If you’ve picked up this book, chances are the blurb caught your attention. Two seconds … “devastating mistake” … shattered world – how could you not...moreIf you’ve picked up this book, chances are the blurb caught your attention. Two seconds … “devastating mistake” … shattered world – how could you not be intrigued? My only quibble is its length, but since my reviews are not exactly concise, I really shouldn’t talk. I read it nightly for about a week and then stayed up so I could finish the last hundred pages.
Joyce will take you to Cranham, a remote village on an English moor back in the summer of ’72, where nature is a character in its own right. Her writing feels like weather patterns: now languid, now brisk, and then shot through with the clarity of insight, like the horizon after a rainstorm. I could have dog-eared many pages of such lines, but I only did one near the end: “Sometimes it is easier, he thinks, to live out the mistakes we have made than to summon the energy and imagination required to repair them.”
This might give you an idea of the story’s atmosphere: heartbreaking at the worst of times, elegiac at best. Stories set in “the summer of --” rarely end well, and yet there’s something of The Wonder Years in Byron’s experience. To communicate with his best friend, he writes letters and calls him on the landline – remember those? The pair also call to mind Michael Frayn’s Spies, what with their grandiose surveillance of Diana, Beverley and Jeanie. Distinct details in the author’s narration reflect Byron’s observations, and we feel increasingly isolated with him as he tries to discern motives and solve problems on his own.
But that’s only half the story. Every other chapter takes place in contemporary “Crapham,” a wintry village of quiet desperation, foreign-student housing, and coffee shops without green logos. Here Joyce wields the kind of absurdist pathos that comes with Fawlty Towers and The Office. Here’s Mr. Meade at his Basil Fawlty-est (or David Brentest), after the Efficacy in the Workplace and Team Building conference for café managers:
“What we are going to do, team, is huddle.” “Huddle?” repeats Paula flatly. Mr. Meade is so excited he skips his weight from one foot to the other. He opens his arms wide and wriggles his fingers, beckoning his few staff to draw close.… “Closer, closer!” laughs Mr. Meade. “I won’t bite!” Moira and Paula shuffle forward. Jim wonders if anyone would notice if he disappeared. Not immediately. Just in a shuffling backwards sort of way.… “Hug me, Jim!” says Mr. Meade. Jim lifts his hand to Mr. Meade’s shoulder. There it stays, aching up and down the muscles. “Isn’t this good?” says Mr. Meade. No one answers. “Of course, there were about twenty of us at the conference,” says Mr. Meade. “Senior management and personnel. And the actors were professional, of course. It was a bit different.”
And how do these two halves fit with each other? That’s for you to enjoy figuring out. If you’re looking for a curious mixture of nostalgia and anguish, irony and sincerity, sentiment and common sense, don’t wait another second – this book is perfect.(less)
This is the best story I’ve read in years. In a minimalist style reminiscent of Hemingway’s, Audrey Magee takes us through a dozen years in the lives...moreThis is the best story I’ve read in years. In a minimalist style reminiscent of Hemingway’s, Audrey Magee takes us through a dozen years in the lives of a German soldier and his postcard-bride wife, starting from the summer of 1940. So much has been written about the Second World War that more narration would only cloud the clarity of this novel’s heartbreaking scenes. So The Undertaking is mostly dialogue, and it’s a fast, breathtaking read.
It starts with a fascinating premise, and the wedding scene is irresistibly cinematic. See for yourself – the opening chapters can be read online. Honeymoon over, we follow the alternating stories of Peter, who is sent back to the Eastern Front, and Katharina, who climbs the capital’s social ladder. Each lives for the other in their own private hell as the war continues, ends, and eventually settles into its well-known aftermath.
But this is not a story about the war. It’s about the people who believed in the war, and those who didn’t, and those who just kept calm and carried on – if I can appropriate that now-ubiquitous slogan from the other side. By emphasizing her characters’ voices, the author encourages us to empathize, to appreciate their capacity for love and sympathize with at least some of their frailties. As she said in one interview, “there are very few of us who are truly noble.” The dialogues constantly test one character’s moral convictions against another’s forced choices – Faber and Faustmann, Esther and Günther Spinell, Katharina with Mrs. Weinart and with Mrs. Sachs – compelling us to do what readers do best: judge and debate.
Possibly because we know more, culturally, about the lives of soldiers, we seem to get grittier, more visceral details about them than about the women at home. What happens to Johannes, Katharina’s brother – not to mention Kraft, a mate of Faber’s – is particularly haunting, and every time Faber washes up, I feel like throwing up. In contrast, the women’s experience seems sanitized or stylized. Yet these are, after all, only middle-class mums organizing birthday parties for their kids and admiring fashions from occupied Paris. Perhaps the grotesque details of psychological wounds would be too much for this story of ordinary suvivors. We all use life’s physical demands to mask its mental torments, and soldiers certainly must deal with visible horrors every day. Perhaps (as I reconsider the novel’s logical, devastating ending) even horrors must, in women’s experience of war at home, be transformed back to ordinary life.
Like other reviewers who couldn’t muster a third star for this murder mystery, I lost track of (and interest in) the characters as the plot thickened....moreLike other reviewers who couldn’t muster a third star for this murder mystery, I lost track of (and interest in) the characters as the plot thickened. Alongside the requisite red herrings (view spoiler)[such as the nonexistent William Markes (hide spoiler)], too many sardines, mackerels and cops cods were there, muddying the waters in which the author had strewn plenty of clues. I couldn’t keep them straight after three chapters, so then I started reading only the lines between quote marks. That’s 300 pages of skipped narration. I think I would have enjoyed this story much more as its two-part ITV adaptation.
For one thing, Sally really doesn’t need to narrate her own story. Geraldine does, through the diary excerpts that bring her character to life, but not Sally, who is alive. On TV, we could cut between her story and the other subplots without constantly feeling like we’re following two different stories. Also, every name would have a face: cops, mums, dads, and all the others in between. I wouldn’t have had to allocate so much mental energy to so many details about the detectives: what Simon thinks of Kombothekra, why Charlie deleted Simon’s text message about The Snowman, whether Sellers’ wife knows about his affair with Suki Kitson, etc. These character quirks don’t even have anything to do with the case they’re trying to solve. They only got in the way of a potential page-turner, and ultimately they cost me the satisfaction of figuring out “whodunnit.”["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I skipped way too far ahead in the Goddard chronology with Long Time Coming, so I’m glad to be back on track with this one. Not that it matters what o...moreI skipped way too far ahead in the Goddard chronology with Long Time Coming, so I’m glad to be back on track with this one. Not that it matters what order you read his books in, since they don’t trace the brilliant career of only one main detective/special agent/little old lady with knife-sharp intuition. Goddard gives us someone new every time, and this time it’s a “bad guy with a good heart” I took a liking to: Guy Horton.
As a dirty rotten scoundrel, he’s besties with partner in crime Max Wingate, but as our narrator, Guy confides more freely in us than in anyone else. In fact, for a professional liar, he’s probably the most honest of Goddard’s narrators. The book’s action lives up to its synopsis: boys meet girl (Diana Charnwood, eligible heiress), one boy loses heart to girl, other boy has to fight for life and limb in one escapade after another. Fun for all. In case you’re thinking, “Yeah, yeah, I know where it goes from there,” I should tell you it doesn’t … necessarily. As our anti-hero disentangles himself from each web of lies, the story arc may well bend in a way you won’t expect.
The turn started gently – what happened to Charnwood, what Guy overheard, what Diana did – but when the journalist told Guy what he knew, my surprise was complete and bordered on incredulity. Nothing in the book’s blurb had prepared me for it. (This is with good reason – if we knew from the outset what Goddard divulges on his website about the idea behind the book, it would really spoil our fun.) It took the completion of that turn of events for me to trust that the author knew where he was going (sacrilege, I know), and that only lasted until the question, “Where is H. L.?” came up.
So, on it will go, Goddard spinning improbable circles around you. Around page 400 you may feel like you’re going around in circles, but you won’t say you’re not enjoying the ride. By the end of it, you might even marvel at the neat way he’s tied up every loose end.(less)
First, it’s nothing like Gone Girl (which I didn’t enjoy). It’s more like S. J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep, even down to its cover and its title, w...moreFirst, it’s nothing like Gone Girl (which I didn’t enjoy). It’s more like S. J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep, even down to its cover and its title, which I’m still wondering about. As an earlier reviewer pointed out, it’s such a generic title, like something generated from a list of thriller-related words. Watson’s title makes sense for his book, but this one really doesn’t. I think it alludes to the narrator’s ignorance of all the things that have been happening in her life, as in “Living is easy with eyes closed” (Strawberry Fields Forever) … but that might be me reading too much into it.
Second, don’t start off doing that because it will prevent you from fully getting into the story. It’s true this is a perfectly suitable candidate to start or to fill out your summer reading with, but one set of clues shows its author being too clever by half, and I’m still wondering why it was left in after all the editors read it through and gave their advice. The story can stand on its own – in fact, it does, as many 4- and 5-star reviews prove. It’s just that it would have won me over too if this unnecessary thing had been edited out.
If you’ve read this far in my review and intend to read on, you’re probably wondering what this thing is. If you have no intention of actually reading the book, keep going. Otherwise, major spoilers ahead …
We know from the blurb that the narrator is Geniver and her husband is Art. By the end of Chapter Two, Geniver has been given the information that will form the rest of her story: her child is still alive, and her husband is involved in an outrageous conspiracy. The thriller has begun. (view spoiler)[But on the first page of the next chapter, we learn that Art has a half-sister whose name is Morgan. That rang a bell, and then bells just kept on ringing. By the time I read about the family a couple of chapters later, I wasn’t surprised by the name of Morgan’s mother: Fay. If you’re familiar with the names of the Knights of the Round Table, you’ll recognize them in Art’s colleagues from the office, although Gawain has been left out – not because it would be too obvious, surely? I mean, Gen’s father used to call her “my Queen,” for pete’s sake.
If the Camelot motif was integral to the story, I might have actually enjoyed it; the allusions might have held some resonance, as a more generous reviewer has written. In fact, the whole scaffolding seems to be invisible to most readers. (I had to go to page 4 before finding another review that acknowledges it.) How I envy them! I sat here wishing I could unknow everything I knew about the Arthurian stories because the conceit didn’t add anything to this story; it subtracted and distracted from it. All the author did was (mis)appropriate character names and sprinkle them liberally throughout her book, which would have been a perfectly competent suspense novel that avoided the gimmick I hate most: the split or multiple narrative. Alas, her book is just as gimmicky.
For one thing, the legendary relationships became massive signposts to every twist and turn in the rocky relationships between McKenzie’s characters: Morgan and Art? Check. Gen and Lorcan? Check. Gen and Hen? Well, since Hen is one of the few characters not derived from the Arthurian source, her friendship with Gen goes through genuine “is she or isn’t she” moments. Essentially, all the minor female characters are obvious red herrings since Camelot, like all stories from myth and legend, is populated mostly by men. Even Lorcan’s Elaine is only mentioned a couple of times, and never shows up in the book.
Now that I’ve finished it, I have a need to ask all these irrational questions: Why is Dr. Rodriguez not just Dr. Martin – why conceal his name so artfully when all the others are so generously spelled out? Why is the Green Knight called Jared? Who calls a little kid Ed? Another reviewer here dislikes the narrator’s name, but since the modern version of Guinevere is the too-far-removed Jennifer, Geniver it has to be, no matter how made up it sounds (although it is a real name). Which brings up the question: Why do the characters have to be Arthurian, especially since the stolen–baby premise is more fairy tale than medieval romance? To make the ending more … believable? (hide spoiler)]
None of my questions shows up in the discussion prompts included in the book for reading groups. Given that, plus the majority of readers’ responses, positive and negative, I feel like I’m caught in some sort of conspiracy not to discuss the thing in the spoilers. Is it just me? Does it actually exist? Am I reading too much into this book?
And on and on, undermining what could have been recalled as a perfectly good, pacy read. Instead, the flickers of recognition, the bells that kept ringing like those things on the door of a busy gift shop in suburban Somerset, were downright distracting. Worst of all, the twist in the end was completely inevitable because, given what I’ve told you in the spoilers, it’s the only way to end the story.
So why did I finish it? Because it is readable. If you haven’t read my whole review and you’re curious about the book, then do read it – the book, that is. You might well enjoy all of it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Stephen Swan is an awesome name, and Eldritch Swan more so. And Rachel Banner? That’s a Marvel superhero, or at least her alter ego. The Belgian diamo...moreStephen Swan is an awesome name, and Eldritch Swan more so. And Rachel Banner? That’s a Marvel superhero, or at least her alter ego. The Belgian diamond trade, references to Conrad’s Congo, the start of the Second World War, stolen Picassos, postwar moves and countermoves – and 1970s IRA thrown in for good measure. I wanted to like this book, as I’ve enjoyed every other one I’ve read by Goddard, one of suspense fiction’s most unsung masters. Sadly, none of the above characters or settings were polished enough to merit the Goddard seal of excellence. Either he phoned this one in or my standards are way too high. Time to recalibrate.(less)
Aldous Huxley defined the essay as “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” This is exactly what’s found in newspaper f...moreAldous Huxley defined the essay as “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” This is exactly what’s found in newspaper feature articles like Burkeman’s This Column Will Change Your Life series, which he writes for the Guardian Weekend magazine. The column’s topic is “mental well-being,” and its title gives its tone away as a wry exploration thereof – it’s a series that doesn’t take itself too seriously. These articles became the basis of this book, and the book’s sub-title reflects the same tone. Unfortunately, the Guardian blurb quoted on the front cover kind of steps all over the author’s point.
Judging from one interview post-Emirates Festival of Literature (where I unfortunately missed him), Burkeman himself doesn’t seem keen on being pegged as a self-help writer, although he doesn’t say so in so many words. I suppose that’s to avoid alienating readers who are “self-help junkies,” as his newspaper reviewer calls them. He seems to share the opinion of Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century Frenchman who coined the term essais, meaning attempts, to describe his writings. In other words, they’re attempts to figure out big ideas from reflections on personal experiences. In an interview Burkeman gave during the literature festival, he said, “When I stop to think about it, it’s a bit strange or even obnoxious, really, to want to spend your life telling everyone else what’s on your mind. But ultimately I think most people who write find that it’s simply how they best engage with the world.”
When I stop to think about it, that’s exactly what I’m doing here! So, to minimize the obnoxiousness and sum up: If read as yet another entry in the self-help genre juggernaut, as the blurb suggests, The Antidote will disappoint. How could it not, when it’s seen as fire to fight fire with? No quenching there of a reader’s thirst for answers. However, if read as a series of essays, this book will entertain and maybe make you go “Hmmm … ” from time to time. And if you stick with it, I guarantee, page 167 will make you laugh out loud.(less)