Gentlemen and Players – Joanne Harris

Gentlemen and PlayersJoanne Harris is a interesting writer – very diverse in her output. I started out with her where most people did, “Chocolat” in 1999. It wasn’t really my sort of book but the fantasy element with its whiff of witchcraft was intriguing. Over the years, I looked at her other books but they didn’t appeal (“Five Quarters of the Orange”, “Coastliners”). I then came across “The Evil Seed”Harris’s first published book (1989)– a wonderful contemporary vampire thriller. I have no idea why this terrific book is not better known. A lot of her bibliographies, don’t include it at all. I then read Jigs and Reels, a satisfying collection of her short stories, and then the horribly titled “Lollipop Shoes”, which follows Chocolat’s heroine Vianne and her two daughters who are now living in Montmartre, and what happens when the seductively sinister Zozie comes into their lives. (I note that this book was later retitled The Girl with No Shadow for some editions).

I gave “Gentlemen and Players” to a relative for a present. When they didn’t read it for a couple of years, I repatriated it back to my place. They missed out on a fantastic suspense novel, cleverly constructed and compulsively readable. It is set in a boys’ boarding school, St Oswald’s, and has two narrators. One is the working class offspring of the school’s loyal ‘poThe evil seedrter’. Harris portrays a character who is both envious of the advantages of the wealthy boys at the school, who is unconfident and jealous, but also, especially in this person’s older voice, deliciously cynical, cutting and conniving. The other narrator is the about-to-retire classics master – also cynical about the school and the powers that be there but someone who is good at his job and liked by the boys (this is a lovely portrayal reminiscent of Mr Chips or, albeit is a less schmaltzy form, the teacher in Dead Poets Society).

We soon find out that our first narrator has infiltrated the school as a teacher and is now bent on wreaking revenge for a wrong that is slowly revealed through the story. The revenge starts out in small ways, things going missing and innocents being blamed, graffiti scrawled on teachers’ homes, but is then ratcheted up: pornography found on teachers’ computers and students going missing. Our narrator is keeping the classics master for a final coup de grace or, more appropriately, check mate. My edition of the novel has chess pieces to represent the two narrators – a white king for the classics master and a black pawn for the other narrator. The sections of the book also refer to a game of chess, and that’s what it is in the end as the two narrators battle it out for who will survive.

I’ve been careful what I’ve said here because there is a huge twist at the end that it would be unfair to reveal. Most reviewers have praised this device but I felt it wasn’t necessary. It is one of those twists which make you go back over the book to work out how you were fooled. Nevertheless “Gentlemen and Players” really is a virtuoso example of suspense writing.

Black Rabbit Hall – Eve Chase

Black_rabbitLuckily, with novels, usually you can tell from the subject, the tone, the style of writing and the characters whether it is going to be your sort of book or not pretty much straight up. Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase was unusual for me in that I loved the strand set in the late 60s with young heroine, Amber, and her family but was left cold by the contemporary strand centred around Lorna. While there was drama and interest in the first strand, and a tragedy that pulls the family apart with far-reaching consequences, twenty-something contemporary Lorna is self-satisfied, dull and annoying – the plot device that links her to Black Rabbit Hall is unbelievable and unlikely, and while she has to confront something in her past, her tribulations are trivial compared to those of the earlier family. There is also a light-hearted silliness in the contemporary strand that sat uneasily with the tension and growing unease in the 60s storyline, for me. This miscalculation was such a pity as Chase creates-a wonderful portrait of the Alton family, especially the children and Amber’s close, but fraught, relationship with her twin brother Toby. When the tragedy occurs and all sorts of strains are placed on the family, we really do get drawn into their world and a sense of rising crisis when a step mother and her handsome son are inserted into it. Amber’s innocence but also her need to grow up is poignantly and sensitively done.

I could hardly bear to read the pat ending to this book, when Lorna comes into her own. I don’t think she deserved her redemption. I won’t do a spoiler but the ending really made me angry like it was some sort of tacked on finery designed to pretty up the picture, but which in reality dragged it all down.

Top books 2015

A_Thousand_AcresIt’s probably a bit late in the day for this but here goes. Of course I loved all seven of the Harry Potters as I unabashedly admit here – they will always have a place in my heart. Nevertheless, my top read for 2015 was Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. I had heard of this book, first published in 1991, so I bought a secondhand copy that, unfortunately had Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange in a schmaltzy embrace on the cover, so I put it aside (I seem to have missed ‘winner of the Pulitzer prize’ at the top). For some reason I picked it up early last year. I was sucked in to this muscular family saga immediately. She’s such a great writer – her characters might, at first glance, look like all-American mid-west people, but they are anything but – they seethe with ambition, jealously, violence, lust. With resonances of King Lear (a father who decides to leave the running of the rich family acreage to his three daughters) it zings with tension and betrayal. Smiley is Book-cover-Wildwriting a new family saga trilogy starting with Some Luck and Early Warning. They are big books so I’m leaving a bit of space before I tackle them.

My second favourite book for the year was Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. Some readers might be put off by the ‘self-help’ implications of the title but this is an extremely cleverly-written book. Just how Strayed can make a story of walking by herself through the wilderness for a couple of months so compelling, to my way of thinking, is a masterclass in non-fiction writing. By the end, you’ve really gone on that body-breaking trip with her: she’s an everywoman of her time. I did cry when she came to the end of the trail and the story.

A year of reading Harry Potter

HP-and-the-philosophers-stone-original I was a bit of a book snob in my younger years and eschewed Harry Potter, buying in to all the other snobby things that were said about JK Rowling – that she was a pedestrian writer, that it was infantile for adults to read the Potter books, that the best thing you could say about Rowling was that she got kids reading.

Of course there is something annoying about one writer becoming so incredibly wealthy and feted, while other fantasy writers, arguably just as good, sold many fewer books and were much less well-known. There is something not right about a publishing industry that concentrates so much on a small number of authors who they promote to the hilt, while letting others wither. But all this should not have stopped me giving the Potter books a go.

I’m sure I would have been hooked, even back then. I remember a co-worker suggesting I buy The Philosophers Stone for one of my young nephews when it first came out. I dropped in to Better Read Than Dead in Newtown but thought the cover looked silly and Harry-potter-new-chamber-of-secrets-cover-630comicky and didn’t buy it (the publishers did recognise this fact and put out various editions so that adults and older readers wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen reading them). I bought The Subtle Knife instead and so got us all hooked on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (equally fantastic).

Anyhow if I had become a Potter fan in 1997, like everyone else I would have had to wait a year or two between instalments (how on earth did all the kids bear that?). So in 2015 I finally got around to reading a second-hand copy of The Philosopher’s Stone that I had in the bookshelf for years. I was then ushered in to the mysteriously enveloping world of the Potterverse, as they like to call it. How on earth does she do it? What exactly is it about Harry Potter than is so utterly absorbing? I don’t know that I exactly have the answer because, in my opinion, what shouldn’t work, does absolutely, without a doubt.

I will note that with the later books, it did take me longer to get into the story but after HP good quality prisonerfifty or sixty pages, she always had me hooked. It’s like a big wave comes over you and you’re in.

So, what is it? Some of it is the misunderstood child – the child with special abilities shunned by their society (the Dursleys) having to find their place. In the beginning Harry is totally at sea, not knowing that he is from wizarding stock. Like the reader, he has to find out all about the new world of Hogwarts and the fun really begins in Diagon Alley when he has to select a wand, gets his robes, cauldron, owl etc.

The beautifully detailed world of Hogwarts is the next deeply satisfying element. Rowling creates a wonderfully described world, the type of school everyone would have liked to have gone to. Who doesn’t desire a dining hall where the ceiling dissolves to show the night sky above, where candelabras hover and scrumptious food magically appears on plates?

goblet of fireHarry, despite his scar and the mystery surrounding his birth, or perhaps because of it, is an outsider. He hooks up with two other outsiders, the bookish, too-serious Hermione and the fairly inept, lacking-in-confidence Ron. I loved Hermione and identified with her wanting to make the most out of what Hogwarts offered – the classes: ‘potions’, ‘herbology’, ‘transfiguration’, ‘charms’, ‘divination’, ‘care of magical creatures’ and of course ‘defence against the dark arts’ are some of the most fun aspects of the books (not to mention the fun to be had with the spells and their latinese names lumos, expelliarmus, protego, leviosa, reparo – so hard learnt in the early books and then used as second-nature in the later ones). Ron, I wasn’t so keen on but I saw, in the end, how his humour and matter-of-factness was a necessary aid to Harry as the books become darker and he comes to realise the full, terrible intent of his fight with Voldemort.

The other thing that is so satisfying is the way Rowling puts the books together. Each book is excellently plotted with its own complex mystery to be solved, but the sense of an HP Phoenixoverarching purpose is maintained. I was always a bit confused about how the Hogwarts/wizarding world fitted in with the ordinary (muggle) world but Rowling does explain this as the books progress. The whole narrative, that eventually brings in the backstory of Harry’s parents, Dumbeldore and Voldemort, is a huge, complex jigsaw puzzle that, in the end, you realise Rowling was totally in control of. (By the way, this is something that is missed in the films. Maybe it was because things had to be telegraphed to get into two or three hours, but it was hard to tell what was going on for most of the time. There was much that was fantastic about the characters in the films – Rickman as Snape, Smith as McGonnagall, both Dumbledores, and the three of Harry, Ron and Hermione were spot on – and the set design/mis en scene was wonderful – but the actual storyline??)

Does that explain it? Does Rowling key into the tropes of the hero’s journey, the story that is supposed to be hardwired into our consciousness – you know: the call to a quest, the  French_Book_6_Coverrefusal, the mentor, the cave, realisation, the facing of the enemy, the return etc.? Of course she does but so do many other writers who have not achieved her fame.

I feel it is more about the strong pull of childhood when we are free of responsibilities and can live in the imagination. Boarding school (for all its horrors in the real world) it a place away from the restrictive world of parents where we can be actualised as individuals, where new possibilities open up to us. I believe we are all terribly nostalgic for that time. I know I am.

Farewell Potterverse (sniff).

Jack of Spades – Joyce Carol Oates

spadesWriters like to write about writers and the hero of this comic thriller is Andrew J Rush, a successful mystery writer. Rush is quite chuffed when a reviewer calls him the gentlemanly Stephen King but as becomes more and more apparent as the novel progressives it’s probably the Stephen King likeness rather than the gentlemanly, that he values. Unbeknownst to his wife and his agent, Rush has an alter ego in the form of ‘Jack of Spades’, the name he uses as a pseudonym for  other books he publishes. While Rush’s other writing is ‘gentlemanly’, Jack of Spades’ work is brutal and crude, so much so that when rush’s college student daughter spies one of the Jack of Spades books in her father’s study and decides to read it, she is appalled.

Things start to unravel when someone called C W Haider sues Rush for plagiarism. The depiction of the flash New York lawyer that Rush’s publisher assigns to defend him is skewered beautifully by Oates, as is the machinations of Haider, who turns out to be a serial litigant (and, yes, she has also accused Stephen King of stealing from her [Haider’s] self-published works).

Rush, who, when we first meet him as a successful, controlled individual would have let the lawyer do his worst, and not become involved. But Rush has started drinking and can’t sleep: Jack of Spades is whispering in his ear, and by degrees, he starts to bThe_Museum_of_Dr._Mosesecome indiscreet and obsessed by Haider, and his carefully compartmentalised life begins to fall apart.

This is a slight book, but satisfyingly written. The spoof on writers, success, fans and publishing is spot on.

Oates’ dark edge is not so obvious here but is very evident in The Museum of Dr Moses, a creepy collection of stories I recently read by her.

Miss Timmins’ School for Girls – Nayana Currimbhoy

TimminsThis quite long novel set in India in the 1970s is an odd mixture of boarding school story, murder mystery and coming of age story of young, inexperienced teacher Charu but it doesn’t really follow the tropes of any of these genres.

Twenty something Charu who was born with a disfiguring birthmark on her face she calls a ‘blot’ takes a job teaching at a girls’ boarding school in Panchgani, a high scenic area a few hours out of Bombay. She is inexperienced but wins over some of the girls with her teaching of Macbeth, but soon she comes under the sway of a white teacher, Moira Prince, known to the girls as ‘the Prince’ or to Charu as Pin. Pin is wild and the girls steer clear of her but her freedom from convention is attractive to Charu, and she becomes involved with Pin and her friend Merch, a poetry reading, drug-taking man who lives an idle life above a dispensary in town, occasionally teaching at the school.

But no sooner do we get to know Pin, and she has started an affair with Charu, than the Prince is dead, seemingly murdered and thrown off a cliff. The rest of the novel is involved with solving this murder, in one way or another, but quite tangentially.

The middle section switches to the point of view of three of the school girls who were in the vicinity of the tragedy on that wet and windy monsoon night when it occurred. They saw something (including Charu running down from the spot) but are not sure what it all means. They begin investigating, and the main girl, Nandita, who has always liked Charu, is given a dangerous piece of evidence that will point the guilt in a particular direction.

In the last third of the novel we return to Charu’s point of view, the attempted suicide of her mother, and an old humiliation of her father that has diminished the family is revisited. We get to see Charu’s extended family, their meddling and their support, and the pressure put on women to conform. Meanwhile Charu returns to Panchgani and there are arrests and threatened violence, and nothing about the Prince’s death is as simple as it seemed.

All this makes it sound like it is a plot-driven novel but it’s not really. It’s really, I think, the author’s recollections of her own time at a girl’s boarding school and her exploration of how a person who doesn’t fit in, navigates her way around her family and society. What is wonderful about it, for a non-Indian, is a lovely insight into Indian culture that is a far cry from the stereotyped Raj or the gritty urban take on poverty and corruption. I loved the detail of the school still, in the 70s, run on British lines and the unspoken but evident divide between white and brown, the feel of the monsoon and the landscape, and the descriptions of food and family life. It’s a baggy, voluminous tale but the experience of another world is very enjoyable.

Clade – review

cladeThis is a clever, low-key speculative fiction novel where, when the disasters come (climate change, plague), they are normalised into the lives of the characters. If you’ve lived long enough like me, you’ve seen this happen yourself. When I was a child it was inconceivable that animals like tigers or koalas might become endangered, inconceivable that every square inch of the world might be touched by humans – yet here we are.

Clade starts at about our own time with a young scientist, Adam, in Antarctica observing the vanishing sea ice. Adam’s partner, Ellie, is back in Sydney waiting to hear if her IVF treatment has been successful. This family, in a way, is the genetic code running through the book, the stories like the moments of mutation that shift along biology. Bradley doesn’t give us a comfortable narrative arc, but rather a series of linked stories exploring aspects of our possible future that concentrate on human relations – husband and wife, father and daughter, grandfather and grandson, against a backdrop of floods, plague, migration upheavals, repression, all seen through reality as well as the plethora of ‘screens’ and ‘overlays’ pumping out ‘feeds’. Clade, in its structure, reminded me of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge in the power and emotional depth that can be achieved by building up something through concentrating on a particular aspect and character, and then just letting a certain resonance happen between the different stories. I’m not quite sure how this works and, in a way, it shouldn’t – it should seem disjointed but it’s not.

Climate change, as our esteemed ex-prime minister said, is the greatest moral challenge of our time. There are many dystopian novels around now, and I’m sure there will be more. Bradley’s is a refreshing take on this, rooted in the everyday at a human level, yet at times quite wildly speculative, full of interesting takes on things, on the dark thoughts about the future most of us must have.

 

Turn of Mind – Alice LaPlante

turnofmindDr Jennifer White suffers from Alzheimer’s and she is the narrator of this murder mystery (where she is implicated as the murderer). How is this possibly going to work as a narrative? LaPlante cleverly works out a way to give us an intriguing, tense, absorbing novel. Because of her condition, Jennifer is almost always in the present (although she does, at times, fleetingly remember the past) – but her ‘presentness’ is necessarily only contained in brief passages of clarity. Luckily Jennifer is an orthopaedic surgeon, a well-off upper class resident of Chicago so she is erudite and sardonic.

While it is Jennifer who narrates the story, LaPlante uses the device of a journal that is filled in by Jennifer’s carer, Magdalena and her (Jennifer’s) daughter, Fiona, so that Jennifer can read what was said and done the previous day (for example, when she denies something has happened, Magdalena can point to the section of the journal as proof). There are also some letters and photos that have been pasted in that Magdalena or Fiona feel might help Jennifer to remain tethered to her past life.

It’s a bit of a trick, but probably a necessary one, that laPlante includes the dialogue that Jennifer hears but, obviously, doesn’t ‘narrate’ to us as such.

In this way, aspects of the past are slowly pieced together – what Jennifer’s relationship was with her friend Amanda (who has been found murdered with four fingers on her hand amputated), her husband James, and her children Fiona and Mark. A thread of tension runs through when an inquisitive detective takes an ongoing interest in Jennifer.

Running counter to a resolution of the mystery is the deterioration in Jennifer’s condition. Despite her snippiness, the reader can’t help hoping against hope that Jennifer retains her independence, her lucidity. LaPlante beautifully captures the richness of Jennifer’s remembrances and observations, as well as the black humour of the mind getting things askew.

This aspect of the novel is satisfying in itself, even without the murder device. I guess pitching a novel about Alzheimer’s isn’t as attractive as an Alzheimer’s mystery thriller. I felt the final revelation in this strand was weak but this doesn’t detract from the strength of the novel as a whole. There are a lot of these narrow, limited-focus novels on the market lately – S J Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. They are a one-trick pony but very compelling for all that.

The Crown – Nancy Bilyeau

Crown-UKI was put on to this novel through a historical fiction site where there were a lot of favourable reviews for it. I can see why, because it is quite entertaining in a Dan Brownesque way.

Joanna Stafford is a novice in Dartford Priory. She hails from an aristocratic family that has fallen foul of Henry VIII’s pogrom against the ‘old faith’. Joanna, as a modern heroine in a medieval frock, is soon out of the priory and involving herself in court and political matters. She goes to see her cousin Margaret burnt at the stake for treason and is captured as a collaborator by the authorities and ends up in the Tower.

To save her father, she is coerced into helping Bishop Gardiner (who is ostensibly working for the king) find a mysterious artifact, the Athelstan Crown, that is supposedly hidden somewhere in Dartford Priory.

Accompanied by two Dominican brothers (again whose allegiance is questionable) she settles back into Dartford, and her quest.

Bilyeau’s research on priory life is thoroughly done but her modernisms in language grate (Joanna is forever saying ‘everything is fine’). I like that Bilyeau has chosen a novice nun as her heroine (an a Catholic one at that – we are all sick of the over-exposure of the Tudors) and she does give Joanna a sense of faith and loyalty to her calling, even if she is the most disobedient novice imaginable (the deadly sins of anger and pride also get a workout).

The story is full of hidden tunnels, scraps of information in library books, clues woven into tapestries, murder by reliquary, secret messages, treachery etc. I won’t spoil the ending but it was a bit of a damp squib after the build up – possibly because there is a sequel The Chalice.

It is all a bit silly but the setting is nicely done, the characters are engaging, and the pacing and tension achieves the objective – a page-turning entertainment.

My top book for 2014

bright star window readMy New Years resolution as always is to watch less television and to read more books. There are very few television dramas, and even documentaries, for that matter, that can match the enjoyment, creativity and soul-uplifting moments of a good book. Yes, there’s Game of Thrones, I’ll give you that and I did like The Code and Homeland but the rest I can live without (I took objection to True Detectives).

So of the books read in 2014, which stood out? There are three that I loved and admired. The wonderful and gut-wrenching Nigerian saga Half of a Yellow Sun. This is one of those books you can just immerse yourself in confident the author knows her stuff and will take you into another world. You go along with the characters of the sisters Olanna and Kainene, and their torrid downfall from middle-class women to desperate refugees, but it is not depressing – the beauty of Nigeria, the hope of a new, fairer state and the interesting, complex characters make this such a rewarding book. After I’d finished reading it I felt an interest in Nigeria, the way you do when you visit a country, and then somehow feel you have a stake in it, so immersive, wide-ranging and detailed is this book.

My next standout was The Bees by Laline Paull. I so admire how Paull managed to make a fascinating and compelling drama out of life in a bee hive, yet she managed this brilliantly. From the first page we are right in there in the life of our heroine Flora 717. Like all good heroines Flora has something to hide so that she is the odd one out so that we see the hive, with its strict hierarchy, from an outsider’s point of view. The life of the hive is wonderfully realised, from the pheromones the Queen emits to keep all the bees compliant, to the tough ‘sages’ who protect the Queen, to the freedom felt by flora when she becomes a forager bee going outside the hive for the first time. Paull’s imaginative recreation is completely stunning.

But, I must say, my top book for 2014 was The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. This is a small book in scope (the life of an elderly woman and the ‘carer’ who comes to look after her) but huge on control and nuance. I loved the pace of this book and how cleverly McFarlane spooled out the narrative. The novel is all about controlled point of view so that the mystery of who is telling the truth and what exactly is going on is kept in balance right until the end. I love this type of book because there can’t be one wrong note – it has to be as taut as a wire, and The Night Guest achieves that.

So the top three:

  • The Night Guest
  • Half of a Yellow Sun
  • The Bees

BTW – for those interested in the gender issue – 23 female authors read, 10 male. I guess I’m typical there.