Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Tale Of Twin Towers Aftermath

Sorry folks, been an age since I last blogged, the Orange Prize 2012 has been & gone & been won (by an excellent novel I might add);postID=8879252851882613719

 & I'm still finishing reviews of the long list, eeek!

Amy Waldman's "The Submission" has been intensively reviewed by people way better able than me to analyze & discuss the plot. What I've decided to do is to link you to a review which says everything that I would have liked to say about the novel had I only got the skill, & then I'll tell you what I thought of it as an amateur reader. Bit of a kop out I know but it does mean that you get to read a very decent review.

Here's the link to the  review by Kamila Shamsie :-

Hope you enjoyed that :)

I did like this book, it was very thoughtful & certainly made me view the events from angles that I wouldn't have thought to consider. I was particularly moved by the character Asma Anwar & her courage as she fought to ensure that her husband, who died in the disaster, was remembered & treated in the same way as all the other victims, despite being an illegal immigrant.
However, I was rather unconvinced by the ending of the book. I didn't believe that the character Mohammad Khan would have taken the route that the novelist took him down & there was a distinct sense of plot lines being slightly forced in order to dovetail neat endings.
So, all in all, I would recommend this & I will certainly be looking out for further books by this author.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Liz The Legend, Larger Than Life

I'm an eclectic girl as my profile warns & I do have a penchant for a juicy biog.  full of gossip & outrageous stories. This one delivers on all fronts. "Elizabeth Taylor: The Lady, The Lover, The Legend "by David Bret is cram full of scandal,  colossal film budgets, Hollywood mega stars, more than one or two husbands  & consumption on such a scale that epic doesn't begin to describe it! Oh, and don't forget the jewels!!! At the end of all this excess, however, you can't help but admire the lady, she sure as heck took life by the scruff & went for it.
It's hard to describe what a star Elizabeth Taylor was . The husband in tow when I was first aware of her was Richard Burton & they seemed so unbelievably glamorous that, when they visited Oxford, it was as if royalty from another planet had landed. A friend is still star struck by their car being parked outside his Mum's house (he never actually saw them but the car was enough!)
 The picture comes courtesy of The Oxford Mail & is from their obituary tribute by local people. Read it here:-
Elizabeth Taylor apparently saw at least some of the book before she died & aides told David Bret that it made her laugh. This is one of the things that you can't help but like about her, the ability to appreciate her own outrageousness and carry on regardless. It's not the most in depth biography you could read but is pacy & balanced although I don't agree with Bret's dismissal of her film career. I think that she certainly starred in some monstrous turkeys & that she had it in her to play much greater roles than she did, but her luminous screen presence will keep you watching a movie, however dire, waiting for her next appearance.
There is no doubt that Elizabeth Taylor's faults were many, but Bret conveys her courage (she saved Montgomery Clift's life by crawling into a crashed car that was leaking petrol), her loyalty to her friends (her devotion to poor Rock Hudson in the face of the appalling animosity he faced as he died from Aids), & the truly tremendous work she did, both in raising millions of dollars for research into Aids & breaking down the prejudices that surrounded  victims (in the early days of the awful disease she put her career on the line to do so). A riotous tribute to an awesome life & crammed full of wonderful anecdotes from Hollywood stars, friends & startled members of the public. We shall not see her like again.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Orange Shortlist Is Here

Images in public domain

Exciting! The Orange prize shortlist for 2012 is here!

One of my favourites, "Half Blood Blues" has made it through but I've still got 2 of the finalists to read before the announcement on May 30th. I think all of the finalists are worthy to be there. I've experienced some fine writing in the ones I've read so far.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Maqil Takes Flight

"From the day he was delivered in Lahore, Pakistan, alongside his stillborn twin, he proved he was a born survivor. He has been a master of flying escapes, from Cairo to Paris, from London to Hong Kong, humbled by love, outliving his peers, and ending up old and alone in a budget hotel in Biarritz some eighty years later. His chequered history is catching up with him: his tracks have been uncovered and his latest wife, his children, his creditors and former business associates, all want to pin him down. But even at the end, Maqil just can't resist trying it on; he's still playing his game, and the game won't be over until it's been won."

This synopsis of The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki is taken from her website. Read more here:-

This is the first time I'd read anything by Roopa Farooki &I liked this book. It's pacy, light & very funny in places. However, in the end  I just couldn't like Maqil. I could admire his determination not to be tied down & to live as he chose but could not ignore or forgive the damage he did to others on the way. I think that I was expected to feel sorry for him as he realised that he had lost the love of his life, that his children hardly knew him & that, ultimately, he wasn't as special as he thought he was. But, as all of his miseries were self inflicted, I reserved my feelings of sadness for those around him who were left to deal with the mess he created. I do think that Roopa Farooki has created a character who will strike chords & I would recommend the story. However, I don't think there is enough balance in Maqil to make him a truly great literary character, he is too selfish & cowardly & lacks the sheer depth of badness that would make a really excellent villain. However, I will definitely be looking out for more by this author.

Creepy Canter On The Racetrack

Lord Of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon is set in the world of low grade dirt track racing.Broken down horses race at seedy racetracks where the owners & trainers lead a hand to mouth existence & everybody is trying to make a fast buck. The old man, Medicine Ed, has inhabited this world for his whole life & has seen it all. When Tommy Hansel & his girlfriend Maggie arrive with their horses & their plan Ed knows just how things will pan out.
As Tommy's schemes lead him, and especially Maggie, further & further into a  criminal & dangerous landscape, Ed watches & does what he can to influence events using the dark arts he has accumulated throughout his life.
I am a huge fan of  English racing & fairly familiar with how things work in America so I didn't find it too difficult to follow through the plot, even though the characters are set tightly within the parameters they inhabit &, consequently, talk its language. One note which may be of use to non American readers is that "red" horses are chestnuts. I would also emphasis that the story is set in the 1970s & the racing industry on both sides of the Atlantic is much more humane & welfare centred now.
I wouldn't describe this as the world's most cheerful read, it's one of those plots where the road to disaster is wide & well trodden & the characters duly follow it. I also didn't really like anybody. It's hard to feel empathy for dislikeable characters, especially those who profess to love their horses & then treat them despicably.
I did enjoy the sustained air of dark menace that created a really strong atmosphere with the sense that the characters were being manipulated by forces beyond their perception & control. Would recommend this if you are in the mood for a bit of creepy chill.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

An Amazonian Wonder

Dr. Annick Swenson is a scientist researching an Amazonian tribe where women stay fertile for their whole life. She is being sponsored by a drug company who want reports of her progress & are failing to get them. A fellow scientist, Anders Eckman, is sent to see what is happening . Then a letter arrives from Dr. Swenson announcing that Anders has died in the jungle. Pressurised by her boss & begged by Anders' widow, his colleague Marina Singh reluctantly sets out for the Amazon to find Dr. Swenson & discover what happened to Anders.

I do not like jungles, humidity, things with too many legs, things that slither & things that lurk about waiting to bite you. This novel is full of those things & it has scientists! I would never have picked this up in a bookshop after reading the plot synopsis. Initially, I did think that Mrs W. & I were going to have our second Orange Prize long list disagreement as she thoroughly enjoyed the book & has flagged it as a strong contender for the short list.
Well, having almost given up in the early chapters, I have ended up agreeing with her. Despite the nasty setting, the bitey things, the thoroughly unpleasant & (in my opinion) more than a little deranged Dr. Swensen; the book delivers my number one must have, a rattling good tale. It's mysterious, exciting & twists deliciously to spice up the ending.
Any author who can make me like a novel which had started off by flagging just about every "why I am never going to read this" item on my list has got to be good. Give it a go & thank you Mrs W. for the lend.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Love Sings In The Trojan War

Big message here. It doesn't matter if you don't know your Homer, have always been terrified of approaching The Iliad or only know the Trojan War from contemplating Brad Pitt's abs. in "Troy".(My fave review of that film,"bronzed men running about", but I digress.) By the time you have finished Madeline Miller's poignant retelling of a doomed love affair you will have lived every detail.
Told from the viewpoint of Achilles' lover Patroclus, we live the epic tale as it happens to two very young men. In an interview Madeleine Miller was asked how she was able to take this approach to such a huge subject :-

"As for the overwhelming legends, I actually think they worked in my favor—because Patroclus is overwhelmed by them himself. He is this ordinary person who is pulled into a terrifying world of angry deities and destiny because of his love for Achilles."

Read the rest of the interview here:-

 I liked this book a lot &, even knowing perfectly well what was going to happen, hoped that it wouldn't. I was particularly impressed by the way Miller wove the appearances of gods & supernatural creatures into the story, they were part of life but in a disturbing, best avoided if possible way. I loved the relationship between Achilles & Patroclus & how, when so very young, they came to terms with fates they couldn't avoid. Miller's writing reminded me of Mary Renault's but I think that Miller would be more accessible today. Highly recommended both as a tale of doomed romance & as an excellent way into the world of Homer.

Swept Away On A Tide Of Detail

One of the things I'm enjoying very much about the 2012 Orange Prize long list is the sheer variety of historical novels that have been selected. I'm a huge fan of the genre & it's great to see it producing so many beautifully written books. I was really looking forward to Stella Tillyard's " Tides of War" as it's set in a historical period that interests me greatly, Regency England at the time of the Napoleonic wars.
  The 2 main protagonists are Harriet & James, a newly married couple. James is pursuing a career as an army officer & is seconded to serve under the Duke of Wellington (Lord Wellington for most of the book) during the Peninsular war in Spain.This leads to an introduction for Harriet to Kitty, Lady Wellington & to new avenues of exploration, both in life & love. James, experiencing the horrors of war & the mad passion of a wild love affair, is also changing. As the story moves from Spain to England & back again we meet a large cast of characters who are experiencing a world on the brink, where everything is altering. There are new social mores, exciting inventions, new ways of relating.  Every level of society is caught up in these changes, both for better & worse, All the characters find themselves living lives they could never have imagined, making choices about who they want to be & how they want to live. For many of them the choices they make lead  to happiness, this is not the case for all.
Stella Tillyard is best known as a historian & this is her first novel. I really wanted to like the book but, in the end, I was left disappointed. My feeling is that the sheer weight of historical detail ultimately overwhelmed the characters & left them feeling rather two dimensional. You do get a really clear view of life at this period but at the expense of being caught up in the story & really caring about the people living it. I'm afraid that is a basic requirement for me, sadly, the book just didn't deliver.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Lives Broken By A Fractured Mind

Francesca Kay's Translation of the Bones is exquisitely written & so, so sad. Set in a small Catholic community in Battersea, the story revolves around the events set in motion by the experience of an intensely devout parishioner,Mary-Margaret O'Reilly. Her learning difficulties are acknowledged by her parish priest & fellow parishioners . As in many such cases, while they appreciate her fervour, ultimately they find her a bit of a nuisance. They  take the easy route of ignoring  & dismissing her increasingly odd behaviour. Herein lie the seeds of tragedy.
As the story unfolds we follow the lives of the group, share their cares & worries, & see why Mary-Margaret's drift into a more & more disturbed world is missed. We see how those who could help her  don't see the warning signs & why the person who should be her strongest support  (her mother, Fidelma), is too broken & damaged herself to even recognise the spiral that her daughter is in.
I seem to have managed to make this novel sound like hard going & a depressing read. It isn't at all. Francesca Kay's poetic style & subtle nuance make for a beautiful reading experience. There is no happy ending &, in fact, a truly shocking centre point to the story. One of the things that I liked most about this book is that it carried on after the climactic event to examine the aftermath. How do people carry on after something so awful? How do you work through such a thing & its reverberations? How can you begin to understand the breakdown of a human nature to the point where it can see doing something so wrong as perfectly natural & logical?Another strong point about this book, for me, was how the author moves the work towards  the beginings of  healing, the tiny shoots of tranquility, even, for some, the start of new life & hope.
Lovely writing, to be savoured slowly & thought about deeply.

Dark Notes In A Wartime Jazz World

Well, Mrs W. & I have had our first serious difference of opinion about a book on this year's Orange longlist. Followers of her blog will know that, initially, I couldn't get into this at all:-
However, a good dose of jazz listening did the trick, something clicked, my ear tuned into the jazz slang in which Sid, the narrator talks, & I was off. I ended up really loving this book, unlike Mrs W. who DNF. (I am given to understand that this is Blog-speak for "had enough, threw it aside, donated it to charity/another eager reader, & turned my attention to something else.")
The story follows the lives of a group of young jazz musicians from just before the start of World War II to the German invasion of France. Initially living in Berlin they are forced to flee from Germany only to end up in Paris as the German army invades. Some of the group are Americans & some of them, including the amazingly talented horn player Hiero, are German. Eventually Hiero is arrested by the Nazis & is never heard of again.
Fifty years later, Sid & his friend Chip travel back to Berlin to attend the premiere of a documentary devoted to Hiero. The premiere makes a claim about his fate & that leads Sid & Chip on a journey into Poland & their youthful past.
As they confront the bitter rivalries & jealousies, both in music & love, that sealed Hiero's fate, we learn that events may not have been as they seemed. Or were they?
This novel ticked every box for me &, bearing in mind that I usually heartily dislike stories set during wartime or written in patois or slang; this has to be a tribute to a piece of superb writing. I really cared about the characters & I really wanted to know what happened to them. The book made me laugh, it shocked me (to my shame, I knew nothing about the lives of black Germans in the 1930s and during the war),& it made me forget that it was a "historical" novel. Esi Edugyan has created a group of such wonderful, living characters that you have, in a sense, time tripped into their world & are living their story with them.
A truly fantastic book.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Viewing Elizabeth Taylor

 It's Elizabeth Taylor's Centenary year &, as part of the year long celebration,Simon over at Stuck-in-a-Book is hosting  a discussion of this title.
He's summarised the plot far more ably than I, so I'm confining myself to considering some questions that he's asked contributors to think about.
What did I think of it? I can't say that I liked it because "liked" and an Elizabeth Taylor novel don't sit easily together. I was fascinated in the same way that you can be fascinated when you pick up a rock & see the creatures you have uncovered scuttling about in the light. This is what intrigues me about her writing, on the surface there is nothing much going on but underneath it's a different story. This seaside community of, apparently, staid, ordinary people proves to be a hotbed of intrigue, strangeness &, frankly, downright nastiness.Something that I think is a hallmark of Taylor's writing & why, yes, I would know this book was by her, is her ability to report the most awful actions so calmly. It can often be pages later that the shock kicks in & you think "I don't believe she/he did/said that". Just consider how Tory treats Beth, her supposed best friend, & consider whether your own closest friend would behave in such a way. Another hallmark of Taylor's writing is a strange, almost sinister, amorality; ultimately, Tory never seems to really care about what she's done.
Do I think Taylor succeeds in her aims? A difficult one this because I find it quite hard to catch what her aims are. Is she putting a solid seaside community under the microscope & examining all she finds? If so, she succeeds. Is she exploring choices that lead to ruin or redemption? Perhaps, but, often, the paths aren't followed to the end.  It's another Taylorian ability, as other reviewers have noted, to leave you wanting to know where the characters end up. What happens to them in five or ten years time? Is this deliberate, I suspect so.
Something that I find fascinating is the number of reviewers who find Taylor's novels funny because this is a strand that I definitely miss.Sinister & quietly disturbing, yes, but funny?
 "View of the Harbour" is one of my favourites by this writer. Quiet, pin sharp observation & layers of undercurrents that intrigue you every time you read it. It always leaves you wondering.

If you are wondering  about Elizabeth Taylor enough to want to wonder some more there's a workshop in Reading to explore some of her works:-

Saturday 21 April, 11am-5.30pm
Reading’s Own Elizabeth Taylor
Discover the books, the author and the history
A day of talks, walks and discussion to celebrate the centenary (1912-1975) of a great post-war novelist enjoying renewed popularity.

Here's a link to the booking page. 

 At a very reasonable £10 it looks to be a fascinating day.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Dark Underbelly of Victorian Matrimony

My reading of the Orange Prize 2012 long list continues with Emma Donoghue's "The Sealed Letter", a novel which explores the Codrington divorce case (a cause celebre of its day). Think of some of the more headline grabbing celebrity marriage meltdowns plastered all over the tabloids in the past few years & you will be able to gauge the levels of salacious interest that the case engendered.
 Suffice to say that I absolutely loved this book. Liked it so much I was almost late for work twice so gripped was I. Bearing in mind that there are no surprises (it's a well documented case) it is the most amazing page turner. You see events unfold from the points of view of the main protagonists. You see the breathtaking hypocracy of a society that can't get enough of the juicy details but is perfectly happy to inflict social ruin on the purveyors of the entertainment; & you hope against hope that, somehow, things will work out. It is a time in history when the role of women in society & the institution of marriage are subjects open to debate,  when change and new approaches are beginning to be discussed. Sadly, for the manipulative Helen Codrington & her former best friend Emily Faithfull change has yet to happen & they are at the mercy of a legal system that is cruel, unjust & stacked against them.
Happily, Emma Donoghue has realised the interest her wonderful novel has stirred & she does tell you what happened next.
Do read this, it's great!!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Orange 2012 Number Two In Which I Cure A Financial Headache

The synopsis of "On the Floor" comes from Aifric Campbell's website

"Aifric’s latest novel, is set in the financial markets of London and Hong Kong and tells the story of 28-year-old Geri Molloy who finds herself caught up in a deal that will put her career on the line."

Those of you who follow Mrs W. over at 
will know that I initially abandoned this novel defeated by the financial terminology. However, I read the Orange long list to encounter literature I wouldn't otherwise attempt so, determined to overcome my aversion to all things stock market, I returned to the fray. This time I resolved to just let the financial stuff float over my head &  allow the story to unfold & I am very glad I did. As Geri pursued her career in this (to me) incomprehensible world filled with unpleasant &, frankly, downright creepy, characters; as her relationship crashed, as she drank more & more & became less & less functional I wondered again & again why she was allowing this to happen & why I was continuing to follow what looked like a story with only one ending. However, it is at the point that Geri goes on one bender too many & her whole life implodes that the novel took me to a place where I ended up rooting for her & understanding why she was where she was. I can't say that the book has made me love or comprehend the world of  high finance any more than I didn't already but I ended up cheering Geri all the way. I would recommend this book but be prepared to grit your teeth in places if the stock market isn't your thing.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Off we go with Orange 2012.

Thanks to Mrs W., host of
I was persuaded to try reading the Orange Prize long list last year. I enjoyed myself so much, trying books I would never otherwise have come across, that I took very little persuading to have another go this year.
 Here's the first one I tried, "Gillespie & I" by Jane Harris. My copy came courtesy of a lend from the generous Mrs W.
The synopsis is from Jane Harris's website

"As she sits in her Bloomsbury home, with her two birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter sets out to relate the story of her acquaintance, over four decades previously, with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist who never achieved the fame that she maintains he deserved.
Back in 1888, the young, art-loving Harriet arrives in Glasgow at the time of the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter, she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in all of their lives. But when tragedy strikes - leading to a notorious criminal trial - the promise and certainties of this world all too rapidly disintegrate into mystery and deception."

I have to agree with other reviewers who have said that it is almost impossible to review this book without spoiling it; any discussion of the plot line in too much detail would give away the clever twists & surprises. Suffice to say that you will think you have worked out what's going on only to discover that you have been beautifully hoodwinked & that one person's take on events  is not that of others.  The book is a great read, a real page turner, & I enjoyed it immensely.