Mick Herron – London Rules

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Official (Mick Herron Avoider of Spoilers) Secrets Act Signed!

Mick Herron’s marvellously funny, horribly plausible, politically too close for comfort, twisty, turny sequence of spooks-on-the-prowl novels continues, all guns effortlessly blazing for another 5 star review with this one.

For those new to Herron’s ‘Slough House, Jackson Lamb’ series, good though Book 5 (this one) is, and despite the fact that yes, each book can be read as a stand-alone, I would strongly, strongly suggest you race away and get the first book in the series, Slow Horses, and then, with increasing immersion and enjoyment, book on book, work your way through Dead Lions, Real Tigers and Spook Street, in order. This one will still be waiting for you, and you will enjoy it even more as you will be meeting old friends and foes, and come to this one with even more pleasure than would have been the case if you began in the middle.

Herron with each book is rather taking on the changing political events that have happened since he wrote the previous book.

His books follow MI5 (his version of it) here cited as ‘Regent’s Park, and the various power struggles that might exist between M15 and the Home Office, not to mention the Prime Minister, and the police, in defence of the Realm.

However – don’t think anything like the glamour world of espionage. Rather, what goes on at the grubby (very grubby) edges. ‘Slough House’ is where those who failed, spectacularly, to make the grade, get shunted, to carry out the tedious work which the glamorous ones will need – the checking of licence plates, the trawl through electoral registers, the watching of hours of video footage. These are the sorry Z listers of MI5. Each of them has a back story, each a present which seems hopeless, each still hopes, somehow, to get back to the cutting edge of spookiness.

The band of marvellous failures are led by a gargantuan figure. Jackson Lamb is Falstaff without the joy, cruel as a shark, savage in his wit, – he comes out of the same reprehensible mould as another much loved monster Gene Hunt from Life of Mars – except, Jackson is far far sharper in devious intelligence.

                       (I couldn’t resist a glance back at the Gene Genie)

In this series Herron has a chilling finger on the button of the dangerous society we are sometimes aware we are living in, whilst managing to crack open the kind of back stabbing, juggles for power and position which we know goes on in large organisations, all wrapped up with cutting edge humour. And a delicious number of twists, turns, feints and dives to have the readers’ jaws dropping over and over. Nothing will be quite what it seems, and Herron will have done something coming out of left field again. And will get this reader, almost every time. Sometimes with an ‘oh no, oh NO’ moment – the life of a spook is a dangerous one, after all – sometimes with a shout of joy at the audaciousness of an event.

For firm fans of the series – the Slow Horse in the spotlight here is geeky Roderick Ho. Against the odds, Ho, imagining himself as the cool, sexy Rodster (this one really does think he is James Bond) has acquired a girl friend. The other horses in the field at the end of book 4, Spook Street, are all in place. And back at ‘Regent Park’ Lady Di, still second desk, is plotting and planning as only she can…….

and with no need to caricature these caricatures, you might just spot not-a-million-miles-away…………………………..

In the world of Westminster and party politics are various figures who might seem more than a little familiar, or conglomerates of such figures. For example, the hail fellow-well met leader of a populist party and a vituperative columnist on a tabloid newspaper who is not at all averse to the spinning of fake news, especially if it will help her man into power. Any resemblance to any real figure is probably quite deliberate………

I received this, very gratefully, as a digital ARC via NetGalley and the publisher, John Murray Books, and sincerely hope Mr Herron is well along with book 6.

London Rules UK
London Rules USA

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Mick Herron – The List

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Slough House Appetiser before the banquet…..

Whilst waiting for my next big fix – Volume 5 of Mick Herron’s wonderful Jackson Lamb series, I discovered the existence of this small novella. I think there may be more, similar, presumably little bonnes bouches which Herron crafts on the side for impatient fans of the series

Dieter Hess, an elderly agent, run by someone from Regent’s Park, has died. Ferocious, steely Diana Taverner, Number 2 desk, and a brilliant creation in the series, discovers there is more to this than meets the eye. The agent’s handler, John Bachelor someone on the verge of seedy himself (though urbane, sophisticated and classy compared to Jackson Lamb) is terrified of Tavener (isn’t everyone except Lamb?) ‘Lady Di’ as she is known, without affection, makes it clear to Bachelor that any messes resulting from Hess’s death will not be dealt with by her, and Bachelor will pay all prices – it appears Hess may have been a double agent.

Bachelor must come up with a skin-saving solution, and fast.

It was extraordinary, thought Coe, how much a badly dressed shoeless fat man could look like a crocodile

The denizens of Slough House are not really centre stage in this one, though Jackson Lamb and Catherine Standish do memorably appear in an encounter with a rookie agent who Bachelor fingers for his fall guy, just as Tavener has fingered him. Big sharks eat smaller sharks who feast on smaller sharks still

Catherine turned ..”by the way, what is that round your neck?”

“Somebody’s scarf. Found it in the kitchen” . Lamb scratched the back of his neck. “There’s a draught.”

“Yes, keep it on. Don’t want you catching cold.”

She went back to her own office to ring Coe, thinking: So that’s where the tea towel went.

This takes a pleasurable hour to read, and reminds the reader, if they enjoy the teasing twists in this one, how much more nail-biting, heart-breaking, and audacious those twists are likely to get in the full length, London Rules, available early in February.

Not to mention, funny, amongst the darkness, Lamb is a glorious, obscene presence.

Modestly priced on Kindle, seriously overpriced in wood

The List UK
The List USA

Muriel Spark – Memento Mori

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You answer the phone, an anonymous caller says “Remember You Must Die”….and then hangs up.

Muriel Spark’s third novel, Memento Mori, published in 1959 is a blackly comedic, sometimes savage, sometimes tender journey towards death, following a group of aged upper middle class intellectuals, their servants and companions, towards their final breaths.

To quote a definition of the title (Wiki) :

Memento mori (Latin: “remember that you have to die”) is the medieval Latin Christian theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.

Lisa Brooke died in her seventy-third year after her second stroke. She had taken nine months to die, and in fact it was only a year before her death that, feeling rather ill, she had decided to reform her life, and reminding herself how attractive she was, offered up the new idea, her celibacy to the Lord to whom no gift whatsoever is unacceptable

Spark had converted to Catholicism (from Presbyterianism) some 4 years earlier, and faith was clearly important – if not to say a potential conflict, in her life. Spark’s father was Jewish, her mother Presbyterian, and one of the central relationships in this novel, that of a successful writer, Charmian Colston and her wealthy businessman husband, Godfrey, features several spats around what Catholics do and do not believe. Charmian is a Catholic, and Godfrey seems to simultaneously envy and despise her beliefs.

Someone appears to be terrifying several members of the group of elderly and very elderly people as that someone – or perhaps even a group of someones – is making anonymous phone calls. All the caller says is “Remember you must die” Some of the elderly group bear this with equanimity, taking it as a philosophical statement. Others are outraged, terrified or in denial. Curiously, each person describes the caller’s voice very differently, and their attitude towards the phone call, as well as the description of the anonymous voice, seems to suggest more about the nature of the person receiving the call than anything else.

                Pieter Claesz:  Vanitas, Still Life 1630

A major concern for all the cast of wonderfully delineated characters is health – both their own, and that of their contemporaries. Everyone is watching everyone else, both for their physical decline and frailties, but, more importantly, for evidence of what is happening to compos mentis. And the observation of the others is not always done with kindly intent, but is as much to do with self-preening, schadenfreude or pure greed – what might be in the fading one’s will, and might steps be taken to ensure one’s own benefit?

There were twelve occupants of the Maud Long Medical Ward (aged people, female)…..These twelve old women were known variously as Granny Roberts, Granny Duncan, Granny Taylor, Grannies Barnacle, Trotsky, Green, Valvona, and so on.

Sometimes, on first being received into her bed, the patient would be shocked and feel rather let down by being called Granny….A year ago, when Miss Taylor had been admitted to the ward, she had suffered misery when addressed as Granny Taylor, and she thought she would rather die in a ditch than be kept alive under such conditions, But she was a woman practised in restraint;  she never displayed her resentment

Everyone’s lives have secrets, and the very elderly, by virtue of their longevity probably have more than the young. No matter that some of the most scandalous and shameful secrets are those from long long ago, keeping secrets of affairs, business malpractice and savage rivalries matter as much to the nonagenarians within these pages as they might to someone in the middle of active exposure.

Trying to discover who is responsible for the alarming ‘Memento Mori’ phone calls, a retired detective is engaged..but, in a nice little crime fiction twist, some of the recipients of the calls suspect the detective himself.

It might sound as if this could be a grim or a depressing book, think, rather, a kind of combination of a lids-off, Ortonesque lively exposure of sexual shenanigans – even though these are innocent by modern standards, with Dorothy Parker sharpened pen nib humour which is barbed and deliciously deadly. Spark is writing about serious matters, and the pathos and sadness blows land, in amidst her sparkling, inventive, sometimes savage account of the one-way journey we are all making

On the first occasion it had been necessary for him to indicate his requirements to her. But now she understood…..(he) placed on the low coffee table a pound note….Without shifting her posture she raised the hem of her skirt at one side until the top of her stocking and her suspender were visible. Then she went on knitting and watching the television screen….(he) gazed at the stocking-top and the glittering steel of the suspender-tip for the space of two minutes silence. Then he pulled back his shoulders as if recalling his propriety, and still in silence, walked out

(I have obviously removed character names as it is for the reader to discover identities!)

There are, for sure some horrible individuals within these pages, lying in wait for the vulnerable; there are also the mildly dotty, the seriously vanished who-knows-where, the kind of lifelong committee person who can be such a stalwart – and such a pain – in the doing-of-good

Spark creates brilliantly drawn characters, and the reader needs to pay attention to all of them; their lives are wonderfully entangled, and there are some complicated twists to discover. It is the economy and precision of her writing which makes this such a delight – and, of course, the fact that though this is a comedic book, in many ways, it is darkly serious at heart. A light touch on an inescapable subject

I read this as part of Ali’s through the year journey with Muriel Spark, ReadingMuriel 2018

Memento Mori UK
Memento Mori USA

BTW, UK readers wanting to buy this on Kindle – at the moment (26th Jan) gets you a translation of the book into Italian. Which may not be what you are hoping to buy.

I believe the lovely Virago Modern Classics version which I got on a used, market place seller, is reprinting and will be out in May

Rory Clements – Nucleus

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That deadly atomic race between Allies and Axis

I had very much enjoyed Rory Clements first ‘Tom Wilde’, Corpus, with my pull-back from 5 star happening, as it often does in books where there has to be some physical action , simply because there is often a tendency to overdo whatever version of the fisticuffs – be it by club and spear, or by state of the art high velocity rifle – is going to happen

I’m a bit of a realist as far as injuries to flesh, blood and bone and the like are concerned, and begin to sigh in disbelief when our hero, pumping out blood from an almost severed leg, half blinded by an arrow in his eye, and with a spear thrust just deflected from the heart by a lucky locket bearing a picture of his true-love, none the less abseils down the Eiffel tower, holds on underneath a car giving chase to the baddies and manages to roll away from danger as the car he is hanging underneath is shot in the tyres and rolls over a conveniently placed cliff edge.

The intelligent, twisty turny first book, set in 1936 as war was looking like being on its way, against the background of Edward VIIIth’s possible/probable abdication, and politics polarising to the left and right, had gripped me hard – until the protracted action sequences happened, as the tale reached its denouement and the likeable, interesting academic Tom Wilde mounted his trusty steed (motorbike) and set out on his dangerous and chivalric mission, slaying dragons and the like

                           Nuclear fission for beginners

I had been quite gripped enough though to jump at the chance to see where Clements would go in Book 2, set in 1939, Nucleus – into the race to develop the atomic bomb, that’s where, and a plot even more complicated by other issues happening, – what should Ireland’s attitude be to war, – is my enemy’s enemy my friend? – but what about the nature of my enemy’s enemy – does that not preclude any friendship? There are, of course, those on the Home Front who have sympathies with the totalitarian right, because it might be a bulwark against the totalitarian left. What should America do? And what about scientists who have defected from Germany – can they all be trusted?

The Old Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, Wiki Commons

Some of the complex characters and polarised relationships from the first book re-appear here. It would not be necessary to have read that first book in order to enjoy this, but I’m glad I had, for deeper appreciation – particularly of enigmatic Philip Eaton who had appeared in the murder investigation Wilde got drawn into in the first book. Wilde was never quite sure about Eaton, so we are also wondering about him……

Wilde, not a bed-hopping Lothario had had nonetheless an ‘interest’ in the fiercely independent, intelligent Lydia Morris, in that first book. Clements wisely had kept torrid accounts of anything which might happen between the two, at bay. Here, 3 years later, we discover that Wilde and Morris have become an item, though at the moment there is a kind of estrangement of intention, or at least, an estrangement in priorities between them. Its rather grown-up stuff, all down to the priorities which might be demanded of an individual, caught up in world events. Also returning, and with a deepening relationship is Wilde’s rather shambly old Professorial colleague, Horace Dill.

Wilde has recently returned from visiting his elderly mother, back in the States…and, whilst there, has had some rather surprising meetings, with the great and the good, anxious to get more information about what might best serve America’s interests. Demands are made of Tom – so he too is aware that different countries, different classes, different ideological positions – even between those ultimately on the same side, are quite complex

So…….how did this compare to Corpus. I was very pleased indeed that the implausible action man stuff had been reined back. Yes, there is still some of it – popular page turning may well expect it, and there is also a rather treacherous and beautiful woman who makes a play for Wilde. Who, whatever the challenges in his relationship with Lydia, is a principled man and loves her. The treacherous and beautiful one might be a bit of a cardboard cut-out and have stepped out of a James Bond story, but, there is certainly enough real and plausible drama, and satisfying plot twists to make me stay, not only with this, as a recommended read – but be keen to hope Clements still has places to go with Tom Wilde (not to mention Lydia). I shall look forward to following the further adventures.

I received this as an ARC via the Amazon Vine UK programme

Nucleus UK
Nucleus USA

Helen Dunmore – Birdcage Walk

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“There must be love, even if it destroys us”

Death, fittingly and heartbreakingly stalks the pages of Helen Dunmore’s last book. The author, whose work gave so much pleasure over the years to many, had terminal cancer, and Birdcage Walk would be her final novel.

Birdcage Walk has a slightly curious structure, meant, I think, to take us away from obsession with what happened next, and to keep us aware of where we are heading towards.

A man of today, recently bereaved, looking in some ways for distraction and a way to fill his time, becomes interested in an old gravestone which hints that it belonged to a writer, of whom there is no record. He begins to look at an earlier history of Bristol (the setting of the book)

The gravestone belonged to a woman who was not just ‘a writer’ but a revolutionary thinker – the time is that of the French Revolution. The narrator of this book is her daughter, Lizzie. Her mother, Julia Fawkes, might almost be another Mary Wollstonecroft, and her second husband, Augustus, another Godwin. Lizzie, though, is not married to a revolutionary poet. Her husband John Diner Tredevant is in his own way a visionary : one ablaze with the idea of building, property and capital.

Dunmore’s book is a book of ideas and ideals, a book of strong and conflicting relationship, and also a thriller – though I suspect the reader will identify quite early where things are heading

Guillotine, Execution of Marie Antoinette. 1793 (unknown artist)

Visions of a better society for all based on those heady, revolutionary ideas which rocked the stability of society in this country and in France are set against the ideas of order and security. And the creeping in of doubts as some of the initial idealism of ‘liberté égalité fraternité’ – not to mention sororité – meets the fact that a revolution is rarely bloodless :

I could not explain it even to myself, that a man might set in motion such a lever and put an end to the world that lived inside another’s head. It seemed so monstrous and yet it could be done so easily. It made killing as simple as pouring a cup of water, There was no danger to the killer, or necessity to wrestle with a fellow creature who would fight for his life as hard as you fought to extinguish it” …….

“Think of it …To kill another human being is like crossing a river by a bridge which is then swept away behind you. You can never go back again

The central relationship in this book is that between visionary Julia Fawkes and her beloved daughter. Lizzie has fallen for a man who may not be worthy of her, and wants a conventional, obedient wife rather than the free thinker she has been raised to be. This is also a novel about how love can break, as much as make, a person.

I saw clearly now that it was not so easy to step out of the life which held us. No matter how far we went, we would take with us not only our selves but all the ghosts of our lives.

The novel is also one which is full of psychological tension. There are several ways an author might choose to create tension, each of which can work well, if properly done. Duncan means the reader, I think, to make the links pretty quickly between a shocking event which is described very early on in the eighteenth century section and who the people involved might be. So it is not the reader and their direct need to know ‘what happens next’ which is the setting on the tension knot. Rather, we are immediately lobbed the ‘something major happened’ in order that we should solve that ‘something’ Our tension is rather for the central character in the book, how they change, what changes them, and how they will make the connections as they come to understand what we already are sure of. It’s an empathetic tension she is creating

 

The Avon Gorge, looking out over Clifton c 1820, Francis Danby

One small cavil, but not enough to want to dock a star. The first person narrator of the historical section is not fluent in French. Yet, there is a conversation which takes place entirely in French, where she faithfully can recount everything a French speaking character says, even though she only picks out a couple of forcefully spoken and repeated words (which she asks someone else to translate) I have no problems with the forcefully spoken and repeated words but would defy anyone, spoken to a language which they were pretty lacking fluency in, to be able to make sound and memory sense of it! A moment which felt inauthentic, and jarred.

Finally, in a poignant afterword, Dunmore explains her fascination with small, hidden lives, and their effect on history, and her intention in this novel – which she began before knowing her own terminal diagnosis

Only a very few people leave traces in history, or even bequeath family documents to their descendants. Most have no money to memorialise themselves, and lack even a gravestone to mark their existence. Women’s lives, in particular, remain largely unrecorded. But even so, did they not shape the future? Through their existences, through their words and acts, their gestures, jokes, caresses, strength and courage – and through the harms they did as well – they changed the lives around them and formed the lives of their descendants

I received this as a review copy from Netgalley, and read it during my 2 month reviewing absence. It was with pleasure that I read it again, as I did want to be able to write a review which expressed my appreciation of  the book, properly

Birdcage Walk UK
Birdcage Walk USA

Peter Wohlleben – The Inner Life of Animals

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Animals everywhere, some on two legs, but also furred, feathered, finny, and we are so like all of them….

Forester Peter Wohlleben is clearly a lovely being, and no wonder the wild animals birds and insects in his forest allow him to come close and observe

This book is subtitled Love, Grief and Compassion, Surprising Observations of a Hidden World. Its tenet is that we are not as different from other life forms as we may think. And I must say the ‘Observations’ wonderful and fascinating as they are have never really seemed ‘Surprising’ ones to me

Those of us who do take delight in the natural world and perhaps thought a bit about evolution have probably pretty much suspected that if physical structures take millennia to evolve – for example, from light sensitive simple organisms to the complex structures and variations of the eye – then ‘feelings’ ‘instincts’ and, yes ‘reason’ intelligence, self-awareness and language itself did not just arise with homo sapiens.

When those of us who ascribe quite complex emotional nuances to non-human animals, are accused of anthropomorphising, it has always seemed to me that those who make that accusation are guilty of a solipsistic, rather arrogant view of the world. Not to mention, a simplistic one, separating Homo sapiens from other species. Perhaps one could say that it is precisely that kind of disconnected attitude which leads to us thinking the planet is ours to abuse. (End of Rant)

Wohlleben is a connected-to-other-living-forms type of person. Some of them quite surprising. He even find such lowly creatures as weevils worthy of respect and consideration.

     Clearly not weevils but adorable little Wild Boar Piglets

His writing style (translated from the German) is wonderfully down to earth and engaging, but he’s doing far more than telling delightful encounters of clever, grumpy, courageous, faithful, altruistic animals he has observed and loved. He is citing a lot of scientific studies that have been made, which show evidence of the complex emotional lives of other species – 100 papers are cited and referenced.

The challenge, of course, for us is a moral one. Much of our behaviour towards other animal species is predicated on our own sense of difference and superiority. Not to mention holding similar views about other members of our own species, with all the sorry history of slavery and exploitation that led to

So many little and big snippets to enjoy in this – I was probably more delighted to find complexity of emotion in much simpler animals than mammalian and avian (I’m afraid I’m remarkably species favoured towards the feathered and the furred)

For example, that hormone oxytocin, which has been described as ‘the love hormone’ – levels of which rise in pregnancy, and also in sex, and increase when people touch each other with good intent – for example, hugging increases it – well, here’s a thing – oxytocin is also produced by fish!

What about altruism in bees? Bee colonies need to keep themselves warm over winter

If it gets really cold, the insects huddle together and form a ball. It’s warmest, and therefore safest, in the middle – and, of course, this is where the queen must be. But what about the bees on the outside? If the exterior temperature drops below 10 degrees Celsius, they would die of cold in just a few hours, so bees inside the ball are kind enough to take it in turns to give the outsiders the opportunity to warm up again in the dense, seething mass

Some might scoff at that ‘kind enough’ but Wohlleben is not one who thinks that mankind alone shows complex connections, behaviour and ‘emotion’

This is a delightful, light-hearted, but intensely serious book.

When people reject acknowledging too much in the way of emotions in animals, I have the vague feeling that there’s a bit of fear that human beings could lose their special status. Even worse, it would become much more difficult to exploit animals. Every meal eaten or leather jacket worn would trigger moral considerations that would spoil their enjoyment……I am suggesting that we infuse our dealings with the living beings with which we share our world with a little more respect, as we once used to do

I received this from Amazon Vine UK

It has been ably translated from the German by Jane Billinghurst, who also translated Wohlleben’s earlier bestseller, The Hidden Life of Trees

The Inner Life of Animals UK
The Inner Life of Animals USA

Richard Flanagan – First Person

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Supping, or ghost writing, with the devil …..

I love Richard Flanagan’s writing, and the compassion which is evident in the writer, from his ability to see the redeemable in the flawed, and the flaws in the heroic. Flanagan’s characters never fit easily into a perceived stereotype, even when we think they might. This writer is one at home in nuance

Although I will admit that the extraordinary height and depth of Narrow Road to the Deep North is not reached in First Person – and, in some ways, such a very lacerating exploration into what it might be to inhabit the best and worst aspects of humanity – might not be a journey which could be made again by a writer. In a way, I suspect it might be necessary to swim in shallower (though perfectly interesting) waters for a while.

Not that First Person is in any way, superficial, but it is certainly games-y, the writer writing about writing, being savage and mocking and funny about the whole ‘business’ of writing, publishing and its commodity status. And Flanagan plays with the reader too, making us wonder just what is autobiographical here, how much is Flanagan his central character Kif Kehlmann? It is the early 90’s Kif is an aspiring literary fiction writer in his twenties from Tasmania, who, having difficulties getting published, and with an impending family to feed, accepts with misgivings something which feels like a betrayal of his Art – to ghost-write the memoirs of a criminal. Siegfried, ‘Ziggy’ Heidl is a high end corporate fraudster, and his memoirs, in these days of success often belonging to the tawdriest and loudest figures, will be gold-dust.

Flanagan, as he has made clear, is to a certain extent, mining his own past. In the early 90s, Flanagan, a Tasmanian, an aspiring writer in his 20’s, finding it difficult to get published, ghost wrote the memoirs of a corporate fraudster, John Friedrich. And some further parallels to Friedrich are mirrored in some of Heidl’s story, as I discovered, doing a bit of research after I had finished this book

Still from movie Thalaiva

Ziggy is a complex, dangerous, controlling man and Kif is very quickly out of his depth. Ziggy is a somewhat charismatic figure, in a frightening way. He has hidden depths of thought and perception in some ways, whilst having completely unhidden, bombastic, narcissistic, mendacious shallows in many others.

Caught between the devil of the publisher and his advance, the need for the ghost written book to be published yesterday, whilst the story, Heidl, and potential sales are hot, the deep blue sea is Ziggy himself . Struggling to do proper journalistic investigation to flesh out a rather evading, evasive story and the turgid detail of Ziggy’s memoirs which Kif is being hired to polish, Kif is progressively getting drawn into something quite dark. If you like, biographical detection work is going on, and cans of disgustingly wriggling worms will pour forth.

And, for Kif, he is going to be irretrievably changed by this encounter, with this having knock on effects in his personal, family life, and with a significant childhood friend who has been the means of getting Kif involved in the Heidl project in the first place. Past, present and future will all get cracked.

The structure of the book is not linear (it often isn’t these days!)

An older Kif, now working in reality TV (another kind of manufactured lie) looks back on the young Kif, making a Faustian pact, accepting the business deal to ghost write these memoirs, rather than ‘literature’. Difficult to tell whether Mephistopheles, in Kif’s case, is evasive trickster Ziggy, or the publishing house hiring him on the cheap to ghost write. A publishing house whose supremo :

was frightened of literature. And not without good reason. For one thing, it doesn’t sell. For another, it can fairly be said that it asks questions that it can’t answer. It astonishes people with themselves, which, on balance, is rarely a good thing. It reminds them that the business of life is failure, and that the failure to know this is true ignorance

The book does contain challenges for itself – Kif is possibly not a very good writer (though Flanagan is!) So, writing not very good writing (there are excerpts where Kif is trying to hone his manuscript) is inevitably a bit of a tightrope.

This is a book which has certainly divided readers – both professional reviewers and us happy readers and reviewers for pleasure.

It is certainly one I’m recommending, but do find myself in a slightly curious position of being not sure, amongst my bookie friends, of knowing who will love it and who will be utterly bemused by my recommendation of it

Look inside, browse, take a punt.

It is a very different book indeed from ‘Narrow Road’ and that in part is my appreciation of it – Flanagan doesn’t rest on his own laurels, but is a writer who explores other paths – he is not a ‘play-it-safe’ writer, even with his own strengths and success

Now, I am never sure how useful it is to know anything about an author’s own nature, but I must reveal that what first drew me to read Flanagan at all (Narrow Road) was hearing an interview with him on Radio 4. What i picked up was : here was someone who was not sucked into media hype – or even into any media hype about himself, with having been nominated, and then winning, the Booker with that book. This was not a man who answered glibly, rather, revealingly, thoughtfully, spaciously. I liked his stillness, presence, and felt that he listened to the interviewer, listened to how he understood the question, and tried to answer from an honest place. That was what drew me to read Narrow Road, as much as its nomination and subject matter. And I found what I detected in the man, in the writing.

Late last year, having just read, and still in the process of digesting, First Person, I accepted an invite from BBC World Service Book Club, to attend a broadcast interview with Flanagan, where Booker winning book would be discussed with him, and questions taken from around the world. And I was even more impressed by what I experienced as an authenticity in this writer. And his ability to be talking about wider, deeper matters than what he is directly talking about. I was scribbling frantically, interesting things said, which have given further reflection – quotes below are not from the book, but from that interview and Q + A. I felt I had been present at something quite unusual. It was the first such World Service Book Club event I’d attended, but, talking afterwards to some people who regularly attend, that feeling I had was verified by others

“It is the job of the novelist to describe. It is the job of the reader to judge”

“It is the job of the novelist to journey into the soul”

“Memory is an act of listening and creation”

He said that he was against the idea that literature can ennoble or save us, but that  it (literature) is OF life – chaotic, mysterious, and not separate from life

He referenced Nietzsche, who said hope was the cruellest emotion, to which Flanagan’s response was “without hope we are nothing….the highest expression of hope is love”

“(A) work of art – their great strength is close to their great weakness”

“If we take our compass from power, we will find only despair – if we take our compass from those around us we will find hope”

Of course, these were all reflections arising out of discussion and Q + A about Narrow Road, but I took away a lot of sustaining stuff to mentally and emotionally chew on

There was one point where I disagreed profoundly, bur did not leap in to interject something I wanted to continue to mull over – that idea that literature cannot ennoble or save us – personally, I think that it is BECAUSE good literature is prepared to be chaotic, mysterious – like life itself is, and therefore, sometimes deeply uncomfortable – that it can take us to places where we refuse to go, and make us inhabit chaos and mystery, that is, inhabit life itself, the life of others, the life of other, in ways we sometimes do not want to. It is in our living that we sometimes try to separate from what life is – reducing to the easy soundbite, the pat response. Literature, art itself says, “Listen, Look, and makes us WAKE UP!” And waking up, surely is what may save us?

I received this as a digital review copy from the publishers, via NetGalley

First Person UK
First Person USA

Joanna Cannon – Three Things About Elsie

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And if, in your eighties, that long forgotten bully from your youth turns up as resident at your care home……..

Joanna Cannon’s first novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, with its child narrator, had enchanted me. Cannon showed a quirky, wonderful imagination, a linguistic skill and the ability to turn on a dime the balance between dark humour and an ache to the heartstrings which reminded me a lot of early Kate Atkinson (Behind the Scenes At The Museum)

So I was eager to read her second novel, kindly provided as an ARC from the publishers, via Net Galley

And delighted that this second novel exceeded my expectations, raised so high by her first novel.

Three Things About Elsie has a narrator, and a setting, at the other end of a life span. Florence, awkward in some way, full of self-doubt, intelligent, kind, but lacking the skills of received social finesse, is 84. She is teetering on the edge of dementia, not always sure of her memories, and is currently, just, living in a flatlet in Cherry Tree, sheltered accommodation. Almost in residential care – socialisation is certainly expected by the staff, which still often means parking oneself, jaw agape, in front of the telly. Florence though is ‘on probation’ – her dislike of pabulum means she prefers the company of fellow residents Elsie and Jack to the big group activities. Elsie is her lifelong good friend, and Florence’s (please, do not call her Flo without permission) happiest memories are of the warmth shown her as a child, welcomed into Elsie’s family . Jack is a sociable widower with a lot of real charm and good heart All three have, as is inevitable, happier memories to protect from their past, younger lives. Florence is forgetting a lot of hers, though Elsie can help her to remember. In fact, Elsie and Jack keep her safe from the fearful place which awaits – removal to Greenbank (which was neither green, nor set on a bank) , the next stage for the elderly, a clear slow sliding into dying

As Florence eloquently notes, on a visit to someone who has already made that journey, Greenbank is not a place of comfort to contemplate

As we’d walked through Greenbank, the clouds had hurried across a September sky, exchanging the rain for a watery sunlight. The harsh lines, the sharp edges of a windowsill, the white stare of a pictureless wall, were all diluted with a butterscotch kindness. On the bedside table were a box of tissues and a beaker of water. The room had an echo.

The woman said ‘She has everything she needs,’ before all of us were even inside.

I looked up at the ceiling and it looked back at me with a magnolia indifference

As if the worries about the prospects of Greenbank being dangled, threatened, if Florence doesn’t get more normal and compliant are not enough, a long avoided memory from the past has arrived to haunt her. Florence has a past, of course, as everyone does, but, in this case, the past involves a bullying, unpleasant man from her youth. And this one has now turned up, a deceptive slippery charmer, skillful at hiding his true nature, as the new resident in Florence’s ‘shelter’

Everyone’s life has a secret, something they never talk about. Everyone has words they keep to themselves. It’s what you do with your secret that really matters. Do you drag it behind you forever, like a difficult suitcase, or do you find someone to tell?

Florence, Elsie and Jack have to embark on a quest to help Florence out of dragging that suitcase

Perhaps the closing words of my chapter will be spoken in a room filled with beige and forgetfulness, and no one was ever meant to hear them

Told in that now usual literary trope, the dual time frame, in this novel, the device is brilliantly used, twisting the reader into the present moment, with a ticking clock, and a patchwork of scenes from the past, memories which are not sequential, but arising from the deeps, as memory does, unbidden, sometimes also in the middle of recounted events from the most recent past, maybe just days ago, at Cherry Tree

Beryl Cook’s “Dancing on the QE2” Cannon’s writing also has this unique, quirky exuberance

Cannon skilfully twines joy, humour, the painful tragedies of small lives, a cast of wonderfully, normally quirky individuals and a page turning what will happen. And she really was making me laugh, making me weep, making my heart tenderly suffer, causing my pulse to race, almost all at once. And, oh glory, I never felt contrived or manipulated.

A wonderful, painful, funny, satisfying read. What on earth can she do for book number 3? She has raised my expectations very very high indeed

Though publication is in January in the UK, at the time of writing and scheduling this review, it looks as if a USA publication won’t be until the summer of 2018 – wood book, nothing showing on ereader. Bad luck, Statesiders. Maybe you could schedule a quick trip to the UK from mid January

Finally – the cover delights me, for reasons I won’t spell out, but an attentive reader will, as some point, smile, I think

Three Things About Elsie Amazon UK
Three Things About Elsie Amazon USA

Maggie O’Farrell – I Am, I Am, I Am : Seventeen Brushes with Death

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Seize the Day

Maggie O’ Farrell is a wonderful writer of fiction. Here, she shows herself to be an equally wonderful writer of something more obviously personal – recounting various times in her life where she came close to realising her mortality, through the potential of dying. Near misses, one might say.

O’Farrell has divided each potential encounter with not being, by time, and by the part of the body or psyche where vulnerability struck.

Perhaps it is the large number of close shaves, of different kinds, which have made her fiercely embrace her ‘I Am’

The first near brush is a horrible encounter, as a young woman on a holiday job, with someone later convicted of murdering young women. Some kind of instinct took Farrell to take exactly the right kind of evasive action which kept her safe:

I could have said that I have an instinct for the onset of violence. That, for a long time, I seemed to incite it in others for reasons I never quite understood. If, as a child, you are struck or hit, you will never forget that sense of your own powerlessness and vulnerability, of how a situation can turn from benign to brutal in the blink of an eye, in the space of a breath. That sensibility will run in your veins, like an antibody

O’ Farrell has that ability a writer must have, to be within a situation and able, simultaneously to reflect on it, to see wider contexts

                      Photo via Good Free Photos

Making a plane journey which turned somewhat hazardous, and which had only happened because her journey through academia had failed to deliver the expected results, and so led to a changed career path, made her aware, later

That the things in life which don’t go to plan are usually more important, more formative, in the long run, than the things that do.

You need to expect the unexpected, to embrace it. The best way, I am about to discover, is not always the easy way

Brushes with mortality have been her own, and also, more heart-breakingly for any parent, anguish over a child’s health. Maggie O’ Farrell, by virtue of surviving her various own ‘near death’ encounters, had almost  felt a kind of invulnerability

The knowledge that I was lucky to be alive, that it could so easily have been otherwise, skewed my thinking. I viewed my continuing life as a bonus, a boon: I could do with it what I wanted

That sense of having control over your own destiny, if one has it, crumbles in the face of a child’s fragility:

Holding my child, I realised my vulnerability to death; I was frightened of it, for the first time. I knew too well how fine a membrane separates us from that place, and how easily it can be perforated.

Maggie O’Farrell has a daughter born with an immunology disorder. She is both more prone to weakened immunity from common pathogens, and extreme over-reactivity to various foodstuffs to the point where she will go into anaphylactic shock – nuts, sesame, eggs, bee or wasp stings – even to the extent that if she comes into contact for example with crumbs from a nut cookie on an improperly cleaned café table. She, and her family, have to live in constant vigilance

It might sound as if this is a dreadfully depressing book, a catalogue of woes – of course, it isn’t.

In its strange way, this is celebratory, a reminder to cherish the wonder of our fragile, strong, livingness

I Am, I Am, I Am UK
I Am, I Am, I Am UK

John Galsworthy – The Forsyte Saga

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“An intimate incarnation of the disturbance that Beauty effects in the lives of men”

I had never seen either the landmark 1967 adaptation of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, starring Eric Porter, Nyree Dawn Porter and Kenneth More as the three points of the major love story triangle, nor the 2002 remake with Damien Lewis, Gina McKee and Rupert Graves, but I did, I thought, know the story, despite not having read Galsworthy’s 3 volume epic, with two interludes.

Though originally published as a complete set as ‘The Forsyte Saga’ in 1922, Galsworthy had been writing his saga of an upper middle class family for over 15 years as the first volume The Man of Property had been published in 1906. In fact, he continued to follow the generations of Forsytes in the writing of a second trilogy The Modern Comedy between 1924 and 1928, and then a third three volume set, End of the Chapter, between 1931 and 1933.

Eric Porter, Nyree Dawn Porter, Kenneth More

And I must say, that though some aspects (for example the laying out of details of matters financial and legal in terms of entails, wills, investments, death duties and the like) had me reading without due focus and attention, I found this a fascinating, absorbing, moving read. Characters are wonderfully drawn, shown in complexity, and the rifts, risings and fallings of society itself, as followed through the generations of one particular family, which in this first trilogy of Galsworthy’s three trilogies, spans the period 1886 to 1920, works brilliantly

Damien Lewis, Gina McKee, Rupert Graves

We start in the high stability and certainty, with this family, in the Victorian era. Two generations earlier the Forsytes had been settled in Dorset, farmers. Now they are men of property, solicitors, financiers, investors, doing very well for themselves. The ‘old generation’ whose fortunes are first followed, are the ten, very wealthy, sons and daughters of “Superior Dosset” Forsyte, who became a builder, and amassed the family wealth through property

The first book, The Man of Property, begins with an engagement party gathering, of the great-grand daughter of Superior Dosset (long deceased) The family fortunes, togetherness and standing are at their height.  It is 1886 The last volume of this first trilogy is the marriage of a much younger great-grand daughter of Superior Dosset, one who is part of that giddy generation of flappers, young men and women fortunate enough to have been born a little too late to have engaged in the 1914-18 war

The main protagonists and driving forces in the novel are two cousins, very different from each other, ‘Young’ Jolyon Forsyte, an artist, son of Old Jolyon, a tea merchant and chairman of various companies, and Soames, the son of solicitor James. Old Jolyon and James, now elderly men are 2 of the 10 children of Superior Dosset. Soames, The Man Of Property believes in ownership – whether of artefacts – he is a successful speculator in art collection – or of people. Soames is married to the much younger Irene, an unwilling kind of femme fatale, purely because she is an eternal kind of beauty – of soul, as much as of body.

Could a man own anything prettier than this dining-table with its deep tints, the starry, soft-petalled roses, the ruby coloured glass, and quaint silver furnishing; could a man own anything prettier than the woman who sat at it?

The artist Young Jolyon has a different kind of worship of beauty – whether of people, or of art, nature, or any other manifestation of beauty – that it cannot be owned

it had been forgotten that Love is no hot-house flower, but a wild plant, born of a wet night, born of an hour of sunshine, sprung from wild seed, blown along the road by a wild wind. A wild plant that, when it blooms by chance, within the hedge of our gardens, we call a flower; and when it blooms outside we call a weed; but, flower or weed, whose scent and colour are always wild!

A struggle goes on between what Galsworthy terms ‘the Forsyte nature’ as typified by Soames – those aspects of society which seek to own, confine, regulate, and are cautious, rational, and repress or are uncomfortable with mystery, and what art seeks, meaning beyond the tangible.

the sanctity of the marriage tie is dependent on the sanctity of the family, and the sanctity of the family is dependent on the sanctity of property. And yet I imagine all these people are followers of One who never owned anything. It is curious!

I can’t and won’t say more about the strong narrative, the complexities and contradictions of character, and how the author is able to look at changes in culture, thinking, the progress of science and industry, politics, and much more through his complex family saga. He writes crisply and prosaically when needed, but, my how he also soars with metaphor, as appropriate

Suffice it to say, I have pages and pages of underlinings – Galsworthy’s truly epic piece of work is one of those which, as much as the reader would like to read on, read on, in order to discover ‘what happens next’, they are bound, if they really want to get the richness of the books, to stop, reflect, and absorb everything which the author is exploring

The Forsyte Saga UK
The Forsyte Saga USA