Category Archives: Book Reviews

Cerne Giant 2

So Priapus, What Do You Get If You Cross An Owl With A Rooster? – The Enormity Of The Tragedy by Quim Monzo

………..I won’t share the punchline of that bad joke with you – you can probably work it out anyway! But there is a similar slapstick-comedy style dirty joke running through Quim Monzo’s intriguing book ‘The Enormity of The Tragedy”.

Enormity of TragedyRamon-Maria, a trumpeter, finally hits lucky with Maria-Eugenia, sex-goddess star of the theatre show where he works. Alas on the first night a combination of over-thinking and booze mean he can’t perform. He stares at his limp penis wishing it were different. And next morning it is. Ramon-Maria is erect and ready to make love. He performs faultlessly. He performs again immediately. And again and again.  In the bedroom, the hallway, the streets, theatres, and even in the hallowed Camp Nou, Ramon-Maria embarks on a marathon tour-cum-orgy around every nook and cranny of Barcelona – they do it so often it is Maria-Eugenia who has to beg for him to stop. But he can’t, for like Priapus the Greek fertility god, Ramon-Maria’s erection is permanent. In contrast to the first flaccid beginnings of his sex life with Maria-Eugenia, Ramon-Maria can’t get his erection to fall – no matter what he thinks, no matter what he does. And in the midst of

.....Or is Priapus just pleased to see you?!!!
…..Or is Priapus just pleased to see you?!!!

the joke, the detail about the challenges of getting his erect member to allow him to pee or simply walk the streets without scandalising the populace, Quim Monzo begins to shift the novel firmly into ‘be careful what you wish for’ territory! For while permanent erection might be nothing unusual among Greek gods, here it is the portent of tragedy to come for Ramon-Maria.

Alongside the story of coming to terms with an indefatigably erect penis, Ramon-Maria is also in the sights of his 15 year-old step-daughter Anna-Francesca for very different reasons. Embittered and bewildered by her late mothers choice of Ramon-Maria as a husband, Anna-Francesca cannot tolerate how she has been fated by her mothers death to live in the crumbling mansion her mother left with a man she detests so completely. And she decides to do something about it by resolving to kill him first chance she gets.

What starts as a crude joke in this novel suddenly becomes very dark. Ramon-Maria is a man living on borrowed time in so many senses. For as well as unknowingly having stepped into the cross-hairs of his step-daughter’s aim, he soon learns that he’s also stepped into the cross-hairs of fates aim too – or to put it another way because of Newton’s law of ‘what goes up must come down’, Ramon-Maria soon learns that his permanent erect penis isn’t just a ticket to have sex all over the city, it also means the curtain is coming down on his life too!

Through this Monzo transforms the book from ribaldry to a deep, intense look at people, relationships and our motives for just about anything. Ramon-Maria moves from grappling with one fate to the next, and while it does change some aspects of his personality, others remain frustratingly to the fore. And of course the sick crude joke shifts from a sexual one to the cruelties of fate and life itself – as Ramon-Maria plans how to use life’s last few remaining hours his step-daughter plans how to make sure he ONLY HAS a last few remaining hours. This shift in the black humour in the book is a touch of real genius – it takes you as reader from wondering where and with who he will get it next to wondering which fate will get him in the end.

Of course beyond the black humour in the story, this book says much about the way we live our lives. The whole cast of characters are seriously messed-up and everybody seems to have an “angle”. There is a wonderful contrast in the way in which the early death of Rosa-Margarida has driven her husband Ramon-Maria and her daughter Anna-Francesca to opposite corners – one bewilderingly detached from his step-daughter while the other is consumed by loathing and lust for revenge. And that contrasting aspect of the two main characters is kept up brilliantly throughout the book.

Quim Monzo - writer, translator....and Albert Finney look-a-like?
Quim Monzo – writer, translator….and Albert Finney look-a-like?

What I took most from the book though was the feeling of emptiness Quim Monzo created and for me that was the real enormous tragedy. There is a superficial feel to every relationship, be it personal or professional, long-term or fleeting. The role of sex in the novel is a substitute for a relationship rather than an integral part of it. And the city, busy and bustling, feels empty, devoid of color and purpose. In several places in the book Monzo describes his characters moods and thoughts through the most intense monologues and it not only gives the book its power, it also gives it that feel of everyone living in a detached, almost bubble-like, world.

The language of the book is rich, and while at times there was the odd typo here and there, it reads to me like it’s been brilliantly translated from Catalan because there is such a flow to it. That’s especially true of the passages where Monzo uses long, long lists, going on for pages sometimes, describing aspects of his characters. The section where he records what Anna-Francesca has learned from her research into the ways to kill a man is funny and gut-wrenching, shocking and eye-watering all at the same time.

She learned that any stab to the neck leads to a massive loss of blood that can splatter the attacker. From the front you should plunge the blade in flat between the ribs. Or under the ribs, and in a single movement lever the blade up to do maximum damage to the heart. You only have to sink it in five centimetres to reach it; five to eight centimetres more and you make sure.

The Enormity Of The Tragedy is a bleak novel and yet it will make you laugh in places. It will also present you with fairly morally corrupt characters who will shock you, partly by their actions and partly by your reaction to their actions for I found myself identifying with both of the main characters! It’s a quirky and unsettling book which has its impact more by how disturbing it feels in some ways.

Everything EspanaI read this as part of my Everything Espana Reading Challenge which you can find at caffeinatedlife.net blog. I did some research of Spanish novels, compiled a list and then purchased several. This was the most difficult to track down and I’ve not seen any other Monzo’s translated into English. But I hope there are because Enormity of the Tragedy was so good it has definitely got me wanting more of Monzo’s black humour and eye for both the banal and the bizarre.

Book Info
“The Enormity Of The Tragedy” by Quim Monzo, and translated from Catalan by Peter Bush, is published by Peter Owen Publishers. I tracked it down through Waterstones Marketplace I think!
If you want to read a little bit more about Quim Monzo, there’s a pretty good biography on LLetrA which is an e-mag about Catalan literature.
Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

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Falling

Trying To Make A Brand New Ending – The Shock Of The Fall by Nathan Filer

Shock Of The Fall…..There’s a quote from an American academic Carl Bard: “Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new end”.  As I read The Shock Of The Fall by Nathan Filer I so wanted to give that advice, glib though it might be, to the main character Matthew. But as you read it you know that sometimes, no matter how much someone needs to start afresh for a new ending, that initial start is too big to set aside.

The Shock Of The Fall has gathered fantastic reviews and prizes such as the Costa First Novel Prize and so I read it with a slight air of apprehension – would it live up to the hype and the praise? It did and with ease. The Shock of the Fall is a great read, and given that it is a debut novel it’s a remarkable piece of writing.

It tells the story of Matthew, a 19 year old schizophrenic trying to come to terms with his older sibling Simon’s death when they were both children. You know from very early in the book that it is the “shock of the fall” that kills Simon, but the book unravels more of what happened and in particular the reason for the suffocating and destructive guilt which Matthew carries with him and which continues to haunt him. It is told from Matthew’s point of view and it forms a sort of self-penned pseudo case file, combining Matthew’s typed notes, sketches, hand-written letters and doodles. It is all at once funny, shocking and tragic. There’s a wonderful sharp black humour in much of what Matthew sees of himself and in how he sees himself come across to others. Equally though it’s a fascinating insight into our care for people with mental health and into our social attitudes to mental health. So for all that this is a wonderful, powerful story, at times when you see the world through Matthew’s eyes, and in particular when you see how we as a society treat him and people with similar health needs, its a pretty shameful experience to read this too.

keyboard

There is also a raw feeling to the writing and at times it makes it uncomfortable to read – but it is supposed to be uncomfortable. As part of my job these days I manage some services where we support young adolescents who are at risk of self-harm. And though it is not an academic review of our mental health services it did make me reflect on what we do and why. And at times it was more than reflection – it made me feel ashamed.

“It’s about Hope Road” she said. “It looks like we may have to scale back the groups, maybe scaling back on everything.

“Oh right”

“We’ve been fighting it for a while. But services are being cut right across the Trust. Right across the NHS really. And well, it seems we are no exception.

She was looking at me to respond, so what I said was “Is your job safe?”

She smiled at me then but she still looked sad. “You’re very sweet. It’s probably safe, yes. There’s some consultations later this week. But it doesn’t look – Well we’ve decided to start letting service users know so it isn’t such a shock.”

“Who?”

“Service Users. Um – Patients”

“Oh. Right”

They have a bunch of names for us. Service Users must be the latest. I think there must be people who get paid to decide this shit.

As well as describing what is around him and how it affects him, The Shock of The Fall also uses the plot device of releasing bit by bit information about Simon’s death before it gets to the “big reveal” at the end. In other books this can often drown out the subtleties in the narrative and overwhelm the characters. But not here for this is really well written. The testimony to how well written this is lies in the fact that at its heart, the subject matter here is pretty grim. There’s the death of a child, the collapse of a family, the slide of a young man into schizophrenia and the world of community based care for mental health followed by the world in which Matthew resides after he is sectioned. But it never feels grim to read for there is such a bitter, sharp wit in so many of Matthew’s observations. At one point in looking around the office in the setting where he is sectioned he notices that most of the things on display – the clock, the post-it notes, the desk diary etc are all sponsored by the pharmaceutical companies who provide the very same medication Matthew is fed daily. He brilliantly likens it to “being in prison and having to look at adverts for the fucking locks!”

The other real strength of this book are the characters. Matthew is so well developed but every other character is strong, relevant to the story and they are all portrayed with a keen eye for detail and some wonderful descriptions. When Matthew recalls the circumstances for the family finally deciding to redecorate Simon’s room, to use it for his granddad recovering from a knee operation he captures all the emotion, shock and tension in one simple line about milk!

….I suddenly came out with it. ‘Do you think we should redecorate the bedroom for him?’

We shoved heaped spoonfuls of cornflakes into our mouths and nobody said anything for a bit. We just chewed it over. Mum was the first to swallow. She said ‘Let’s do it today!’

In my memory milk squirts out of Dad’s nose. But probably it didn’t. Memory plays tricks over time. He was shocked though. ‘Really love? I’m sure your dad won’t mind if-’

‘Let’s make it nice for him, okay?’

It’s like pulling off a plaster.

Nathan Filer is a registered mental health nurse by profession and there is no doubt that this experience helps to give the book its realistic and gritty feel. He is also a performance poet though and I wonder if it is that experience and that skill that gives this book its massive emotional pull. It is quite literally an experience to read this book – it pulls you around emotionally from frustration to hope to anger to despair. You end up not just living this story through Matthew – when you get to the end you feel like you’ve lived it with him.

This is a terrific though tragic story, cleverly crafted and beautifully written. Overall that makes for an absolutely stunning novel – you should read it!

Book Info
“The Shock Of The Fall” by Nathan Filer is published by HarperCollins. My genius-like partner gave it to me as part of my Christmas book presents, having heard it recommended on BBC Radio as one of the choices on Simon Mayo’s Book Club on Radio 2!
If you are interested in finding out more about ‘The Shock Of The Fall’ you can catch Nathan Filer’s own website here. If you want to read other reviews of Shock of the Fall, then try The Unlikely Bookworm or Girl With Her Head In A Book.
Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

Nine

 

Capture

Split Your Lungs With Blood and Thunder When You See………..Book Review of The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

If you want to skip the witty, erudite, entertaining review below, you can take a short cut here to my condensed Two Things Review!!!)

Orenda and Joseph BI snort derisorily at adverts I see on the Tube proclaiming a recent release as ” Film of the Year” or “This Is The Best Album of 2014″. I just think – “Jesus!! It’s only early February! Give the year a chance and judge it at the end!”. I also tend to think that those that get advertised this early as a possible book/film/album of the year probably aren’t!

At least that’s how I used to feel till I read Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda in the middle of January. So now, at the risk of snorting derisorily at myself, I have to say

“This will be the best book I will read in 2014″………

for I can’t envisage being lucky enough to read another as stunning as this is!!!

For The Orenda is a beast of a book. A magnificent, brilliant, beast of a book! But it’s not for the faint-hearted!

The Orenda

It is set in Canada in the mid 1600′s and it follows the intertwined lives of Snow Falls, a young Haudenosaunee girl of the Iroquois nation, Bird, a warrior of the Wendat from the Huron nation, hellbent on revenging the slaughter of his wife and children by the Iroquois, and Christophe “Crow”, a French Jesuit priest hellbent on saving souls for Christ and perhaps his own salvation at the same time. It is a sweeping, panoramic story of the warring Huron and Iroquois tribes of the First Nation, their conflicting and at times disastrous relationships with European settlers and the slow erosion of their values, beliefs and way of life.

The story is told through the eyes of those three main characters, Bird, Snow Falls and Crow, in alternating chapters. This isn’t the easiest narrative structure to deal with for an author as it shifts from one perspective to another, but Boyden’s touch is masterful. The three retain a wonderful individuality throughout while being influenced by the other two, and at the same time their individuality is enhanced by seeing them from the perspective of others.  Best of all they are also three fantastic characters – among the very best and most engaging I’ve ever read about.

So what makes it not for the faint of heart? Well, there is nothing spared in the detail Joseph Boyden delivers about the guts and gore in places. The Iroquois  and Huron have an approach to the torture of each others prisoners which involves removal of fingers, tongues, eyes, along with the use of red hot pokers inserted into various parts of the body. Yet the point of the torture isn’t to get information – the torturers focus simply on how bravely the victims bare it. This is more about honour and almost perversely tradition – and both Iroquois and Huron describe these tortures as ‘caressing’.

It’s fabulously well handled, for though Boyden writes about ‘caressing’ with an eye for the finest, minutest of details that wouldn’t look out of place in a forensic Blood Pattern Analysis Report, it never becomes gratuitous or mindless violence. It’s certainly chilling and shocking but at the risk of sounding quite weird, there is something that’s almost beautiful in the way some of this is written. Perhaps the bit that is most striking and shocking about the catalogue of brutal acts in this story is that I thought the most awful thing in the book wasn’t carried out by either of the tribes and wasn’t the most violent either. But it’s done in the name of religion and it leaves you wondering just who were the ‘savages’ and who were the ‘civilised’ in this, as in so many other parts of history.

For all the vicious physical violence of the Iroquois and Huron, when it comes to belief and values, they were for me by some distance the moral superiors of the colonising powers. Equally, don’t be fooled by thinking from what I just said above that the book settles into a cliched, glib “European settlers= The Bad Guy” approach – far from it. The book is more complex than that and it’s messages have a far sharper focus on the motives and contexts for European settlement alongside portraying the First Nation Peoples as anything but naive in metaphorically getting into bed with the English, French and Dutch  – they are absolutely clear what this is about……it’s about business!

Beyond the violence in the book, this is a story about people, families, love and relationships – and not just relationships with one another but also relationships with our surroundings and the world we live in. The ‘orenda’ itself is a belief among the First Nation peoples that everything has a soul – not just people. This belief in the soul in its widest sense clashes with the much narrower Christian belief in the soul as something unique to humans. That tension over values, beliefs, and cultural identity sits very much at the heart of a large part of the story.

As horrific as some of the violence is, the love in the book is equally powerful – and it puts the violence into context. This is how Bird describes his murdered wife and daughters at the beginning of a Huron ceremony to “move” the bones of the dead, called ‘Kettle’…..

…The time for Kettle has come, and the time for the village to move has arrived. I would never leave you behind. I sit here and cry and wash your bones with my tears. I hold you again as I hug you close to me. I watch over all of you this night.

The three of you aren’t heavy as I carry you on my shoulders to the place of the kettle. I remember our life together in the village we have now left for good. I didn’t realise how sentimental I’ve grown over these last many seasons. I remember what it felt like to come home from a long journey, to walk into the longhouse and your arms, our girls hugging my legs. I’ve not been able to move on from you even though I know you want me to.

With my own two hands I place your bones into the ossuary and mingle them with the others so you will never be lonely. I sing your song as the tears flow down my face, my song weaving into those others until we are all one great voice. You are with me right now, my love. I can feel your hands upon my face and our daughters arms wrapped around my waist. We are one again, at least for now, and as we cover you with the warmth of the beaver furs, I whisper to you that it wont be too long before we are finally together again.

The Orenda is a fantastic book. For anyone thinking of reading it, I’d urge you to be prepared for, but not put off by, the violence. The characters, plot, and the writing throughout is simply stunning. So stunning that the violence will shock you for how right it feels within the story just as much as it will shock you for its graphic detail. The end of the story is utterly gripping – just one of those ‘can’t put it down and hold your breath’ endings that are so rare and so magical.

So early February or not, I think this will be my book of the year 2014. I’m convinced of it. I can’t imagine I will read something else as good as The Orenda, or that I will read about characters who I absolutely believed in the way I did Bird, Snow Falls and Crow. But if there is another book like this out there waiting for me, I can’t wait!

Book Info
“The Orenda” by Joseph Boyden is published by Oneworld Publications. My genius-like partner gave it to me as part of my Christmas book presents, having heard it recommended on BBC Radio as one of the choices on Simon Mayo’s Book Club on Radio 2!
If you are interested in finding out more about ‘The Orenda’ you can hear Joseph Boyden being interviewed on Radio 2 here. Or if you prefer you can watch him discuss the novel below
Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

ten

Can’t Be Arsed? Two Things You Need To Know About ‘The Orenda’ by Joseph Boyden

Two Things 5…….That You Need To Know About

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

1. If you had to watch Dr Who from behind the sofa when you were a kid then beware – there is a fair amount of claret in this book – it’s the most magnificent, beautiful, spectacular, yet terrifying, spillage of claret you’ll ever read about but there is a lot of it – so might be worth clearing a space behind the sofa before you start to read it!!!

2. The three main characters Snow Falls, Bird and Crow are so special and so amazing that you could happily go for a beer with the three of them after work on a Friday night – and I mean EVERY Friday night!!!

3. This book is so utterly brilliant and fantastic – you simply can’t limit it to only two things!

Lispector 2

Nao me mostre o que esperam de mim porque vou seguir meu coracao

If you want to skip the witty, erudite, entertaining review below, you can take a short cut here to my condensed Two Things Review!!!)
Do not show me what you expect of me because I follow my heart
Do not show me what you expect of me because I follow my heart

Generally reviewing a book on a blog post is a relatively straightforward exercise when you strip it down to its most basic form – did I like it? And if I did, what did I like about it? There’s usually a rather simplistic relationship between those two questions in that an answer of “yes” to the first flows into an easy list for the second. But occasionally, maybe once in every god knows how many years, I find a book where I can’t simply go from one to the other. Clarice Lispector’s Near To The Wild Heart is such a book – for to put it simply, I liked this book but I have absolutely no idea why because for large parts of it I’m not sure I actually know what it was about! In fact, for large parts of it, there is part of me thinks it wasn’t about anything!

So before you start to think I’m a complete eejit ( or even if you have ALREADY reached the conclusion that I MUST be a complete eejit!) I will try and explain!

Near To The Wild HeartAt its core Near To The Wild Heart is an intense, almost uncomfortably introspective look at the life and relationships of Joana, which is told in sort of chapters, but which are more like fragments from her life. And they veer between recollections about her childhood, adolescence, love affair and marriage which are then interspersed with seemingly random encounters with odd events and people. It is certainly full of self analysis, scrutiny, insight into motive, response or thought process, but it doesn’t actually tell her story – it just illustrates those fragments – it’s a bit like discovering a photograph album which documents a life but only has one photo in every hundred in focus!

Essentially there isn’t really a plot and in some respects there’s little character development either. For all the depth in which it delves into Joana’s personality, it’s all stream of consciousness. For all that there is a mass of the minutest detail on a persons arm, or a gesture, you never actually get a sense of Joana as a person on the outside. On the inside though is a different matter – her thought processes and reflections pour off the page. Now at this point you’d expect that if I like a book which is in some respects a character study, then it must mean that I like the character – but that’s another of the quite odd feelings you get when you read this book for Joana isn’t remotely likeable – in fact she’s distinctly odd. There’s little room for sympathy or even empathy with a character who is so lacking in awareness of others, so lacking in what I think we call emotional intelligence these days. She’s just odd – and it’s not the sort of “lovable clown” type odd you sometimes get with characters – Joana is bloody strange. All the time I read through it, I kept thinking of Jim Morrison and The Doors singing “People Are Strange, When You’re A Stranger!” Never was it more true of a character in a book I’ve read than it is with Joana in Near To The Wild Heart.

Is it me or is this the Brazilian literary equivalent of Sophia Loren?!
Is it me or is this the Brazilian literary equivalent of Sophia Loren?!

So, no plot, no characters to get into, no setting to get a view on and no idea what the hell it’s about – so what is there to like?????? Well, for me, it was the writing. It’s been years since I spent so much time annotating sentences, phrases, passages in a book as I have read it – my copy of this is littered with underlines and highlights and marks by the side of the page. For the writing is fabulous. Its a bit like taking a long hot soak in a bath that’s made up of words.

At one point in the book, she describes dawn and the sun making its way into her room as “she felt the new morning insinuating itself between the sheets”. Is that not simply the most bloody brilliant description of sunrise and morning you’re ever likely to read? And it is full of this wonderfully clever use of words!

“The room where she had spent so many afternoons glittered in the crescendo of an orchestra, silently, avenging itself for her distraction. All at once Joana discovered the unsuspecting potency of that quiet room. It was strange, silent, absent, as if no one had ever set foot in it, as if it were a reminiscence”

Perhaps the oddest but best way I can describe this book is that it a collection of wonderful words, but not in the way you usually know it. Words on a page ordinarily flow together in a book, to create all the things I love about reading, be it plot, structure, character, event, whatever. Here the words don’t actually flow together as such, but they don’t seem to need to – it’s as if this is a book where the words aren’t used for the sum of the parts but it’s a book where the words ARE the parts.

So if you want to read a novel where you haven’t a clue what’s going on and you don’t care, and if you are happy to try a novel where you just  let your eyes and your mind take a long, warm, soothing word bath, then try Near To The Wild Heart. It might just be for you!

Book Info
Clarice Lispector’s “Near To The Wild Heart” is published by Penguin Modern Classics. My thanks to Waterstones who sent it to me as a review copy.
The book is part of a series of Lispector’s books being published by Penguin in 2014. There have been recent reviews by the great and the good (i.e. not by ignorant eejits like me) with review of “Hour of the Star” here by Colm Toibin in The Guardian and of “Near To The Wild Heart” here by JS Tennant again in the Guardian. There was also a fascinating article about the debate Lispector’s work provokes in the Daily Telegraph, essentially considering whether or not she is as good as Borges and Joyce as some people claim (I’ve no idea – I’m only really capable of making comparisons with the Man Utd midfield of Scholes and Keane!)
Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

eight

The Thomas’s Crown Affair!……………………………Audiobook Review of Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

………….As soon as I found out that Hilary Mantel’s sequel to Wolf Hall was due to be published, I couldn’t wait to read it. And that sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, charting the rise, rise, further rise and then a little bit more rise(!), of Thomas Cromwell, in the corridors of power and intrigue around the court of Henry VIII, was as brilliant as I expected it to be. It was as terrific as Wolf Hall and as deserving, in my humble opinion, of the second Booker and all the other plaudits it got. And from there, once I’d decided to have a go at the Audiobook Challenge I couldn’t wait to find out if Bring Up The Bodies is as good on the ears as it was on the eyes!

Bring Up The BodiesAnd it is! The version I listened to was an unabridged version, read by Simon Vance, and lasting just over 14 and a half hours in total. For those of you who don’t know the story, Wolf Hall and then Bring Up The Bodies tells of the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, engineered, manipulated, schemed and ultimately destroyed by a combination of ambition, greed, the madness of King Henry and the sublime, unique, Machiavellian talents of Thomas Cromwell. Henry might well be in charge of his crown in the most literal sense – but in every other sense it’s Cromwell who’s in charge of “the Crown” and every facet of its workings!

Ben Miles as Thomas in the RSC production of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies
Ben Miles as Thomas in the RSC production of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies

The audiobook I listened to was narrated brilliantly by Simon Vance, capturing perfectly every nook and cranny of the human edifice that is Thomas. By turns the mournful widower, the loving father, the cold rival and the utterly, utterly ruthless politician, Simon Vance’s narration gets to the heart of the contradiction that is Thomas. Churchill once described Russia as ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’. He could have easily described Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell in the same way – except perhaps Thomas is even more of puzzle, much more enigmatic and a damn sight scarier than Russia might be!!! If there was ever a man who fits the phrase ‘a complete bastard!’ then it’s the Cromwell of these pages – there are quite literally no bits of bastard missing!

No more Mr Nice Guy? Oh Ok then, one more nice guy day before I arrange to behead someone!
And could this perhaps be Tommy Lee Jones auditioning for the part of Thomas in the Quentin Tarantino version of Bring Up The Bodies????????

Best of all though is that for all those bits of the character of Cromwell that make you wince, gasp and shudder, even though it sounds almost bizarre to say it, he’s just so damn likeable! In fact, thanks to the portrayal of Cromwell in the audiobook, if anything I came to like him even more than before. In fact I’d go so far as to say that Thomas Cromwell has got to be one of the greatest literary characters of all time! Which considering he’s possibly a bit of sociopath, or possibly a bit of a psychopath or perhaps a bit of both, probably says a little about me, quite a bit about him and a helluva lot about how well Hilary Mantel has brought him to life on the pages of these books and how well Simon Vance breathes life and vitality into him through this narration!

2014-Audio-ChallengeThere are so, so many good bits to this audiobook it’s almost impossible to pick out the strengths – it’s all good! But I particularly liked the way the rough and ready characters of London, like Thurston the cook, come across. I liked the feel of the relationship between Cromwell and his son Gregory and I was continually amazed at the narrator’s ability to use just enough change in inflection, tone and accents to superbly portray an absolute panoply of wonderful characters, male and female, mad and sane (at least relatively sane!). This was the second audiobook I listened to for my Ears Challenge and you can find out more about the audiobook challenge here.

If you haven’t read either Wolf Hall or Bring Up The Bodies, you should. You really, really should. But if you have read them, or if you don’t fancy the read, but have 14 hours to spare having it read to you – I’d thoroughly recommend you do what I did – take the most enormously long and circuitous walks with the dog you can think of and lose yourself in the world of Henry, Anne, and the most likeable vicious bastard you’ll ever hear of – Thomas Cromwell!

Audiobook Info
Audiobook of Hilary Mantel’s ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ was produced by MacMillan Audio and narrated by Simon Vance. I bought it from iTunes.
You can find out more about both the audiobook and the narrator Simon Vance at his website, which is well worth a visit.
Book Rating Out of 10 (You can find my rating scale here)

Nine

The Genteel Black Hole Wars!

If you want to skip the witty, erudite, entertaining review below, you can take a short cut here to my condensed Two Things Review!!!)

Pratchett……….In the same way as there are different kinds of bookshops, this great little book shows that there are different types of gentility as well!!!! The bookshop in question in Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel starts as the realisation of a dream and turns slowly, but surely, into a nightmarish war of attrition!

The BookshopIn the seemingly sleepy and almost forgotten Suffolk town of Hardborough, Florance Green decides to invest her life and life savings in opening a bookshop. Fate seems to lend a hand when the perfect venue seems to become available but as Roger McGough’s poem says, after fate lends a hand, fate often wants its hand back! And the payback for Florence is that she’s fallen foul of the seemingly ultra-civilized Violet Gamart!  And for all the lady-of-the-manor appearance of Violet with her tweeds, brogues, clipped vowels and manners, underneath Violet has that most dangerous of double-edged swords – a vicious tongue and the guile to use it!
Very quickly the lines are drawn in the sand and the battle commences, in part for the future of the building, in part for Hardborough’s right to a bookshop and beyond that in part for the very soul of this sleepy corner of East England.

I really enjoyed this book though if I’m honest I’m at a loss to quite put my finger on why! It’s witty in places and slips effortlessly from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. The characters are so well drawn – I just found myself rooting for Florence because she was just so….Florence really! Perhaps above all I loved it’s air of gentleness and innocence, and even though that notion of a light, airy, frothy novel is quickly dispelled, it still had a lovely fresh feel to it from start to finish. I’d read this and The Golden Child in preparation for reading the much-praised Hermione Lee biography of Penelope Fitzgerald which was very much on my Christmas list! Alas Father Christmas wasn’t listening and I’m still to get my hands on the Lee biography. But even should I never get to read it, I’m still glad it allowed me to discover more of Penelope Fitzgerald’s work.

I doubt I am unique in wishing I owned a bookshop. And this is the bookshop of my dreams – quirky building, little bit shabby, little bit worn but infused within the wonderful smell of books and the sights and sounds of bookish talk, displays, promotions and purchases! Having read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop though, I suddenly think……. “Be careful what you wish for!”

Book Info
Penelope Fitzgerald’s “The Bookshop” published by Harper Collins and bought with my own hard earned dosh!
Apart from avarice for the Hermione Lee biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, I was tempted into reading The Bookshop by reading other blog posts about it, and if you are interested in those you can find them here at Alex In Leeds  and here at A Girl Walks Into A Bookstore (not only good review but one of best book blog titles I’ve come across!)
Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

seven

Caribbean Queens!…………………………Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo

If you want to skip the witty, erudite, entertaining review below, you can take a short cut here to my condensed Two Things Review!!!)

No sign of Billy Ocean then!
No sign of Billy Ocean then!

……………………………..No this isn’t a post in homage to the fantastic music of Billy Ocean – to be honest “fantastic” isn’t a word that comes within a million miles of my mind when I think of Billy Ocean – but after reading Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, “fantastic” is absolutely the word that comes to mind when I think about Barrington Jedidiah Walker Esq. and Monsieur Morris Courtney de la Roux, the two main characters, and self proclaimed Caribbean Queens (albeit only to one another!)

Barry and Morris have been totally and completely in love with one another since their teenage years on Antigua. Now 60 odd years later, they continue to be as adoring and besotted with one another on the streets of Hackney where they’ve lived out their secret affair for all those years under the noses of their wives, children, friends, neighbours and anybody else in London who cares to look in their direction. But as powerful and wonderful as their secret, all-encompassing, love and longing for each other is, by the very fact that it is secret and all encompassing, it is not without problems and indeed potential casualties. Barry has a church-loving God-fearing wife in Carmel, who already suspects he’s having an affair – she is of course right in that suspicion but so very far away from the truth of it. Added to his wife there are two daughters, the elder of whom is very much his wife’s standard-bearer-cum-guard dog-cum-advance shock troops! Now Barry is thinking about coming first clean, and then, possibly out. But as he says himself it’s all very well for him to be Barry the flamboyant, dapper, stylish – a man who describes himself as having a “certain je ne sais whatsit”, but it’s a different thing altogether for him to do the unthinkable in coming out!

The story is well-paced, told in generally contrasting chapters from the perspective of Barry and Carmel. Both of them are shot through with a mix of emotions about what their marriage has become though they have contrasting views and indeed knowledge on why. Both equally reminisce about their past and try to piece together the journey of their lives. The tragedy in it is that for Carmel it’s working out how it went wrong from a perfect start – for Barry it’s working out how to secure the perfect ending from a very wrong start!

The book is certainly very funny, and the dialogue throughout is great, whether it is the contrasting monologues from Carmel to Barry, which are balanced with what’s in Barry’s head as he talks to himself or whether it is the banter between characters which ranges from good-natured, light-hearted joshing to quite vicious and poisonous stuff!

The characters of Barry, Carmel and his daughters Donna and Maxine are really strong and utterly believable. If anything for me the character of Morris got a bit lost in the shadow of Barry and it was interesting that while Barry’s character certainly couldn’t overshadow the female characters in the book, he did for me rather overshadow the other males, for as well as Morris, I found it equally difficult to believe in Donna’s son Daniel.

Having said that this is a great read. I found it to be really well written (apparently Bernadine Evaristo is a poet and to be honest it shows for some of the writing is exceptional) and the themes it explores of sexuality, fidelity and the things people do to one another are made somehow all the more powerful for being placed in the context of a much older generation. Above all, Barrington Jedidiah Walker is a very, very, special character – he crackles off the page with a swaggering, self-taught and unashamed know-it-all energy that’s simply irresistible. And best of all, all the way through the book is the mesmerising “will he, won’t he” debate about whether or not Barry and Morris’ love will ever emerge from the shadows they’ve kept it in – or as Billy Ocean might have put it – will they or won’t they continue to “have their love on the run!” (Maybe Billy Ocean’s not so bad after all!!!!!)

Book Info
Bernadine Evaristo’s “Mr Loverman” published by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin) and bought with my own hard earned dosh!
I was tempted into reading Mr Loverman by reading other blog posts about it, and if you are intersted in those you can find them here at Annabel’s House of Books (where Annabel liked it so much she made it her Book of the Year for 2013!) and here at Savidge Reads

If you’re interested in finding out more about Bernadine Evaristo she’s got a really interesting website here

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

Nine

The Metaphor For The Average Reader’s Daily Life Is……………………Spying (Apparently!)

top secret

……………..Yes it is apparently true. Le Carre himself said

“Most people like to read about intrigue and spies. I hope to provide a metaphor for the average reader’s daily life. Most of us live in a slightly conspiratorial relationship with our employer and perhaps with our marriage” ( I like the fact that it’s more definite on the employer and only PERHAPS in marriage – think that’s what you call “covering your arse in case your wife reads this!”)

Personally this suits me as I love a spy novel, and I love a John Le Carre spy novel best of all. It makes me feel  the numerous hours I’ve been submerged between the pages of a spy thriller weren’t wasted. And now, having listened to this wonderful audiobook from the BBC, with a stellar cast, I don’t need to feel guilty about the hours I spent listening to this while walking the dog! For I loved it! Loved it, loved it, loved it, LOVED IT!

Tinker Tailor AudiobookMost people will know the story of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. George Smiley, an Oxford educated intellectual, who’d once risen to the heights of number two to ‘Control’, the head of British Intelligence, is in ‘exile’, a casualty from a debacle in Czechoslovakia, which brings down ‘Control’ and those around him. Smiley is suddenly recalled from that exile, because there is now clearly a “mole” at the highest level of British Intelligence, or the ‘Circus’ as it is known. The mole has been placed as a double agent by Karla, Smiley’s nemesis who heads the Russian spy network, and the mole has worked his way up to be one of the four men who are now at the very top of the ‘Circus’. George has the most straightforward but impossible of jobs – to find out who it is. And so begins a book of deceit, intrigue, betrayal and lies.

The audiobook is actually more of a radio play and it was in fact serialised on BBC Radio 4 as just that back in late 2009. Smiley himself acts as a sort of narrator in places, interspersed with the voice in his head of his beautiful but serially unfaithful wife Ann. But in the main this is a dialogue driven telling of the book. I knew the story having read Tinker Tailor several times before. I’ve read elsewhere some criticism that the audiobook is difficult to follow as it in the form of a radio play – personally I didn’t find that at all but I can see it might be challenging to follow the complex and interweaving story if you are completely unfamiliar with it before you listen.

To be honest - he doesn't look like the Simon Russel Beale. He doesn't look like the Smiley I have in my head - but he sure as hell sounds like him!
Simon Russel Beale. He doesn’t look like the Smiley I have in my head – but he sure as hell sounds like him!

The audiobook though is excellent. The part of Smiley is voiced by the fantastic actor Simon Russel Beale. At the time that he was cast in the role for this play, and for the two others which form part of the Karla trilogy, which were also serialised on Radio 4 in 2010, John Le Carre said “Simon Russell Beale is unique. No living actor can match his understanding of language, or his interpretation of character. He will make a superb Smiley, and I feel deeply honoured” John Le Carre was right – he makes a superb Smiley, balancing that mix of cunning, sensitivity, care and steely determination. Around him there is an equally impressive cast.

2014-Audio-ChallengeI listened to this as the first one in my “Ears Challenge” for 2014, which is the Audiobook Challenge being hosted over at Hot Listens. I took it up aiming to reach only the “Newbie Level” of listening to between one and five audiobooks in the year. I chose that purely because I haven’t listened to an audiobook since around 1995 when I had a set of cassette tapes telling the stories of the Cochadebajo De Los Gatos trilogy of Louis De Bernieres (Cassette audio-tapes?? Remember them??????????? When a book could come to you unabridged in only twenty tapes, and they used to print the side numbers in the smallest possible font so that you had no chance of reading it to change it over while you were driving?!!!!! Aaaah – those were the days!) Well Tinker Tailor was my first audiobook in almost twenty years – and it turned out to be a great choice.

I wasn’t sure I could get into audiobooks so I set my sights low for the challenge but I’m really enjoying it – and it was wonderfully started by Tinker Tailor! I still prefer to have a book in my hands than through my headphones, but audiobooks do have additional benefits – first I’d tried reading on a Kindle while walking the dog but I kept either walking into things or falling down ditches! So now not only am I safer, I’m enjoying them so much the dog is getting slightly more walks than ever before so he’s loving the exercise and I’m lost in the world of the book so I forget about the mud, wind, rain and cold! Perfect really!

INFO AND FOLLOW UP!
Book Rating Out of 10

Nine

Book Info
John Le Carre’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” Audiobook, Published by BBC Audio and bought with my own hard earned dosh from iTunes!
And if you are tempted by Tinker Tailor, you can read more about BBC Radio adaptations of it and the other parts of the “Karla” trilogy here. And finally, to listen to the great man Le Carre himself, you can listen to him here being interviewed by Mark Lawson in 2009 for BBC Radio’s Front Row programme (Don’t be put off by the beginning by the way as it captures a snippet of the Archers!!! Le Carre’s interview starts 32 seconds in)

Give It The “Once-over”……………….Book Review of Grimm Tales by Phillip Pullman

If you want to skip the witty, erudite, entertaining review below, you can take a short cut here to my condensed Two Things Review!!!)

Once upon a time……..Once upon a time there were two brothers who collected and wrote stories about things that happened once upon a time! Over the years some of these stories became so famous everybody knew them. And re-told them. And every time they re-told them they added a bit. They added sugary bits! They added syrupy bits! They added cute bits! They added simpering sweet-as-apple-pie bits! And so the famous stories soon became a bit watered down! But their fate wasn’t half as bad as what happened to the less famous tales! Why they became lost and lonely – a bit like my socks which always seem to emerge from the washing machine without their partner!

Grimm TalesAnd then, as in all the best tales, a hero emerges and it’s in the shape of Pullman himself. For this book is Pullman’s editing-cum-rewrite of the tales collected by the Grimm Brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, around 200 years ago. It’s an easy and enjoyable read. His re-write is cleverly done, for he returns the more famous stories to their original forms and they are generally much the better for it. Stories like Hansel and Gretel, and Rapunzel, are given much more of an edge, and the contrast between light and dark is slightly less stark and much more effective as a result. In several cases I started a section thinking ‘I know THIS one really well‘ only to find out that I didn’t know it anywhere near as well as I thought I did!

I read several good reviews of this book when it came out last year so I expected to like it – but I’d also anticipated a more radical shift in the storylines – a bit like Roald Dahl did with his Revolting Rhymes which turned the Seven Dwarfs into gambling addicts and Red Riding Hood into a kind of serial-killer of wolves! Instead what Phillip Pullman does here is sort of rub off the layers and layers of lacquer, paint, varnish or whatever has been laid on top of the Grimm Brothers’ stories over the years and he has stripped them back to their original floorboards! And it works brilliantly!

As refreshing as the re-working of those well-known tales was though, I think I enjoyed the tales that were new to me even more. They were of course populated by evil witches and beautiful (though rather hapless) princesses, handsome princes, dark places, magic spells, and several rather bizarre and occasionally blunt-to-the-point-of-rude kings! But for all their craziness and quirks, they are always engaging, usually entertaining and sometimes very funny! For example, in the tale of “Faithful Johannes” one part of the plot essentially goes

KING TRICKS PRINCESS ABOARD SHIP USING GOLD AND KIDNAPS PRINCESS AND SAILS OFF WITH HER WHEREUPON PRINCESS IS GRIEF STRICKEN AND TERRIFIED SO KING TELLS HE HE LOVES HER AND SO PRINCESS HAS CHANGE OF HEART AND DECIDES TO MARRY HIM!!!! (and this is while the ship has barely sailed away from the scene of the kidnap!)

It’s mad………………………………but really well done, and so it works! If you’re a fan of Pullman’s “Dark Materials” trilogy then you’ll recognise that same mastery of prose in this book – he uses every word and phrase pretty sparingly – and makes sure he never wastes anything. Pullman’s introduction to the book is really interesting and his short notes outlining his thoughts on each tale at the end of every one are in some ways one of the best bits of the book!

Grimm Tales 2

I read somewhere that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected more than 200 stories for their collections back in the early 19th century. Phillip Pullman has re-told just over 50 of them in this collection. And I’d suggest that if we can suspend disbelief long enough to get to Indiana Jones 4 or Police Academy 108 and a quarter, then we could easily make room for Grimm Tales Too – Return To The Woods! I hope so!