Archive for the ‘review’ Category

imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

This is the title on the shortlist I was anticipating the most.  Billed as the companion piece to Any Human Heart and blurbed as the best thing Boyd has ever written, it had a lot to live up to, particularly as Any Human Heart is IMO a masterpiece.

Amory Clay is the female counterpart to Logan Mountstewart.  She’s born in 1908 and dies in 1983, so sees most of the C20th.  Her profession as photographer is useful.   It allows Boyd to move her around the globe to many of the C20th hotspots.  She starts off as a society photographer with her uncle, who advises her to create a scandal to make her name known.  Cue move to the louche Berlin of the 1930s.  The resulting pictures are too effective.  Following an obscenity trial, her reputation is in shatters.  To restart her career, she needs to move to the States,  sponsored by the man destined to become her employer, lover and long-term protector.  There follow sojourns in France during WWII as a rather uncourageous war photographer, in Scotland as part of the landed gentry during the 1950s, another stint as a war photographer during Vietnam, after which her final years are spent living alone with her dog back on the West Coast of Scotland.

There’s a lot happening on this world stage, and Amory Clay’s personal life is just as eventful! As if dalliances with her married employer and a French writer, marriage with a Scottish Lord were not enough, Amory’s life still has time for final adventure chasing after her AWOL daughter to an American commune. At 447 pages, this is one of the longest novels of the Walter Scott Shortlist, and it is also the quickest read.

Boyd loves to mix his books with other art forms and so here the chosen medium is photography. Scattered among the text are photographs, purporting to be those taken by Amory Clay. Now I haven’t heard Boyd speak, nor have I read any interviews about this novel, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear of him finding a cache of unaccredited (and not always brilliant) photographs around which he has seamlessly woven his tale.  (Aaah, look what I just found.)

A key question for the success of this novel is whether Amory Clay feels authentic. She does in most things:  discovery of the carnal coinciding with the slackening of moral restraint in the C20th,  lack of courage at the front line and her honesty about it,  falling for men who are not emotionally the best choice, the  sometimes distant relationship with her daughters. Her forgiveness of her father stretched my credulity somewhat (No hints here, it’s a major plot feature.) I particularly enjoyed her analysis of light.

 I watched the day slip into night, noting the wondrous tonal transformations of the sunset on its dimmer switch, how blood-orange can shade imperceptibly into ice-blue on the knife-edge of the horizon ….

Much to enjoy, therefore, but nothing that had me as a reader firing on all cylinders. Why ever not? Let me be clear. Sweet Caress is a good novel and a vast improvement on the last Boyd I read. (In fact, Waiting for Sunrise had me thinking that I wouldn’t bother reading any more.) But I had been led to expect something on a par with Any Human Heart and so I was waiting for the sheer brilliance and emotional cataclysm of the dog food moment. It was perhaps unfair of me to do so.



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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize

And so to the finale of Allan Massie’s atmospheric crime quartet set in Vichy France. (Parts 1 and 2 are reviewed here, Part 3 here.). It is the early summer of 1944. The Germans have lost the war and the allied invasion is expected, eagerly or with apprehension depending on the choices made during the Occupation. For Superintendent Lannes the end can’t come quickly enough, even though his family will suffer one way or the other, given that one son is happily working for Vichy France, the other has joined the free French and his daughter has fallen in love with a fully-fledged German sympathiser, now fighting in Hitler’s  army. For himself, Lannes just wants to be able to work again, free from political interference. At the beginning of this novel, however, he is suspended at the order of the Germans – he’s paying the price for doing the morally right thing in the previous novel.

But he is not bitter. He understands that his boss Schnyder was simply being expedient “determined to survive, however things turned out.” He is suffering from ennui, however, and so when he is approached by the Count of St. Hilaire to investigate the disappearance of his grand-niece, he accepts. The case brings him into contact with the real bogey man of the quartet, the lawyer Labiche. Throughout the quartet Lannes has crossed swords with Labiche multiple times, and with the end of the Occupation in sight, Lannes senses his chance for revenge.

Continuing to tread the streets of Bordeaux, Lannes meets the circle of friends and adversaries that have populated the previous three novels, and I do think that this may be confusing to those coming to End Games without prior knowledge. This is one series where I would advise starting at Book One. That way the jumps to the parallel lives of Lannes’s sons and Michel, his daughter’s lover, will not disconcert. Nor will their purpose. Not a single one of them comes out of the other side with their ideals intact ….

… and even Lannes, desperate to be free from intolerable political pressures, has to recognise that the time has not yet come. Now that the Boches have gone, justice will have new masters. In the words of Judge Bracal:

For four years the prevailing wind has come from Vichy. Now the wind has shifted. It blows with the Resistance, and … for weeks and perhaps months to come, the Law will be whatever the Resistance says it is.

I have followed Lannes during the dark years trying to uphold justice in the face of Vichy/Nazi law. He has at least tried to maintain his own integrity. He has not always succeeded. Finding now that similar struggles will continue through the Expiation and beyond,  he is finally embittered and filled with hatred for the hypocrises of his fellow countrymen.  Rising above it all is sometimes an impossible task.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

You can always tell when the weather’s good in Scotland – this blog goes quiet. (Good days are too precious to waste inside on the computer.) However, normal service has been resumed, and I am once again sheltering inside. Time to start on the Walter Scott shortlist, which I shall attempt to read in its entirety before the winner’s announcement is made on 18th June.

Let’s start with the only lady on the list, and a novel that is curiously not available in the UK. I had to import the book from Australia to read it. At least this made me realise how lucky we are in the UK, where books are more reasonably priced ….

Salt Creek is Lucy Treloar’s debut novel which has also been longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin award. It is set primarily in 1855 in the Coorong, a remote and inhospitable coastal region in Southern Australia. Stanton Finch, following a failed business venture, refuses to accept charity from his wealthy in-laws and moves his family to establish a dairy farm in Salt Creek. The fact that he must build his new home from driftwood, the remnants of ship-wrecked vessels, is presentiment enough for what is to follow.

Neither climate nor pasture are ideal – salt from the sea permeates the landscape. So the odds are stacked again Stanton Finch, who besides having no business sense, does not understand the ecology. Unlike the Ngarrindjeri, the aboriginal tribe who are about to be displaced – though not in a violent clash of cultures. This is a gradual dispossession – though sickness brought by the settlers, and a betrayal of Stanton Finch’s values by Stanton Finch himself who believes himself to be an enlightened Christian man ascribing to the maxim that all men are born equal. With that in mind he sets out to help the Ngarrindjeri, with gifts of food and clothing, protecting their fresh water supplies, and he semi-adopts an aboriginal child, inviting Tull into his home to educate him, the hope being that Tull will spread the values of civilisation through his own people.

Which is all very well until life deals him one blow after the next. A stubborn man, Stanton Finch exacts the price of each failure on his family. When Tull makes the naive mistake of believing himself to be equal, the despot in Stanton Finch rises while the downward spiral accelerates, shattering any remaining semblance of family cohesion. The family saga (and saga it is – perhaps a little too domestic for my taste) is told in retrospect by Hester, Stanton Finch’s eldest daughter. The harsh years at Salt Creek are the formative years for her and her siblings, and the place one they must escape if they are not to descend to the depths of their father. Not all of them do.

This is not your standard pioneering tale – a tale of man waging a successful battle against the elements, of “civilising” those who have no need of it. Rather it is anti-heroic, a “decivilisation” if you will. There are no miracles, just harsh realities depicting the self-deception of the settlers, with hard questions asked of their Victorian world view.

The role of hero in these pages is reserved for the landscape. As Treloar notes in her acknowledgements, The Coroong is strange and secluded and grand enough to humble. That’s a lesson that the presumptious Stanton Finch must learn very much to his cost.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

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The pelican lifted up its head and beak, and shook them, wobbling its neck, trying to force the pigeon further down the sac of its throat. The pigeon was still very much alive; its fight-back stretched the skin of the pelican’s gullet until it was almost translucent, with the dark outline of the smaller bird clearly visible. It was a ferocious fighter, and Peter found he couldn’t tear his gaze away as the pigeon succeeded in struggling back up the pelican’s gullet and into its beak, and for a moment it looked as if it might manage to get free.

I love a good metaphor and this one on page 254 of Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days perfectly sums up the struggle for political survival between the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. But who is swallowing whom and why? Do politicians need motivation other than the lust for political power.  I’d say no, but there has to be a catalyst for the declaration of war and a power grab.

Cue riots on the streets of London, ostensibly triggered by the death of a black man under police restraint. In reality, however, the resulting peaceful demonstration is hijacked by those with other agendas. Look back at the UK riots of 2011 to see how events escalated into anarchy; a trajectory mirrored in Slovo’s novel with the impact on individuals and key players depicted in mesmerising detail.

Cathy Mason – a middle-aged single mother, living in the disadvantaged, restless and soon-to-be-condemned Lovelace estate, desperately trying to keep her community together. Her life is complicated by her love for Banji, the only man she has or will ever love, although he appears not to deserve her.

Commissioner Yares, Metropolitan police chief, the Prime Minister’s man, who starts his new job on the day that all hell breaks loose. A sitting duck (or should that be pigeon?) for the Home Secretary, who, while the Prime Minister is attending important negotiations elsewhere, loses no opportunity to score political points against perceived incompetence and “soft” policing.

The Home Secretary and his women: wife and PA/lover. No political drama would be complete without shenanigans of this ilk.

The Prime Minister – more off the page than on. Nevertheless, a smooth operator, not to be under estimated.

Slovo punches with both fists exposing the machinations of the powerful, the cynicism at the heart of the Met’s recruitment policies, and the sincere, but ultimately powerless hearts of the common man. That would be powerless in the face of higher authorities, but also in matters of love. The lovers (Banji and the home secretary’s PA) providing the most unexpected twists of them all in a narrative covering ten critical days that – like the riots at their centre – cannot be predicted.

This is a gutsy read;  a warts-and-all  journal of each main character’s experience, sometimes with overlapping timelines. (So reader, pay attention.) Interspersed are redacted confidential police reports, using police jargon, for the forthcoming inquiry. (Thankfully there is a helpful glossary at the back). These reports are chilling in their emotional distance, but they do provide another more objective viewpoint of police decisions that outsiders (and politicians) are quick to criticise. Further balance is provided by the experience of Chief Inspector Billy Ridgeton, who is called in from a day off to help out with the escalating unrest and doesn’t come off duty for a week.

I’ve been meaning to read Slovo since publication of The Ice Road in 2004. Glad to have rectified that omission in my reading now and am looking forward to acquainting myself with her back catalogue.  In producing this novel, filled with players and their power plays, Slovo has herself played an absolute blinder!


© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

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imageHaving read 10 of Penguin’s republished Maigrets, I confess I’ve had enough. I enjoyed Rowan Atkinson’s recent portrayal of the man in Maigret Sets A Trap, but Maigret just isn’t dynamic enough for me. He sits around and thinks too much, and the plots are sometimes obvious. So for the 1938 Club, I chose to read a Roman Durs (a hard novel – although I think of them as dark novels). They certainly have more meat, typically involving a criminal,  alienated from his surroundings, with no hope of redemption.

That sounds like Europe in 1938 to me, although I don’t think that Simenon was consciously drawing a prophetic allegory of the political situation, even if many respectable citizens were about to be pushed over the edge into insanity ….

Kees Popinga is such a man. Married for 16 years, with two children, he works for a local shipping company. He has built his own house and is proud of it. The novel opens with a terrible discovery. The company is about to go bust, and, as Popinga has invested all his savings in it, he is a ruined man. His boss seems to relish telling him the hard truth, just before faking his death and making a getaway to start over.

This betrayal of trust tips the sensible Kees over the edge.  He casts off the shackles of responsibility and respectability.   With the money his boss has given in (in a fit of guilt), he decides to track down his boss’s mistress (a high-class prostitute) and make up for opportunities missed years before. She laughs at him, which leads to an accidentally fatal outcome. Popinga is no longer simply on a spree. He is now evading justice.

He escapes to Paris, but how can a Dutch murderer evade arrest? Fortunately he has plenty of money, can speak English, French and German fluently, and so can disguise himself. For a time. Inexorably, however, the downward spiral gathers momentum – not helped by his fixation with the woman he meets on his first night in Paris. Yet he remains unaware of being dragged ever lower due to his resilience and absolute confidence in his abilty to outwit the French police,

who seem not to be doing very much.  Which makes Popinga mad.  They’re not taking him seriously.  Like Maigret, they are just sitting it out waiting for him to give himself away.  Well, he’ll show them!

This psychological portrait of a criminal on the run and his descent into madness is the core of the novel. Bang on the money too. Next time an overconfident criminal starts sending letters to the press, pick up Simenon’s novel. It will inform you of the mind games behind the press releases and psychological profiling.  Police methods haven’t changed that much in the almost 80 years since Simeon published this.

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It’s becoming a habit.  For the third year in a row, I’ve saved up a full series from Peirene Press to binge read over a long weekend.  It gives me an opportunity to see how they play off each other and assess them as a series, and my view of series 5 is that it is the best yet.  In each series so far, there’s always been one that didn’t gel with me.  That’s not true here.  Nor is that due to them being of a likeness because the books in this trio are as different as different can be.

Let’s start at the beginning.

imageWhite Hunger by Aki Ollikanen
Best Finnish Debut Novel 2012
Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016
Translated from Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah

It is 1867, the second year of the last great famine in Finland, and the population is paying the price. It is estimated that 270,000 people died of starvation in Finland that year, and Ollikanen pitches us right into the midst of this suffering. Winter approaches with a farmer’s family fishing for food – the store cupboards are almost empty because the crop has failed. His marital life has been affected – his wife does not want one more mouth to feed. The next time we see them, he is dying of starvation and his wife, Marja is about to leave him to his fate and set out with the two children, Mataleena and Juno, to walk to St Petersburg in search of food. It’s a desperate action. The winter is harsh, the snow is knee deep in places, and they’re cold and hungry before the journey even begins. Nor are they the only ones facing such a trek.

Success depends on the ofttimes begrudging kindness of strangers, sharing the little they have for themselves, or giving them a lift to the next place of shelter. The gruel they are served becomes thinner, the bark content of the bread ever higher. The shelters they find – whether communal or private – are not always safe, particularly for Marja. Even well-meaning folk can do harm. (The stomachs of the starving cannot handle food in normal quantities.)

Contrasting with the experience of the rural migrants (can we call them that?) is that of the urban townsfolk. The difference is emphasised in the novella’s structure which alternates between Marja and her family and the urban scene. The townsfolk are not as badly affected, although life is far from easy for all, apart from the ruling classes. Attitudes to sex are more casual. In fact, so much so that Teo Renqvist earned my intense dislike for … well, that would be telling. Which was a bit unfortunate because I can’t give him any credit for his show of humanity at the end.

Returning to the structure. Ollikanen honours the victims of the famine, Marja, Mataleena and Juno by naming a book after each. For two, this means a book of memorial. For the third a book of hope. Spring arrives at the end of the longest winter. Add this to the language which is highly evocative whether describing landscape or the effects of hunger on the body, and it’s not hard to understand the Man Booker International Prize Longlisting.

The story has obvious contemporary political resonance – something that the IFFP judges valued, it seemed to me, above all else. It remains to be seen whether the MBI judges think likewise.

imageReader for Hire by Raymond Jean
Translated from French by Adriana Hunter

If a book lover ever needs a lightening of heart, this little gem is guaranteed to deliver.

When Marie-Constance G’s friend, Françoise suggested “Why don’t you put an ad in the papers offering to read to people in their own homes?”, my mind flew immediately to Scout’s successful foray into the same field in To Kill A Mockingbird. What can possibly go wrong?

Well, well …. and well again.

I don’t recall Peirene doing comedy before, but this is de-lic-ious. (Dear Nymph, give me more.)

Some mishaps are due to Marie-Constance’s naïvety, and others due to her “paragon” of a husband, who gives her free reign to behave as she will. And she behaves in some very dubious ways.

(I could sidetrack into a discussion as to whether indifference to one’s spouse is a virtue? But I don’t want to spoil the mood, so we’ll leave philosophy out of it.)

In addition to the farcical romp, this book delivered something entirely unexpected. Marie-Constance chooses to read from the French naturalists, and, because of the – shall we say – (mis)adventures that result from the power of this literature, I now have a curiosity to read them too.

Well, well … and well again.

imageThe Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Translated from Norwegian by John Irons

Ragna sat on her stool and shone, she shone and glittered and tossed her hair, so thick, so long was it that she could plait it, gather it in a ponytail, roll it up and let it cascade down again in long, soft curls. I stared straight ahead, pretended she wasn’t there, didn’t take any notice of her lapping up my humiliation – Mum cutting and my tears falling at every strand of hair that gave way before the scissors.

Afterwards, I sneaked over to the mirror unseen, alone. …. Ragna appeared out of nowhere and stood beside me. We stared at each other for a long time …. Nothing was said, but both of us saw, what our reflections had to tell.

What do the reflections tell? Ragna, the healthy, pretty sister, is full of promise, but already showing a propensity for psychological cruelty. The standing at the mirror is designed to drive a point home. Look at me, I’m not like you. It’s true. The unnamed narrator, at the age of 7, has survived a serious childhood illness which has left her disabled and unable even to grow a healthy mane. She is now entirely dependent on her parents. When the parents die 12 years later, the duty of care falls on the 23-year old life-loving and man-loving Ragna and with she too loses her prospects. Living in a remote spot in a northern, godforsaken part of the world, there are no other family members, no social care services to ease her burden, which she carries with increasing resentment and rage.

Ragna dutifully looks after her sister, but with bad grace, never resisting an opportunity to inflict further humiliation. The narrator has nothing to do all day, but read and devise ways of irritating the sister to pay her back in some small measure. As this cycle continues for over 30 years, it needs a stranger to break the pattern.

Enter Johan who moves into a long deserted house nearby. Broad and tall and with a stomach well outside the band of his trousers,  he’s no catch but to the emotionally and sexually deprived Ragna, he is salvation! As their relationship develops, the narrator realises the threat to her existence. Of course, they want peace to enjoy each other. Of course, they’ll want to ship her off to a care home. Of course, she doesn’t want to leave the house she hasn’t been outside since her childhood. It is her world, her only world, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. So she mounts a campaign to thwart their every move.

Is this a miscalculation?

This is an intense, bitter and twisted tale, infused with acts of breathe-taking cruelty. Here are three people in a situation designed to bring out the worst in each other. And yet, despite doubting the reliability of the narrator (is she telling us everything – particularly about her own acts of attrition), it is possible, if not always easy, to sympathise with everyone. Abuse notwithstandig.  Life is complicated like that sometimes.

I think that The Looking-Glass Sisters may be my favourite Peirene. (Although I’ll have to re-read Next World Novella just to make sure.)

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Book Three  of TJ’s 12 Germans in 2016 and, at last, things are coming together.  I abandoned Book One (Sasa Stanisíc’s How The Soldier Played The Gramophone), and read, enjoyed and promptly forgot everything about Book Two (Judith Hermann’s Summerhouse, Later).  No point trying to blog about it now.

But here we are blogging – to schedule –  about Book 3 … even though I wouldn’t use the word enjoy to describe the (s)experience!

imageMaria is 16, has fled her divorcée mother’s home because she can’t stand the sadness.  She now lives with her boyfriend, Johannes Brendel,  in his attic bedroom on his family’s farm.  Although they are both still attending school, Maria is playing truant, unsure whether she will ever return.  She biding her time.  The Brendels take her in, accept her and gradually she learns some useful skills – how to cook, how to sell in the farm shop, serve at the local tavern. She also learns the arts of duplicity and deception … because she meets a man.

Hard-drinking Henner,  40 years of age, abandoned by his wife years ago, lives alone on a neighbouring farm.  Even with a bad reputation, he’s a bit of a hunk.  Johannes’s mother has the hots for him.  But from the moment he makes a pass at Maria, she is his, as he awakes desires in her that Johannes has yet to imagine.  From here on in, its one tryst after the next.  The emphasis on feeling, not graphic physicality, but there is sufficient detail to know that Henner is not a tender lover – in fact, he is abusive more often than not.

And here I take issue with the blurb.  Does this rather sordid tale sound like “a magnificent love story” to you?  There’s only one piece of evidence that convinces me that Henner is not simply taking advantage of a gullible young girl, and that’s the ending.

Fortunately there’s more to this novel than the affair.  Set in the Thuringian countryside, during the transition – after the fall of the Wall but before reunification- the concerns of Johannes’s family reflect the worries of DDR farming communities of the time.  Will Western safety laws and machinery standards force their antiquated farms out of business?  At the same time new opportunities arise.  Freedom of movement, for instance.  There are a number of outings to the West,  where the wonders of the consumer society become apparent. A brother who left the East is reunited with his family 25 years later. And most importantly, doors to higher education that had been closed to Maria, due to her refusal to pledge allegiance to the socialist state, are suddenly reopened.

Not that she has grasped this as the story starts. Perhaps those closed doors account for her lack of purpose and what I’m seeing as her captivity to Henner. It’s only when she’s entirely free from Henner aka the DDR that a meaningful future is possible.  Or am I reading too much into it?

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