I read 'Hide and Seek' after meeting Clare Sambrook at a Society of Authors talk. I was engaged by the book and its central character Harry Pickles, t...moreI read 'Hide and Seek' after meeting Clare Sambrook at a Society of Authors talk. I was engaged by the book and its central character Harry Pickles, through whom the story is told. As a writer who has tried to capture the voice of a nine-year-old child to tell a coherent story, I know just how difficult it is. I don't think I always managed it in my short stories, and I don't think Clare does entirely either, but she gets very close - the misses are not so distracting as to break off the engagement. I would recommend the book, but only for readers who are not looking for happy ever after.
I'm going to make a partial and what will seem a strange comparison with Dylan Thomas's 'Under Milkwood'. Strange, as Trevor's work is a novel, Thomas...moreI'm going to make a partial and what will seem a strange comparison with Dylan Thomas's 'Under Milkwood'. Strange, as Trevor's work is a novel, Thomas's a play; the first is set in Ireland, the second in Wales; Trevor's story plays out under sunshine, Thomas's largely in the bible-black of night; strange, above all, as 'Under Milkwood' is essentially comic, 'Love and Summer' elegiac, tender and sad. But bear with me.
Both communities are tiny backwaters, where it sometimes appears that everyone knows everyone's habits and business, even seem privy to their inner lives, but it is not really so, for wrong assumptions are made, secret affairs carry on, thoughts and emotions, even at their most intense, can remain unrevealed or at least unarticulated.
There are seeming philanderers in both works - No Good Boyo and Florian Kilderry - who have hidden depths. There are apparent fools - Willy Nilly and Orpen Wren - who carry gossip and messages that both elucidate and confuse. 'Under Milkwood' has Polly Garter, whom everyone knows as a tart, who has heartfelt compassion and a tender capacity for love; in 'Love and Summer' the apparently guileless Ellie conducts an affair behind her husband's back, yet never loses her essential innocence or our sympathy.
At the centre of the Rathmoye community is Miss Connulty who at first seems to compare in her bossiness and aggrandisement with Milkwood's Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, but who we come to see by the end of the novel rather like Captain Cat, seeing more in his blindness than other sighted characters, and with real understanding and empathy for the 'fallen' Polly/Ellie.
I don't mean to carry the comparison any further, and of course the style of the two works is radically different, as is the effect they have on us, but I felt the association throughout my reading of this superb offering by one of our greatest living story-tellers, and I wanted to share it with others.
I have fond memories of this book from my reading in early adolescence, so I was pleased to find it available to download free to my Kindle. It was pu...moreI have fond memories of this book from my reading in early adolescence, so I was pleased to find it available to download free to my Kindle. It was published in 1925 but still feels fresh and spirited. This upper class world of fine manors and expansive grounds is as far away from me now as it was when I first read it as a miner's son in a council house, but that is part of the charm. The class assumptions are amusing, and relieved by Buchan's essentially liberal sentiments despite his being very much part of the aristocratic world in his day job as diplomat and governor. Above all, he is a supreme writer of adventure; here the reader is caught up by the thrill of the chase as three friends try for a dare to hunt game from heavily defended estates, using the collective pseudonym John Macnab. I know nothing whatsoever about hunting and shooting (am temperamentally opposed to both), but I found myself rooting for 'Macnab' and as a reader inhabiting his skin - that's the power of the story and the skill of a great writer in the genre. When I settled down to read, I wondered if I would be as absorbed as I had been nearly fifty years before. The magic was still in the pages, or in this case the screen. By the way, much though I love books, I feel my pleasure was not lessened in any way by using the electronic reader. This was one of my first sustained experiences with the Kindle, and I'm sure I'll be doing a lot more of my reading in this form from now on, especially when I can get it for free.
Just re-read this after many years, this time as a free download on my Kindle. I had forgotten many of the details of the story, and was gripped by it...moreJust re-read this after many years, this time as a free download on my Kindle. I had forgotten many of the details of the story, and was gripped by it. The Martian fighting machines that Wells describes seem Heath-Robinson-clunky to a modern reader used to digital and electronic technology, but would have appeared state-of-the-art in the early twentieth century, still in the tail end of the Industrial Revolution. More universal is the sense of fear and foreboding that Wells conveys so brilliantly, especially in Part Two when we see our hero trapped in a house half-flattened by one of the Martian landings, trying to keep a crazed fellow-prisoner quiet as they hide from the enemy. Some typical Wells philosophising, too, on the nature of man and society. Certainly worth returning to.
Alice Munro is my favourite living short story writer, and this collection does not disappoint except, strangely for the long title story. Unlike the...moreAlice Munro is my favourite living short story writer, and this collection does not disappoint except, strangely for the long title story. Unlike the other contemporary pieces, this one is set in the nineteenth century and centres on the real-life Sophia Kovalevsky, a Russian mathematician and novelist. The story simply did not come to life for me, and it seems out of place among the rest of the collection, though Munro clearly wants to draw attention to it through the title. Other readers may be entirely captivated by the romantic complications Sophia faces; I am perfectly ready to accept that the fault is my own, but all criticism is subjective.
The other stories are set in familiar Munro territory - in and around Ontario, focusing on small lives - but nothing is ever quite familiar with this writer, who has the unerring ability to unsettle us, often by examining the brittleness of relationships, sometimes by the placing of quirky incidents in seemingly ordinary circumstancess, as here in the story 'Wenlock Edge' where a student takes her friend's usual place as a solitary guest in a wealthy man's home and is invited, quite coolly and charmingly, to dine with him completely naked. Equally oddly, she complies, without knowing why, and nothing happens - the man continues conversational and correct throughout the meal. The perverse strangeness of it reminded me of Pip's visits to Miss Havisham in 'Great Expectations'.
I believe Miss Munro has said this will be her last book. She is 75, but I do hope there's more to come from her yet. As readers of her work, we can't have too much happiness.
I came to 'The Long Song' having thoroughly enjoyed Andrea Levy's 'Small Island'. My expectations were high, and she did not merely match but exceed t...moreI came to 'The Long Song' having thoroughly enjoyed Andrea Levy's 'Small Island'. My expectations were high, and she did not merely match but exceed them. Her secret is in finding the right voice for the story, and in the female slave July she found someone to conduct us through the years of slavery and (so-called) freedom for the blacks in Jamaica with just the right amount of irreverence to deny her victim status, and an instinctive native wit to counterbalance the misery, or rather to give it a very individual perspective.
Levy admits in her own notes on writing the novel to the anticipated difficulty of writing about slavery "without it turning into a harrowing tale of violence and misery". July arose from that anxiety as the answer to it. As a narrator she is unreliable, one-eyed and sometimes mendacious, which is paradoxically why we trust her version of events above the orthodox white historian's view. She is not overly interested in the historical details (though the author has clever devices to give us just as much as we need) preferring to let the story unfold for us through her experiences and her relationships. She is often self-deluded, succeeds in fooling us too at times, and we love her for it.
You might be surprised, given the subject matter, when I tell you that this is in many ways a highly comic novel. July's interpretation of her mistress Caroline's foibles, for example, is pure Fielding at times, as is July's relationship with her own son, Thomas, who is presented as the publisher of her story and with whom she has a continuing chafing dialogue about her version of events. The written down speech of the late-educated Jamaican slave is another source of amusement, in the same way that Huck Finn makes us smile as he tells his tale Mississippi-style. Levy writes with the ear just as well as Mark Twain did.
However much we are entertained by July, we never lose sight of her courage, her tenacity, her life-affirming spirit, and through them we see the qualities that all those who survived and eventually thrived in that harsh period must have had in abundance. Levy never fails to get her message through clearly. That she can do so without a hint of didactism or of overwrought sentimentality says much about her ability as a writer of our times and of our sometimes inglorious past.
Christopher Vogler readily acknowledges his debt to Joseph Campbell, whose 1949 seminal work on comparative mythology 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces'...moreChristopher Vogler readily acknowledges his debt to Joseph Campbell, whose 1949 seminal work on comparative mythology 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces' is the source of the Hero's Journey that Vogler uses as his template for an effective screenplay. Vogler's more contemporary style is perhaps more accessible for the modern reader, and his many examples from well-known movies ('Shane', 'Star Wars', 'Titanic') really help to demonstrate the practical application of the formula that he explains in rich detail here.
Make no mistake, it is a formula, and some readers have criticised Vogler (himself a Hollywood screenwriter and story consultant) for peddling a formulaic approach to the creative act. In fairness, he warns several times in the book about slavish adherence to the recipe, and is clear that no writer should simply spread out the journey map and start plotting the route accordingly. Like any writer's tool, this book is a valuable travelling companion, not a pilot. Vogler provides a good example in his analysis of Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction' of a great script that contains all the essentials of a Hero's Journey presented entirely unconventionally with freshness and verve.
Novelists as well as scriptwriters should find this a useful and interesting guide. Don't let it be the only book you rely on (Robert McKee's 'Story' is another rewarding read) but be sure to take it with you if you are embarking on your own writer's journey.
If you are a fan of witty observational modern writing, read this book. If you don't think you're a fan of romantic and tender modern comedy (think 'W...moreIf you are a fan of witty observational modern writing, read this book. If you don't think you're a fan of romantic and tender modern comedy (think 'When Harry Met Sally', 'Notting Hill') read this book anyway, because it's that and much more than that.
Simple enough premise - two graduating students have a one night almost-fling in late 1980s Edinburgh. It's St Swithin's Day. For the next two decades we check in on the couple - their separate lives and their (platonic) intertwinings - on the same date. I'm guessing St Swithin's Day is used because of its predictive symbolism of ups and downs - if it rains on that day it will rain for 40 days and nights; if it doesn't, well it won't.
Emma and Dexter have plenty of ups and downs, both in their separate lives and in their relationship. Emma languishes in one unsatisfying job after another until she realises one third of a dream as a popular writer for children; Dexter seems to have all he wants when he becomes a well-known TV face, only to lose it all through his self-centred behaviour and excessive lifestyle. Both of them have brief unsuccessful marriages to other people, and desultory affairs. Only their friendship gives them stability of a sort. Do they get together? Well, take another look at the title. But if you think that's the end, think again. There is more depth to this story than your conventional rom-com. It is funny, true, tender and moving.
There are faults. Although Emma is a more sympathetic character than Dexter (she's meant to be), she's not so well-drawn; I can never quite believe her alleged agit-prop student past or see her in the role of rock chick bass player or theatre-ed actor, two of her early occupations. But I do believe in the relationship, with all its ups and downs, its twists and turns.
And let me again mention David Nicholls' writing. This is the first I've read of his, and I've already downloaded another to my Kindle; he is a real find - somewhat in the style of Nick Hornby (another favourite of mine) but for me a more assured, more consistent and sharper observer of our times as measured out in everyday lives.
I knew nothing about Hans Fallada's work; downloaded 'Alone in Berlin' onto my Kindle simply because it came up on my Recommendations and the blurb lo...moreI knew nothing about Hans Fallada's work; downloaded 'Alone in Berlin' onto my Kindle simply because it came up on my Recommendations and the blurb looked interesting. It was a great decision, and I hope I can add my little bit to encouraging others to read this harrowing but absorbing and grittily realistic novel of wartime Germany.
The book was originally published in 1947, not long after the events it describes and shortly before the author's death, but very surprisingly was not translated into English until 2009. It is set in and around Berlin, with the most outwardly mundane central characters - a factory foreman and his timid hausfrau wife - but it is their very ordinariness that throws into relief the brutality that surrounds them, and their quiet but determined courage in a city dominated by fear and suspicion; that, and the fact that their story is based on the actions of a real-life couple Otto and Elise Hampel, who from no political background embarked on a three year campaign of writing anti-Nazi postcards which they secretly placed in stairwells of public buildings around the city to be found and read by whoever might be passing. Their actions (prompted by the battlefield death of a family member) probably had little impact beyond enraging the Gestapo officers who were charged with finding and arresting them, but that does not make their heroism less - it emerges strongly in the novel, as does their humanity, much like that of the Frank family in the better-known journal of life undercover in the shadow of Nazism.
Fallada's writing is rough-hewn and uneven, but I guess a more highly-polished treatment would have had less effect - sometimes you need to feel the splinters - and at times (especially in the prison cell scenes towards the end of the story) it is starkly magnificent. The book is not without a certain black humour, but its overall impact is chilling, its lessons salutary. Anyone who has ever wondered how ordinary German citizens could stand by in the midst of Hitler's atrocities will come to a better understanding by reading 'Alone in Berlin'. They might wonder, too, whether they would have the courage to resist, as few do here, or take abject refuge among the silent (or whispering) majority.
The key ingredient to Kazuo Ishiguro's success with the reader in this understated but deeply disturbing novel (and, incidentally, why I am doubtful w...moreThe key ingredient to Kazuo Ishiguro's success with the reader in this understated but deeply disturbing novel (and, incidentally, why I am doubtful whether the film adaptation, which I haven't seen yet, will work with the viewer) is the way he lets us see everything through narrator Kathy's perspective - and then some - without ever changing that perspective. The effect is that we gradually come to an agonized understanding of the helplessness behind her nostalgic naivete and walk with her towards an abyss which she cannot or will not fully acknowledge.
Although Kathy is at one level aware that she and her friends are clones, nurtured to become spare human part providers in this alternatively real 70s-90s Britain (a bleak, soviet environment), she fails to grasp the horrifying nature of their fate. Everything is wrapped in euphemism - carers, donors, recovery centre, completion - and what is effectively imprisonment is remembered as a sort of pleasant boarding school with quirky rules and a few eccentric 'guardians'. Although she is puzzled by certain events and actions, and follows her friends Ruth and Tommy in pursuing various clues and rumours, she does so in a fellow passenger sort of way. She is not without motivation, but this is directed into trying to understand her friends and help them maintain equilibrium (the only times she seems anxious are when equilibrium is disturbed), rather than in exploring the wider questions of purpose and destiny.
Ruth is a larger personality than the acquiescent Kathy, intensely egocentric and manipulative, especially of her friends. She does achieve a kind of maturity before her own 'completion' when she turns her manipulative skills away from spite and offers what she genuinely believes to be good advice that will bring Kathy and Tommy together and offer them a chance at least to defer their inevitable demise.
The only character who seems to have glimpses of the horror that awaits is Tommy; ironically his clearer perception leads to unpopularity among his peers at the establishment, and to his being labelled as inferior intellectually, creatively and emotionally. Tommy's tragedy is that the opposite is the case.
Ishiguro is at his brilliant best in developing the relationship between Kathy and Tommy. I hope it is not bathetic to say that, while I was reading and thinking about these two, a couple of lines from Paul Simon's song 'America' would repeat in my head:
'Kathy I'm lost,' I said, though I knew she was sleeping. 'I'm empty and aching, and I don't know why.'
I won't reveal the end of the story, not because it is particularly dramatic or surprising, but it needs to be arrived at in the walk of the narrative. I will only say that the last long paragraph of the book is masterful, summative, absolutely character-precise, and left this reader emotionally drained. When I consider that Ishiguro has done all of that through the medium of a narrator whom he has persuaded me across nearly three hundred pages is emotionally neutral, I can only put my hand up and salute great writing. (less)