Tag Archives: book review

House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill

I always find reading horror on a sun-soaked beach throws the average tourist. The reality is that I find it is the safest place to indulge in scare tales, as the night terrors can play havoc with my mind. In the small hours a Moroccan lampshade can turn into a dark, cloaked figure ready to drag me off into hell. But at least, I think, I’ve got a lot of friends there.

If looking for a touch of horror on your travels this summer, I would suggest packing a copy of an Adam Nevill or downloading one onto your technological reading device of choice.

House of Small Shadows

Being branded by a credible UK newspaper (that is definitely not The S*n or The Daily Bigotry Mail) as the British Stephen King could intimidate or worry some writers.  Yet Adam Nevill continues to illustrate his literary craftsmanship, particularly with his horror offering. Nevill’s work has everything that makes a story of the supernatural: a dilapidated Victorian house, eccentric inhabitants, noises in the night, a psychologically vulnerable mixed-up protagonist. The Wicker Man meets The League of Gentleman.

Narrator Catherine has left her corporate job in a popular television production company. High-profile bullying saw her fired and forced to leave London to start a new career in a new town. Landing an assignment with huge potential, she is tasked to catalogue the late M H Mason’s eccentric collection of antique dolls and puppets. Mason’s elderly niece invites her to stay at the Red House – both workshop and home of the dead man. It is here that Catherine sees for herself the darkness behind Mason’s unique ‘Art’.

A disturbed imaginative investigation that taps into the innate human fear of puppets. If anyone can say that they can look Mr. Punch up close in the eye and not be freaked out, they are either a liar or a little missing of a few strings themselves.

Mr-Punch

The Red House, like that other infamous horror house Amityville, features as a prominent character in the story. The first description hints at the atmosphere that is flowing through its foundations:

All of the lines of the building pointed to the heavens. Two steep gables and the arch of every window beseeched the sky, as though the great house was a small cathedral indignant at its exile in rural Herefordshire. And despite over a century of rustication among uncultivated fields, the colour of its Accrington brick remained an angry red.

With this tale Neville gives the reader small tasters of the narrative. At the beginning of the book each chapter is miniscule. As the tale unfolds, the chapters become bigger, bursting with syntax and disturbing imagery that totally immerses the reader into the horror on the page.

I suggest reading a tale from this bastion of dark fantasy this summer. Besides you may not be the only person by the pool reading dark materials, I did notice someone dabbling in the Satanic pages of a Katie Price biography and that does indeed fill me with terror, by day or by night.

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From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

If you have just joined us, the mortal bath and ten minutes hate are respectively re-reading and discovering Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels in chronological order (sort of).

from russia with love coronet book cover

Famous opening lines of novels often get bandied about in lists, but it wasn’t until I read From Russia With Love for the first time that I saw one that seems to have been overlooked among all the truths being universally acknowledged and weighing up of best and worst of times.

The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.

Having thus garnered your attention, Ian Fleming doesn’t let it wander too far for the next 200 or so pages.  We soon learn that the body might have been, but sadly isn’t, for this formidable not-dead unclothed man is the distinctly non-Russian-sounding Donovan Grant, Chief Executioner of SMERSH, ‘the Soviet organ of vengeance: of interrogation, torture and death’. A few, more detailed, yet taut chapters and we are apprised of the formidable team which that organisation has set against our man Bond. Chess master Kronsteen, the wolf-like cunning of Rosa Klebb and Grant himself, an animalistic turncoat driven to slaughter by the full moon. Not only to kill him, but to tear down his reputation and that of his Service. The trap will be sprung in Istanbul (Fleming having visited the city in 1955 on assignment for The Sunday Times). Bait is in the form of a defecting spy, the young-Greta Garbo-esque Tatiana Romanova and, almost as an afterthought, a Soviet cryptography machine.

The Bond of this book – who doesn’t even appear until Chapter 11 – is a long way from the lithe instrument of Casino Royale. Admitting that he lacks sharpness after a summer cooped up in London, when back in the saddle he misses signs, disregards warnings, misjudges character and places friends, as well as himself, in harm’s way unnecessarily. The intricacy and eccentricity of SMERSH’s plot has been designed by Kronsteen to catch M’s attention, tempt James into danger and leave his body and reputation destroyed, but there is a sense throughout of Fleming poking fun at his creation. He doesn’t hesitate to use Bond’s own proclivities against him, not just the beautiful girl, but the need to ‘be a sport’, ‘see the game through’ and gamble recklessly. Without the protection of Istanbul’s station head and all-round force of nature, Darko Kerim, one suspects that England’s finest wouldn’t have made it out of the airport alive.

Readers drawn towards the softer side of Bond, especially as displayed in previous jaunt Diamonds Are Forever, may feel warmed by the renowned international playboy beginning this follow-up mooning over ex-paramour Tiffany Case:

He missed her badly and his mind still sheered away from the thought of her.

But our protagonist is still operating in less enlightened times. M’s horror at the silliness of women who fall in love with a man’s picture gives way to chuckles over Bond’s Turkish wingman’s chaining of a naked girl to his kitchen table, before Tatiana demands that James beat her if she gets too fat for lovemaking post-defection. What fans of the film may recall as a titillating brawl between two Gypsy women is here much more brutal, although the participants do manage to rip the other’s clothes off at an early stage of the proceedings.

That said, Mr Bond is not quite the unrepentant caveman. There is a definite prominence accorded to the women that hold the fragile Bond together. From housekeeper May as adept with a boiled egg as she is at seeing off Communist agents, to the eternally chaste yet ‘most darling’ Lil Ponsonby, as well as Tatiana herself, who doesn’t let her all-conquering beauty hold her back from offering a warning about the assumed name of the man Bond takes for a fellow agent. The shame is his for how easily it is dismissed. And for all his air of ‘hey, sometimes these decorative non-men can be quite useful’, Fleming can’t take much joy in the slyness of Rosa Klebb. Scheming her way to Head of the Operations Department of the famed, feared, SMERSH and succeeding – where many men have tried and failed – in landing a poisoned blow on Bond, she lets the side down badly in one crucial area:

…the bulge of uniform that rested on the table-top looked like a badly packed sandbag, and in general her figure, with its big pear-shaped hips, could only be likened to a ‘cello.

Growing weary of his secret agent, Fleming had left the ending ambiguous enough for this to be the final Bond if he chose. Perhaps it would have been too much for him to have his man killed off by a hottie.

Despite the certainty of all involved with Her Majesty’s Secret Service that the operation is a trap, its nature and intended denouement remains obscured. Were it not for the executioner’s need, later to become a Bond film cliché, to spill the entire detail of the plot before making use of a weapon, our hero would have died at Grant’s hand none the wiser.

Old man, the story’s got everything. Orient Express. Beautiful Russian spy murdered in Simplon tunnel. Filthy pictures. Secret cipher machine. Handsome British spy with career ruined murders her and commits suicide… what a poke in the eye for the famous Intelligence Service! Their best man, the famous James Bond. What a shambles… What’s the public going to think? And the Government? And the Americans? Talk about security! No more atom secrets from the Yanks.

In the established narrative of post-War spy fiction, Ian Fleming is the hack, writing pulpy genre fiction that doesn’t stint on the girls, guns and gadgets and which pits our brave goodies against clearly distinguishable baddies. Set against him is the literary gent John le Carré, eschewing the clichés of the genre for subtly drawn commentary via characters that dwell in the grey areas. And while Donovan Grant’s crowing at Bond is what the mortal bath calls ‘typically Flemingian showing-off’, with it the author demonstrates that he knows exactly what Bond is and what he and his organisation’s place will be as the cynicism of the Cold War obliterates the idealism of World War II. From Russia With Love is a tight thriller, with no reduction in pace from earlier books. If you were to read just one Bond, I would advise that this be it. John F. Kennedy would no doubt agree. Not least because, for all the perceived glamour of Bond, there is far more overlap with the grey world of the George Smileys than that established narrative would allow for.

*

For a moment he thought nostalgically and unreasonably of the excitement and turmoil of the hot war, compared with his own underground skirmishings since the war had turned cold.

From Russia With Love (1957)

Connie Sachs:     It was a good time back then.
George Smiley:     It was a war, Connie.
Connie Sachs:    A war we could be proud of.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
(from the screenplay filmed in 2012, based on the 1974 book)

It may seem perverse that, when for so many it was impossible to enjoy much of World War II, for a certain type and class of Englishman or woman those six years could be looked back on as a kind of peak.

verywellalone1

The famous David Low cartoon captioned, ‘Very Well, Alone!’, Churchill photographed wielding a Tommy gun, evenings dancing at The Ritz or Savoy as the bombs fell and sirens wailed. When compared to the Weltschmertz of the Cold War and the lost Empire, for some, the War years were an epoch to be quietly mourned.

churchill-met-tommy-gun

Fleming would later say of his wartime intelligence work that:

I could not have had a more interesting time.

Via Bond, he at least notes the unreasonableness of such nostalgia.

At the heart of From Russia With Love is a sleight-of-hand trick, but not the one perpetrated on Bond by SMERSH in revenge for his antics at Royale. It is the one created by Ian Fleming to show an outgunned and under-resourced Mi6 continuing to punch its weight on the world stage. On the page the chaps of the Service will vanquish the foe, when in reality that organisation was chasing its tail as The Cambridge Five affair unfolded. Typical establishment-pillar types, they had sold out their country and its allies to the Soviets, not for money, but due to unseemly ideological convictions. In contrast to the intellectuals and homosexuals (both equally suspicious characteristics to many English people of the time) of the Cambridge Five’s set, fiction gives us the serially heterosexual man-of-action, Bond, and the regularly cuckolded, anonymous Smiley.

Smiley is often called ‘the anti-Bond’, maybe because the coffee in his world is disgusting and the cigarettes are hand-rolled from a tin. Perhaps because le Carré made oft-quoted comments disparaging 007 as an ‘international gangster’ and ‘neo-fascistic’. While this may have been as a result of goading from Malcolm Muggeridge, on closer reading this opposite stance becomes nothing more than lazy sloganeering from reviewers seeking to manufacture a conflict. Neither Bond nor Smiley would be out-of-place in the other’s world, but it is doubtful that Bond would feel entirely at home in the scholarly Circus corridors, where:

…the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department.

Call for the Dead (1961)

Instead Bond would be a ‘headhunter’ in le Carré’s vernacular, kept far away from M or Control and the real policy decisions. A bagman, tasked with the gritty, unacknowledgeable jobs. Ricki Tarr of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, flirting with danger and trying to get away with the girl, is perhaps closer to Bond than the toad-like George. The hand dealt to Alec Leamas of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold provides a portend of Bond’s reduced future options. By his own admission, Bond is out of step with the ‘retired officers of the Indian Army’ that make up his colleagues, unsuited to the deft parry of the Cold War, lamenting the policy shift from stick to

carrots for all… At home and abroad. We don’t show teeth any more – only gums.

Condemnation from literary taste makers began before Fleming’s death and focussed on a perceived sadism, the enjoyment of violence for its own sake. Yet after a fight at close quarters Bond takes time to lament that there has been

too much blood splashing about

and later muses that he

had never killed in cold blood, and he hadn’t liked watching, and helping, someone else do it.

Blunt instrument he may be, but Bond is not without his own moral compass, however far off true north many of us would consider that it points. And though he is supposed to favour gentler methods, Smiley doesn’t prepare for an operation without thinking that he

had a gun somewhere, and for a moment he thought of looking for it. Then, somehow, it seemed pointless. Besides, he reflected grimly, there’d be the most frightful row if he used it.

(Call for the Dead)

Bereft of signature weaponry, Smiley has to utilise the cold currents of the River Thames to off an enemy, who was once a friend. Where the lines were once clearly marked, now no one can be sure where the loyalties of colleagues – or lovers, or spouses – really lie. Darko tells Bond that there is only one way to tell if Tatiana is being duplicitous but even after sleeping with her James remains unsure. Questioning constantly, yet Bond is happy to hand over his loaded gun to someone who talks the talk of the Service, despite his horror at that fellow’s use of ‘old man’ and Windsor knot. In a world of fictional Grants and real-life Philbys and MacLeans, where blending into the background is the key to survival, Bond is perilously visible. The inch-thick file at SMERSH, complete with photographs, would soon see him – like Smiley – pulled out of the field and desk-bound.

And after so many years, in contemplating this latest mission, even loyal servants are not without the occasional wobble:

…what would that youth think of him, the secret agent, the older James Bond? Would he recognise himself beneath the surface of this man who was tarnished with years of treachery and ruthlessness and fear…? What would he think of the dashing secret agent who was off across the world in a new and most romantic role – to pimp for England?

It’s a far cry from the days of The Great Game, as Smiley would probably agree:

Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves… He saw with painful clarity an ambitious man born to the big canvas, brought up to rule, divide and conquer, whose visions and vanities were all fixed… upon the world’s game; for whom the reality was a poor island with scarcely a voice that would carry across the water.

(Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)

Perhaps we get the secret agents we deserve. Bond of the books providing a tonic in the post-War bleakness, while by the time of the films London was beginning to swing again, although that was more a case of clever PR than fact of life outside of a select few post codes. It is fun to note that Bond and Smiley are both Chelsea-dwellers, back before SW4 was a fashionable address. Instead it was a sort of proto-Hackney, with reasonable rents and leafy squares amid the half-cleared bomb sites. Home is only somewhere to lay one’s hat, when the pull of foreign shores is a constant itch:

…while he ate, [Bond] gazed down at the cool mirror of the Lake of Geneva. As the pine forests began to climb towards the snow patches between the beautifully scoured teeth of the Alps, he remembered early skiing holidays.

Soon the lights of the French coast came in sight. As he watched, he began to sense vicariously the static life beneath him; the rank smell of Gauloises Bleues, garlic and good food, the raised voices in the bistro.

(Call for the Dead)

For both Fleming and le Carré, life is elsewhere, a decade and change before the Pistols will decry the ‘no future in England’s dreaming’, the narcolepsy is already pulling down the eyelids. The reality of that solo stance against Nazism: only possible due to the financial muscle of the Americans and with total victory unable to hold the Empire together, was a bitter pill forced down by the British Establishment through successive crises of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Facing life as a junior partner of the CIA, in a more subservient position than when they chummily helped him out at Royale, one might surmise that Bond would prefer a quick death at the hands – or foot – of Rosa Klebb while Smiley would choose to end his days in a dusty German library.

Bond’s reading en route to Istanbul is The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, who himself knew something of the power of the spy novel:

Thrillers are respectable now. Back in the beginning, people weren’t quite that sure about them, but they really say more about the way people think and governments behave than many of the conventional novels. A hundred years from now, if they last, these books may offer some clues to what was going on in our world.

It is interesting to wonder what we would feel about Bond if From Russia With Love had been the last one in the series, as Fleming considered. By the time the Berlin Wall went up Fleming – like M, Control, Smiley and Bond himself – was a relic and from here, Bond’s villains and escapades move further away from the uncomfortable truths of the Cold War. Both writers know that our secret agent fantasies are ludicrous, less casinos and models than drab suburbs and shop girls. So one gives them to us anyway, amplified, while the other downplays them, revealing major themes through everyday banalities. Rather than setting them in opposition, each depiction of the secret warriors should be seen to compliment the other, as essential records of SIS’s journey from Enigma via double agents to NSA intercepts.

James Bond will return… as our review series reaches Dr No… SOON!

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Martin Eden by Jack London

2013 saw STONER by John Williams do something quite impressive.  In a world of tweeting, status updates and Instagrams, consistently steering the modern reader to the Next Big Thing, it proves that there is still room for simple word of mouth, there is still hope for the sleeper hit.

I would like to stand up and shout out, LOVERS OF THE WRITTEN WORD; take a glance at another classic that I feel is still pertinent for today: Jack London’s Martin Eden.

martin eden book

The book was first published in the Pacific Monthly magazine from September 1908 to 1909 and it is essentially a novel about writer’s frustration. The protagonist struggles to rise above his destitute circumstances through self-education, aiming to join the prestigious literary elite. Eden is motivated by his love of Ruth Morse.

An example of a KUNSTLERROMAN, the tale narrates the development of the artist.

Jack london

The author Jack London had a lust for life, his credo was,

I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot! I would rather be a superb meteor. Every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist, I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them, I shall use my time.

The origins of Martin Eden can perhaps be hinted at in his pamphlet for the Intercollegiate Socialist Society in November 1905,

I had no outlook, but an up look rather.

London cites how he felt he could rise above the colossal edifice of society, through cultivating his mind,

Muscle on the other hand, did not renew. As the shoe merchant sold shoes, he continued to replenish his stock. But there was no way of replenishing the labourers stock of muscle. The more he sold his muscle, the less of it remained to him. It was his one commodity, and each day his stock of it diminished. In the end, if he did not die before, he sold out and put up his shutters. He was a muscle bankrupt, and nothing remained to him but to go into the cellar of society and perish miserably. I learned, further, that brain was likewise a commodity. It too was different from muscle. A brain seller was only at his prime when he was fifty or sixty years old, and his wares were fetching higher prices than ever. But a labourer was worked out or broken down at forty-five or fifty. I had been in the cellar of society and I did not like the place as a habitation. The pipes and drains were unsanitary, and the air was bad to breathe. If I could not live on the parlour floor of society, I could at any rate, have a try at the attic. It was true, the diet there was slim, but the air at least was pure. So I resolved to sell no more muscle, and to become a vendor of brains.

STONER is a fantastic book and I would recommend all to read, but also indulge yourself with MARTIN EDEN. Sandpaper-voiced singer-songwriter, Tom Waits, references the novel on his 1974, Saturday Night album track, SHIVER ME TIMBERS, he drawls,

I know Martin Eden is going to be a-proud of me.

It would be a sin not to enjoy these books in your lifetime, besides who wants to be a passionless person in the pursuit of passionless intelligence? Please don’t take my word for it though, read it yourself.

If it’s good enough for Tom Waits, well then, it’s good enough for me.

Jack london signature

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A year in books – John Maguire

My book shelves are like a finely pruned tree, books are added and it can at times get unruly, some are given away, some stay. In 2013 I have seen several new beautiful blossoms appear and a few titles that have gone straight into the compost.

stack-of-books

I started the year with Stephen King’s ON WRITING, given to me by a gifted local play writer, Paul Williams. An honest and candid insight into the craft of writing and the demons that nearly destroyed King’s talent, till creativity helped to decimate them and turn negative experience into the positive.

I enjoyed Stephen Spender’s THE TEMPLE, which reminded me of Goodbye Berlin. Alan Hollinghurst’s THE SWIMMING POOL LIBRARY was a fantastic exploration of human character, yet I felt the water started to become shallow towards the end of the story and my interest waned.

I read the WORLD FILM LOCATIONS: LIVERPOOL, purely from a narcissistic angle, as I had contributed three pieces on films shot in the  Pool of Life, The Fruit Machine, In the Name of the Father and Dancin’ thru the Dark.

I spent four months of the year – April, May, June and July – working on my play PORN0VISION which was staged at the Lantern Liverpool. This meant I kept away from fiction and consumed solely SIGHT AND SOUND and the newspapers.

Stephen Leather’s NIGHTMARE reignited my taste for pulp horror in August.

THE MARRIED MAN by Edmund White introduced me to this writer and I developed a hunger for his work, taking in HOTEL DU DREAM, another work of fiction, then the factual GENET, a biography of the playwright and then THE FLANEUR, a wandering around Paris, which made me yearn to re-visit the City of Light and lose myself in its sophisticated decadence and Bohemianism.

KEEPING FAITH by Toni Piccoult raised some interesting questions about religion, yet didn’t offer any attempts of explanation, it failed to keep my faith.

THE NIGHT CIRCUS  by Erin Morgenstern simply a magical spectacular, a feast for the imagination.

As Autumn turned to Winter, my need for tales of terror developed, starting with THE HOUSE OF SMALL SHADOWS by Adam Nevill,  tapping into my innate fear of puppets.

A tapas of terror was provided with Susan Hill’s DOLLY, THE MAN IN THE PICTURE and THE SMALL HAND.

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’ Autobiography was titillation with a capital T, part National Enquirer, part poetic, an  insight into the warts and all life of the American scribe.

ABSOLUTE BEGINNER Patsy Kensit’s self-penned offering on her life was four hours  of my life I will not ever get back. But my passion for  her disco hit I’M NOT SCARED, means all is forgiven.

In stark contrast, APRIL ASHLEY’S ODYSSEY was inspiring and captivating, even with all the name dropping.

Patti Smith’s JUST KIDS, about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe in NYC during the Seventies, is possibly THE best biography I have read………all glamour and damage, seduction in piss elegance!

Gave into the word of mouth hype and read John Williams’ STONER, a beautiful observation of the human soul, an Everyman tale that actually made me cry on the train at the end pages. Craven Arms on the Cardiff line will always be etched in my memory box now.

Now in beginnings of 2014, I have nearly finished P.L. Travers’ MARY POPPINS, surreal little tales from the Nursery, it has also provided me with a new mantra to get organised in the year ahead, ‘SPIT SPOT’.

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A year in books – J. C. Greenway

Books have gone into and out of boxes this year, with the weight restrictions of international travel making it easier to borrow and pass on instead of adding to the permanent collection. I have also had to admit that, despite my early protestations to the contrary, the eReader is a very useful machine.  That said, as last year’s list contained six ebooks while this year I downloaded five, perhaps I am not quite ready to give up on print yet.

stack-of-books

After a cracking start to the year, where at times I was whipping through a book a day (oh, the beautiful reading weather that is England in January!), reality intruded and it became almost impossible to get through one a month (ah, motherhood). And yet I seem to have finished the year only one short of last year’s total and that is without counting the almost nightly re-reads of Beatrix Potter, The Hungry Caterpillar and other joyfully rediscovered childhood favourites.

Here then is my list of books read in 2013, in chronological order, with links to reviews I wrote along the way and some further thoughts following:

  1. Good Behaviour, Molly Keane
  2. Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin
  3. A Life in Letters: P. G. Wodehouse (ed. Sophie Ratcliffe)
  4. Stuart: A Life Backwards, Alexander Masters
  5. Instead of A Letter, Diana Athill
  6. The White Cities, Joseph Roth
  7. Ellis Island, Kate Kerrigan
  8. The Assault, Harry Mulisch
  9. Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
  10. Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
  11. Homage to a Firing Squad, Tariq Goddard
  12. Racing Through the Dark, David Millar
  13. Ratcatcher, Tim Stevens
  14. Maus, Art Spiegelman
  15. The Diamond Smugglers, Ian Fleming
  16. That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, Ellin Stein
  17. From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming
  18. All At Sea, Memories of Maritime Merseyside, Evelyn Draper and William David Roberts
  19. The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, Tim Harford
  20. Call For the Dead, John le Carré
  21. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John le Carré
  22. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carré
  23. Churchill’s Wizards: The British Genius for Deception 1914-1945, Nicholas Rankin

Highlights of the year were Finding George Orwell in Burma, The Assault and Homage to a Firing Squad which all told very personal stories in attempting to unravel great conflicts. In spite of all the plaudits, I found Bring up the Bodies a less enjoyable encounter with Mantel’s admittedly outstanding characters.

In non-fiction, P. G. Wodehouse’s letters were a hoot – as if you would expect anything less – and his thoughts on Mr Orwell raised a wry chuckle. David Millar’s ride on the dark side of Le Tour de France’s peloton and (full disclosure, good friend) Ellin Stein’s whip smart tale of the National Lampoon crew making it from Harvard chancers to Hollywood legends, shared a compelling sense of the shadows concealed within hubris and humour, for all their differing subject matter. Stuart: A Life Backwards will stay with me for many years to come and is a must-read, albeit a harrowing one at times.

I finished the year with a run of gripping, classy and classic spy novels, comparing and contrasting the old masters Fleming and le Carré for a soon-to-be-produced (honest!) ten minutes hate review.

Thanks to everyone who has read or offered their comments on the site over the last twelve months and a very merry New Year to you all. May it be full of great books and the long journeys, bad weather days and cosy tea rooms that allow you to fully appreciate them!

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1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

reading list

Breasts. Some of us have them. Do you have them? How often do you think about them? (You may answer this question even if you are not thinking of your own.) Do you worry about their size, what people you meet think about their size, or whether sexual partners are turned off by their size? Are you always comparing your breasts to those of others? Do you find it impossible to enjoy even long-wished-for experiences because of thoughts like these? Even in moments of danger does your mind stray to the size of your potentially inadequate breasts?

If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’ and you are a highly sought after physical therapist with a sideline in lucrative contract killings, you should probably do everyone a favour and stop obsessing. Call a plastic surgeon, use some of the pile of money you have sitting in a safety deposit box and get the blooming things done. Go up a cup size. Or two! Get the silhouette you have always known you deserved. And then we can get on with the rest of the book because you are one of two main characters in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and frankly, there are bigger things to worry about than the size of your breasts (sorry… Not sorry.)

In over 30 years of breast-owning, I have never thought about a pair as much as I have about Aomame’s. It feels cruel to a writer whose books I have enjoyed in the past, but someone needs to say: ‘Haruki, give it a rest, lad’. In his defence, it could be argued that Aomame is living out a suspended adolescence, where girls can fixate on such superficialities, and that when given the chance to change her appearance in order to evade capture more effectively, she declines. However, when this happens:

Aomame mourned the deaths of these two friends deeply. It saddened her to think that these women were forever gone from the world. And she mourned their lovely breasts – breasts that had vanished without a trace.

The reaction is laughter rather than sorrow. Only the weight of the tome and an unreturned rental deposit on my apartment prevented me from throwing it across the room with great force, à la Dorothy Parker. It isn’t as if Mr Murakami is some crazed misogynist who doesn’t know any better. Countless examples prove that he can write women well, when he manages to lift his literary gaze higher than their chests. Aomame’s boss, the Dowager, is the kind of kick-ass old lady that everyone needs on their side: tracking down powerful abusers, maintaining a haven for their victims and dispensing quiet justice from a hothouse filled with butterflies. Fuka-Eri is a precocious literary talent, despite suffering from something akin to dyslexia. Yet her ‘beautifully developed’ full breasts are the feature that rates a mention almost every time the teenager appears. To add balance, so do her small, beautiful ears, if you are playing Haruki Murakami Bingo. Prepare to shout ‘full house!’

What bedevils 1Q84 is the makings of a great story trapped somewhere within these pages, that unfortunately isn’t one you can read unless you want to get busy with a red pen, scissors and glue. Editorial input seems to have been limited to pats on the back while waiting for the Nobel Prize Committee to call. It is all the more frustrating because the amount of time that a book this size demands in investment would suggest that readers be rewarded in return. There are small glimmers of interest. The author is particularly good on the subject of cults, the origins of the Sakigake group are gripping and the menace and influence they are able to wield genuinely alarming. Underworld lawyer Ushikawa’s backhanded property dealings are a nod to the asset price bubble which is about to inflate, hobbling Japan’s economy for two decades and counting. The Little People are another frightening entity on first appearance, albeit later defanged and left woefully under-utilised. Tengo’s co-conspirator Komatsu has a great deal of interest to say on the nature of publishing stardom and the manipulation of the reading public, bestseller lists and the patrons of literary prizes (ahem). Unfortunately these potent elements are diluted in a soup of double moons, cats and small breasts, until it begins to feel like a parody.

Perhaps the biggest letdown, remembering the many memorable characters that inhabit Murakami World, is the weakness of the two leads. It is difficult to feel the affection with which we regard, say, Watanabe’s meanderings into maturity in Norwegian Wood, for the romance of breast-obsessed Aomame and her opposite number, Tengo. Tengo could be an early forerunner of the much lamented ‘herbivore men’, except that he seems to be getting more than his fair share of the sex, which even by Murakami standards is decidedly icky. Haunted through his most intimate moments by a brief sexual memory from infancy concerning his mother, fantasising about the 10-year old Aomame, a sex scene with Fuka-Eri so cringe-y it was nominated for a Bad Sex award, Tengo could be a poster boy for abstinence. Vaginas are hairless and appear ‘freshly made’, in which case they are entered, or possess ‘thick, rich [pubic] hair’ in which case they are not. Murakami could be satirising the youth-fixated sexual landscape and its effect on women’s bodies – or he might just dig really young girls. And we are meant to root for Aomame and Tengo as star-cross’d lovers, despite him getting his rocks off with young girls and her prowling Roppongi bars to pick up balding middle-aged men. It is all a far cry from Orwell’s Junior Anti-Sex League.

Much has been made of the inspiration provided by Nineteen Eighty-Four (nine in Japanese is ‘kyu’, hence the ‘Q’, the Little People as the opposite of Big Brother) but it is a struggle to note any deeper connection between the two. However, if Mr Murakami is looking to George Orwell for inspiration, there is this passage, from Why I Write:

I will only say that of late years I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly. In any case I find that by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it…

Perhaps Murakami has outgrown his own motifs, writing with more than half an eye on the judges in Stockholm blurred his focus, or it is possible that he went and sat in a well halfway through and the publishers got a ghost-writer to finish it from screwed up notes retrieved from the bin, or via a box marked ‘patent pending ACME MURAKAMI THEME GENERATOR’. Like Fuka-Eri’s work, Air Chrysalis, this is a book crying out for a determined editor backed by a ruthless publisher. In tests, 8 out of 10 talking cats said ‘It’s no Kafka on the Shore, now, is it, mate?’

J. C. Greenway’s copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four is 266 pages long and she has never tried to throw it across a room.

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Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys

John Maguire with an evocative review of a book that demands space on any ‘to read’ list…

Edvard Munch - Anxiety, 1894

Edvard Munch – Anxiety, 1894

Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Grey, has the inquisitive strapline brandished on the front cover, “Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth?” But please do not be put off by this somewhat cliché, tugging at the heart-strings sentiment. The tale focuses on Lina, a young intelligent Lithuanian girl who has a passion for drawing and art, heavily in awe of the painter Edvard Munch and his ideas,

From my rotting body flowers shall grow, and I am in them and that is eternity, isn’t that beautiful?

One night in 1941, Soviet guards usurp Lina and her family out of the family homestead. The clan are separated from Lina’s father, an Academic, and hurled into a dilapidated cattle cart shamelessly labelled Thieves and Prostitutes. So begins their savage journey northward bound, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the desolate land of Siberia. The book highlights the cruel psychological, mental and physical torture that forced labour brings. The barbaric pain that the people suffer emanates off the very pages. The verisimilitude is indubitable.

Lithuanians deported to Trofimovsk, Siberia, 1949

Lithuanians deported to Trofimovsk in the region of the Laptev Sea, Siberia, an area with permafrost north of the Polar Circle. The photo is from 1949. These deportations started in 1941. In 1942-43, a third of the deported people died, mainly children and elderly people. Photo: The Museum of Genocide Victims, Vilnius, Lithuania.

Lina’s escape is through her creativity and the story illustrates the redemptive power of art, the way it can turn negative experience into positive. The very impact it can have on the human soul. Beauty in amongst horrific chaotic conditions of wrongness. It reiterates the words of Albert Camus,

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.

By using first hand family accounts and the memories scarred in the minds of the survivors from Stalin’s atrocities, Sepetys makes real an epoch in history that one would definitely like to think was unreal. Lina’s imagination allows her to vent her spleen,

I painted a rug being lifted and a huge Soviet broom sweeping us under it.

It is estimated that Josef Stalin killed more than 20 million people during his reign of terror and Lina’s story is one of many unspoken. In 1939, the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Shortly after the Kremlin came up with lists of people, lawyers, teachers, doctors, military servicemen, writers, musicians, artists and librarians  all accused of being anti-Soviet. These people would be sent to prison, exterminated or deported into slavery in Siberia.

The Baltic States lost more than a third of their population during this season of annihilation.

wire

Those who survived ten to fifteen years in Siberia returned in the mid-fifties to find their homes pillaged and occupied by Soviets. The returned people were classified as criminals and put under surveillance by the KGB (formerly the NKVD).

To discuss the past atrocities would result in immediate incarceration.

The horror stories were kept silent. In this modern life, there are many current continual pressures, but I would suggest consuming this provoking piece of literature, just to refresh you on how lucky some of us are in this world.

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The Assault by Harry Mulisch

harry mulisch the assault

I am not quite sure by what happy chance Harry Mulisch’s novel The Assault arrived on my ‘to read’ list, but I am profoundly glad that it did. If it was via your recommendation then please accept my unending gratitude. Although it seems premature to crown ‘the best work of fiction I have read all year’, so it must be.

Anton Steenwijk is an ordinary boy – keen on planes and cars, arguing with his older brother – living in the extraordinary time and place of Occupied Holland at the tail-end of the Second World War. Perhaps slightly more thoughtful than some of his peers, with a love of and keen eye for nature which will later see him publish poems on the subject. He is happy to spend time watching the wave patterns created by the motorboats on the canal outside his Haarlem home. He recalls ‘branches… bleached by the sun’, notices ‘bare, ice-coated, impassive trees that were totally unaware of what wartime was all about’, while damaged railway lines stand ‘upright like the horns of a snail’.

The War’s major intrusion into his life is via the hunger of a growing lad, although he also takes a stand for a classmate – perhaps saving a life as he does so – but he acts impulsively, without too much reflection on his motives. The incident remains unrecalled and unremarked upon until one winter’s night, when he is engulfed by terrible events that he neither fully witnesses nor understands, yet which leave him – the only survivor – with the revelation:

Fire and this steel – that was the War.

Despite this knowledge, as he matures he is successful in pushing away his memories in order to survive, before a series of chance encounters force him into unravelling the fate of his family. The secrets of one night of Resistance assassination and SS reprisal are imparted to him throughout his life, in a series of episodes from young student to middle-aged father, shocking Anton out of his attempt to live as passive a life as possible.

It is difficult not to think, on reading this book as we reach the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, of the consequences for the innocent caught up in war; the apparently small events sparked by unseen actors which rapidly take on greater significance. Chasing the tangled stories leads Anton to a semblance of an answer to the question why? as well as a realisation that the answer is both more and less important than he could have guessed. In the end, as the Resistance fighter Takes tells him:

everyone gets killed by whoever kills them, and by no-one else.

Mulisch’s book is a clever blend of taut thriller, historical mystery and psychological study, with plenty to show the reader about reactions to traumatic events experienced by the young. We see how assumptions about the past can colour someone’s thinking so completely, yet later be exploded as resting on a false or misunderstood reading of those events. What appear to be key conversations and actions slip out of the memory, making a nonsense of any attempt to create patterns out of random events. This failure recalling Anton’s doomed attempts to figure out the complexity of the crossing, interlaced waves created by the motorboats passing him by on the canal.

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Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Monday 21 January was designated by someone as Orwell Day, in commemoration of the anniversary of the writer’s death. Penguin Books offered a generous discount off the ‘Classic’ editions of his works and various media outlets took the opportunity to highlight his journalism. Lib Com had one of the best examples, this essay on the myth of freedom of the press, as evidenced by the difficulties Orwell experienced in finding a publisher for Animal Farm. The New Statesman went one further and declared Orwell Week, prompting the Spectator to point out that the writer and the NS editors had not always seen eye-to-eye, quoting this from an Orwell Tribune column:

Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly turn to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.

As someone who has always preferred to mark Orwell’s birthday, I suggest ignoring all of this hoopla, especially as it seems a reasonable bet that he would have hated the idea of Orwell Day. Instead, pass some time with Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma, a mixture of travel, historical and political writing, which contains much to surprise and inform even the dedicated student of Orwell.

FindingGeorgeOrwellinBurma

Despite having spent over two years living in Asia, before reading this book I had to confess to ignorance of all but the broadest facts of Burma’s recent history. How the country journeyed from the colonial past depicted in Orwell’s Burmese Days to control by its straight-out-of-Nineteen Eighty-Four military junta via the betrayed revolution of Animal Farm is detailed here, not only with factual observations but also through the lives of Burmese people. On her travels through the cities and countryside – ostensibly researching locations that Orwell and his mother’s family lived in and visited – Larkin encounters former prisoners, booksellers, journalists, teachers, the remnants of the Anglo-Burmese population and many others determined to share their stories in spite of the dangers. On expressing her surprise at their vitality, one friend retorts:

What did you expect? That we would all be sitting around on the pavements crying?

That would certainly be one likely response to coping with Burmese levels of doublethink, elements of normality everywhere from the tea shops – ‘an integral part of life’ – to the love of books and reading for pleasure – mention that ‘books are sold… at the night-time book bazaar in Mandalay’ and my ears prick up. Yet those same tea shops are ‘treated by the regime as potential breeding grounds for anti-government activities’ and thus the happy hunting grounds of informers, while one writer tells her that they are:

free to write whatever we want. We’re just not free to have it published.

Visits to dilapidated colonial buildings, old Christian cemeteries and key locations in Orwell’s history carry the story along, including one to the Police Training School – still used to house policemen today – where the young Eric Blair was trained in the methods of surveillance and population control that the military continued so enthusiastically after the British left. As a foreign female tourist, Larkin attracts attention from Burma’s diligent security operatives wherever she goes. In this fascinating interview, she talks about the methods she uses to avoid attracting attention and to protect her sources. (She also selects her five favourite books about Burma if, like me, you are keen on further discovery.)

Larkin seemingly has her own version of doublethink, captivated by Burma’s beauty while despairing that the army’s control can ever be relaxed. It must be like visiting a good friend serving a life sentence in prison, as one interviewee describes the population as the 50 million hostages of the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi – released from house arrest since the publication of the book – and her National League for Democracy perhaps offer some hope. Yet, as she travels, Emma Larkin muses on Winston Smith’s words from Nineteen Eighty-Four,

Where does the past exist?

and their relevancy to Burma, where all mention of the huge uprisings which took place in 1988 and their suppression have been erased from official histories. Restoring the country and its people to ‘normality’ will be no easy task.

A quote from the New York Times on the back of my paperback edition of Finding George Orwell in Burma notes that the book

uses Burma to explain Orwell, and Orwell to explain the miseries of present-day Myanmar.

It is an excellent and engrossing read, informative yet not in a dry way, featuring characters who, although they must be heavily disguised, remain vital and lively companions. I found it to be an illuminating tour through a country which shaped Orwell, informing his most celebrated books and turning him from disaffected colonial policeman into a writer unafraid to denounce totalitarianism, wherever he found it.

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A year in reading

It seems that ‘inspired by’ is the term to use when one is shamelessly borrowing another’s good idea. With that in mind, this post is inspired by/pinched from Sean Lotman’s wonderful post of the same name. You are encouraged to take a look at the original as well as this weak derivative.

An earlier post on ten minutes hate details my early designation as the family bookworm and the part that public libraries have played in creating my reading habits. There are times when a ‘to read’ list is put into use, but more often it is the joy of discovering something unintended that makes a trip to the library worthwhile. So it was around the time that borrowing took over from buying books that, realising that some gems would no doubt be forgotten along the way, I started making a note of titles and authors as I travelled.

Engrossed in a book, Singapore, Christmas 2010

The writer, engrossed in a book, Singapore, Christmas 2010

Looking at my list, the first failure to note is that it doesn’t come close to Mr Lotman’s staggering 42 books. Shamefully, mine is barely half that. It is interesting that in the comments to the original post, the balance between reading and writing is mentioned and it is true that, for the first half of the year at least, writing took up almost every available moment of my free time. Then there was the temptation of reading long-form journalism on my phone instead of carrying physical books on commutes and journeys. Although some of the listed books were read on a Kindle app (being too lazy to buy yet another gadget) the majority of them were paper and ink and, however much technology adds to other areas of my life, I foresee that continuing.

Another notable trend is that, while reading will always be something done primarily for pleasure, there are words here that I took a more professional interest in. Mr Lotman talks about the joy of reading, saying that often, too many readers see it:

as a way to pass the time rather than an action worthwhile for its own sake.

Usually I would be in complete agreement, however other motivations for reading have intruded this year. My list contains a few books that were of interest for research purposes, or read in draft stage and edited, or – in perhaps the biggest leap of personal development – read in order to develop a hopefully interesting and stimulating literature curriculum. Teaching classes based on loved books, having hated everything school forced me to read in English class, was at times tough, although ultimately enjoyable. Still, it is rare for a book that you feel you ought to be reading to become as much of a favourite as one you are free to delight in.

This joy of discovery shows in the publication dates of many of these titles, few are contemporary, perhaps only a couple would have been marked ‘the book of the moment’ or reviewed by a Sunday newspaper. That is due to distance: picking up books via second-hand bookshops and swapping with fellow expats tends to rule out hardbacks and new releases. Many of my list were gifts or recommendations and there is something lovely about hearing ‘I think you will enjoy this book’ from a friend before finding that to be true.

Here then is my list of books read in 2012, in chronological order, with links to reviews I wrote along the way and some further thoughts following:

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. Let’s Start Again, ABCTales short story compilation
  3. Hana Walker’s Half-Life 2:46, Our Man in Abiko
  4. Babylon Revisited, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  5. Musings of a Monkey, Steven Baxter
  6. Hunger, Knut Hamsun
  7. The Princess Bride, William Goldman
  8. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  9. Moonraker, Ian Fleming
  10. Manituana, Wu Ming
  11. Never Come Morning, Nelson Algren
  12. In Pursuit of the English, Doris Lessing
  13. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
  14. 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
  15. A Severed Head, Iris Murdoch
  16. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  17. From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming
  18. Dr No, Ian Fleming
  19. Mourning Ruby, Helen Dunmore
  20. The Mammy, Brendan O’Carroll
  21. Bon Voyage, Mr President, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  22. A View from the Chuo Line, Donald Richie
  23. The Maginot Line, Fiction Desk short story compilation
  24. Care of Wooden Floors, Will Wiles

I managed 24 books, two for each month. Four were re-reads, six were ebooks, eight were purchased by me and the rest were passed on by friends.

Impossible to choose one favourite, but the books by Doris Lessing, Wu Ming and Knut Hamsun were particularly enjoyable, for wildly different reasons. With Lessing taking her ‘pursuit’ into a post-War London suburb, the Wu Ming viewing the American Revolution from an unconventional perspective and Hamsun’s anti-hero lurching around late 19th century Kristiania (Oslo), my love of stories set outside my own time is clearly demonstrated. Despite their differing subject matter, all three were lively, gripping tales, fascinating and relevant.

Publishers will tell you that compilations of short stories never sell, however a busy year meant this format was far easier to dip into and out of than a 900-page novel. From the Fiction Desk compilation, The Maginot Line, Benjamin Johncock’s The Rocket Man was a haunting tale of a small girl grappling with an uncertain future, soundtracked by Bowie. My first reading of a Helen Dunmore novel also provoked the first negative review I have ever been bothered to write, while Haruki Murakami demonstrated more flaws than claims to greatness and Will Wiles’ first book sadly did not make me long for another from him.

Finally, it is with a sense of guilt that I note that there are five downloaded but yet to be either started or finished books lurking on my Kindle app. This is something that I hope to address very shortly, as an extended holiday break in England with typically wintry weather offers little incentive to venture outdoors. With a little luck, 2013′s list will offer even more gems than this one.

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