Burfobookalicious

Burfobookalicious

I have always been fascinated by the power of words and the ability of gifted writers to ignite the imagination, fuel the intellect and feed the soul. Reading is the supreme indulgence and perhaps connects us most intimately with what it is to be human, traversing emotions and the very history of mankind.

Review
3.5 Stars
Shaken and Stirring...
The Visionist - Rachel Urquhart

I particularly enjoy historical novels that provide a window into an unfamiliar period, place, culture, or incident – a ‘well I didn’t know that’ factor. It’s not absolutely necessary, but it does lend a mild frisson of learning and interest to a good story. In that sense Rachel Urquhart’s “The Visionist” was off to a good start, since I’d never come across the ‘Shaker’ religious movement and nineteenth century Massachusetts is also a blind spot for me. Helpfully, in the prologue, the author orientates the reader to the fundamentals of the ‘shaking Quakers’ beliefs – labour well, worship, confess and shun all carnal desire – and introduces the ‘City of Hope’, wherein a community lives out these principles, cocooned away from the outside world. It is possible for sinners to seek sanctuary there, but the personal challenges are immense and for those ‘backsliders’ unable to sustain the necessary commitment, to be cast back into the unholy outside world may be the ultimate rejection.


The story is narrated by three voices. Polly Kimball– a tormented, teenage soul and victim of prolonged and systematic abuse at the hands of her father, until she sets fire to the family farmhouse and escapes with her mother and brother, only to find herself further betrayed and indentured to the Shakers; Simon Pryor – the fire inspector, required to investigate the reason for the fire and thereby settle the ownership of the abandoned property; and Sister Charity – resident of the City of Hope and lifelong believer, but recently shunned by the community due to a strange blemish on her skin, which is purported to be the work of the devil. Through these characters, the author both recounts and explains the different perspectives and builds the tension between the world inhabited by the believers and the ‘outside’. However, what becomes clear is the absence of immunity from sin and that no one has a monopoly on possession of a sound moral compass. There are good and less good people in each community and it is not the stringency of the attendant ‘rules’ that necessarily determine social ‘success’. Indeed, the book suggests it is about enough people doing the ‘right’ thing, which can be an intangible instinct derived from a sense of humanity, rather than what the rules direct.


In part, this ‘moral maze’ created by the author helped to further enhance my fascination, but the characters are also sympathetically drawn and the attention to historic detail welcome. For example, the inclusion of a pauper auction (effectively the legal enslavement of the poor) was a sobering moment, but also added a sense of authenticity, which I liked. To create such a readable story without recourse to an explicitly romantic plotline was also in keeping with the book, but perhaps hints at the confidence and courage of the writer. There is no attempt to sanitize the plot or overly gild the backdrop here and this approach gives the book a utilitarian edge, but for all that, a compelling read and Rachel Urquhart may be one to look out for in future.

Review
4 Stars
Shades of Nordic Noir
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson

The books comprising the ‘Millennium Trilogy’ have achieved, albeit posthumously, almost legendary status for Stieg Larsson. Having previously delivered the manuscripts to his Swedish publisher, tragically the author died of a heart attack in 2004, aged just 50 and consequently he never witnessed the international plaudits, which were eventually to greet this exceptional work. I read the series a number of years ago, but I wanted to revisit them before reviewing and I was curious to see if my original impressions remained. Clearly, international sales of the books, reported to be of the order of 80 million copies worldwide, is quite a phenomenon. But what is it that continues to strike such a chord with the readers of popular crime fiction?


Powerful yet shocking, violent yet touching, this novel is at its heart a thriller, which contrasts the most depraved, base examples of humanity with the most outwardly unassuming characters. Yet, in investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and security analyst Lisbeth Salander, Larsson has created main characters who are clearly flawed, but retain a complexity and depth, which is truly absorbing, thrown together as they are, to combat low points in their respective lives and the situational challenges that follow.


At the opening of the book, Blomkvist has just been found guilty of libel against financier, Hans-Erik Wennerstrȍm and is faced with three months in prison as well as a sizeable fine. Salander, a very different kind of investigator, is commissioned by her sometime employer to generate a report on Blomkvist and is intrigued that for such a careful reporter, he appears not to have contested the case. The author cleverly uses the report to inform the reader about Blomkvist and the thoughts of Salander’s boss at Milton Security (CEO, Dragan Armansky) to sketch out an early impression of her. Both are mavericks, with quite contrasting personalities, but as the plot unfolds they are bound inextricably together. Salander has experienced a troubled young life and might be considered a victim, but for her capacity for violent retribution. Brilliant, but emotionally cold, Salander lacks the capacity for empathy, but is drawn towards Blomkvist’s open warmth, humour and laid back attitude. What they share is an insatiable appetite for answers and the need for justice to be served, though Salander is quite bemused by Blomkvist’s attachment to the rule of law.


The ‘Millennium’ of the title is a magazine and Blomkvist’s enforced sabbatical enables him to take up a freelance assignment, for ex-industrialist Henrik Vanger. Ostensibly tasked with writing a biography of the Vanger family, Henrik though is obsessed with identifying the murderer of his great niece and favourite (Harriet Vanger) and persuades Blomkvist to mount an investigation for which he is prepared to pay handsomely and on completion, the prospect of some useful information about Blomkvist’s nemesis - Wennerstrȍm. The investigation centre’s on events which took place forty years earlier on the island of Hedestad, owned by the Vanger family and where generations continue to live in splendid isolation. In that sense there are echoes of an Agatha Christie whodunit, with a limited cast of suspects, but getting to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ is deliciously convoluted. Moreover, the nature of the comeuppance doled out to a series of villains is supremely satisfying.


Curiously this first book in the trilogy introduces the key protagonists and can stand alone as a novel, with a discrete storyline. Books 2 and 3 feels like a further, longer story, dissected into two just to make the volumes manageable, but developing the characters in all their dysfunctional glory. In any event, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ remains a ground-breaking book, which helped herald the contemporary genre of Nordic noir and propel it into the spotlight of popular literary culture. For me, it is understandably vaunted as a ‘modern classic’, not to everyone’s taste, but quite a ride.

Review
4.5 Stars
How are the Mighty Fallen...
The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy

I haven’t tackled Thomas Hardy since my high school syllabus, but what a treat I had been denying myself. Various maxims spring to mind from this book (‘you reap what you sow’; ‘no man is an island’; ‘what goes up…’) emerging from the chronicled life of Michael Henchard. From very humble beginnings as a twenty one year-old hay-trusser, the main character is hard to like. He is deeply flawed on a number of levels and yet it is surprisingly fascinating to bear witness to the harsh fate which inexorably catches up with him.


As early as the first chapter, Hardy deliberately seeks to discomfort the reader, when a drunken Henchard sells his wife (Susan) and newborn child (Elizabeth-Jane) for five guineas. Notwithstanding his subsequent sense of shame and self-imposed repentance in the sober light of day, this repugnant act haunts his private life and has the attendant potential to also scupper his subsequently crafted image as the first citizen of Casterbridge.


Fast forward eighteen years and the reappearance of Susan with their now adult daughter offers the chance to make amends, but the intervening years have generated an inevitable trail of complications and though circumstances have changed, Henchard’s tempestuous nature has not. Yet, it is the tension between the social norms of English society at the time and Henchard’s earthy country perspective which is a constant source of friction. The mayor has risen to the gentrified classes a ‘self-made’ man, to be partially shackled by upper class expectations. In some ways Henchard is courageous, proud and willing to withstand public opprobrium, but he is also ruthless, manipulative and selfish, a powerful man used to getting his way (undoubtedly another key adage of the story is that ‘with power comes responsibility’).


In any event, this book is a beautifully written, unsentimental fiction, which transports the reader to a pre-industrial Wessex, by no means a bucolic idyll, but rather a class-ridden, male-dominated site of incessant struggle. Nevertheless, the characters are masterfully constructed and Hardy manages to marshal the reader’s emotions from outrage and anger through to triumph and pity, as the label of ‘victim’ seems to alight, at different times, across the cast of characters. A thoroughly absorbing read.

DNF - a first!
The Kindly Ones - Jonathan Littell

In an overdue exercise in clearing up some flotsam on my shelf, I have taken the unprecedented  step of declaring this book a 'DNF' - 'did not finish' and moreover have no intention of finishing...ever! I am not easily discouraged as a rule, but I made it to page 242 (about 25% in) and it struck me as such a dispiriting book that I've decided to cut my losses. Life is after all too short.

The narrator of the story, Dr Max Aue is a former SS Intelligence Officer and claims he "never asked to become a murderer." Yet, his proclivity for the function of mass killer leaves the reader with no understanding or empathy for the miserable husk of a man that he becomes, still less for the mindless atrocities in which he was complicit. Indeed, I leave the book rather disappointed that this wretched character goes on to survive the war.

 

The sleeve notes point out that the book has won literary accolades and I readily acknowledge that Jonathan Littell writes well, but the content is not for me. The notes also add that this is a book, 'to which no one can be indifferent' and that too may be true. Unfortunately I disliked it so intensely that it has the distinction of being my first unread shelf occupant. It has also been compared to 'War and Peace', though I am confident that Tolstoy's masterpiece will not get the same response (it's added to my tbr list, just to be sure). Of course it is eminently possible that I am mistaken, but I'm content with this being 'one that got away'.

Review
2.5 Stars
Realpolitik or Prejudicial, it matters
A Caribbean Mystery - Agatha Christie

My copy of this novel is an edition printed in 1964 for ‘The Book Club’ and costing 16s. 0d. Unsurprising perhaps that ‘A Caribbean Mystery’ has the feel of a bygone era, when colonialism, feminism, racism, sexual orientation and the class system were clearly viewed quite differently. Indeed, it might be harsh to criticize the author for expressing attitudes prevalent at the time, but while Agatha Christie’s admirers are legion, this book does feel dated by the absence of contemporary enlightenment. For example, the suggestion by a key character that his attractive wife can expect the unrequited attention of other men and “has to pass things off with a laugh and a shrug” might not be so trivialized today! Still less the description by Miss Marple’s nephew (Raymond) of his “queer” friend, who can be relied upon to keep his aunt's St. Mary Mead cottage spick and span in her absence! But, if the reader can tolerate the glut of political incorrectness and blatant prejudices, the cast of characters is very familiar – retired military man; clergyman and sister; wealthy business tycoon and retainers; couples (not quite as they seem); medical Dr; and servants.
The setting is the Golden Palm Hotel on the island of St Honoré, where Raymond has sent his aunt to recover from a winter bout of pneumonia. Intriguingly, this is the only foreign adventure undertaken by the redoubtable Miss Marple, but the hotel with its expats and imperialist pretensions is an enjoyable proxy for an English country home.

Albeit, Miss Marple finds her surroundings rather boring, until retired Major Palgrave (he of the drinker's purple face and a glass eye) invites her to see the photograph of a murderer. 

Amid clicking knitting needles Miss Marple quietly marshals the facts of the murders that follow and stereotypical fellow residents, culminating in a gently satisfying resolution. I particularly enjoyed the alliance with wealthy curmudgeon, Mr Rafiel, who puts in a re-appearance in the 1971 novel, "Nemesis". No doubt the quaintness of Christie's story lines is part of the enduring appeal, but in this example, the genteel behaviour of the characters cannot disguise the attendant challenges for the modern reader.

 

 

Review
4.5 Stars
Bygone Terrorism, A Not So Distant Memory.....
A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

The list of ‘classic books’ yet to fill my waking hours is long, but whilst I am embarked on a lengthy (albeit belated) campaign to put that right, I was inspired to elevate this Dickens novel based on a recommendation read in ‘The Big Issue’. Alas, I don’t remember the name of the celebrity endorser, but my reasoning was that if the book is worthy of inclusion on anyone’s list of five favourite novels, it has to be worth a read. In any event, it proved a good call.

 

The titular cities are of course London and Paris, towards the end of the eighteenth century, when the capital cities of England and France were presiding over tumultuous and historic social change. As our Gallic cousins warmed to the task of revolution and the permanent overthrow of their aristocracy through systemic decapitation, a newfound population of Anglophiles crossed the channel to escape the carnage. However, what is so delightful about Dickens’ approach to this dramatic backdrop and a hallmark of the author’s writing, is his primary focus on the working and middle classes and an exposé of his characters’ experiences, amid the shifting tectonic plates of European politics. Dickens can also be relied upon to craft for the reader extravagant phrases in which to luxuriate and there can be few more famous openings.

 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way….”

 

The novel is split into three ‘books’. ‘Book the first’ (“Recalled to life”), set in 1775, introduces Mr Jarvis Lorry, dutiful employee of Tellson’s bank and regular traveller between the firm’s London and Paris offices. He is to chaperone Miss Lucie Manette, whom he previously escorted to safety in England upon the death of her parents, back to Paris, to explore news that her father may in fact be alive. Dr Manette was a physician of some repute and has been imprisoned for many years ‘in secret’ before being released, an apparently broken man, to the dubious care of his former servant, Monsieur Defarge, now proprietor of a wine shop in the St. Antoine district. Indeed, Dickens’ description of the garret room in the attic used to incarcerate Dr Manette, as surely as the Bastille, the pitiable occupant and the loathsome landlord quickly establish for the reader a vignette of the approaching tempest and the descent into wider chaos.

 

Book 2 – “The Golden Thread”, picks up the story in London five years later (1780) and establishes Manette’s daughter, Lucie, as another key character. Uniting her father “to a Past beyond his misery, and to a Present beyond his misery…” Lucie dotes on her resurrected father and nurses him back to relative health and in so doing comes to the attention of another imperilled refugee from France, Charles Darnay and the two English lawyers who help successfully defend him from a charge of treason at The Bailey.

 

Notwithstanding Darnay denounces his heritage, the nephew of a despised French Marquis, any return to the country of his birth is likely to be fraught with danger. Moreover, his marriage to Lucie and their subsequent child confers similar risks to his family. Throughout, Dickens cultivates a stark contrast on either side of the channel and the operation of Tellson’s bank as the means of connecting affairs in Paris and London feels remarkably contemporary. But, while England plays host to the peaceful pursuit of life among family and friends, exemplified in Charles and Lucie, in France Monsieur and Madame Defarge are at the eye of the revolutionary storm. By 1792, the rising tide of discontent is watched ominously, as the Monseignor are scattered and take to their elite heels. For those with foresight, a foreign bank is a sensible depository for assets, but also acts as a magnet for revolutionary agents, to ensnare the treacherous upper class and slake the public thirst for bloody retribution.

 

However, though safely ensconced in England, when Darnay receives a letter from an imprisoned loyal servant of his family, clearly he does the honourable thing and returns to France, leaving letters for his wife and father-in-law.

 

Finally, Book 3 – “The Track of a Storm” magnifies the tension surrounding Darnay’s inevitable imprisonment and impending execution, through the selfless courage of his family and friends, who attend despite the risks. The cat and mouse tactics of Madame Defarge especially, desperate to seal the fate of the whole family, merely preying on casualties of a depraved process of social cleansing.

 

Still, cometh the hour, cometh the man and the final sacrifice is tragically heroic, but Dickens also reinforces the notion that nobility of character is not the sole preserve of the aristocracy. Indeed, the doctor, the banker, the lawyer and the daughter are all exceptional in their courage and fortitude and provide a glorious panoply of the human spirit. Again, Dickens has the turn of phrase to match the poignancy of the moment

"…It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

 

For me, this is tale that stands the test of time and though the reader glimpses exceptional demonstrations of love, its examination of the corrupting potential of power is the more potent lesson, as is the need for good people to show courage and resolve for what is right. 

 

In a timely update of the story, an adaption by BBC Radio 4 last weekend also gave the tale a contemporary twist, linking London instead with Aleppo (Syria). It remains powerful stuff, though perhaps sobering that the human experience continues to incorporate such destructive tendencies centuries later.

 

Review
3.5 Stars
Paltry Topic for the Legal Eagle?
The Rooster Bar - John Grisham

No one can refute the lasting success of John Grisham as a storyteller. As the author of thirty one novels and sales in the many millions, he enjoys an ardent following of readers, besotted by the fast-moving plotlines, most often exposing some of the fascinating nooks and crannies of the US criminal justice system (though my personal favourite is unrelated to the law – “A Painted House”). Rarely retracing his steps, one must admire too, the author’s originality as well as professional longevity.


As Grisham divulges in the ‘author’s note’, the kernel of this latest book grew from a magazine article by Paul Campos lamenting “The Law School Scam”. A system that apparently preys on the aspirations of wannabe student lawyers, lured by the prospect of a well-paid career, which will never be realised by the majority, yet burden the recipients with mountainous debts, is potentially scandalous and ripe for the Grisham spotlight.
Cue four student friends approaching their final semester at the sub-prime ‘Foggy Bottom Law School’. Each is tending a debt of around $200K and has a ‘handler’ keen to establish a repayment plan. As realisation hits that job prospects are poor and only 50% are predicted to even pass the bar exam, the bleak future calls for radical measures. The friends identify that they have been scammed by the system and wealthy vested interests and embark on a naïve, but bold, scam of their own.


There is something endearing about the youngsters blundering around in an environment, until recently, a hypothetical arena of law. Surrounded by the more hardened beasts of the jungle, however, they have the audacity of youth and an inventiveness born of necessity. For the reader, there is also something enjoyable about the clear underdog blowing a metaphorical raspberry in the face of the establishment. Perhaps it panders to romantic notions of Robin Hood-esque wealth redistribution, or the victim turning the tables on the ‘real’ criminals, but it is a compelling cocktail and one that the author exploits to the full.


Grisham is a master of the suspenseful, thrilling story and the pace and weave of the unfolding strands is beguiling. I don’t think this book is as dramatic as a number of the author’s other novels. Nor are the relationships as convincing. The ending also reminded me of the movie, “Trading Places”. Yet, for all that, it was a compelling read that I've happily skipped through in ‘holiday-read’ fashion.


It is hard not to have a sneaking regard for life’s rebels and though the central characters are hardly white-collar musketeers, their ‘all for one and one for all’ approach has the reader willing them to ‘beat’ the system. For Mr Grisham, another book and another bestseller no doubt, albeit not his best.

Review
3 Stars
Go Gently into the Dark...
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul - Douglas Adams

At the outset of this short book by the author of 'The Hitch Hiker Trilogy', I was hopeful for a blissful return to the cosmic mayhem of yore. I came upon the book on a hospital shelf and it seemed like a dead ringer to lift the gloom and restore spirits and that it did.

As a random choice, it did mean my introduction to Dirk Gently – ‘Holistic Detective’ - came at the character's second outing (originally published in 1988), but this didn't seem to detract from the story (and I will go back to check on "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency", 1987, through my tbr list). In any event, Gently's fundamental belief in the interconnectedness of all things provided a delightful proof for the anarchic stream of glorious gibberish served up by Adams here. Leastways the inbuilt laugh-out-loud moments are also a fairly reliable indicator of an intact funny bone and a sign that dependent on one's perspective, we do continue to mill about in a curiously mysterious world.

 

Like a well-honed stand-up routine, the author highlights some of the ambiguities and illogical nature of human behaviours and starts at the fertile territory of an airport, with an American traveller, Kate Schechter, bewildered by the inability to get pizza delivered in London. There follows an inexplicable incident, labelled an 'act of god', but what if Kate's path has indeed crossed with a god of old Norse mythology, also in transit to Scandinavia? The possibilities that flow from Asgardians walking the Earth might, in other hands, be threatening, yet Adams shows even super-humans might suffer the similar frailties of mortals, driven to extraordinary lengths to secure well laundered bedding. Throw in a gory murder, awaiting the kismet influence of the hapless detective and giggle-laden chaos is assured. Still, not too much of a spoiler I hope, to reveal, Gently does it....

Review
4 Stars
Thought-provoking, Challenging, Uncomfortably Good
These fragile things - Jane    Davis

Having recently enjoyed ‘A Funeral for an Owl’ by indie author Jane Davis (see review dated 2 Jan 2018), I dived further into her back catalogue and found this book (first published in 2012) and I’m delighted to report that the author’s accessible writing style again made for a really enjoyable read.

 

In particular, Davis does have a wonderful knack for developing interesting teenage characters and in this offering the central protagonist (Judy Jones) is recovering from a deliberately mundane, yet life-changing incident, in which a wall collapses on her. In fact her survival is positively miraculous. Still, the wall is a very effective metaphor for other constructs around self-image, relationships, indeed life and the book explores how susceptible to collapse these things can also be when buffeted by external, or self-made pressures. The stress-test that the human experience places on individuals, families and communities can be profound and the mechanisms created to defend one’s well-being can be elaborate, or at times blindingly simple. Though not meant to be a commentary on faith, Davis does at least invite the question whether spiritual faith and/or faith in each other aids the character’s ability to cope and navigate the unexpected, or whether the key is our shared humanity and the capacity for random acts of kindness.

 

For those readers with children, especially teenagers, there are interesting moments for reflection at the shifting nature of the parental relationship, but also a potentially visceral empathy with Judy’s parents and the impact of the kind of news for which we all live in a state of dread. But, if subsequently the child then purports to experience visions, how does one react to that?

 

At its core the book focuses on the experience of loss – of health, identity, belonging, an anticipated future - and the attendant bereavement. The interlacing of aspects of the characters’ individual and collective journeys is cleverly handled by the author, though for me the slightly bizarre departure from the rails of Elaine Jones (Judy’s Mum) was an unnecessary distraction. Yet, all-in-all a fascinating and thoughtful novel, which does emphasize the potential corrosion of loneliness, however it may be imposed.

Review
3 Stars
A Little Light Charming...
The Penguin Lessons: A True Story - Tom Michell

“Delightful and charming” was the cover description of this book, attributed to the Daily Mail, which to my mind is not a ringing endorsement. As adjectives go they seem….bland, like ‘inoffensive’ or ‘nice’. Still, set in the 1970’s, the author does successfully evoke a sense of other-worldliness, before technology shrunk the globe and ‘gap years’ made the pursuit of ‘adventure’ and ‘experience’ more…. ordinary. Moreover, by relating his experience of life in South America, in particular pre-Falklands conflict Argentina, there is a certain curiosity value. However, since Michell is relating time spent as a young master at an English boarding school in Buenos Aires, it does also, at times, smack of rather dated colonialism at work.


Undoubtedly what saves the book are the antics of a Magellan penguin, named Juan Salgado, which/whom the author rescues from an oil slick washed up on a beach at Punta del Este. This, we discover, is on the Uruguayan side of the mighty River Plate (Rio de la Plata) and so one of the funniest anecdotes tells the tale of the necessary border crossing. Of course, we humans seem to have a universal soft-spot for penguins, they are after all inherently funny in their permanent tuxedo get-up. Still, the experience also sealed the perception, among the locals, of Michell as another eccentric Englishman abroad.


Though the relationship the author builds with his feathered friend is quite touching, I couldn’t quite shake off a sense of déjá vu and then I recalled the 1960 novel “Ring of Bright Water”, in which the author (Gavin Maxwell) described how he brought an otter from Iraq and raised it in Scotland. Different species, different continent but the crux of the story is similar, man’s capacity for connecting with the wild and a means of lubricating the wheels of human interactions. A pleasant read, perhaps sometimes such light relief can be just what’s needed.

Review
4.5 Stars
Pullman Sprinkles Some More Magic Dust!
La Belle Sauvage - Philip Pullman

When it’s been more than 20 years since the publication of an awesomely successful trilogy, there must be a temptation to just leave it alone. Notwithstanding the frenzied publicity, there’s an attendant apprehension for the (now older) fans that a savoured memory might be about to be irreparably tarnished. Of course, my bluff was called by the Christmas gift of a copy of Phillip Pullman’s prequel to the original “His Dark Materials” (my family know me so well). Though, to be fair, I did delay my gratification until January and the last remnants of festive chocolate, before gorging myself in sumptuous sessions of novel gluttony. 546 pages swept past with all the force of the flood that has beset Pullman’s parallel Oxford. And, amid the carnage, an unlikely pair of guardians for Lord Asriel’s baby daughter – Lyra Belacqua.


Still, it was reassuring to discover the author’s story-telling has not dimmed at all in the intervening years and this latest adventure unfolds at a gloriously break-neck pace. All the familiar components are present, the fascinating animal dæmons accompanying each human, like an external emotional core; the alethiometer – an instrument of almost mystical qualities, powered by ‘dust’; and the ongoing struggle between the malevolent Magisterium (church) and scientific schools of thought. Throw in a giant, a witch and a fairy and what’s not to like?!


What I do like is the seamless way Pullman has laid the foundations of the later books here and even offered some deeper explanation for why, in due course, Lyra will find herself the subject of ‘scholastic sanctuary’ at Jordan College. We haven’t learnt much more yet about the relationship between her parents, Asriel and the enigmatic Mrs Coulter, but their absence from the life of their daughter is curious, especially since the baby’s safety is instead reliant on eleven year-old Malcolm Polstead and fifteen year-old pub washer-upper, Alice. But, what great heroes they turn out to be!

 

For younger readers there’s surely a certain satisfaction in seeing these main characters outwit their elders, however, that’s not to suggest the book cannot be appreciated by an adult readership. Indeed the brutality of some scenes and the protagonist’s struggle with their part in the violence suggests that this is more than simply a tale of derring do. In any event, Pullman’s compelling storyline that pits good versus evil fizzes along and readers (young and old), can expect to be rooting for the good guys and hoping the cruel wrong’un with the three-legged hyena for a dæmon, gets his comeuppance!

 

Using Malcolm’s canoe (the ‘Belle Sauvage’), the youngsters need to navigate the flooded Thames valley and get Lyra to safety in London, traversing the natural barriers and avoiding the chasing Magisterium agents, who have other designs on the child of prophecy. For me 'His Dark Materials' set the bar very high, but I'm delighted to report that  ‘The Book of Dust’ is a magnificent romp that skilfully adds to the existing classic trilogy and has left this reader wanting more. What more could I ask for....the next two books in the new series perhaps (family take note)?

Review
3.5 Stars
The Protective Nature of Imperfect Memories...
Where My Heart Used to Beat - Sebastian Faulks

I am a self-confessed admirer of Sebastian Faulks and any additions to an already impressive body of work are typically to be savoured. For me, the author has consistently delivered novels that are both interesting and evincing a silky use of language, but two themes have repeatedly captured Faulks’ imagination. Indeed, he excels at books involving wartime experiences – WW1 or WW2 (think ‘Birdsong’ or ‘Charlotte Gray’) and mental illness (think ‘Human Traces’ or ‘Engleby’). What these themes tend to have in common is the prospect of turmoil for the characters involved, elements of unpredictability for the plot and untidy conclusions – the legacy of both can be far-reaching. It is also true that these two themes can profoundly define individual lives and, in the case of the world wars, whole generations. In ‘Where my heart used to beat’ Faulks has created (almost inevitably) a tale that deftly merges these themes and brings together two survivors of their respective generations’ global conflict, bound by the shared curiosity and insights of trained psychiatrists.


The British psych’ is introduced first. In New York for a medical conference, he uses his friend’s flat to use a prostitute, before hurriedly leaving for his home in London. This is a peculiar opening, which reveals much about the character, very quickly, including an ongoing affair with ‘Annalisa’, but without naming Robert Hendricks, until he takes his messages off the ansaphone in his London flat. Before the end of the opening chapter though, he’s also had an argument with his aforementioned girlfriend and feels quite alone. This struck me as a really clever means to sketch out this central character and in a sense prepare the canvas for the layering of colours to follow. Still, Hendricks’ assertion that, “I was an habitué of loneliness, which was in any case the underlying condition of mankind from which the little alliances and dependencies we make are only a diversion.” alludes to the complex psyche of the man and the torturous nature of his life’s experiences.


Among the letters awaiting Hendricks’ return is one from the unknown Alexander Pereira, who explains that he knew Hendricks’ father (he died just before Armistice Day, when Robert was just two) and invites him to stay at his island home off the coast of Toulon. Pereira is familiar with Hendricks’ acclaimed book and offers him a job collating his memoir, but over time the two develop a relationship in which they foster mutual help, without any progress on the older man’s book. Instead, at times the pair seem to be indulging in reciprocal counselling, each divesting himself of historical baggage. We discover, for example that Hendrick’s tragic war-time love affair, while recuperating from wounds sustained in battle in Italy, proved every bit as debilitating as the physical injuries. Yet, while both men are struggling with the burden of aspects of their respective pasts, their professional insights into the working of memory and emotions cannot shield them, but they are able to bare their vulnerability and over time work towards a truce with their troubled consciences.


Along the way, the author provides much food for thought for the reader and suggests limitations for rationality in the life of men. Love, Hendricks asserts has similarities to drug addiction. It is the “only emotion we granted the power to change our lives; no other feeling – if by ‘feeling’ we meant the release of unruly chemicals in the brain – was allowed to sit in judgement bedside our reason and our intellect.” Moreover, Pereira argues that we cannot necessarily rely on the mercurial nature of human memory either, since “a man’s life is not made up of things that happened, but by his memory of them and the way in which he remembers.” Our capacity to repress memories and fashion self-protection is fascinating, but for the two central characters it seems likely that a diagnosis of PTSD would offer the most compelling explanation in contemporary psychiatry. Still, the reshaping of the men’s respective burdens to something more bearable is an interesting journey and perhaps reinforces the notion that only at our most vulnerable, at our most human, can we be truly alive and know that our heart is beating. This is not my favourite book from Faulks, but worth the effort and I think may bear re-reading for some of the subtle nuances.

Review
3.5 Stars
In every life a little rain must fall.....
THE RAINBOW (illustrated, complete, and unexpurgated) - DH Lawrence

In essence ‘The Rainbow’ is a family saga, which examines the journey of three generations of the Nottinghamshire-based, Brangwen family. In particular, several of the most interesting characters are strong women of that clan - mothers, partners, daughters.

 

Published in 1915, this novel assumed some notoriety following a prosecution, by the ‘Public Morality Council’ for obscenity and the first clash between Lawrence and British censorship. However, a century on, the contemporary threshold for public outrage is calibrated more liberally and enables the reader to engage with the much bigger themes present in the book. So, rather than becoming exercised by lewd sexualised behaviour and implied impropriety, of equal interest to the modern reader may be the backdrop of early industrialisation, the rise of capitalism and the attendant social consequences for women and, to use the modern parlance, social mobility.


The chapters are quite long, which seems to be Lawrence’s style and often the description of nature is beautiful though laboured. Yet, it does contrast the starkly grey and grimy towns to which the working class are increasingly tethered to populate mines and factories and satisfy the demands of mechanisation and progress. Indeed, arguably Lawrence has used the Brangwen’s as a metaphor for the urbanization of the midlands and a wider movement from a bucolic existence to a form of industrial serfdom, but transforming also social attitudes and the norms, which had hitherto maintained the status quo. Thus, the apparent loosening influence of traditional institutions (church, marriage, community) is portrayed by Lawrence as having potentially liberating effects, or at least challenging the hypocrisy of conventional moral rectitude.


Still, within the personal lives of the main characters are also the tensions, trials and emotional turmoil that appear ever-present in families, whatever the era and some interesting parallels to twenty first century life. First up, Lydia Lensky is the daughter of a Polish landowner, but a widowed single parent, when she receives a proposal of marriage from farmer Tom Brangwen. The couple go on to have a son, but Tom also raises Lydia’s daughter as his own and fashions a strong and special, though volatile relationship with ‘Anna’, in part to fill a perceived deficit in his marriage.


Anna, in turn, marries William Brangwen ('step cousin') and in some senses replicates the turbulent relationship modelled by her parents, but the couple go on to have a large family and Anna revels in her matriarchal role. The rapid succession of babies though also has implications for their eldest daughter. ‘Ursula’ is called upon to help tend her siblings, but in the frenetic bustle of the household fosters an especially close relationship with her father, to step outside of the care of four babies. Moreover, Ursula’s subsequent education and aspirations show burgeoning feminist tendencies and her resistance to the historical templates available for women – “…why must one inherit this heavy, numbing responsibility of living an undiscovered life?”- mark her out as the most interesting character in this book.


Ursula’s revolutionary leanings are expressed in her pursuit of independence, but Lawrence deliberately touched a nerve, by including the young woman’s developing sexual awareness, as a component of her rebellion. “She knew that she had always her price or ransom – her femaleness……In her femaleness she felt a secret riches, a reserve, she had always the price of freedom.”


The challenge posed by D.H.Lawrence to the sobriety of his time might seem less inflammatory today and yet the aspiration to be “proud and free as a man, yet exquisite as a woman” retains a familiar contemporary echo. The fact that this book precedes its better known sequel ‘Women in Love’, which continues to follow the lives and loves of Ursula and her sister Gudrun Brangwen, may also suggest that Lawrence was ahead of his time in more ways than one and can still speak to the multi-title, 'boxset' generation.

Review
4 Stars
A Funeral for an Owl - Jane    Davis

Using a novel to highlight invisible social issues, such as runaway teenagers, taking flight as a consequence of factors such as domestic violence, gang culture and parental rejection is a tricky business. For example, who knew “one in ten run away from home before they reach the age of sixteen, a massive 100,000 every year”? It’s a fairly damning statistic, which says much about British society and an apparent incapacity to protect vulnerable young people. Moreover, “two thirds of children who run away are not reported to the police.” Still, against this rather bleak backdrop, Jane Davis has constructed a subtle plot, which does far more than merely generate pathos. Indeed, JD has also sought to establish that this is not a problem solely besetting some poverty-stricken underclass, but rather an issue that crosses mundane social boundaries and ‘runaways’ might therefore be seen as victims of an extreme degree of family separation.


‘A Funeral for an Owl’ centres on history teacher, Jim Stevens, who works at an inner city high school, but originates from the nearby council estate and though the vagaries of social mobility have enabled Jim to move literally to the other side of the railway tracks, he has not strayed far from his roots. When a violent incident at school sees Jim hospitalised, colleague (‘Ayisha’) is drawn into the clandestine support he has been providing to one of his pupils (‘Shamayal’) and Ayisha’s own integrity, in the face of strict policies and procedures, is challenged.


Ayisha has benefitted from a stable family upbringing and though struggling with the expectations of a distant and demanding mother, she has little insight into the profound hardships experienced by some of her disadvantaged pupils, away from school. And so, while Jim languishes in a hospital bed, the story alternates between examining Jim’s past experience, which culminated in his being stabbed and the very pressing present, which finds Ayisha discovering that doing the ‘right thing’ can take courage and a sense of bewildering isolation.


In spite of his inner city upbringing, ten year-old Jim is into birdwatching and this egregious pastime enables the boy to connect with the troubled Aimee White. Two years his senior, Aimee is destined to attend the all-girls school designated by her wealthy parents, but for the intervening six weeks of the summer holidays, the pair fashion a poignant relationship, which bridges their respective worlds. Almost spookily prescient, Aimee observes that “Indian tribes believe owls carry the souls of living people and that, if an owl is killed, the person whose soul they’re carrying will also die.”


Later, the geekiness of Jim’s birdwatching also captures Shamayal’s imagination and there is symmetry too, in Jim’s burgeoning relationship with Ayisha.


However, what stood out most for me in this book was the crafted writing, in which JD changes gear so smoothly that the journey was simply a pleasure and over all too quickly. The plot was deceptively simple and yet the characterization of the protagonists was insightful and interesting (I especially enjoyed ‘Bins’ the estate eccentric, who is curiously invisible) and made the story eminently plausible and readable. Clearly the book is not targeted solely at young adults and as with a lot of good fiction, the food-for-thought it provides is rightly taxing. As a social worker myself, it would be easy to criticize the rather neat conclusion, which perhaps sanitizes the ‘messiness’ that attends typical family life, but that would be churlish and miss the point. The adage that ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’ is at the heart of this book and we all need to do our bit…

Review
3.5 Stars
We can learn from books...even forgotten ones!
The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Occasionally it can fun to take a punt on an ‘unknown’ book, from a public library, charity shop or friend’s shelf, but when such a lottery yields an unexpected pearl it can be all the more rewarding. ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ was one such absorbing read, by an author (Carlos Ruiz Zafόn) unfamiliar to me, but this story is made all the more intriguing by its draw on several genres. Set in post-civil war Barcelona, there are elements of historical drama, echoes of gothic mystery and romance, thriller and even comedic moments. It’s a heady cocktail, yet the layering of the narrative is so expertly written that the reader is skilfully drawn into the complex lives of the interconnected characters. Central among them is Daniel, who, aged ten, is introduced to the strange ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, where he is fated to choose ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ written by Julian Carax.


“…few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart…”and so it proves for Daniel, as his ownership of the rare book triggers his curiosity about the mysterious author and burgeons into an ardent adult need to solve the puzzle that is Carax.


Along the way, Daniel’s relationships with his father, friends, neighbours and those close to Carax offer vivid insight into the dark days of Franco’s Spain. None more so than a vagrant, the ebullient Fermin Romero de Torres, who befriends Daniel and though exposing him to the unwanted attention of his former police torturer (Inspector Fumero), also protects Daniel and infuses him with a romantic verve for life. By contrast, a rather sinister character disfigured by fire is also lurking, bent on relieving Daniel of his book. Peril it seems is never far away.


Still, notwithstanding the well-defined Spanish social strata and the distribution of power across wealth, family and state lines, Daniel navigates a courageous path, which challenges the status quo and unashamedly asserts the capacity of love to breach such man-made boundaries.


The various strands of the plot are woven together seamlessly to create a highly satisfying whole and Zafόn’s attention to the detail of his creation ensures there are no ‘loose ends’, which I rather liked. All in all a very entertaining read, though as Mr Carax suggests, “Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.” I hope not.


As an aside, this novel was translated into English by Lucia Graves, daughter of Robert Graves, whose books about Emperor Claudius are among my earlier reviews. However, we should acknowledge that the quality of Ms Graves work has ensured that this novel seems to lose little in translation.

Review
3 Stars
Modern charades....is it a book? Is it a film?
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - Deborah Moggach

I generally get a sense of foreboding when I read on a book's cover, "NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE", even more so when I have seen said movie. "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is a good example, in that it is a glorious 'feel good' film, with a host of wonderful actors, setting the bar high for the preceding novel, which I notice was previously entitled, "These Foolish Things". But, notwithstanding this book has apparently inspired a successful cinema formulation, would it be any good?

 

The answer is 'yes', Deborah Moggach's original novel is really well conceived and the interplay between the cast of characters is comical, poignant and even touching at times. However, the downside to seeing the movie first is a sense of disappointment that the book has not been faithfully reproduced on the screen. Some parts that have been 'bigged up' for the cinema-going public proved to be relatively modest on reading the book. Unsurprising perhaps, when the talents of Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith et al are at hand, but the young charismatic Indian entrepreneur (played by Dev Patel) shown on the book's cover with his beautiful girlfriend, doesn't actually exist in the intervening pages. Instead, Sonny is middle-aged, rather dull and a 'bit part', compared to his central role in the screen version.

 

In contrast to the Hollywood meets Bollywood makeover, the book is earthier and the characters' back-stories more authentic, in turn making the plot lines more plausible. At a time when the UK's National Health Service is creaking under the pressures of an ageing population and traditional family loyalties are equally stressed, the advantages of shipping out to a new retired life in a strange land is a tantalising prospect   The comparing and contrasting of cultures within the book was also arguably more nuanced and the author holds up an interesting mirror on what it is to grow old in modern societies. East and West both have their 'hidden' populations of the 'uncared for'. But, perhaps the message of the book is that for those with an adventurous or courageous spirit and a willingness to share and create new social circles, life retains a wealth of possibilities.

 

The title is an interesting aside, but for me the book is much more explicitly about the characters and the dilapidated hotel merely a backdrop, albeit a useful metaphor, for which the original title may have better preserved the distinction. Still, despite the apparent temptation to ride the coat-tails of a successful movie, this book is, of itself, worth a read and perhaps for people of a certain age provides important fuel for thought.