on). Another scene that made it into the film is the football match. In the film I felt it was too long and wondered if it had been stretched for the purposes of making a finale. In fact, it's overlong in the book too, as it's the kind of actin that makes for dull reading. But even if you have seen the movie, there's plenty more in this slim novel that will be new to you and worth reading - especially some outrageous escapades involving Trapper John.
In all, a book I'll remember with great affection. ...more
Oh this novel is good. If I had to sum it up I'd say it continually confounds expectations, and most entertainingly. So I'll try to preserve the mysteOh this novel is good. If I had to sum it up I'd say it continually confounds expectations, and most entertainingly. So I'll try to preserve the mystery by not giving spoilers.
At first we seem to have an unhappy but spirited teen narrator who's coping with a bereavement, but we soon discover this isn't a YA novel. By the end you'll sympathise with the parents. The character is lonely, and needy for love, but we soon discover this isn't necessarily what it seems, or even as constant as it appears. A girl disappears, but you can forget the syrupy Lovely Bones right now.
The storytelling is subtle, clues are carefully hidden in plain sight, the ante is upped above and beyond, the writer isn't afraid to abandon all conventions of political correctness and the whole thing is tied up in a rather satisfactory way. I enjoyed it immensely. ...more
This is one of those books that stopped the world for me. Husband would suggest a DVD; I would plead more time with this novel instead.
It centres onThis is one of those books that stopped the world for me. Husband would suggest a DVD; I would plead more time with this novel instead.
It centres on a woman, Maud, who is a loner. The first half is mainly concerned with her unsettling effect on others, while the second follows her interior life - and inevitably the consequences of events from part one. Miller has created a character who is not as warm as other people seem to expect, and indeed as they require. To an extent, this seems to be a fascination of his, as in Ingenious Pain he explored the idea of a man who was unable to feel any kind of uncomfortable stimulus.
Maud is truly a haunting character, and I'm still trying to work out why. This is not a book of simple emotions. You don't feel sorry for her; you don't know what to feel, which of course is why she is so disconcerting to the others around her. Especially those who expect to have a two-way relationship with her - her boyfriend and his family, her colleagues. You could say she's the original cold fish, but there are no easy ways to describe her. There are also no labels to suggest we can package this as a study of Asperger's, which is quite fashionable at the moment. Besides, she doesn't have many of the features of Asperger's; she is simply a person with these characteristics, complex and truthful. And she's painted with such empathy that you understand what it is like to have her peculiar wiring. Kurt Vonnegut said that a good book allows you to meditate in the mind of another - and Miller can turn you into Maud. Or perhaps we all have a little of her in us.
The Crossing contains a shadow of another book, too; Miller's capacity to create moments of great tenderness. In The Crossing, this comes after Maud and her boyfriend Tim have had a scare in their boat. The way Miller describes their reaction creates a complex and subtle bond between them, and I found myself rereading those lines, like a child discovering a new game. Similarly, there are moments with other characters that carry this warm humanity. He achieves a similar thing in Pure, with the main character and his wife. The words used for that scene forever create a deep sense of closeness, in lines you can return to and puzzle over. However, The Crossing is not a retread of that relationship by any means. The similarity is very temporary.
Miller's prose is beautiful, but never trips up the narrative. It's plain when it needs to be, enchanting when that's called for. You will find moments of delight and poetry, but the story will keep pulling you on.
So why four stars instead of five? Truth be told, I wasn't happy with the ending. There is resolution, but I didn't find it satisfying enough. It seemed predictable. I've often found Miller's endings to be disappointing, as though he simply ran out of steam. Or perhaps the end is something that simply doesn't interest him. Certainly he gave me enough delight during the voyage that I don't mind too much about it. So - four stars, and I'm happy to recommend.
**spoiler alert** First let me clarify that this one-star rating is abiding by Goodreads rules - 'did not like it'. Not terrible, certainly, but I cou**spoiler alert** First let me clarify that this one-star rating is abiding by Goodreads rules - 'did not like it'. Not terrible, certainly, but I couldn't say I liked it.
Why, especially as I'm a fan of his other novels?
First off, I found the premise hard to believe. A man witnesses a murder and seems likely to be framed for it. He's inveigled into touching the murder weapon, leaving his fingerprints, getting covered in blood etc. The actual moment when he's persuaded to do this is realistic enough - the dying man simply wants him to pull the knife out. I have no quarrel with that and I found it a powerful emotional moment. But I do quarrel with what happens afterwards. Instead of going to the police and telling his story, as any innocent chap would do, he decides to live rough on a patch of waste ground in Chelsea. This seems extremely hard to believe.
Boyd hints later on that his protagonist had depression and was possibly looking for a way to reboot his life. But this isn't introduced early enough. It looks as though he thought of it half-way through the writing and scribbled it in.
Also, several points seem badly thought through. The murderer, a trained assassin, is supposed to have used a breadknife. Go downstairs now and look at your breadknife. Breadknives are flimsy. Would you choose that as a stabbing weapon? Not if you had other things at your disposal, and if a house has a breadknife it probably has more serious knives too. Or a screwdriver. And if you were an assassin you could probably use the gun that's also in your pocket. So 'breadknife' seems like Boyd wasn't thinking very hard. Indeed, the assassin seems to be a bit of a bungler, but you're never quite sure if Boyd intends him to be. In another scene, he kills a hooker by tossing her into the river, but doesn't make sure she's actually dead. And this isn't so she can then come back and spoil people's plans. She's certainly dead. But it doesn't look as though Boyd made the assassin either careful enough, or deliberately idiotic. It's just an unconvincing character.
Usually, I'll happily settle down with a Boyd because his characters are such singular and interesting people. But in this novel, they seemed thinly drawn. Also, there were too many of them, and I think he may have had trouble making them distinct enough. Although plots need red herrings, with people who look significant but aren't, the red herrings here are irritating rather than enriching.
There are good points, of course. The protagonist's eventual reboot with a new identity is persuasively done. There are a few clever twists, such as the assassin being arrested, mistaken for the protagonist. There's a religious cult that recruits homeless people and gives them all the name 'John'. There are a lot of loose threads that aren't definitively tied up, which echoes the theme of randomness, and mean it works well as a 'slice of time' novel. Not everything can be neatly answered - and that's fine and realistic. But this is also perhaps where the novel's overall flaw might lie. The protagonist is a climatologist before he goes on the run - hence the title 'Ordinary Thunderstorms'. So we're supposed to be aware of how our fortunes can be as changeable as the wind. The trouble is, I don't find there was much mileage in that as an idea. Boyd hasn't used it to create an intriguing story world. It seems to be an excuse for a bit of a random and rambling book that could have been better executed.
So: disappointing, but I'll certainly pick up more Boyd. ...more
Nothing about this especially grabbed me. It does have its good points, however it wasn't the special read that I expected from the blurb. In summary,Nothing about this especially grabbed me. It does have its good points, however it wasn't the special read that I expected from the blurb. In summary, the situation is this. The narrator is harking back to a time when he went up a mountain to commit suicide, ran into a group of people, and one of them didn't survive. Now clearly he did, or he wouldn't be telling the tale, so the main piece of curiosity is who died instead of him. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that scenario. The author deftly sets up expectations and keeps us guessing. There are reasons why most of the characters could die, though I thought the actual death wasn't very plausible. It seemed to be one of those situations where a character has to behave in a stupid way. Also I found a lot of the action was quite repetitive, and could have been streamlined to make a tighter read. I confess I ended up skimming because my attention wasn't sufficiently held. There's also a back story plot about the narrator's friend who had an accident, and that seems pretty average and a bit strung out. But something I did enjoy is the way the ordeal changes the narrator's three companions. They're three generations of one family, and during the story they rub their rough edges off, bare their secrets and come to a new understanding. ...more
**spoiler alert** I can't guarantee I won't give spoilers, so this review is probably going to be for people who've read Night Work and need to decomp**spoiler alert** I can't guarantee I won't give spoilers, so this review is probably going to be for people who've read Night Work and need to decompress with likeminded travellers.
Jonas wakes up one morning to find he is the last person left alive. The electricity is still running, but nothing else stirs. There are no bodies. No animals or birdsong. He is completely alone. He searches the city, leaves messages everywhere, dials stored numbers in the phones of offices and shops, gets drunk a lot, breaks into the homes of people he knew, develops forms of madness and strategies to stop himself feeling so alone.
Gradually his discomfort becomes deeper rooted and his fears more destabilising. He gives himself missions. He goes back to his childhood home, visits the camp site where the family used to holiday. He sifts through the evidence of his past and considers what remains of it, becomes increasingly aware of the finiteness of moments, the necessity to leave traces of himself and the inexorable onward tick of time, heedless of the cycles of humanity.
This is a bold and simple idea, thoughtfully executed, that's left me pleasantly ruminating several days after finishing. It provokes thematic questions but it's also a story, about a man who is alone, re-evaluating his life, missing his girlfriend, wondering what became of the people he knew, and trying to stave off madness. At times the narrative is confusing and you feel you've gone round in circles - but this seems to fit with the material so I'll forgive him that. The prose is simple, but still able to worm into those enormous ideas when necessary.
It gives you a new colour to think in. Now if I find myself alone on a still day, miles from any car sounds, train sounds or other signs of life, I am thinking the same thoughts as Jonas. How much do other people give us our sense of reality and self? What does it mean to be truly alone? It doesn't feel wonderful, but this book is. ...more
The story didn't grab me, but the characters certainly did. I find Boyd's people very human, believable and distinctive. In this novel he has a particThe story didn't grab me, but the characters certainly did. I find Boyd's people very human, believable and distinctive. In this novel he has a particularly peculiar group as they're scientists in a research station, so there are plenty of opportunities for them to develop eccentricities and interpersonal tensions. And perhaps this is the real curiosity of the story, especially when woven in with the subject of their research - the behaviour of the baboon population. It's people watching - through a new lens. ...more
**spoiler alert** While I was reading this book, I wrote a post on my blog about how I was enjoying Emily Mandel's imagination. Now I've finished, I c**spoiler alert** While I was reading this book, I wrote a post on my blog about how I was enjoying Emily Mandel's imagination. Now I've finished, I certainly find it to be an imaginative work. But it has a few flaws that stop me giving it more stars.
Without doubt, the world is deeply envisaged. It's the story of the stragglers who remain after an apocalypse, twenty years on. I enjoyed Mandel's descriptions of how the world disintegrates, and the many well-visualised details that bring this to life. The TVs where the channels disappear, one by one, and the newsreaders who are gradually replaced by whoever is still alive in the studio. The language is confident and the vision poetic. At one point, Mandel writes a montage of all the things that will never be seen again, including a city at night, from an aeroplane window. This is very assured writing.
Indeed, air travel is something of a continuing motif, which I also enjoyed, and works as an example of a modern miracle that will disappear for ever. She's keen on pointing out the many marvellous things we have right now, and how easily they could vanish.
Continuing the air travel theme, her best use of this is the airport. A group of passengers are stranded there among rusting planes, thrown together haphazardly from everywhere and all walks of life. They carve out a new existence among the empty shops, and one character starts a museum. Air travel was also the mechanism by which the disease spreads, so it was our undoing as well as our liberation. All this is very elegant. And she goes one step further. The last plane to come into the airport is full of diseased people. It lands, taxis to the farthest point on the runway and stops. No one ever goes in there. No one ever comes out. It stays as a haunting reminder, and later it becomes a powerful device all over again.
So, the book is believable in a lot of ways. A few details don't seem so well thought through, though. One key character is a prophet, who is rumoured to wear white. No one seems to comment on the fact that white would not be a possible colour in a society that has no washing machines. If electricity is so sorely missed, why does nobody explore solar panels? Mandel has the petrol decaying in two or three years; but, my friends, I grew up with Terry Nation's Survivors, and I remember he discovered that petrol lasts for about 20-25 years before it decays. I was also dubious about the reliance on horses, which are now the principle mode of transport, pulling vehicles that are improvised from old cars and trucks. Although it seems sensible, and pleasingly vintage, horsepower isn't free. The travellers didn't seem hamstrung by having to find feed, water and shoeing for these creatures. And I imagine a truck weighs a lot more than the average pioneer wagon, and so the horses would need more calories.
A more major weak spot is her characters. Mandel is good interesting scenarios, and describing a kind of gestalt reaction to them. But she's not good at creating individuals, people with distinctive insides. All the viewpoint characters appear roughly the same. Their life circumstances are different, but they all seem to be running exactly the same emotional operating system. They are made sad by the same things, rash by the same things. However, there are some stand-out individuals - the prophet, his mother and Frank, the brother of Jeevan. These characters react in very different and distinct ways to the strains of the new world, but we do not get their viewpoint. So she's very imaginative, but she isn't a William Boyd. And this makes for a rather bland read, because the viewpoint characters don't come to life.
It's a split narrative, with some sections before the apocalypse and some afterwards. These mainly follow a travelling troupe of entertainers, who perform Shakespeare and music. I found these rather static and flimsy. They seemed to lack purpose and charm and were too long. However, there are other sections where the storyline had more purpose. There are scenes with the various romances of an actor, Arthur, which are much more vivid, and his friend Clarke.
In the end, it's all drawn together by a graphic novel created by one of Arthur's wives. This is the Station Eleven of the title. It's a bit of a weak device in some ways, and rather laboured, although I admire the notion that a randomly preserved book could become a vital and influential text in a new world. Where I thought it worked best is in its influence on Tyler, Arthur's son, who becomes the off-white prophet. Mandel had a very haunting idea here, and his journey from traumatised boy to marauding madman is powerful and tragic.
You might say that in an end-of-the world scenario, there should be a few more nutcase characters. Actually, I didn't find this to be a problem. This is not about madmen, it's about the people who adjust and survive. Mandel is following the average, 'nice' person, who's just struggling to find a place they can live, a way to carry on - and this is one of the novel's celebrations. Indeed, the characters sometimes laugh at the memory of zombie films from the old days.
So this novel proceeds at a gentler pace, with gentler concerns, and in that way it mostly works. But I would have liked more purpose to the narrative, and more individual people. ...more
Some of my favourite books have been memoirs of a challenging relationship with an animal - Jane Shilling's Fox in the Cupboard, Gavin Maxwell's otterSome of my favourite books have been memoirs of a challenging relationship with an animal - Jane Shilling's Fox in the Cupboard, Gavin Maxwell's otter oeuvre. H is for Hawk belongs alongside them. If that description 'relationship with an animal' sounds fluffy or cosy to you, think again. These animals aren't pets. They are forces to be negotiated with, embodiments of the wild that pitch you into a different way of life and living. You don't invite an otter, a horse or a goshawk to be your friend. You go to their world. You tune into their mind, their instincts, their priorities, their joys, their fears - and in so doing, you find the places where you are wild yourself. And that wildness doesn't mean uncomplicated freedom. Its values have little in common with human concerns. It is a stripped-away state of being, a universe of survival and struggle, where trust might be life or death. In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald's journey has added significance. She acquired her goshawk when in the depths of mourning after her father died suddenly. So the hawk is a voyage into a land of death, for not only is her hawk - who she names Mabel - red in tooth and claw, she is a mysterious, highly tuned instrument of death. The only fluffiness in this book is the down on the new-born chicks that are Mabel's staple food. Macdonald does not shy away from this. A lifelong falconer, she defines her world early in the book, banishing any romantic notions of the falconry sport when she writes of a hawk 'murdering a pigeon'. In the same spirit, this book is raw in emotional tone too. As we see what hawks do, we see what grief does. It strips the world to a race of life and death, to basic needs, to negotiations with a creature that does not understand words or language but operates in a key of hunger, speed and instinct. Mabel has to be kept on a careful edge of hunger and satiation in order to hunt and fly. If Helen feeds her too much she won't have the appetite or prowess to perform. Too little, and she becomes desperate and aggressive. And despite her falconry experience, Macdonald finds the training a harrowing process. Establishing a relationship with this creature is an ordeal of patience, nerves, and a challenge to everything she finds certain in her life - which, in her bereaved state, is very little. As well as a passage through the valley of mourning, this book is also an exploration of a talismanic work from Macdonald's own past, The Goshawk by TH White. She first read it as a child, and was appalled by White's apparent ignorance, clumsiness and cruelty as his time with his hawk did not go well. Nevertheless, she has read it to shreds over the years, first because there were few books for a falcon-mad girl to read, but latterly because she saw something else. It wasn't about hawks, it was about a man, a homosexual, emotionally scarred man who was struggling to tame his own nature. Parts of her narrative examine White's life, decoding this figure whose book had been such a presence from her childhood days. And just as White was destabilised by his experience taming hawks, Macdonald finds herself pushed to desperation. Taming the bird becomes the centre of her life, and not just for its own sake. It is a rite of reckoning, of approaching a more inaccessible, unavoidable inner process. I haven't yet mentioned Macdonald's prose - and I must. It is sublime, haunting, transforming, written with the heart of a poet. I could quote the entire book if I started picking choice passages, so I'll make do with just this, her description of walking the fields with Mabel flying behind her 'like a personal angel'. And so this book will stay with you, as a challenging, mesmerising messenger. ...more
This was an idea spread too thin with not enough plot and or originality. The writing was certainly good, and where the passages handled strong emotioThis was an idea spread too thin with not enough plot and or originality. The writing was certainly good, and where the passages handled strong emotion it was very affecting. But not enough seemed to be done with the idea. There are two halves to the narrative: the passages set in the trenches and a later time when the character is trying to readjust to normal life, with little success. The wartime scenes are well realised, although a little meandering. But the sections back in this country are agonisingly slow. The character buries an old hermit who lives near his makeshift home, drifts around and visits the brother of his friend who was killed in France, repairs her boiler and goes for a picnic. Now some writers can invest such non-events with much meaning and resonance; the minutiae of a slow day are the journey the characters go on, or the illumination of a difficult and unimaginable life. But these didn't grab me this way. They simply seemed slow, as if they were padding so that there could be as many scenes in the post-war strand as there were in the trenches. The flashbacks to the war carry some very arresting details, but the War Poets did it better. And there lies the problem. The Lie contains nothing new in terms of themes, treatment or ideas - although there could have been. It seems to have been written only to tick a few boxes for the 1914 anniversary....more