“The Road to Little Dribbling” by Bill Bryson – review

It’s a short and sweet review on the blog today, simply because the book in question is so cheerful, chirpy and big-hearted that it doesn’t need any lingering analysis from me.  I’ve read Bill Bryson’s previous travel books so I was pretty hopeful of loving this one just as much, but still, when there’s such a sense of anticipation surrounding a new title by a favourite author there’s always the niggling fear that it’s going to turn out to be a disappointment.  It wasn’t of course – in fact it was as if he’d never been away.

Bryson has written a few intriguing history books over the past few years, plus his autobiography, but for me, like many readers I expect, it’s his travel writing that’s his real calling card.  To spend a couple of hundred pages in his company as he reassesses his adopted country some twenty years after “Notes from a Small Island” is to fall in love with Great Britain all over again.  For “The Road to Little Dribbling” the author takes as his starting point a route he dubs “The Bryson Line”, the furthest you can travel across the country in a straight line without having to cross the sea at any point.  After some initial experiments with a map and ruler, he discovers that this imaginary line would run from Bognor Regis on the south coast to Cape Wrath at the northern tip of Scotland.  So, with his start and finish points determined, Bill sets out on a journey along the full length of the British Isles, meandering quite substantially as it turns out from the line itself, but always striving towards the moment when he can stand with no land left between him and the polar regions.  On the way he takes in every imaginable terrain, from the narrow streets of Cornish fishing villages to the expansive landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales, and of course, this being Bill Bryson, he finds plenty to make us laugh along the way.

I can vouch for the fact that this book is laugh-out-loud funny.  If you’re feeling a bit low reading this will certainly bring a smile back to your face.  Yet what this author can do so deftly is intersperse moments of hilarity with some truly poignant insights into how our landscape, heritage and communities are being eroded and in some cases obliterated by the demands and catastrophic misjudgements of modern life.  Many times during his journey, Bryson tells us how lucky we are to enjoy the wealth of history and nature that we do.  Being American born and raised he is able to describe our country through the eyes of someone who has seen first-hand the differences between Britain and other places with a far lower concentration of historical and natural diversity, and for me it makes the eulogy so much more powerful.  Yes, it made me laugh, but it also made me want to hop on a train and really explore some of those precious places that are so close by and yet forgotten through mere familiarity.  I think that’s what all good travel writing should make you do – and Bill Bryson is one of the best.

“The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters – review

People are usually a bit surprised when I tell them I’ve never tried Sarah Waters, understandable I suppose given my love of stories set in the past.  I think I’ve always been deterred by the knowledge that a number of her novels have a fairly substantial supernatural element, a theme that doesn’t appeal to me at all.  “The Paying Guests”, however, is rooted very firmly in the physical world with all its lies, disappointments and sordidness, and has a sense of unvarnished realism that I found very refreshing.  It’s a love story, a crime thriller and a perceptive snapshot of a time when social expectations – particularly for women – were starting to change.

The year is 1922.  Mrs. Wray and her daughter Frances are the only surviving members of the Wray family, having lost both sons in the Great War and the father soon after.  Their large London home is proving too expensive to run, and mother and daughter are forced to take in lodgers to make ends meet.  Those lodgers are Lillian and Leonard Barber, a young married couple whose modern sensibilities at first seem out of kilter with the subdued, formal atmosphere of a house still in mourning.  Gradually, however, the naturally rebellious Frances is drawn into their enticing world – and life in the house on Champion Hill will never be the same again.

I absolutely loved Frances as a central character.  She was headstrong and opinionated, yet also had an obvious vulnerability that prevented her from slipping into the dull and patronising cliché of the “feisty” heroine.  We learn that she has been involved with the Suffragette movement and taken part in anti-authority activities to the consternation of her parents, and her mother still admonishes her for wanting to talk politics over the tea table; yet I didn’t see this as the familiar story of a woman ahead of her time trying to break through society’s conventions.  In those kind of novels, the lead female character is often the only woman portrayed as being forward-thinking in any way and is surrounded by others whose desire to stick with convention is as strong as the heroine’s desire to break from it.  “The Paying Guests” is not a book about one renegade woman: it is a novel of women, normal women who are simply in search of a life that will make them happy.  If some of society’s mores are overturned in the process then it’s a by-product of an individual’s pursuit of personal fulfilment.  It is without doubt the female characters who take centre stage and determine the novel’s course of events.  The only male character we get to know in any detail is Leonard, whose enigmatic and unsettling demeanour becomes more and more troubling to Frances.  This weighting towards the feminine is an interesting reflection of the state of Britain at that time, where thousands upon thousands of men have been killed in a war still fresh in everyone’s memory.  Frances has lost all the male members of her immediate family, and throughout the novel peripheral characters make reference to male friends or relatives who lost their lives in the conflict.  As events take a more sinister turn, those involved remark on how the war not only took so many innocent lives but hardened and corrupted the outlook of many of those men who survived, this collective shift towards self-serving cynicism being to the detriment of society and community.  Little wonder then that women, their desires and ambitions are suddenly coming to the fore.

I can’t bring this review to a close without mentioning just how exciting this novel is in terms of its plot and action.  Almost from the first page there is a tingling sense that something untoward is going to happen, and happen it does.  The first major event is pretty easy to anticipate; after that, however, I was taken completely by surprise and consumed the last half of the book with a real stomach-knotting desperation to see how the story would conclude.  I’ve read a lot of novels recently that I’ve enjoyed for their linguistic prowess, perceptive character studies or emotional impact, but it’s been a while since I read anything that has that real “what’s going to happen next” verve about it.  I’m really pleased I’ve finally discovered what a brilliant writer Sarah Waters is and can guarantee I’ll be returning to her before too long.

“The Blind Man’s Garden” by Nadeem Aslam – review

When I write a book review I normally jump straight in a couple of hours or so after I’ve finished reading; I like to have the emotional impact of a novel still alive and kicking in order for me to best share that reaction with others.  This time round things were quite different.  The sensations I got from this book were so intense that I needed a few days to withdraw and let them settle before I could even attempt to put them into words.

Let’s start with the easy bit: the synopsis.  “The Blind Man’s Garden” is the story of two men from Pakistan who unwittingly end up recruited by the Taliban to join the war against the Western forces in Afghanistan.  The novel’s two main strands follow the plight of these unwilling soldiers and also the lives of the families they leave behind in a country that is itself becoming ever more unstable.  It’s a war that dominated our media for years, and yet in all that time I never came across anything that got inside the heads and hearts of the people who actually lived through this terrible period as vividly as this book.  As you would expect, there are some disturbing episodes that depict mankind at its most brutal.  Aslam’s writing is unwaveringly lyrical even when presenting his readers with the most horrific of scenes, and yet despite this linguistic delicacy I still had to take a day or two’s break in the middle and step away from the characters’ emotional and physical pain for a while.

Something I really love about this author, though, is his emphasis on beauty even in the face of the ugliest human behaviour.  In this book, we return time and time again to the lush tranquillity of the titular garden; its owner may have failing sight but he can sense the vibrancy of nature all around him.  This idea of trust in the constancy of the garden’s beauty became for me a metaphor for having faith in all that is decent and pure even when our own world seems so darkened by malice and evil that we lose sight of it.  And it would be all too easy for a book to descend into absolute bleakness when it’s telling a story such as this.  Jihadists murder children, Western soldiers torture innocent civilians, human lives come to an end in the most pitiful of ways – and yet somehow what stays with you after you’ve finished reading are the depictions of love that outlast everything else, even death itself.  It’s too neat a solution and too easy a cliché to say that love conquers all, but you get the feeling that in Nadeem Aslam’s mind love and beauty will always prevail no matter what.

There’s very little in the way of judgement here.  The author clearly cares deeply about the fate of his creations and yet there is a certain sense of detachment from the situation as a whole.  The novel isn’t really even asking the reader to take sides in any political debate.  This is one tiny part of the conflict; although the action takes place against the backdrop of a world forever altered by the events of 9/11, it’s really about the effects as felt by just a handful of individuals.  The war in Afghanistan may be sending ripples across the entire globe, but for the people involved it’s not so much about the survival of a country or army, but simply the survival of themselves and those they love.  I think this is one reason why the book rang so true; all the characters have their own political opinions of course, but in a time of crisis it’s the relationships with the people dear to them that carry the most weight and spur them on in their darkest moments.

If the subject matter sounds grim, please don’t let that put you off.  Yes, parts of the book are heart-breaking and hard to read, but it’s never unreadable – and I’m generally quite sensitive to depictions of brutality.  Images from the novel will almost certainly linger in your mind for quite a while, but I found the moments of hope proved as potent as those of despair.  He’s such a tremendous writer and I guarantee his exquisite turn of phrase will blow you away.  Not many people I know have read his novels, and I think that’s a real shame because he deserves a much wider audience.  Make time for this book and you’ll be rewarded.

“The Light Years” by Elizabeth Jane Howard – review

I’m not entirely sure what it was that drew me to this book.  It might have been the half-remembered flashes of a long gone television adaptation, or maybe it was the name Cazalet on the cover that jumped out at me, it being one of those literary names that you know you’ve vaguely heard of even if you’ve never read the book.  My decision may even have been swayed by the pretty floral cover design.  Either way I’m delighted because I’ve discovered a new series of books (5 in all) I can really get my teeth into.

I will say straight off, though, I can imagine “The Light Years” may not instantly appeal to everyone.  Firstly, although it was only published in 1990 it does have quite an old-fashioned feel to it; the 1930s setting is definitely reflected in the style of prose.  Secondly, this is a world of vast country houses, prep schools, chauffeurs and croquet on the lawn, and at first I wasn’t convinced I was going to be able to take to any of these characters who had everything money could buy and then some.  It becomes apparent as the story develops, however, that despite their privileged position in society almost none of them are particularly happy.  True, an eccentric patriarch with a tendency to implement grand building schemes on his estate at the drop of a hat and the inconvenience of extra guests turning up for a dinner party are undoubtedly very minor dramas in the grand scheme of things, but these are outweighed by some truly devastating events – affairs, disintegrating marriages, even death – that only serve to highlight how even the most materially blessed are ultimately subjected to the same emotional pain as everyone else.

This novel has a pretty hefty cast (luckily a family tree is provided at the beginning!).  However, unusually for an ensemble piece on this scale, it wasn’t difficult to keep track of who was who and how they fitted into the family.  Juggling vast numbers of characters is a real skill; I find that often interrelationships can become confusing and the effort required to hold them all in my head spoils the flow of the novel, or that there are some characters whose storylines fail to sustain my interest.  Neither of those things is true in this case.  The Cazalet family is 17 strong, yet all get a remarkably equal share of the action and there wasn’t a redundant or dull character among them.  What I felt Elizabeth Jane Howard did exceptionally well was finding the voices of the children.  They get as much dialogue, and therefore as much input into the story, as their adult relatives, and as a result we get to see another side to events as they unfold, viewed as they are with naivety, childish humour or sometimes fear.

As the book draws to a close, the prospect of another world war is looming on the horizon.  The two eldest Cazalet brothers bear the physical and psychological scars of their time in the trenches of World War I, and the family’s sickening dread of having to go through the same thing all over again casts an ever darkening shadow over the superficially idyllic days.  Having become incredibly attached to this family I am now gasping to find out what happens to them over the coming books.  If this one is anything to go by, the author doesn’t shy away from tragedy so I imagine a few heartbreaks will be on the cards.  If you want to get wrapped up in a multi-stranded, traditional family saga then this comes highly recommended.

“The Girl who wasn’t there” by Ferdinand von Schirach – review

I’ll be blunt about this from the outset: I found “The Girl who wasn’t there” to be quite a strange book.  Not necessarily in a bad way, I hasten to add, but I got to the end feeling slightly unsure as to what exactly it was I’d just read – and on top of that, the hunch that I wasn’t meant to be sure.

It’s a book of two halves – literally.  Section one tells the backstory of the man who will later be implicated in a murder case (and don’t worry, that’s not a horrendous spoiler, it’s on the book jacket!) while section two deals with the police enquiry and subsequent trial.  We first meet the suspect, Sebastian von Eschburg, as a young child growing up in a remote country house that was once a place of some grandeur and prosperity but is now a dilapidated shadow of its former self.  Sebastian is a strange child, a fact of which he’s very much aware – he experiences emotions and memories as colours and unnerves his schoolteachers by conversing out loud with characters from his favourite books.  A shock event propels him from an unconventional childhood to a troubled adolescence, and by the time he reaches adulthood the events from his past combined with his already unusual mental disposition have well and truly taken their toll.  He launches what turns out to be a highly successful career as a photographer, his unique way of visualising the world around him giving rise to some complex and at times disquieting artistic creations.  The mental torment is never far away, however, lurking behind the lens, channelled to an extent by his work but always ready to strike.  By the end of the first half of the novel it would seem that Sebastian’s inner demons have struck indeed.

Part two switches abruptly to a new central character: Konrad Biegler, a curmudgeonly barrister who has been persuaded, very much against his will, to spend some time in a mountain retreat following a nervous breakdown.  Biegler is cantankerous, rude and regards most of the people around him as imbeciles, and yet he was the first character in the book for which I felt any kind of warmth.  The main reason for this is that he is incredibly funny – the archetypal “grumpy old man” if you will – and I found this brought a much-needed relief from the exploration of the tormented artist that had gone before.  The story itself remains serious; from this point on it follows the pattern of what I would call a more typical crime thriller.  We don’t see a whole lot of Sebastian in this part of the book; it’s more of a police procedural and courtroom drama, the focus being the investigation into the alleged murder.

To be honest, this sudden jump from the emotionally complex, almost dreamlike character study of the first half to the straightforward, plot-driven second half was what made the reading experience bizarre.  It felt as if I had read two different novels, neither of which was quite complete.  I found the backstory much more engaging and although the criminal case was by no means uninteresting it felt a bit rushed, as if there wasn’t enough time to really build the suspense.  The book’s conclusion does go some way to linking the two halves together again, but by that point I wasn’t quite sure that the device had worked.  Having said that, the book did throw up some interesting ideas, particularly about the indistinct nature of the line between art and reality.  If you have an afternoon to spare it’s worth a try; I liked von Schirach’s writing style and hats off to him for offering up something a bit different.  I wouldn’t review a book on my blog if I really disliked it, so although for me this one had its challenges I think it could be one that many different types of reader could enjoy.  If you’ve tried it I’d love to hear what you think.

“The Ecliptic” by Benjamin Wood – review

It’s so much easier to write a review when you can start with a brief, pithy sentence to sum up the book, outlining the genre, plot or characters and giving your readers an idea of what kind of novel we’re dealing with.  I finished “The Ecliptic” yesterday and to be honest, I’m not even able to encapsulate its essence in a way that’s comprehensible to me, let alone anyone else.  It’s indefinable – and superb.  It lures you in and then throws you off course until, by the time you’ve reached the explosive final section, your mind has taken a real battering.  If you enjoy books that confound your initial expectations then this is definitely for you.

The story starts in a somewhat unusual setting: Portmantle, an island refuge off the Turkish coast that caters for artists who have lost their inspiration.  The institution is overseen by the provost, who maintains an orderly community free from any luxuries or distractions, in which poets, painters, architects and all sort of creatives can rediscover their flair and motivation.  The trade-off for anyone coming to this sanctuary is the mandatory severing of all ties to the outside world.  No communication with friends or family is permitted.  Any possessions a resident is allowed to keep are of the most basic kind.  Once the gates to the refuge have closed behind you, even your name is sacrificed as it is considered a reminder of your former life that can only weigh you down.  All the artists living here have assumed names picked at random from the telephone directory – at first we know the novel’s main character only as those in Portmantle know her: Knell.

Knell, however, is telling her own story, and we soon learn that she is really Elspeth Conroy, a young Scottish painter who moved away from her working class roots and became a shining light of the London art scene.  The events of her life before Portmantle unfold in flashback, and a picture emerges of a lonely, troubled young woman struggling to maintain her artistic integrity in a world of self-promotion and superficial adulation, where the name above the gallery door is more important than any depth of meaning in the art itself.  Events take a turn for the worse, and then for the worse again, leading up to her admittance to the mysterious sanctuary that she hopes will be her salvation.

The refuge itself is one of the most cleverly created settings I’ve ever come across in a novel.  Its purpose is to allow artists to reach the point where they feel ready to return to the outside world with their creativity restored – and yet the author manages to filter in an underlying sense of unease as regards this unconventional place.  It reminded me of the school in Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let me Go”: you can never put your finger on exactly what it is that makes you feel there’s more going on than meets the eye, but the feeling is definitely there.  When a newcomer, Fullerton, arrives at the gates, the island’s predictability and routine start to unravel.  It’s clear that this tormented young man is harbouring some kind of secret – and his coming may turn out to have a significance that no-one could have predicted.

As I said at the beginning, there’s no way to sum up this novel, except to say that it’s as enigmatic as the elusive ecliptic of the title.  The only way to get a sense of what I mean is to read it and see for yourself.  If I’ve tempted you to try it I hope you enjoy it as much as I did – it’s certainly something a bit different to take to the beach this summer!

My new obsession: S J Parris

It’s quite rare for me to read books from the same series in quick succession.  Even when a trilogy or longer series is complete and all the books are there ready should I so choose, I hardly ever read them back to back; that’s true even in cases where I’ve been blown away by the first one.  The reason is simply that I find taking a break makes me appreciate the follow-ups even more when I come back to them.  The old cliché that you can have too much of a good thing is definitely true when it comes to books; I find that overindulging in an author, character or even a genre can quickly extinguish any magic you felt at first.  I’m slightly surprised, then, to find myself well and truly ensnared by an obsession that has resulted not only in my reading a whole two books (!) by the same author one after the other, but buying the rest so they’re there the minute I’ve finished part two.  The thing that hasn’t surprised me is that this latest literary crush is historical fiction – if anything’s going to ignite my passion and maintain it, it’ll be that.  The author is S J Parris and the central character is Giordano Bruno, a former monk who ends up in England following his excommunication from the Church of Rome on charges of heresy.  In the first book he meets Sir Philip Sidney and Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, and quickly becomes entangled in a gruesome murder investigation with many potential repercussions for church and state.

If you loved the Shardlake series by C J Sansom then I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy these.  The period is similar (Sansom’s books take place during the reign of Henry VIII, Parris’ books are set in Elizabethan times) and both central characters are intellectuals whose quick brains and lofty social connections lead them to turn detective, albeit with some reluctance.  Bruno is an extremely likeable protagonist, with enough self-doubt to prevent him from appearing arrogant or infallible, but not so much that he becomes a tortured hero whose melancholy introspection detracts from the mystery at hand.  And the mysteries themselves are cracking puzzles.  They take place, of course, in a time when Catholics and Protestants were almost literally at war, with heretics on both sides being hunted down, tortured and murdered all across Europe.  Double dealing and the concealment of religious identity were the order of the day; if we learn anything from Bruno’s struggles to unravel these often religiously motivated crimes, it’s that nobody can be trusted to hold the same beliefs that they choose to show to the world.

I’m particularly looking forward to reading the third instalment as it’s set in the part of England where I’ve lived for most of my life – I can’t wait to see how the author brings my familiar surroundings to life.  If you want to give the series a go then “Heresy” is book one; the stories stand alone for the most part so reading them in order isn’t essential, but to get the full impression of Bruno’s development as a character I think it’s best to start at the beginning of his story.  If you’re a fan of historical fiction I hope you’ll give them a try.  If you’re not then this may just be the series to convert you!