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.