Matthew Quick – The Silver Linings Playbook

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Warmth and tenderness about mental illness, family dysfunction, relationship breakdown. And American football.

The Silver Linings PlaybookIf you have no interest in the latter, you may still appreciate this book, despite perhaps learning much more about the Eagles than you never wanted to know anyway! As this becomes a delightful, frustrating, sometimes (to a female) incomprehensible, irritating but wildly funny example of some of the frankly WEIRD ways in which chaps bond!. And if you adore American football, and even more if you are an E-A-G-L-E-S! EAGLES! Fan, delighting in making the shapes of the letters with your legs and arms when with your buddies watching at home, or being present at, a game, you will love this.

Pat is a man in his mid-thirties, though he believes he is some years younger, having spent more time than he realises in a ‘neural health facility’ in Baltimore (a psychiatric hospital). Pat committed some sort of violent act, and has an obsession with his ex-wife. He is an incurable optimist, dedicated to happy endings in films and determined that the silver linings on clouds, and the happily ever after, must happen. Following his release from the hospital, engineered by his loving mother, he must agree to regular therapy, and a regimen of psychiatric drugs. He has returned to living in the parental home. He has agreed to all of this, and is working hard on shedding the weight he put on in hospital, his goal being to become again the sports and history teacher with a great body which he had when he met and married his ex-wife. He is convinced they can get together again. He is also an absolutely dedicated Philadelphia Eagles Fan. As are all the males in his friend and family network. The women feel rather differently. As a non-American, and as a woman who is supremely uninterested in teamsports games, whether from this side of the pond or any other, the making-of-the-E-A-G-L-E-S with the legs and arms jokes made me laugh a lot and pull superior womanly faces

In his life he has : a loving mother, a great and supportive and successful brother, a best friend, whose wife has a sister with mental health issues of her own, the kindest and in some ways most unprofessional of therapists, another great friendship with a fellow inmate in that ‘neural health facility’. He also probably has Asperger’s – at least, this is what accounts for his voice, which sounds not cold, but without emotional nuance and subtlety. Pat, despite being prone to a violence he barely understands when he hears smooth jazz music, particularly a specific piece of music played by Kenny G, is a ‘good person’ with a warm and open heart. He is actively working on ‘being kind’. He also has an extremely dysfunctional father, who is deeply depressed and emotionally cold.

Part of Pat’s journey to try and get re-united with his ex-wife, an artistic, intellectual literature major and teacher, is to begin to read through some of her favourite books, particularly those she taught to her students. So he reads, and responds to such books as The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, Catcher In The Rye, The Bell Jar, responding to them with approval or dismay according to his ‘Silver Lining’ philosophy, and need for the happy wrap. There is a lot of warm humour in the author’s use of this.

I held back from the final star because the overall tone of this warm, charming and Matthew Quicksweet book, despite the bleakness which appears along the way at times, is perhaps a little too anodyne and Hollywood. This did not quite equal my first acquaintance with Matthew Quick: Forgive me Leonard Peacock, which I preferred. Nonetheless, recommended.

This was made into a film, which I haven’t seen, and didn’t know about, so my review is from someone coming new to the book, purely from my appreciation of Quick’s writing in Leonard Peacock’

The Silver Linings Playbook Amazon UK
The Silver Linings Playbook Amazon USA

W. Somerset Maugham – Ashenden

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A cool, clipped narrator narrating tales of espionage, spliced with sudden, deadly bleakness.

W Somerset Maugham was one of the most commercially successful BritishAshenden ‘popular literary authors’ of the first half of the twentieth century. His tone combined a certain waspishness, and indeed emotional coldness (no doubt a result of an emotionally cold childhood) with sudden, unexpected displays of heart. There is a cool precision in his writing, an absence of fussiness, that tells a narrative cleanly and simply, and describes character incisively.

This particular book, ‘Ashenden’ recounts the third person story of a writer, during the First World War, recruited by the Intelligence Department to go to neutral Switzerland, glean information, run Intelligence Operations, trap agents working for Germany, and later to travel to Russia on the eve of the Revolution, to prevent the Russian Revolution and to keep Russia engaged in the war on the Allied side. The book consists of short chapters in which our hero, urbane and observant, plays the espionage game with Bond like suavity (reputedly this book did exert some influence on Fleming) Though Ashenden himself is not the one who dispatches those agents who are spying for Prussia, he certainly lays the traps which will end in their executions by firing squad or dispatching by other means.

Wiki Commons, Martini Makings

Wiki Commons, Martini Makings

What is however the real hook for the modern reader is that Maugham himself was that writer, recruited by the Intelligence Agency, sent to neutral Switzerland and to Russia, with those goals, and the stories told here are factual, ‘from his case-book, as it were, though shaped and tidied, as Maugham explains in his foreword, for ‘the purposes of fiction’ :

Fact is a poor story – teller It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion

By all accounts, Winston Churchill asked Maugham to burn some of the stories which WERE to have appeared in this book, originally published in 1928, as they breached the Official Secrets Act.

These are beautifully constructed stories, though perhaps Maugham’s/Ashenden’s in the Maugham_facing_cameramain rather chilly, mildly amused urbanity does tend to hold the reader also away from emotional engagement. Having said that, this is a device which then works brilliantly in the ‘wrap’ of 2 or 3 of the stories where Ashenden’s rather emotionally inhibited, intelligent, ironic, cultured persona temporarily reveals a sombre, bleak acknowledgement that playing the undoubted game of espionage can create collateral damage in the lives of innocents. The story called ‘The Hairless Mexican’ would be an excellent fictional story, but the suspicion it may not be completely fiction delivers the killer punch to the reader.

Maugham’s disciplined writing, refusing to emote, merely displaying an event dispassionately, without comment, letting the reader make the judgement, gives the kick to the solar plexus. I think it is the uneasy knowledge that these stories are not really quite fiction, which is responsible for that kick

Ashenden Amazon UK
Ashenden Amazon USA

Sarah Moss – Night Waking

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Following my read Of Sarah Moss’s current novel Bodies Of Light which was a wonderful book, I decided to fish out my original review of her previous novel, which I then (and still do) recommend highly, but I felt had some flaws which prevented my complete surrender at the time. A surrender which WAS complete, on my part, with Bodies of Light.

Night Waking (1)Racked between self-realisation and biology,

There were times, early on this book, where I could read no more – for all the right reasons.

The overarching drive of this book is the painful, lacerating tug between `being a mother’ and `being me, and the need and right to be me’ The conflict of parenting, and the drive to be properly `there’ for the vulnerable, developing new being, without the entire loss of that self that is more than the parental role, is one which, in the main, is most intensely experienced, most intensely felt, by mothers.

The reason I had, continually, to stop reading, was because the struggle Anna, intellectual, academic, creative mother of two, had between being at times torn apart by the necessary, totally selfish, biological needs of the infant, and her own sense of self and history, were rendered so visceral, so empathised with by the reader, that I felt physically sick and anxious. She evokes brilliantly the water torture of the endless sleepless nights, with how to deal with a precocious, demanding, potentially always at risk ball of fearless, inquisitive, demanding two year old toddler life, whilst also balancing an older child with different needs.

Leaving Lochmaddy, Wiki Commons, photo from geograph.org.uk

Leaving Lochmaddy, Wiki Commons, photo from geograph.org.uk

Add to this the fact that father, Giles, mother Anna and children Raph (aged 7) and Moth (Timothy aged 2) have decamped to an ancestral Hebridean island, with no other residents. Both parents are loving and caring, and both have academic work which needs to be engaged in. Which of the two will find it less easy to switch off the demands of the child, and which will be able to do their work leaving the childcare to the other? No contest here! But this is more than a book about middle class angst, feminism, equal opportunities and high end problems within the chattering classes

Anna is researching attitudes to child rearing, from Freud onwards – but, through the discovery of a small child’s body on the deserted island, gets drawn in to investigating economic history – in a sense, there is a subtextual battle going on between Marx and Freud, which takes in the history of the Highland clearances, class, industrialisation and politics of our past.

Lest this sound incredibly dreary and worthy, the mix is given spice, warmth and humour by Anna’s own, mordant wit, and by the unintentional humour of what small children say, the monologues they have, and the way parents become able to switch instantly between childspeak and adult conversation. Raph, the older child, although clearly highly intelligent and precocious, actually seems to be closer to what one might expect of a 9 year old, and I wasn’t quite convinced by him as a 7 year old.

I had a few hesitations which stopped 5 stars – there was a little too much padding and repetition of the Moth interchanges, which began to get rather irritating. Perhaps that was the point, so that the reader inhabits the mother’s mixture of reaching a dangerous screaming point of wondering how far she might go to get a bit of peace and quiet away from the 2 year old funnies-when-you-hear-them-once, but wearing when they have been repeated. There was also too much repetition of Raph’s fears and thoughts, as well as FAR too much Moth inspired `Want Gruffalo’

I wished for a more tightly edited, slimmed down book – and better proof reading to have pushed me to 5 stars. There were various sentences which just didn’t make sense, had sentence order inverted (by adults, not by the wee ones) almost as if errors had happened in the galleys, in cut and paste, which had not been spotted.

However, the ending, and the way in which various strands of this generally absorbing, intelligent, well written, humorous and thought provoking book were pulled together, worked extremely well

A very interesting writer indeed and I hope her future books pair her with a better editor and a better proof reader

………………..And, armed with my high fives for Bodies Of Light, this one will get placed on the To Be Re-Read list AND I Sarah Mosshave bought her account of the year she spent in Iceland. She is a writer with a great sense for place and time, and, as someone who has a great fascination with (and fear of) the frozen Northlands, (me, not Moss) and the near endless days and endless nights, I know this one will be a ‘for me’ read!

Night Waking Amazon UK
Night Waking Amazon USA

Author Interview – Rebecca Mascull: The Visitors

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The VisitorsFollowing my review of Rebecca Mascull‘s wonderful first novel The Visitors, the previous posting on here,  I was delighted to be offered the chance of doing a Q + A with her. as her book gave me much to think about, and curiosity about her authorial process. So……..with my question marks neatly polished, here we go:

I was particularly struck by the sense of kinaesthetic awareness you brought to Liza’s experience. How did you get inside the inability to express, the being locked within oneself, and then the explosive newness of each experience she has?

I think the turning point for me in trying to understand the condition of not seeing and not hearing was when I read an account of the deaf-blind experience which explained that reality for a hearing/seeing person has memories related to what they have seen and heard which help to create a solid sense of who they are, where they are and their life up to that point. For a deaf-blind child this sense of reality is thin and splintery, creating a kind of chaotic and sometimes frightening existence in relation to themselves and the world. That sense of confusion and frustration was so heart-rending to me and made me feel so lucky to have my senses in good working order, and made me determined to represent some aspects of the deaf-blind experience as faithfully as I could. I researched a couple of key deaf-blind personalities. Firstly, Helen Keller, by reading her autobiographies; and also Laura Bridgman – the first deaf-blind child to be formally educated in America – particularly by reading an almost daily account of her education at the Perkins Institute. I also spent time with some staff from the deaf-blind charity Sense, who showed me videos and talked a lot with me about the unique needs of deaf-blind adults and children. Years ago, I read an astonishing account of a blind woman who had her sight restored in later life: ‘Emma and I’ by Sheila Hocken, and her description of the moments after the bandages were first removed was mind-blowing. This new sense of wonder at the world was highly influential in rendering Liza’s experiences. I believed it was crucial to convey the idea that the lack of senses such as sight or hearing were not Liza’s problem in themselves, but her real obstacle at the beginning of the book was that of being unable to communicate – once she is given the key to this by Lottie, there’s no stopping her, despite her limitations. That was a message I wanted to come across very clearly, that with determination and help, one can overcome almost anything.

Without wanting to give any spoilers away, for readers who haven’t read the novel, I was fascinated by the explanation you gave in a previous interview, printed at the end of the novel, where you talk about the characters beginning to take over and insist on their own journey. How do you explore that, how do you ‘get inside’ character and inhabit character?

That’s a fascinating question. I do believe the creation of character and fiction writing itself is a very mysterious process. I can’t really explain it, other than describe what happens when I write. I am a very methodical writer in some ways, in that I plan narratives in a lot of detail once I’ve got a plot arc more or less worked out. I write detailed synopses and chapter plans and work from them. Not all writers do this, of course; it’s a very individual process. Having said that, amongst these best laid plans, characters do seem to take on a life of their own. They can be most awkward and muck up all your intentions for them. Pirandello explored this beautifully in ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’; it’s so very true. Once created, they do march around and call the shots. They are probably different aspects of the writer’s personality yet I like to think there’s something more magical going on, a kind of channelling or curious act of empathy. The act of writing a fictional narrative does include a bit of magic which you can’t really analyse or explain. One example is the way plot problems resolve themselves by actively NOT thinking about them consciously. I’ve found that ideas for plot and character percolate in the brain and work themselves out with little input from my conscious mind. So, I don’t believe I really do inhabit the characters as much as watch them present themselves, fully formed, and yet sometimes they allow me the kindness of jumping inside their heads once in a while and looking out.

What I very much pick up from this book, is a sense of quietness and waiting – from you as a writer. It made me wonder about how you work, whether you are someone who has background music or whether you are someone who needs space and solitude?

That’s such a beautiful thing to say, thank you. I think part of my previous answer relates to that, the act of watching characters to see what they’ll do next. I absolutely do prefer to write in solitude and silence, whenever possible. I do most of the actual prose itself during the school day, when the house is empty and mostly very quiet. But life sometimes intercedes and I have to write with stuff going on around me now and again. My ideal writing conditions are in my house, alone, whilst it’s snowing outside; thus the world itself is quiet and muffled too, and there’s something eerie and magical about snowfall. But I don’t get that very often, so school days have to suffice. The silence helps me listen to that inner voice that does all the really good bits of writing, all the subconscious stuff where the flow comes from. Sometimes I do close my eyes and bend my head to let it in, to hear it. I’m starting to sound a bit odd now, I think…

The only note within this book which I could not quite understand, was, very early, when Liza is still within her having no one to communicate with, before she learned the palm signing, there is mention of how touch, smell and taste are preternaturally sensitive – and that she gets sent out by Cook, Nanny or a maid to gather particular herbs – and I couldn’t imagine how that request might have been imparted to her. How did you envisage that being communicated?

Ah, well spotted! My mum pointed this out to me in the first draft too. My answer then was that I thought Cook would give her a sprig of the herb to go and find or perhaps merely the scent of it somehow. But I liked the flow of that sentence and didn’t want to add more detail in. Perhaps I should have done now! It’s an example of how the deaf-blind in this early period before education were able to circumvent their limitations and get by, such as making up their own signs for hunger and thirst etc.

The Visitors, at least what Liza means by The Visitors, as opposed to the wider context of the meaning of the book’s title, are a very integral or natural part of the story, and Liza has always been aware of them. They are of course frightening to others, or possibly thought of as being indicative of madness. Liza senses she must keep the secret of them close. Because the reader primarily identifies and sees the whole story through Liza, I believe we accept the reality and normalcy of them too. I wondered whether they were pure imagination for you, or whether you had awareness of another dimension?

I’m really glad you felt like that about the Visitors. I wanted them to be part of the fabric of Liza’s world and yet not overpower it. It was important to me that the focus of the story be Liza and her development as a person, with the ghostly aspect an interesting addition yet not the whole point of the book, despite the book being named after them! You’re quite right to mention the wider context of the title and I’m glad too that you did, as I wanted the term ‘visitors’ to apply to all the different kind of outsiders we find in the story, such as the English in South Africa and even the Boers themselves, and the hop-pickers on the Golding farm, and Liza herself in the Crowe household. It is a theme of the story, of being on the edge, looking in. As for the ghostly aspect, my answer is that I don’t really believe in ghosts as such, yet I’m a pretty open-minded person and my general philosophy in life is – what do I know? I was always into the idea of ghosts and mediums – I read Doris Stokes as a teenager – and loved ghost stories and movies, especially ‘Poltergeist’ which I was terrified of and obsessed with in equal amounts. Later I became fascinated with stories of alien abduction too! Yet I’m also a very rational person and adore science, though I don’t have a very scientific mind. As a writer, anything that is unexplained and mysterious is fun to play with and I did relish working out the rules of how the ghosts would behave i.e. who they can and cannot see, what they understand about their own condition. I think deep down they are probably a metaphor for our fears and about holding on to the past, but, as ever with writing, that wasn’t something I thought consciously of when writing about them. I just enjoyed them!

I was intrigued, at the very end of the book, looking forward to Liza’s and Lottie’s future plans and ambitions, there is a very subtle placement of them, almost as a throwaway onto a particular real location that has quite a curious and oppositional history (difficult to describe this without spoilers!) I thought there was something a little (deliberately) ambiguous about this. Are you drawn to open-ended rather than neatly tied–up?

Yes, let’s not include spoilers, but you’re right – this place does have a wonderful history and I do have an idea of what will happen to them in the future. I do have a sequel story in mind, but who knows whether it’ll get written or not – we shall see! As for types of ending, I remember someone saying once that endings should be unpredictable yet feel inevitable. That’s a great standard to aspire to and I would always try for that. I would want the reader to feel that the main plot points have been resolved enough to feel satisfying, without being too neat and tidy. I also like the idea of the characters living on in the imagination after the end of the book, that is, of a reader thinking, I wonder what they’ll do next? I love books like that, where the characters are still alive in my head and going about their business. So, I think my perfect conclusions are always a bit open-ended, though I can’t be doing with what I’d call unfinished narratives, where everything is unresolved in a very modernist way. At the very least, I’d want some sort of epiphany for the characters, so that something has changed irrevocably in their lives. And after all, these are novels we’re talking about, not real life, and so I feel a little bit of resolution is in order, to give the reader a prize for going on that journey with you, a destination of some kind, instead of leaving them stuck on a road to nowhere…

Finally – and forgive me if somehow I missed something – in your acknowledgements, you thank a couple of people for loving or defending ‘Daniel’. I can’t remember a Daniel in this story and wondered perhaps if the central male character had been re-named – or, is this perhaps a character who will feature in your forthcoming novel. And could you give a bit of a tease preview by telling of the general territory which it inhabits….

Ah, Daniel. I wrote three novels before ‘The Visitors’ and one of them was about a character called Daniel. It was turned down by a lot of publishers but it did secure me my agent Jane Conway-Gordon, who loved that book and stuck with me whilst I wrote ‘The Visitors’ next. Several friends and family members also read that book about Daniel and loved it and still talk about it now. So, he is very dear to me and I do hope to rewrite it one day and improve it, so that perhaps he’ll get his story heard. It was a very ambitious novel, set during WWII in London and Poland and I think now I was probably just too inexperienced to do justice to it. I think I’ll wait a while until I’m a better writer – and a bit older and wiser – and tackle it again.

My forthcoming novel is called ‘Song of the Sea Maid’. It’s about an C18th orphan girl who is educated through a benefactor and becomes a scientist. She defies the conventions of her day to travel abroad and makes a remarkable discovery.

I’m about to start my next novel which will be set in the early C20th. I will be a bit secretive about that one, as I’m never quite sure myself where it’ll all end up, so I’ll keep it under my hat for the moment…

Well all I can say, after getting Rebecca’s fascinating and thoughtful answers to my questions is, if I HADN’T read the book I would be racing over to do the one-click/buying/download thing! HAVING read the book her responses deepened my appreciation even more.

There were some lovely images and ideas in her answers. Solid reality formed by visual and auditory memory, and a thin and splintery reality when parts of sensory experience and memory are lost. were responses which absolutely underlined my sense that Rebecca really inhabits the reality of what she is writing, and because of that, can take the reader into inhabitation of her characters and world too.

I’m delighted Book 2 is ‘forthcoming’ and a book 3 is being written, and even the possibility of a Rebecca Mascullfuture for Liza and Lottie, not to mention the mysterious Daniel. (books 4 + 5?) But no doubt there will also be other characters waiting for Rebecca to listen for their voices……………

Thank you Rebecca

The Visitors Amazon UK
The Visitors Amazon USA

Rebecca Mascull – The Visitors

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A quietly written, surprising, delight

The VisitorsRebecca Mascull’s debut novel, first of all, reads nothing like a debut novel. The author writes with subtle, understated assurance this fascinating, alluring story of a deaf-blind girl, in late Victorian England, then later in South Africa during the Boer War.

I have to admit I nearly missed this one, as the combination of publisher blurb and the rather muted pretty cover had me mistakenly convinced that this would be a slightly fey and marshmallow book. Whilst not averse to fey, I don’t do soft-centre that well.

However………never judge……and all that

I’m so pleased I gave this one a try (after being offered a copy for review by the publisher, Hodder)

This is most surely a book ‘about stuff’ and whilst it is very clear Mascull has done much research into the time, place and subject matter of her story, she is a writer who wears that research extremely lightly, and almost instructs the reader subliminally, in a very natural and easy way.

Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan 1888 Wiki Commons

Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan 1888 Wiki Commons

Adeliza Golding is born almost blind, the daughter of a successful Kentish hop farmer and his wife, the only surviving child after a series of miscarriages. She is deeply loved by her sorrowing parents. An early illness leaves her completely blind, and also deaf. By the age of three she is enraged and half-feral. Fortuitously, one of the seasonal hop-picker families, oyster fishers (another seasonal industry) from Whitstable, had a deaf-blind daughter themselves, and had come in contact with a clergyman who was aware of the technique of palm signing. The oldest daughter, Lottie, is the first person to break through Liza’s rage – a rage born not of feebleness or savagery, but of her inability to communicate:

For many years, my deaf-blindness was like a monster from myth. My aim was to overcome it. Every monster has a weakness exploited by the hero to win the day. In my darkest memories, I see my early self as a blind monster crashing through the wilderness. But it was not my disability which kept me there. It was my ignorance. Once I found language, the spell was broken and I assumed human form. One does not need sight and hearing to be fully human, only communication. My lack of sight and hearing were not the enemies, only my lack of connection was my monster, my isolation

The early part of the book, describing Liza’s journey out of that isolation, and the relationship which develops between Lottie as teacher and Liza as pupil, and the almost overwhelming nature of the world which can finally be revealed for Liza, as more and more refined ways of communication tools become available, are stunning, and wonderful.

Liza’s world soon becomes even more expanded, as she develops a wider relationship with Lottie’s family.

Liza does have a secret however – she has spectral, ghostly communicants ‘The Visitors’ which no one else can see or hear. Within the book, the Visitors are far from some sort of fey authorial device, yet this is not primarily ‘a spooky story’ either. Liza herself, like the reader, grows in understanding the nature of these communicants.

Boers at Spion Kop 1900 Wiki Commons

Boers at Spion Kop 1900 Wiki Commons

In the broader world, war is on the horizon, (the Boer War) and this becomes also a central part of the story, with some of the potent historical issues playing out in the lives of Mascull’s fictional characters.

This brings me to something else in her writing. There is a major relationship which develops in the story, and at a couple of points I found myself thinking ‘oh no, oh no, please don’t say this fine and truthful writer is going to start moving her characters around like pawns in order to satisfy some plot-shock’.  She doesn’t. No spoilers revealed here, but what I will say is that there was a sense of absolute authenticity to the complex, layered characters Mascull had created – and I was intrigued, in her afterword, an interview conducted with the author, she discovered that what had happened for her in the writing was that magic, where though she had intended her characters to have one journey, somewhere, they up-sticked and said NO.

My sense, all through reading this book was that here is a writer of authenticity and listening. One not showy, one not ostentatious:

I just want my reader to be able to enter a different world and to care about the characters. I don’t want the story to be directed before it is told. I want the characters to do what they want and not to be restricted by genre. Genre is a useful tool but I prefer to use it lightly

(from an interview with the author, included in end-notes)

A wonderful, thoughtful piece of writing, which is about a lot, yet says it all economically, without indulgence, without Rebecca Mascullhistrionics, and with humanity and precision.

However – reader beware, I note with some surprise that no less than 3 novels, by 3 different authors, were published early this year, with the self-same title. This one is by Rebecca Mascull, and I shall definitely be looking forward to her second book, whenever that shall be.

The Visitors Amazon UK
The Visitors Amazon USA

Ian Flitcroft – The Reluctant Cannibals

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An enjoyable, ebullient and entertaining read – just as long as you avoid mealtimes

The Reluctant CannibalsIan Flitcroft’s unusual first novel is certainly darkly comic, full of vigour, and often, absolutely disgusting as it cheerfully, gleefully, crashes across all sorts of inbuilt gustatory taboos. Food taboos are pretty well always local and cultural, except of course that cannibalism is fairly widely regarded as taboo.

So……….we already know in advance that somewhere lurks fine dining, not so much WITH friends, as ON friends.

That isn’t the half of it. I queasily fought the gag response at the description of the delights (or otherwise) of a dish composed of witchety grubs, and I suspect that as a vegetarian I might have been more than usually upset at the details which start, first take your live squill………

In fact, it was pretty well only in the descriptions of dessert and fine wines that the gag reflex settled

Although Flitcroft – himself a brave gourmand, sampling rare and forbidden foods from all round the world (want a recipe for scorpion or snake? – the author is your man) – probably lingers a little too long on various fine and rare vintage wine descriptions to amuse anyone except a serious oenophile, and has perhaps too firm a fixation for rare flesh to be frequently paired with cooking with fennel (not another bed of, sauce of fennel – aren’t there any other vegetables??) this is for the most part a most enjoyable shock of a book. There is no gratuitous violence, no gratuitous sex, but there is a lot, an awful lot, of very dirty dining!

A kinder picture of a heavily featured ingredient, compared to pictures of other ingredients

A kinder picture of a heavily featured ingredient, compared to pictures of other ingredients

Flitcroft Consultant Opthalmologist

Flitcroft Consultant Opthalmologist

I laughed a lot, and enjoyed the cast of always larger than life eccentrics to be found within its Oxford University setting. Flitcroft himself an Oxford educated Dr of Neurophysiology, who now specialises as a consultant eye surgeon. I know, it hardly bears thinking about, in the context of this book’s title.

The story concerns a group of Oxford dons, with a secret bizarre dining club, a peculiar will, and a handful of undergraduates who stumble upon the existence of the club and attempt some investigations in order to learn more………black comedy student detective work meets Diner’s Cabal!

I lost it a star because I do think some of those loving food and wine descriptions could have been pared back, they began to become a bit tedious – though I’m completely sure that the fine diners who know their wines will fiercely, bibulously disagree.

Flitcroft author and diner, not to be confused!

Flitcroft author and diner, not to be confused!

And I recommend it, with a warning that it may not be for those of a sensitive gastric disposition

The publisher’s blurb describes it as having a shocking climax. I demur, instead regarding it as rather perfectly poised

The Reluctant Cannibals Amazon UK
The Reluctant Cannibals Amazon USA

Hélène Gestern – The People In The Photo

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Unsurprising but satisfying unearthing of family secrets

The People In The PhotoHélène Gestern’s first novel, translated from the French by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz may be a book within which the reader can quickly identify all the revelations and major events which are likely to happen, but all that demonstrates is that life itself has only so many stories, and that certain obvious ‘unknowns’ in a real world, are likely to have a limited number of solutions. This means that a discerning reader may often be able to predict what happened and what will happen, only because ‘in reality’ shocks are unlikely to be shocks FOR THE READER, But, and here is the point, shocks and surprises may well be in store for the characters within a novel.

Probably most of the major events which may happen to many of us can be statistically predicted, but they are (generally) a shock and surprise when they personally happen to us.

So…….this is a long introduction to say that the unsurprising trajectory of this short novel does not in any way detract from the reading pleasure, because the pleasure lies in the unfolding realisations in the lives of the protagonists. This book is effectively a two-hander, a series of exchanges, by post, by email and by text, between 2 rather diffident, reserved people, each successful in their professional fields, but each held back from full emotional engagement with their fellows, because of childhoods which contained secrecy, discord and unresolved grief, guilt and anger.

Hélène Hivert, a Parisian archivist, with some mystery surrounding her childhood, unearths a newspaper clipping of a photo taken of a woman with two men, in Switzerland, in 1971, identifying the woman and one of the men as winners of an amateur tennis tournament, in Interlaken. She believes the woman to be her dead mother, and wishes to trace the identity of the men. She places adverts in French and Swiss newspapers. It is 2007, and both her parents have died

The photo is recognised by a Swiss biologist, Stéphane Crusten, now living in the UK, who identified one of the men as his deceased father, a photographer, and the other man as his father’s close friend, now extremely frail and elderly, and unable now to communicate easily, as the result of a stroke. Crusten’s mother is also dead

So begins the correspondence, and the two discover they have certain similarities of character, through growing up in separate households where there were clearly ‘skeletons’.

The book is the slow unearthing of histories, and the discovery of certain connections. It is also the story of a friendship which develops between the two introspective characters, growing up in households where they felt themselves to be unloved or unregarded by their fathers.

Linking the developing realisations are the unearthing of more photos, each with stories to be discovered. The photos are extremely well described, and the reader can clearly imagine them, though of course the fictional book itself contains no photos.

This is not a book to shake or change the world, or anyone’s view of the world, but it is one of those pleasingly crafted tales of small, secret lives, which, for the livers of those lives, were full of meaning, and personally important. Exquisite little pieces of ivory, 2 inches wide, don’t need to be histrionic and shouted from the hilltops

This book has won some 20 literary awards, and I did not find myself, at any point, saying ‘Why?’Helene Gestern

I noticed the author shared her first name with her female character, and wondered whether this was designed to hint at an autobiographical element, as a writer’s device or in fact contained one.

Recommended, for a quiet, gently crafted, satisfying read

The People In The Photo Amazon UK
The People In The Photo Amazon USA

Graham Greene – Brighton Rock

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A disturbing read – and perhaps more so than the author intended.

Brighton RockGraham Greene is a favourite author of mine and one re-read from time to time. Recently, I’ve been re-reading some of his earlier, pre-Second World War books, those described by him as ‘Entertainments’ – this one, A Gun For Hire, The Ministry Of Fear.

Something which currently is sitting uncomfortably with me, most shocking from a writer who developed into someone who seemed to have a tender, humane understanding of our complex, fragile, muddied up, neither angel nor demon/beast, but mashed up both, is the casual anti-Semitism expressed, many times, within this book (and, on a recent re-read, there it is again in A Gun For Hire)

Both books are about various layers of villainy and corruption. Brighton Rock (the title has a double meaning, as becomes clear towards the end of the novel) was of course made particularly famous by the film starring a baby-faced Dickie ‘Darling’ Attenborough, as the teenaged, vicious, damaged ‘Pinkie’. The plot concerns two rival criminal mobs, working the gambling industry and more. The seedy, less successful end is a small-time gang, currently led by a damaged seventeen year old, a slum-child, raised a Catholic, from a violent background. This is Pinkie. The successful gang, able to manipulate those in authority, is led by rich and powerful Jew, Colleoni. Later in the book it is intimated he may go into politics as a Conservative. Once again there is the suggestion which surfaces of some sort of Jewish conspiracy. However unpleasant, however vicious, however thuggish Pinkie is, the violence of his background is placed before us, ‘what chance did he have’ We don’t get offered ‘mitigating circumstances’ for Colleoni.

What this did for me, yet again, was to expose how pervasive a generalised anti-Semitism was in society. I guess it took a couple more years (this was published in 1938) before people would begin to distance themselves from this particular manifestation of racial stereotyping.

Outwith the discomfort for the reader who comes to this after the events of the Second World War, this is still a disturbing and complex read, though one with a strong narrative drive and a believable triumvirate of central characters, like an unholy version of Father Son and Holy Spirit, (as Catholicism and the Trinity runs deeply through it) Instead, we have a version of Mother, Daughter and Unholy Spirit.

Richard Attenborough as Pinkie

Richard Attenborough as Pinkie

Graham Greene when young

Graham Greene when young

Pinkie, in fact at one point, who sees himself as damned, corrupt (and is so) says ‘Credo in unum Satanum’. Ida, the blowsy, materialism-being-here-is-all-there-is who is the instigator of nearly all which transpires, through her desire for justice and to see right done, has no religion, but a lust for the physicality of life. She drinks hard, she beds hard, and has no sense of ‘mortal sin’ Ida, who has no children, nevertheless takes a Motherly protective role to the other damaged youngster, Rose, a young waitress from a similar background to Pinkie, also a Catholic, but one still believing. Rose will be sacrificed between Ida and Pinkie, as their different agendas play out – but Rose is also the willing sacrifice, choosing to damn herself, knowingly.

It’s an unsettling book, dark, and hopeless in many ways – and yet full of passages of beauty and energy. For reasons which I can’t quite explain, it reminded me of Kandinsky’s paintings – these nuggets of light and colour and vibrant energy and precision of place, form, time, and rich meaning, all within a narrative drive which got darker and darker

Fugue, Kandinsky, 1914, Wiki Commons

                                  Fugue, Kandinsky, 1914, Wiki Commons

A stranger; the word meant nothing to her: there was no place in the world where she felt a stranger. She circulated the dregs of the cheap port in her glass and remarked to no-one in particular: ‘It’s a good life.’ There was nothing with which she didn’t claim kinship: the advertising mirror behind the barman’s back flashed her own image at her; the beach girls went giggling across the parade; the gong beat on the steamer for Boulogne – it was a good life. Only the darkness in which the Boy walked, going from Billy’s, going back to Billy’s, was alien to her: she had no pity for something she didn’t understand. She said; ‘I’ll be getting on.’

Brighton Rock Amazon UK
Brighton Rock Amazon USA

Gill Farrer-Halls – The Spirit In Aromatherapy : Working With Intuition

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The Aromatherapeutic Encounter

The Spirit In AromatherapyGill Farrer-Halls’ ‘The Spirit In Aromatherapy’ is an interesting book which indeed covers an area which does not yet have a flood of books in the niche.

To be honest though, I would say this ls much less a book about aromatherapy and the essential oils, though they do figure, it is more a book about the nature of the therapeutic relationship itself, from a bodyworker, specifically one who works with aromatics, perspective.

And as such, it is very welcome

The field of aromatherapy literature is well supplied – indeed, one could be forgiven for saying, oversupplied, with books both for the lay-reader and the practitioner, many of them merely repeating what was said before by somebody else.

Some of the more specialist books written for professionals, by professionals, do indeed have more unique and interesting information to give. There is a tendency to view the oils purely as chemistry however, as aromatherapy has moved itself away from ‘fluffy feel-good’ and sought to engage with the phytopharmacology of the oils.

Practitioners also know, however that what happens within sessions may be far more than could be explained by the protocols of ‘English aromatherapy’, with highly diluted oils applied in massage. And, indeed more than can be explained by the physiological benefits of massage.

The missing part of the equation is ‘the placebo’ of the healing response. I don’t mean this pejoratively – to say ‘the proportion that would get better without intervention’ is to fail to respect the nature of that ‘would have got better’

All healing interventions, whether by Big Pharma or by modalities which work, even if the precise mechanism of their working is not understood, employ and use placebo – it is just that the precise tools differ.

Farrer-Halls, in this book is looking at the relationship between practitioner and client; if you like the ‘sacred space’ of connection. She is a practising Buddhist, and offers the idea of approaching the client with empathetic awareness, intuition, born out of good prior learning, of course, but still, being present within sessions with open-minded, open-hearted attention.

Although all training in the UK has ‘the therapeutic relationship’ as part of the syllabus, it is often far less central than it needs to be.

There has arisen, within some bodywork modalities, primarily because some of their practitioners came not from a prior background as bodyworkers, but a prior background as psychotherapists, a much more subtle awareness of the importance of the relationship itself, and the spaciousness and sensitivity the practitioner needs to bring

This, despite the exercises to develop sensitivity and intuition by the practitioner into the nature of their oils, and what one might call the ‘psychospiritual aspect’ of them, is, I think, the real end of what Farrer-Halls is laying out in this book, which is a thoughtful, and well-written one.

The attentive reader will not be learning so much about the oils themselves, in following the exercises to develop intuition towards them which Farrer-Halls suggests, they will be developing finesse in intuition itself, finesse, presence and consciousness about the process work which undoubtedly happens in attentive hands-on work, making it far more potent than just the releasing of muscular knots, the improvement of circulation and lymphatic drainage, and fluffy ‘pamper’

I was delighted to receive this as a copy for review on digital download, from the publishers Jessica Kingsley/Singing Dragon. As said on another review, this publishing house produces serious, thoughtful, books on health and well-being, rather than flaky, irresponsible or let’s cash-in on vulnerable people’s insecurities ones.

The Spirit In Aromatherapy : Working With Intuition Amazon UK
The Spirit In Aromatherapy : Working With Intuition Amazon USA

Ben Macintyre – Double Cross – The True Story Of The D-Day Spies

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Truth is often much much weirder than fiction

Double CrossBen Macintyre, who rather seems to have cornered the market in factual books about espionage in this country, both during the Second World War and then later, during the period of the Cold War, has here written a complex account of the part that not just spies, but those who were double agents, or even triple agents, turned, and turned again – or always firmly on the Allied side, but convincing Germany they were her spies.

At times, this engagingly written but dizzying book – I struggled to keep track of the agent, their British code name, their German code name, plus the fact that code-names sometimes got revamped and changed – read almost like a comedy, as the subterfuges dreamed up got wilder and wilder. In fact, the ‘game’ of course was deadly, and the double agents were dangerously playing not only with their own lives, but the lives of thousands of others.

Macintyre concentrates on a handful of agents, who were employed, so their German handlers thought, to provide information about Britain and her military plans. In fact, these agents – flamboyant, hedonistic, larger-than-life to a man and woman, were feeding their German handlers misinformation, and as the plans for the Allied offensive which became the Normandy landings progressed, a complex structure of legerdemain was taking place, in order to get the German Secret Service, and the military, to be looking in the wrong direction, convinced that the Allied attack would happen elsewhere.

To that end, one of the double agents created a completely fictitious cohort of spies, including a mythical group of disaffected Welsh Nazi sympathisers, and several of the non-existent spies were also ‘minders’ for still more spies. And to stretch the joke still further, it was the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) which ended up paying for the Double Agents whom they thought were spying for Germany, to feed them this disinformation.

Not only was every active agent which the Abwehr thought they had planted in Britain in fact a double agent working FOR Britain, but the Allies even had planted ‘’Double Agent Pigeons’ in Occupied France, as homing pigeons were employed as couriers. (You have to read the book!) Massed dummy tanks at a location to confuse spyplanes about where landings would start from, in order to divert attention to a false destination, an actor impersonating Monty and seen in a neutral country, to disguise the fact that the real Monty was elsewhere, preparing invasion, and even a beloved small dog whose possibly planned smuggle into Britain, going astray, nearly jeopardised the whole effort

Approaching Omaha Beach. Wiki Commons

Approaching Omaha Beach. Wiki Commons

In amongst the brilliant games being played, to achieve deadly ends, win or lose, and amongst the self-congratulation about British intelligence, and the extraordinary personalities of the double agents and their handlers, there is much evidence of pettifogging accountancy bureaucracy, and even extraordinary meanness, showed by a book-keeping mentality, and what at times seemed like a real lack of appreciation showed by those within the British Civil Service who were responsible for meeting expenses claims, from those often profligate, overblown, histrionic, but remarkably brave double agents, who risked not only their own lives, but the lives of many others, within their hands. Had the war of ben-macintyre‘misinformation’ not been the success it was, the already horrific loss of life on the D-Day landing would have been immeasurably higher, and Allied failure here would have led to a very different outcome, and no doubt prolonged the war.

Behind the derring-do, lies of course, the horror which that derring-do was designed to end.

Double Cross – The True Story Of The D-Day Spies Amazon UK
Double Cross – The True Story Of The D-Day Spies Amazon USA

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