Category: book of books

book review – Rites of Passage

If there is one thing most people know about William Golding it is about his ability to describe in words the moment when a crowd turns ugly and someone is destroyed either physically or mentally.

One of the things you remember about Lord of the Flies apart from the conch and the island home of the boys is the demise of Piggy who is bullied to his death. There is a similar figure here in the first part of the Pssage of the Sea trilogy with the parson Colley. He becomes the focus of the book but it takes a while to get there.

The story is told through the journal entries of Edmund Talbot who is going to Australia to take up some sort of government service and has connections with some powerful backers in the form of his godfather. Talbot joins the crew of on a ship that is sailing around not too long after nelson because we are still at war with the French. That would date it at around the early 19th century when it was still the age of sail and Britain ruled the waves.

The book settles down with Talbot becoming the eyes you see the world through with him meeting other passengers and importantly the captain. Because he enrages the captain, who likes passengers never to come near him, the naval warrior decides to exert his power over the crew by picking on the parson. The captain has a pathological hatred of the clergy believing himself to have been robbed out of his inheritance by one.

With the captain’s blessing the parson becomes an open target for abuse and things come to a head when he appears ramshackled and drunk on the deck and is led away to his cabin in disgrace. No one can tempt him out to talk and he slowly withers away refusing food and drink and dies on an evening when the captain has ironically invited some guests, including Talbot into his cabin for dinner.

The captain is forced to thaw because of the announcement of Talbot of his journal, which will be sent to his godfather, with the implied threat that the bullying will be revealed to a wider audience. The captain calls for agreement that Colley died from a low fever and Talbot is forced to go along with that conclusion.

But the last third of the book is taken up with Talbot printed ad verbatim the words that Colley had put down in a letter to his sister. When compared to the facts that start to emerge from the inquest following the death of the parson it creates a heart-rendering account through the eyes of an innocent bullying victim.

Colley is naïve but that is his only real fault along with maybe his dogged persistence to serve the Lord by demanding services are held. He is humiliated by the sailors and the other passengers and is finally exploited when drunk and a sailor performs an act of oral sex on him, the act the forces him to do die with shame.

This is powerful writing and for anyone who has ever considered joining in when someone is being taunted and humiliated then this should make them think long and hard about what it does to the victim of the bullying.

Version read – Faber & Faber paperback

book review – The Cement Garden

Sometimes authors choose to allude to a case of cause and effect and in other cases the results become the content of the novel. Ian McEwan chooses to show the consequences of the death of both parents to a family of four, all at various ages under 19.

The first to go is the father, who is remote and not particularly missed after he keels over with a heart attack while laying out a cement path in the garden. The family gravitates around the mother but she is ill and starts to head downhill. Even before she dies each of the children have had some character quirks outlined. The main focus, Jack, starts to lose interest in hygiene and social relationships and his much younger brother Tom toys with the idea of becoming a girl. The mother is ironically not that strong a character. She doesn’t say a great deal and for the last few weeks of her life she is bedbound. But her death removes any pretence that the family can carry on as normal.

Once the mother dies the cracks, both literal and metaphorical appear and the house, with its cement filled garden, becomes cut off from reality in almost every sense of the word. The cement is used to bury the mother in a trunk in the cellar. Finally there is an entrant from the outside worlds in the form of the eldest girl’s boyfriend. He discovers the secret in the cellar and in the end, after catching jack and his sister involved in incest, calls in social services to end the situation.

But before Derek makes the call to get other people involved with the family things have really fallen apart. Tom has started dressing as a girl and then entered a baby phase. Sue the next in age lives in the pages of her diary, which she addresses to her mother. Jack drifts through the day never knowing the time or washing and Julie plays at being the mother but has a tendency to revert to being immature.

Without the support and the moral guidelines of the mother the children quickly lose routine, self-responsibility and any motivation for interacting with the world and the prospect of returning to school at the end of the holidays is dismissed by Jack.

The final scene has been brewing and in some ways is over done in that you almost don’t need to see where the logical conclusion of their world goes without boundaries. What you have to give McEwan credit for is the ability to create a sense of place. The summer heat and the strangeness of the large house with the corpse in the cellar is something you can picture very clearly. Of the few McEwan books I have managed to read it is always this sense of place that is brilliantly done and it is the same here. The story might not always be comfortable to read and the way of showing how the grief is impacting the children sometimes feel too much but it does leave you thinking and that is a positive.

Version read – Vintage paperback

book review – The White Lioness

This is the third book in the Kurt Wallander series by Swedish writer Henning Mankell. The first book Faceless Killers had a gripping story; tightness created by a rural Swedish geography and was a great read. The second book started to go a bit into the world of fantasy with Wallander fighting against Latvian corrupt police officers in Dogs of Riga.

The third again decides to stretch the horizon beyond Sweden. This time the target is South Africa and Mandela has just been released and political turmoil is expected. The story on paper works with Sweden being used as a training ground for an assassin that has been hired by white extremists to shoot Mandela. The problem is that the distance between the world of Wallander and the world of South African politics is too far.

As a result where the book works is when the story centres on Wallander and his battle with the KGB agent training the assassin in Sweden. The problem though is that this again starts to become fanciful and Wallander starts to break most of the rules and try to solve the crime in his own way with almost disastrous consequences.

There is nothing wrong with stretching imagination, after all isn’t that what fiction is all about, but when it comes to a police thriller you have to believe that what you are reading is possible. Whether it is Holmes, Morse or the other Swedish detective Martin Beck you want to believe that the actions of the hero are based broadly on truth. Here with guns going off, grenades being thrown into flats and bars and crazy Russians it is hard to stick with it.

Ultimately that was my problem. This was meant to be enjoyable but because it failed to make me believe in it then it started not to be enjoyable. Let’s not write the series off but for now I am going to take a break and head back towards some more established classic fiction.

Version read – Vintage paperback

book review – The Road

The Road is one of those books that gets talked about over a hot dog at a friends barbeque or in the pub. For most people I spoke to it was the first time they had come across Cormac McCarthy and the Pulitzer Prize and the critic’s recommendations wowed them. But one friend persuaded me to read McCarthy before the paperback of The Road came out so there was an odd route to The Road.

But it was a route worth commenting on because without reading No Country for Old Men and the Border Trilogy it would have left me at a distinct disadvantage. There are several things it takes time getting used to with McCarthy. The first is the lack of quote marks and the lack of chapter headings. The second is that you become acquainted not only with his themes – a dying age and the end of the cowboys – but also with his ability to deliver shocking violence.

Come to this without any of that understanding and it might well have forced some people off. I know of at least one person who did not stick with it and that is a shame because this is exactly what great fiction is all about. It is epic in its ambition to paint a picture of a world that is post apocalyptic and its last few inhabitants. It is focused in its characterisation basing almost the entire book on the relationship of a father and son. Plus it is clear in its message – kill the planet and something dreadful awaits us all.

The story is on the one hand quite simple with a father and son walking the road to the coast, a couple of hundred miles, dragging all they can in a cart. They search for food and other tools on the way, risking running into other survivors in the process. They stumble across a group of cannibals and almost become victims to them. But the wariness the father has all the time leads them finally to the coast. There the end comes for the father as he dies of some sort of tuberculosis type condition leaving the boy to the care of another family.

Throughout there are musings on God – does one exist in that sort of world – the past and crucially life and death. If there is nothing but death eventually then why not end it now – a choice taken by the boy’s mother. At the end of The Road you are left with numerous questions. It is surely for that reason that this book has been so highly regarded. In a world where global warming and nuclear weapons – just two ways both long and short – that we could destroy ourselves, dominate the headlines few things make you think as much as this. By painting a vivid picture of what it could be like if it all goes wrong this book should sound the alarm for all of us.

Version read – Picador paperback

book review – Cities of the Plain

This is the final part of the Border trilogy by Cormac McCarthy and it reunites the main characters from the first two books All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing.

Like those two books this is about mortality. Not just about the passing and the death of individuals but the passing of an age.

Billy and John both work on a ranch that is being runned in the old fashioned way with men on horses training them, riding them and using them to keep watch over land and cattle. The collection of men that are working the ranch stretch from the late teenagers Billy and John up to old men who look like spending their last days on the ranch near the Mexican border. All of them have in common a sense of being lost in time and as a result out of kilter with the modern world. The ranch is going to be sold to the US army that are looking for places to get ready for the Cold War – there might even be a suggestion there of nuclear testing. That would really blast away any sense of the past.

There are numerous passages where Billy and John along with the others moan about not knowing what they really want as they stumble through the daily grind of being a ranch hand. But then things change for John Grady and it becomes quite clear what he wants and his object not only of affection but obsession falls on a 16-year-old prostitute. The relationship makes no sense on many levels. She is Mexican, unable to speak English and seems to be suffering from some condition that might ultimately be fatal. There is also the small problem of her pimp who has fallen in love with her.

But John Grady puts his mind to it and prepares a home on the ranch to bring her back to. But it never happens as she is killed by the brothel runners and ends up being identified by Grady in a morgue. That death sparks a couple more with Grady getting revenge before himself being a victim of the knife cuts of the pimp he kills.

His death leaves Billy bereft and no longer comfortable on the ranch. There is then an epilogue that to be honest is not required but shows that Billy spend most of his remaining years wandering before settling down to become some sort of living museum.

The past is all around McCarthy’s books and having got through the trilogy it seems to have set things up perfectly for his most recent work expanding on themes of mortality – The Road. These are books that could only be written by an American that not only has a sense of the relationship between the US and Mexico but also of the past and the present. The cowboy is such a strong image of everything that America represents – the hard working, land taking exponents of the American dream. That is why it is such a powerful twist to discover that the very cowboys that you would expect to be self assured and robust are lost in a world that no longer thinks it needs them or recognises whet they stand for.

A trilogy that has plays out some big themes but ends up underlining them in the friendship of two men who were stuck in the past.

Version read – Picador paperback

book review – The Secret Agent

This is an odd book to be reading right now. Joseph Conrad might be credited with writing one of the first novels to cover the subject of terrorism but it feels all too familiar in this age of suicide bombers.

The irony with The Secret Agent is that The Professor, who is rigged and boldly talks about being prepared to blow himself up, never does it while an innocent simpleton stumbles and trips blowing himself to pieces.

Living not too far away from Greenwich Park and enjoying strolls through its tree-lined avenues it is odd to think of someone choosing to target the observatory for a terrorist attack.

But maybe it is never intended to be chosen with Mr Verloc being intimidated into making some sort of outrage to ensure he keeps the cheques coming from the embassy that pay him for being a secret agent. Verloc is the main character in the story flanked with his wife Winnie and his brother-in-law Stevie.

Back in his past Verloc once tipped off a foreign dignitary over the possibility of some sort of assassination attempt and ever since then has been dining out on the performance. But with a change of guard at the embassy he is challenged to show his worth by exploiting his position as a leading light in anarchist circles in London. Verloc feels blackmailed and disappears from view while he thinks about the consequences.

Conrad starts to weave the story around the encounter and takes the reader into a pub where two anarchists, nicknamed The Doctor and The Professor, are talking about the power that comes from the knowledge that you could blow yourself up. The Professor is rigged permanently to blow. But he finds it hard to believe someone has beaten him to it when The Doctor produces the paper to show that someone has blown themselves up in the park.

Conrad manages to leave you wondering if it was Verloc for a while before the identity of the simpleton Stevie is revealed. The reader finds out only just before his sister and her grief leads to the murder of Verloc. All of the secret agents protestations of innocence laying the responsibility at the door of the embassy count for nothing.

With Verloc dead the story fizzles out but Winnie tries to take refugee in the arms of the Doctor but once he sees the dead Verloc he is intent on escaping her clutches. Left alone she commits suicide leaving those who knew the couple shell shocked and undermined by the experience. The power of the bomber has been tested and found wanting.

This is sometimes a book that is difficult to follow because of the style but the message is as up to date as ever. Here is a morality tale of the costs of taking lives and the results on those who have been involved in that process. The outcome is that innocent people die and even those that believe they are in the right are plagued with self-doubt, recriminations and a sense of futility. A bomb might make a temporary outrage but does not do much more other than main and kill innocent people who had to be killed for some one, and some radical group, to make a point.

book review – The Man Who Went up in Smoke

Most detectives are based in a particular geographical location that is often as famous as there are. So you get Morse in Oxford and Holmes in London. The creation of husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo is meant to be based in Sweden but Martin Beck spends most of this novel in Budapest.

Because of the dual locations there is a real fear that the sense of character development that started in Roseanna will stall and to some extent it does because the marriage breakdown and self analysis that is often bordering on hypochondria is put on ice in Hungary. The research that the couple put in shows because the city feels natural and not over described. You always get the feeling when someone is constantly referring to street maps and famous places that are making up for insecurity about a lack of knowledge. This book does not show that tendency and is more enjoyable as a consequence.

The story just like Roseanna keeps you guessing and wondering what will happen until the end but unlike the first novel in the series there is never any sign of the missing journalist who occupies Beck’s time, The journalist turns out to be a drug dealer and a terrible friend to other hacks. His tendency to drink large amounts and then abuse the wives and fiancés of those he hangs around with eventually costs him his life. But it takes the trip to Budapest for Beck to work out just how easy it would be to pretend to be the journalist and steal a passport from behind the desk at the hostel and then return to Sweden.

When the climax comes there is a reference to the title about the way the end comes for the drug-pedalling journalist. Beck returns to his spoilt holiday and slips back into his slowly disintegrating personal life. The reality of the anticlimax after solving a case hits him hard and it is another touch that shows the writing ability of the duo. Far too many people view thrillers as pap that can be read and then disposed of. Maybe that is true of some books but this is characterisation and plot making of a very high order and this should be read before being written off.

One of the reasons why you might stick with a series like this is because of Beck but it is the Swedish landscape and the approach to solving crimes that are described here that make you want to read on.

Version read – Harper Perennial paperback

book review – The Woman Who Waited

If there are a couple of things you can be guaranteed with a Andrei Makine book it is beautiful descriptions of the Russian countryside and a focus on a personal story that acts as a metaphor for what has happened to an entire country.

Both of those features are present in the Woman who Waited but there is some masterly story telling going on here. The narrator is a player in the vivid student scene in Leningrad and after graduating he heads out to the wilderness looking for a village to provide him with literary inspiration.

His initial thoughts are that he can produce a satirical novel based on the peasants but the life in the abandoned villages is far from humorous and then his attention wanders to focus on the story of Vera who apparently has been waiting for her lover to return from the second world war for thirty years.

Her reputation in the village and surrounding area is almost legendary and the narrator starts to get closer to making her acquaintance. The problem is he does so taking a superior position. What could this woman in the wilderness be able to teach or show an intellectual from a major city? What could her life story provoke other than sympathy?

Because the approach taken to Vera is subtle you never notice that the narrator is completely on the wrong track about her until she opens her mouth and reveals she is not a village idiot or someone who has stayed waiting all of her life. In the end the shock of those discoveries starts to force the narrator to ask some questions about himself but he runs away from it rather than facing that conversation.

Makine is almost like a short story writer weaving deep and thought provoking stories out of just a handful of characters and locations. Vera the woman remains nearly as much of a mystery at the end with the narrator having discovered some secrets but missed out on others because of his arrogant assumptions.

It shows the difference between attitudes in the town and country in Russia as well as the differences between those keen to move on and forget the war and those who cannot. That seems to be a recurring theme in nearly all of his books because the devastation visited on a generation seems to be conveniently filed away by many characters in his books.

Ultimately the truth about Vera emerges in fragments and just as he has done all along the narrator misjudges her intentions completely having the arrogance to assume that she will come to rely on him. Once she realises that her lover is never coming back and he has created a life without her she seems set on living her life on her own terms. The narrator is used to plug a need to express some grief but he is never seriously being seen as a replacement for her love.

His arrogance that led him to believe Vera was a limited school teacher, someone who had never ventured out of the village and someone in need of an emotional prop are all revealed to be wrong and in the end he runs away rather than staying to really unravel the mystery of this woman who has waited for something for so long.

Version read – Sceptre hardback

book review – The Dogs of Riga

After the Faceless Killers, a tight and focused book that introduces the world of Kurt Wallander, you hit Dogs of Riga with high expectations. Initially Henning Mankell starts delivering straight from the off with a couple of dead men drifting ashore in a life raft.

But after that things start to go wrong and the focus of the story moves to Latvia. The reason for the involvement of the Latvian police is the suspicion that the dead men came from there and the case seems to be closed after a police officer from Riga travels over and then heads home having taken responsibility for the case.

Then there is a lull when it looks like the dead men in the raft might have been a red herring before Wallander is heading over to Riga to assist in the murder investigation of the policeman who visited to work on the case.

Once in Riga the firm foundations of the Swedish landscape are replaced by broader strokes and it becomes slightly harder to believe the story. Okay so this is fiction but the police procedural genre is based largely in the reality of police work and this quickly starts to emulate something of a James Bond novel.

Things get even stranger when Wallander realises that there are secret organisations and powers at work in Riga that the murdered police officer got caught up in. His widow becomes the main contact, and a love interest for Wallander, and he promises her after he is sent home after the murder case is conveniently solved, that he will return.

His second trip to Riga is a spy thriller with bullets flying, shady figures following his every step and the two police officers in charge of Riga both being under suspicion of ordering the murder of their colleague. Wallander has to work out which is guilty and gets it wrong only to be saved by his enemy’s enemy in a roof top shoot-out.

He heads home without anyone aware of what he has been doing when he was meant to be skiing in the Alps. He also heads back without the widow who he has fallen in love with despite asking her to return with him.

It reminds you of the Patrick O’Brien novels where he always seems to be happier writing when the action is at sea and it feels a bit awkward and forced when the story is on land. The same happens here with Mankell leaving Sweden to head for Latvia.

But in his defence the point that could be made, and one in fact that is explained slightly in Mankell’s postscript is that this is a book trying to make a statement about the times and the climate in the immediate collapse of Soviet rule. That makes is different from the run of thrillers and does show an awareness that Mankell wants to make a point about the wider world but it is a risky ambition that doesn’t always come off in The Dogs of Riga.

Still it will not put me off reading more of the Wallander books and the next stop is the third in the series The White Lioness.

Version read – Vintage paperback

book review – A Life’s Music

This book by Andrei Makine qualifies as a novella because of its length but it is also a tight story around a tale told by a pianist to a fellow traveller on a train.

Just as with other Makine novels the landscape of Russia plays a key part as does the history and politics of the country. Things start in the Urals with a snow-covered wind whipped station and passengers waiting for the delayed Moscow train. The narrator moves from room to room until he finds a man playing the piano who is also waiting for the train.

The pianist helps the narrator get a seat on the packed train and then starts telling him his life story. The son of parents who were victims of Stalin’s purges he ran away to an Aunt in the Ukraine just in time to be caught up in the German invasion of 1941. He steals the identity of a dead Russian solider and manages to get through the war with a fair amount of bravery – echoes of Ivan in A Hero’s Daughter – before ending up as a general’s driver.

That position continues after the war and he meets the general’s daughter who is also a pianist and there is a crush then the bitter realisation of what could have been an awful mistake leaving the pianist in a corner playing the part of the fool. He almost plays it until the end but cannot resist showing off what he can do at the piano and then he disappears out of the daughter’s life and the narrative skips over his ten year in the camps and the wilderness of the frozen north.

He returns to Moscow with the narrator being brought up to speed discovering that the general’s daughter has had a son that he helps support. They then head off to a concert where history repeats itself as the pianist who had never been able to perform on stage because of his parents arrest now watches his protégé come out and fulfil a dream on his behalf.

There is plenty of tragedy here. Not only about the random pointlessness of the arrests in the Stalin years, the brutality of the war and the class system that continued to exist even in the communist system. But there is also something about the power of music and its ability to transcend class and age barriers and live on through the years.

There is also a hidden moral which is never to forget that each passenger on each journey sitting next to you could have an amazing story to tell if you are prepared to stop and listen.

Version read – Sceptre paperback