Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Snowed Under

Blogging will be suspended for a time whilst we work out new systems in the shop for streamlining what we do. Trying to keep up with blogging and dealing with new orders is proving to be problematic so we are taking a break until we sort out the issues and we can free up some time. Happy Reading

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The City and The City - China Mieville

Science Fiction books are something that I read as a teenager and moved away from, despite the realisation that they were often the books that pushed at the boundaries of knowledge and ideas - looking forward rather than back. I like books that explore ideas and China Mieville's name has been on my radar for some time, previous novels have been packaged as science fiction and have been called the new weird, but they remained in the science fiction/fantasy section but with the publication of 'The City and The City' it is perhaps time to take Mieville's novels and put them firmly in the modern literature section. This does not mean that we are being given reality as we know it reflected back to us, we are being given a reality which has been stretched thin and wrapped around a murder mystery!
The cities of the title are Beszel and Ul Qoma, they are located somewhere towards the Balkans in an otherwise identical world. Each city has it's own characteristics, food, fashion, colours and administrative systems. The point of departure from the conventional is that the two cities occupy the same physical space. The citizens of each city live their lives around the citizens of the other city having learnt to 'unsee' from an early age, the penalties for 'seeing' or Breach, being severe.

The book is narrated from the point of view of Inspector Borlu of the Beszian Extreme Crime Squad, a woman's body is found in a run down area of the city of Beszel and it soon becomes clear to Borlu that the murder involves the illegal passage between the two cities or Breach. The murdered woman is involved in an archaeological dig in Ul Qoma which is recovering mysterious artifacts, as the investigation progresses it becomes clear that the murdered woman had become convinced that there is a third city, Orciny, which exists in the spaces between Beszel and Ul Qoma unseen by the occupants of both cities and which wields power greater than that of Breach. As Borlu pursues his investigation he travels to Ul Qoma and both he and his Ul Qomaan counterpart slowly begin to believe that Orciny may be real.
China Mieville has created a novel that deals with our modern busy crowded urban lives. We all 'unsee' things we don't want to see from the beggar in the street to that big chap coming towards us on a dark night. He has taken this idea and stretched it to create this engrossing murder mystery which offers us a view of how we deal with the chaos of life lived in the city.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

2009 Man Booker Prize Longlist

The Man Booker Prize Longlist was announced yesterday and the contenders for the shortlist which will be announced on the 8th September are:

The Children's Book - AS Byatt

Summertime - J M Coetzee

The Quickening Maze - Adam Foulds

How to Paint a Dead Man - Sarah Hall

The Wilderness - Samantha Harvey

Me Cheeta - James Lever

Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantell

The Glass Room - Simon Mawer

Not Untrue and Not Unkind - Ed O'Loughlin

Heliopolis - James Scudamore

Brooklyn - Colm Toibin

Love and Summer - William Trevor

The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters

Check out our reviews of The Wilderness and The Little Stranger. We will bring you reviews of the other nominees in due course.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

American Rust - Philipp Meyer

Philipp Meyer's debut novel and his writing have been compared to Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, J D Salinger and Cormac McCarthy. This is heady stuff - as is this novel.

Buell Pennsylvania is a steel town, or it was. It is now in the Rust Belt of America, the steel works have been closed and the only jobs are those involved in dismantling the mills and at WalMart - packing groceries. In a period of twenty years

'the area had lost 150,00 jobs-most of the towns could no longer afford basic services; many no longer had any police...It was like this all up and down the river and many of the young people, the way they accepted their lack of prospects, it was like watching sparks die in the night.'

Two of these young people are Isaac English and Billy Poe, high school friends who have been left behind in Buell where others their age have fled. Isaac steals $4,000 from his invalid father and plans to head west, to California to study at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. His friend Billy, a High School football star agrees to accompany him on the first leg of his journey. But when they shelter from rain in a disused mill and encounter three homeless men, Billy refuses to run and Isaac kills one of the men. It is from this morally ambiguous incident that Meyers builds and layers his novel.

The two boys panic and run instead of going to the police. Billy is eventually arrested and charged with murder. Isaac, unaware of his friends arrest, fleas as originally planned. The novel explores the consequences of the boys actions on themselves and those around them, Billy's mother Grace, Isaac's sister Lee and Bud Harris the local Chief of Police. Each chapter is narrated by a different character which allows Meyer to focus in on various aspects of the repercussions of the murder but also explore the consequences of the economic decline of Buell.

This is not just a story of a murder but an exploration of the choices we make, be they large ones such as not investing in new technology and maintenance of a mill or the relatively smaller one of not taking up employment in a city because it would mean moving your son from the school where he is on the football team. Also how people are swept aside by history, marginalised and overlooked. Meyer gives us the modern dispossessed, living in trailer parks and disused houses, the corruption of municipal politics and the barely contained violence of a maximum security prison.

Throughout 'American Rust', below the surface and waiting in the wings, is nature herself. The Mon valley where Buell is situated is a lovely verdant area and with the decline of industry and the depopulation of the towns nature is beginning to reassert itself. Deer walk down deserted streets and those people that remain are turning to almost frontier lifestyles of growing their own vegetables and hunting their own food. Is this a simpler time? The people of Buell are living lives of quiet desperation.

Meyer puts hardly a foot wrong in this novel, there are however two niggles, the lack of interest in even looking at an alternative scenario to the murder theory and whether anyone awaiting trial would be sent to a maximum security prison. These are very minor criticisms which do not detract from a novel that explores the economic and personal reality of decisions made at the highest levels of government and at the intimate and individual level.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Wilderness - Samantha Harvey

Jake Jameson is taking an aeroplane flight. It is his birthday and the flight is a gift, one that he does not enjoy. As the world wheels and shifts around him he is disoriented. Below is the prison for which he was the architect and in which his son Henry is incarcerated. He is proud of his work but the pilot believes it is a blot on the landscape. He sees men in the exercise yard below
'Can he see his son? Can they see one another?...That one is Henry. No, he is mistaken. That one perhaps. That one? Impossible to tell he decides'
This short extract neatly sums up the basic premise of Harvey's novel. Can we see ourselves properly, can we see or know others. Jake has Alzheimer's and in this first person novel we see the decline of Jake as he sifts and sorts memories to try to get to their basic truth. But as the disease progresses he is left with less and less, the world becoming a bewildering place - the wilderness of the title. Who is the woman with whom he sleeps, who drove the car that knocked over the dog Lucky and where is his daughter Alice - did she die or did she live to tell him about her pregnancy?
The facts of Jake's life wheel and shift around him. It is clear that he is a man who thinks that facts and reality are important, for whom there is black and white and who dreams of glass
'On one side of the bridge,he remarks, is the courthouse: here are the free and the godly, those who pass judgement. On the other side is the jail: the imprisoned, those who have been judged.'
His wife Helen though sees the world as a much more ambiguous place, despite her religious certainty
'One should hesitate to cast aspersions. A person's morality is usually a two way journey - it just depends which leg of it you catch them on.'
As Jake's Alzheimer's progresses he is left with less and less certainty, things become more ambiguous, did his wife have an affair, did he? Does it matter that he can not remember, can he choose his identity or is he born with it
'He is giddy with the sensation that nothing, nothing, not even himself, is certain. And then he begins to wonder if perhaps this is a godsend, and that he can protect himself by filling in the gaps with what he would prefer as opposed to what was.'
Questions of identity abound throughout this novel. Jake's mother Sara is Jewish but she hides her Jewishness and is married to an antisemite. Jake embraces his Jewishness becoming actively involved in an organisation to promote Zionism.
As Jake's memories become uncertain he finds relief in being able to remember as he would like things to be and we, the reader, become more certain in our reading as the novel progresses as more and more, or should that be less and less, of Jake's memories are made available to us. This first novel was rightly shortlisted for the Orange Prize this year it is a heartbreaking and vital look at the decline of a mind.
'Back at the table he works again on the timeline, thinks he might have a coffee, stands, crouches to stroke the back of the dog's ear with his thumb, tells her silently, that he is terribly sorry for running her over, returns to the table, thinks he wouldn't mind a coffee, stands, concludes that he needs to urinate. Urinates, and returns to find the dog barking at the coffee machine, which is banging with dry heat and a crack working it's way up the glass. Fool that he is.'

Friday, June 12, 2009

International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2009

This years winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is 'Man Gone Down' by Michael Thomas.

The Judges commented

“We never know his name. But the African-American protagonist of Michael Thomas’ masterful debut, Man Gone Down, will stay with readers for a long time. He lingers because this extraordinary novel comes to us from a writer of enthralling voice and startling insight. Tuned urgently to the way we live now, the winner of the International Dublin IMPAC Prize 2009 is a novel brilliant in its scope and energy, and deeply moving in its human warmth.”

This book is an extraordinary debut that tackles race, wealth and family head on as a young black man finds the American Dream dissolving around him. On the eve of this thirty-fifth birthday, the unnamed black narrator of "Man Gone Down" finds himself broke, estranged from his white wife and three children, and living in the bedroom of a friend's six-year-old child. He has four days to come up with the money to keep his kids in school and make a down payment on an apartment for them to live in. As we slip between his childhood in inner city Boston and present-day New York City, we discover a life marked by abuse, abandonment, raging alcoholism, and the best and worst intentions of a supposedly integrated America. This is a story of the American Dream gone awry, about what it's like to feel preprogrammed to fail in life and the urge to escape that sentence.

The other novels nominated were:

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz; The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles by Roy Jacobsen, in translation; Ravel by Jean Echenoz, in translation; Animal’s People by Indra Sinha; The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid; The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland and The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Flying Troutmans - Miriam Toews

28 year old Hattie is in Paris and in love, but when she receives a midnight call from her 11 year old niece Thebes telling her that things are falling apart at home and she gets dumped by her boyfriend, she leaves Paris to fly home to Canada to try to sort things out. She finds her sister Min lying in bed refusing to eat, clearly this is nothing new as the local psychiatric hospital have a bed for her, but when Min refuses to see her children or Hattie, Hattie becomes the sole carer for Min's children Thebes and 15 year old Logan. Logan almost immediately gets suspended from school and in panic Hattie bundles the kids into an old Ford Aerostar and sets out to try to find their father with only the vaguest information about his whereabouts.

This then is a coming of age story, a story of the road and a quest, a quest to find family and reaffirm the ties that bind us. It is also a celebration of the individual, both in the sense of the nonconformist (such a nicer word than 'dysfunctional') and in the sense of learning to take responsibility for oneself. Hattie fled to Paris to escape her sisters mental illness and the blight it cast over her childhood. Episodes where Min tried to drown her and tricked her into being encased in a total body plastercast so Min could go out when she was supposed to be minding Hattie, together with the death of their father, are stories that Hattie must come to terms with whilst on the road. She must also learn to stop running and take on adult responsibility, after all as Thebes says in relation to her relationship prospects

'Okay, twenty eight, she said. She thought for a second. You have like two years, she said. Maybe you should dress up more, though.'

One of the areas Hattie has to learn to navigate is that of parenthood. She is stuck in a van with a precocious 11 year old and an angry taciturn 15 year old whose form of communication seems to be carving words into the wood of the dashboard with a knife. Hattie is far more relaxed about this than I would be but she also has unique insight into the type of life they have been living with their mother and is aware of her limitations

'Conversing with children is a fine art, I realized. An art form that demands large amounts of honesty and misdirection. Or maybe discretion is a better word. Or a gradual release of information like time-controlled vitamins. Either way my own befuddled efforts were pathetic and I wanted to have more than odd, cryptic conversations with Logan and Thebes.'

Despite, or maybe because of, these limitations in the end Hattie allows Logan and Thebes the space to express what it is they need from the adults around them and Hattie comes to realise that you can take care of someone else but you cannot take responsibility for them, they have take responsibility for themselves, all you can do is support them. Perhaps her greatest gift to these children is making them understand that she is willing to support them but that they are not responsible for their mother or the way she feels, and they have to live their own lives, as must Min.

This makes the book sound terribly worthy, but the life lessons are applied lightly and the book careers along at the same speed as a Ford Aerostar. The occupants of the car spend their time like most families on a long journey, just passing the time

'Who would you rather have as a boyfriend? Frankenstein or George Bush?'

singing songs, creating art (Thebes' speciality is giant novelty cheques made out to the various members of her family and people she meets) and talking about their past and present. Toews has created a funny, engaging and grim tale which carries you along with it in search of the family of these unique and individual children.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Past Imperfect - Julian Fellowes

This Richard and Judy Summer Read is written by Julian Fellowes, better known as Kilwillie in Monarch of the Gen on BBC television and the writer of the screenplay for 'Gosforth Park' which won him an Oscar. Like Gosforth Park Past Imperfect harks back to an earlier time
"when the customer was always right, when AA men saluted the badge on your car and policemen touched their helmet in greeting"
in other words - 1968.
In the modern day our unnamed narrator is summoned to the bedside of Damien Baxter, an old friend turned enemy, who is dying. Damien has accumulated vast wealth but is unable to father children due to adult mumps. During the debutant season of 1968 however he was sexually involved with several women and several years before the onset of his current terminal illness received an anonymous letter which would suggest that one of these liaisons resulted in a child. The narrators task is to revisit these women to establish which if them bore Damien's child so that he can leave his vast wealth to his fortunate progeny
Fellowes uses this basic plot on which to hang his look back at the 'season' of 1968, a time when the old tradition of 'coming out' and being presented to the Queen was dying out, as were the aristocracy and 'old' money. Fellowes at times can not make up his mind whether he is writing a novel or social commentary. Each house, even individual rooms, and their furniture are described - call me ignorant but what is a 'duchesse brisee day bed' - there are discussions on the wearing of white tie and smoking jackets for the gentlemen and the breakdown of parental authority.
However, what Fellowes has done well is to expose the social shifts that took place in England over the last 40 years for a particular class of person. The parents of the debs, particularly their mothers, are shown to still inhabit the old world of titles and social privilege whilst the new world of the self made man and new wealth is nipping at their heels. Their children, the debs and their beaus, feel the world turning and the cold wind of change. The device of revisiting these women and looking at the lives they lead now compared to their expectations and those of their parents in 1968, works well. Fellowes also exposes what happens to those who are unable to adapt to the new social order.
Although the thrust of the book is disillusionment with the present and a harking back with fondness to the past (most impressively dealt with when the narrator talks about his father's job as diplomat and the inadequacy of his post retirement life) the sense of privilege that pervades the book, both in terms of the characters in the novel and Fellowes obvious familiarity with his subject, blunts any message the Fellowes may be trying to deliver. These people, even in the present, have money - maybe not as much as they did - but enough. No mention is made of the lives of those who make their life possible. In 1968
'Perhaps there were only two footmen where once there had been six. Perhaps the chef had to manage on his own.'
and in the present day Damien has a butler and housekeeper.
It is easy to look back with fondness on such a past and this is an entertaining look at a time and history that most people did not experience.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters

It is the late 1940's and Hundreds Hall is, much like England, a shadow of it's former self. Colonel Ayres is dead and the Hall is inhabited by his widow and surviving two children Roderick and Caroline. The Hall has sunk into disrepair and ruin as money has run out, the family selling of land to sustain them. Things are changing in England, the old order is being swept away - with all that implies for the social order of society.

Dr Faraday is a country doctor who would seem to typify this social change, his mother was a servant at the Hall, his father a grocer's boy. His parent's gave everything they had to see him achieve their ambitions for him but he is a lonely middle aged bachelor in the village of Lidcote until called to the Hall in his colleague's absence to tend to Betty the 14 year old live in maidservant. Betty is faking her illness in the hopes of being sent home as the house gives her 'the horrors' but Faraday's attendance on her brings him into contact with the Ayers family - Roderick who was with the RAF in the war and suffered extensive burns in a crash, Caroline who 'was noticeable plain, over-tall for a woman, with thickish legs and ankles' and Mrs Ayers herself who, despite wartime austerity and rationing still manages to display good breeding and 'a Frenchified air'. As the four take tea together in the collapsing house their social differences are brought to the fore as Caroline and Roderick recall stories of past family servants and Dr Faraday feels 'the faintest stirring of a dark dislike'.

Matters take a more supernatural turn when the family dog has to be destroyed following an incident with a child and Roderick becomes more withdrawn. Burn marks begin to appear on the walls and it appears the house itself starts to hound the family with unexplained noises, fires and writing on the walls

'Rod stood perfectly still, in that still room, and watched as the shaving-glass shuddered again, then rocked, then began to inch it's way across the washing-stand towards him....It moved with a jerky halting gait, the unglazed underside of it's porcelain base making a frightful, grating sound on the polished marble surface.'

Sarah Waters has created a Gothic ghost story which will have your hair standing on it's end. This is achieved not with blood and guts and gore but with supreme confidence and suspense. All the elements of the ghost story are here, an isolated country house and a finite cast of characters with questions about their motives and soundness of mind abounding. But this is so much more than just a ghost story, the book charts the decline of the great country houses after the war and indeed the decline of the landed gentry as the working and middle classes loose faith with the old order and the new phenomenon of the self made man and new money begin their inexorable rise.

As the story unfolds and we watch the fall of the House of Ayers who will be left in possession of the land represented by Hundreds Hall, who will be the victor in the class battle unfolding in England at the time and, more important, who will be last man standing as one by one the various characters succumb to whatever haunts the Hall and who or what is responsible?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The House of Special Purpose - John Boyne

In 1915 16 year old Georgy Daniilovich Jachmenev saves the life of the cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, from this point his life is changed beyond recognition. A farmers son with little education he is catapaulted into the heart of the Royal Court in St Petersburg. Given the task of looking after and mentoring the young heir to the throne Alexei Romanov, Boyne has created someone who is at the heart of one of the greatest upheavals of the 2oth Century.

Intertwined with the story of Georgy and the royal family is the story of Georgy and his wife Zoya living a quiet life in London in 1981. Zoya is in the last stages of cancer and Georgy looks back over his life and that of his wife since leaving Russia in 1918. The two stories are told in alternating chapters, the Romanov strand moves forward in time whilst the post 1918 story goes backwards in time until both stories collide in 1918. This device allows Boyne to cover a lot of ground and whilst it is effective in moving the narrative on (or backwards) at a clipping pace it is also a source of frustration as potentially interesting episodes, such as the death of their daughter and Georgy's war work, are dropped and people appear and disappear in the lives of the Jackmenev's very quickly.

The two emigres life after 1918 is quiet and unassuming which contrasts nicely with Georgy's life in the Winter Palace. We see him at the centre of events as Rasputin excercises control over the Tsaritsa Alexandra, the Tsar continues his disasterous campaign against his Cousin Kaiser Wilhelm across the battlefields of Europe, the Bolshevicks take control and the history of the House of Romanov is played out in the House of Special Purpose. Boyne's Georgy is a passive narrator, there is no attempt to analyse the events of the day or the reasons for the fall of the Romnov's other than occasional references to the poor conditions in which the general population lived and the luxury of the royal family's life. However, Boyne manipulates the narrative effectively so that when the two stories collide anyone who does not know the history of the Royal Family will see how the otherwise quiet and unassuming life of the two Russian exiles begins and ends in 1918.

The lack of analysis or anything approaching an exploration of the ideas and ideals of the various factions in Russia at the time places the book firmly in the young adult fiction camp. It would be a good starting point for an interest in what was happening in Russia during the First World War together with the later controversy over the identity of those members of the Royal family who were killed. A good story well told.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Winter Vault - Ann Michaels

Those who read and loved Anne Michael's first book 'Fugitive Pieces' have had to wait over a decade for her second novel 'The Winter Vault'. This is a complex and ambitious novel which carries forward some of the themes found in her earlier novel particularly that of our connection with the land in an elemental sense, not just where we are born or live but where we belong.

The book initially centres on recently married Avery and Jean who are in Egypt. Avery, an engineer, is involved in the dismantling and relocation to another site of the Abu Simbel temple, the site of which will be flooded to make way for the Aswan Dam. As Avery works on the deconstruction of the temple he and Jean at night work on the construction of their relationship, telling each other about their history and past. They are building an enviable relationship filled with intimacy and silence and talk.

'It was as if, long ago, a part of him had broken off inside, and now finally, he recognized the dangerous fragment that had been floating in his system, causing him intermittent pain over the years. As if he could now say of the ache: "Ah. It was you."'
But around them, not only is the temple being relocated, thousands of people whose villages will be inundated with water are being moved to new settlements hundreds of miles from where their ancestors have lived and are buried. Avery is haunted by the fear that by moving the temple he is merely creating a copy of the original, that something significant will be lost and this concern is echoed in the creation of the new villages for the displaced, where villagers were neighbours they are now thousands of miles apart and families are torn asunder.

When a tragedy strikes Jean and Avery are unable to deal with the scale of their loss together and agree to separate. The novel then takes a turn away from the joint story of Jean and Avery to concentrate on Jean and her journey back from loss. This narrowing of focus acts as a lense for Michael's to move away from the larger themes of the loss suffered by whole peoples down to the personal tragedies and losses of individuals.

The second part of the novel finds Jean and Avery in Toronto living separately. Jean becomes a guerrilla gardener, planting in public spaces at night as a way of evoking memories in passers by when they smell the scent of the plants she has placed in the ground. She meets Lucjan aka 'The Caveman', a graffiti artist and Polish emigre with whom she begins a relationship. Lucjan lived in the destroyed wastes of Warsaw during the Second World War and helped in it's rebuilding - an almost exact copy of what had been destroyed. This fact provides a link between the two men in the novel together with the the need for Lucjan to tell his story in much the same way that Avery and Jean told theirs at the beginning of the book

'I need you to listen as if theses memories are your own. The details of this room, this view from the window, these clothes heaped on the chair, the hairbrush on the bedside table, the glass on the floor, everything must disappear. I need you to hear everything I say, and everything I can't say must be heard too'
Lucjan's story is also of displacement and relocation. Neither he nor his circle of emigre friends has settled in their new homeland, they remember and relive their homeland every day, leading us to question the wisdom of Michael's apparent premise that we are inextricably linked to our ancestral home. For if we are unable to move on into our new life (as some undoubtedly are) we become stalled forever living in the past. A question that has particular resonance for the Irish both historically and now when so many are once again leaving.
'The Winter Vault' is a story of loss. Loss of earth, land, history, town, home, family, life, past, partner and child. It is also a story of exile and grief and asks the question what is home. A winter vault is the building the dead are stored in the winter when the ground is too hard to dig a grave, it is where they wait until they are returned to the ground. To me the winter vault is that time of exile, before settlement in a new home, land or life. Lucjan has failed to emerge from the winter vault his life has become carrying with him his past,unable to move into his new life in Canada. Can Jean and Avery emerge from the winter vault their lives became after their personal tragedy?
As previously stated this book is a complex work filled with information, questions and ideas. It is not a quick read (hence the amount of time since my last post!) and is dense with language. Whilst beautifully written and asking big questions the book lacks the narrative impetus of 'Fugitive Pieces'. Undoubtedly 'The Winter Vault' will be loved for it's ambition and language but a little more space within the narrative would not have gone astray, it is a book in which it is difficult to see the wood for the trees.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles - Roy Jacobson

Like 'The Archivist's Story' this IMPAC nominated novel takes place in 1939, in a town in Finland - Suomussalmi. During the winter of 1939/40 the town was the scene of a battle between Finnish and Russian forces following the Russian invasion of Finland. The Finns initially retreated before the Russian advance practicing a scorched earth policy of burning the town so that when the Russians arrived they would have no shelter. The battle that followed the Russian arrival in the town, the tactics used by the Finnish army and the resultant Finnish victory against overwhelming odds, is taught at Sandhurst and Westpoint today.
Timo, regarded as the village idiot, refuses to leave town when ordered to do so by the Authorities. He was born in the town and has lived there all his life, it is the only place he knows. His decision confirms his place in the eyes of the villagers as an idiot as both winter and the Russians are nigh. When the Russians arrive they also regard Timo as a simpleton, after all who would stay in a village that had been burned and captured? Timo is put to work cutting timber for the Russians with a group of Russian misfits who are unable to function as soldiers. It is Timo's relationship with this group and their fortunes during the Russian occupation of Suomussalmi that form the core of this novel.

Doubts as to Timo's idiocy surface early as it is clear that he regards his personal circumstances as his own business
'it's strange it has to be repeated so often'
clearly therefore he is more an outsider than an idiot, unwilling to explain his personal choices to others and not seeing why he should. Being an outsider means that Timo can not be expected to conform either to what Finnish authorities want of him nor the stereotypical image the Russians have of a captured civilian during wartime. Timo sees the Russians around him first and foremost as men, then Russians. This leads him to do otherwise inexplicable things, telling the Russians about the surrounding countryside and positively helping them by chopping wood. Living the novel through an outsiders eyes gives us the opportunity to look at society from the outside, what we see is the outsider acting as a human being.
Timo also views his fellow loggers as men first. They are clearly unfit for the role assigned to them by the Russian authorities and Timo takes it on himself to teach them how to survive in the harsh Finnish winter. The cold is a major element of the novel - what it is like and how to survive it. There is a lot of going to bed, sleeping, eating and cleaning in the story. When the Russians began their offensive many of the troops came from the Crimea and were unused to such harsh conditions. The Soviet army was ill equip both in terms of heavy mechanisation which confined them to roads and with regard to winter camouflage clothing for the troops. Timo teaches the loggers the importance of taking care of yourself in the cold, in such cold humans become careless and when they are careless it is easy to freeze to death. But the Russian loggers also save Timo from being an outsider, he becomes part of a group and finds strength in himself
'I could never have managed it alone, and in a way ... it was they who saved me, just as much as I had saved them'

One of the elements of the novel that is of interest is the inability of Timo to speak Russian and the Russians to speak Finnish. How therefore do the various characters communicate? In an interview with Ramona Koval of ABC National in Australia Roy Jacobson explained his intention

'it's actually a non verbal novel...It's about the most basic kind of human communication that you can imagine and I wanted to keep that because it's actually a book about a man who, under circumstances where most of us would act like animals, he finds an opportunity to act like a human being. That's the miracle I'm writing about...He actually finds out in himself that he actually becomes a bigger human being for doing these so called good things for his enemy'

There is therefore a moral ambiguity about the book which is intriguing, is Timo right or wrong, is he a hero or a coward? Timo himself believes he is neither all he wanted to do is survive and faced for the first time with others who had none of the skills of survival he had, who looked up to him and admired him, he drew strength from the Russian's weakness and became more than he had ever been before.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Archivist's Story - Travis Holland

Published in The UK in 2007 'The Archivist's Story' has been shortlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award, the most valuable literary award for a work published in English. The six shortlisted books were selected from 146 titles nominated by public libraries in 117 countries making the award one of the most unique in the world and the six shortlisted books some of the best fiction you are likely to read.

Travis Holland takes us back to 1939 when Europe is on the brink of war and Stalin is at the head of Soviet Russia. Pavel Dubrov is working as an Archivist in the Lubyanka cataloguing and sorting the mountain of manuscripts censored by the NKVD ( precursor to the KGB ) whose authors are 'disappeared', either dead, exiled or prisoners in the very prison where Pavel works. A former teacher of literature Pavel's job is ultimately to burn an author's complete body of work when their file is eventually closed.

Holland explores the meaning of memory and literature's place in memory. The society in which Holland's characters exist is a place with no memory, where it can be dangerous to remember, thus famines become 'disruptions', a son must stand by whilst his father is denounced and arrested and you can not talk about those who have disappeared.

'...the Lubyanka is simply a microcosm of Moscow itself, where night by night the black sedans and unmarked prison trucks - black ravens, black Marias - slip down the darkened narrow lanes and alleyways, going about their terrible business'

A turning point comes for Pavel when he is instructed to meet with Isaac Babel to clear up the authorship of a short story which has not been recorded in an evidence manifest. Babel was a Jewish short story writer and his final statement to his NKVD Military Tribunal on January 26 1940 is included at the start of the book. At this point in the story Babel is confined in the Lubyanka and almost without thinking Pavel slips the story out of the prison and hides it in his basement. Thereafter we follow Pavel as he comes to realise that:

'With every manuscript he destroys,Pavel can feel a little more of his soul being chipped this time next year there will be nothing left of him.'

This image of there being nothing left of Pavel is echoed in the deterioration of his mother who is suffering blackouts and memory loss due to a suspected brain tumour. His mother's insistence that nothing be done leaves Pavel feeling that there is nothing left for his mother but diminishment and loss and that when she no longer recognises him or their life together there will be two deaths, her past and his. Pavel is therefore facing a future where he will not be remembered.

Literature is also dying in the flames of the Lubyanka's incinerator. Literature is

'A window, Pavel thinks. An entire world.'

and to contemplate life with

'no stories, no novels or plays, no poems. Just empty shelves. The end of history.'

What Pavel is taking to the incinerator is therefore our history. Novels, storys, poems and plays are how we make sense of ourselves and our history. Without them we have no history and with no history we can not know ourselves.

Pavel saves another of Babel's stories and in doing so he can say

'I lived'

but in doing so he also knows he can not stop a bullet with paper and therefore prepares himself. The ending is entirely appropriate as our imagination takes us beyond the story and into the world Holland has created, where we wait to hear the sound of a car sent - perhaps - to take us.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Through Black Spruce
Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden's second novel is a meditation on family and identity, both personal and cultural, which takes us from the frozen wastelands of Northern Canada to, in another sense, the frozen wastelands of Toronto, Vancouver and New York City. This is the second in what is rumoured to be a trilogy of works, the first being 'Three Day Road' which was nominated for The Governor General's award in Canada and winner of the Roger's Writers fiction prize, both in 2005. This reader had not read 'Three Day Road' before reading 'Through Black Spruce'.

The novel follows two intertwining stories, that of Will Bird who is in a coma and his niece, Annie Bird, who sets out on a quest to find her missing younger sister Suzanne. Will narrates his story from his coma and Annie tells her story to her Uncle in a bid to wake him. The events they relate catalogue how each of them deals with the conflicts that have arisen within their 'clan' - in it's broadest sense the Cree Aboriginal First Nation People of Mooseonee and in its narrower sense of their family- and the incursion into their community of 'civilisation' with all it's attendant problems of addiction, trauma and Oprah .

The catalyst for the problems Will and Annie face is the disappearance of Suzanne one Christmas morning with Gus Netmaker, her boyfriend. The Netmakers began as bootleggers and graduated to suppliers of drugs to the local community but the local police seem unable or unwilling to move against them. Following Suzanne and Gus' disappearance, Gus' brother Maurius believes Will is informing on the Netmakers and his business partners to the police. Further, Maurius and his associates are searching for the two runaways as they have stolen from the cartel.

Upon this structure Boyden explores the options open to the First Nation Peoples in the face of this incursion of evils from civilisation. Will fleas to the barren north and begins to live as his ancestors did exploring the traditional ways however he is plagued by his own addiction to alcohol. Annie, in pursuit of her sister, travels south and embraces the modern world, she sheds her tomboy past and becomes seduced by the seemingly easy money and lifestyle of modeling. As Will states early in the novel

'you...put out your gill net and pull in options like fish'

but options are closing in both for the Cree as a people and for the Birds. Neither Will nor Annie can survive in the worlds they have chosen and both return to Mooseonee with violence in tow.

Boyden, who was born into a strict Irish catholic family,draws on his own experiences and that of his family to craft this novel. He spent his summers as a teenager living on the streets of Toronto and at the age of 16 began travelling to the United States on his own. He is himself balancing the two parts of his ancestry, the Irish Catholic with the Ojibwe, by spending part of his time in New Orleans and part in the Arctic Gulf. In an interview with Constance Droganes for CTV he says

'If you don't know your personal history you're doomed to repeat it...We may think the past is something we don't need. But that's not true - not to my mind'

This is an important novel, dealing as it does with matters of cultural, family and personal identity but it does not always convince. Whilst Will's narrative is compelling and vivid Annie's task is made harder by the sterility of her life away from home. Her narrative fails to engage partly for this reason and also because elements of her experience are contrived - fits that are cast as visions, her city Indian 'Protector' (who is brought back to the old ways) and an old Indian mystic figure living on the streets of Toronto. However, these issues aside Boyden has created a fine novel which explores the balancing act of competing identities, as he himself explains

'My heart is part Irish, part Ojibwe. I'm a Canadian in America. I'm grounded by history, and I am inspired by legend.'

'Through Black Spruce' won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2008 and has been published in the UK this year and is therefore eligible for consideration for The Man Booker Prize. In my view it is one to watch!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Reading to your inner Child

It has been a stressful week and my mind couldn't settle to serious reading. On Thursday a large order arrived at the shop and as I was unpacking boxes I pulled out 'Flood and Fang' by Marcus Sedgwick with illustrations by Pete Williamson and I knew what I was to read next.

'Flood and Fang' is narrated by Edgar the Guardian of Otherhand Castle who it seems is the only sane one among the inhabitants of the castle.

'Castle Otherhand is home to all sorts of oddballs, lunatics and fruitcakes'

and when Edgar spots something nasty in the castle grounds he is right to sense trouble. Unfortunately the other inhabitants of the castle don't have any sense at all and it is left to Edgar to come up with a rescue plan before the Otherhands run out of maids and the castle, who has decided to become involved, successfully brings its own plan to fruition!

The writing is such that the book demands to be read aloud and the language does not talk down to either reader or listener, so it will be up to any adult reading to supply definitions of meanings and phrases for the young listener. However, the book works on several levels so that there is humour for child and adult alike:

'Maybe it's her hair. It's long and black, as black as the feathers of old Mrs Edgar; black and shiny as coal, right up to the very day she fell out of the tree and the dogs ate her. Happy days.'

And whilst the Raven swear words will pass clear over a young listeners head Mum or Dad will know exactly what is being said.

A hugely enjoyable book which is not just for the independent reader - it is a little slice of Gormenghast for the young!

But it is what happened next that caused one of those eureka moments. Son the Younger who is seven picked up the book and started to read it, about 15 pages in when I asked how he was getting on he said 'Why is her voice like warm milk?' I mentally did a war dance of triumph whilst trying to explain imagery and metaphor in a way he would understand. A book like this is a rare thing to be cherished and deserves every bit of attention that it can get.

Finally a word about Pete Williamson's illustrations which appear on every page of the book, they enhance the reading experience no end and it is to be hoped that the future books in the series (at least five) will be as funny and knowing and as beautifully illustrated.

I would urge everyone with a 6 to 8 year old in the house to buy this book and grandparents to give it to their grandchildren!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Rebecca Miller

This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to but they do.
They fill you up with the faults they had
And add some extra just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have kids yourself.
Philip Larkin

Larkin provides an eloquent and accurate indicator of one of the central themes of Rebecca Miller's book The Private lives of Pippa Lee'. As the book opens we are brought into the front living room of the Lee's where they are celebrating with their friends the move to an up market retirement community. Pippa is in her early 50's and her husband Herb is 80. One of their friends gives a speech in which he describes Pippa:

'I've known Pippa Lee for a quarter of a century,but I'll never really know her. She's a mystery, a cypher...a person not controlled by ambition or greed or a crass need for attention, but a desire to experience life completely, and to make life a little easier for the people around her.'

But this seeming paragon has a dark side and when Pippa experiences episodes of sleep eating, smoking and driving it is clear that all is not well with the Lees. Indeed, Pippa herself does not agree with their old friend's description of her, preferring to think of herself as

'One of those shiny used cars that have been in a terrible accident. They look perfectly fine on the outside, but the axle is all bent.'

The novel is split into four parts, the first, third and fourth are told in the third person and the second in the first. It is in the second part that Pippa comes sharply into focus and it is the retelling of Pippa's early life and experience that forms the core of the novel and where Miller's writing is at it's best. We learn of Lee's childhood, the teenage rage and rebellion against her mother that leads her to flee her home and her subsequent behaviour that is most definitely not virtuous - despite Pippa herself praying to Jesus 'I am begging you to make me good,please'.

It is this desire to be good that leads Pippa into marriage with Herb Lee, a man 30 years her senior, and the married life she builds for herself. 'Marriage' Pippa says 'is an act of will' and Pippa is willing herself to be good, and she is so good at marriage and making life a little easier for the people around her that she all but disappears as a person and becomes a shadow of the 'old' Pippa - and this I think is the intention of the third person narrative. Rebecca Miller, who herself has said in an interview with Julia Llewellyn Smith for the Telegraph Newspaper ' I wouldn't be able to maintain my sanity if I gave up who I was. I just wouldn't be able to exist', has created a distancing of the reader from the central character in the first and last parts of the novel which cause us to disconnect from Pippa in the same way that Pippa is disconnected from herself. Whilst these parts are not as effective as the vibrant first person narrative, they are essential in understanding how far Pippa has moved from her true self so that she just does not exist any more in any meaningful way.

And what of those parents that Larkin castigates? Pippa has two experiences of a smothering intense love, that of her mother from whom she flees and her daughter who she can not flee in body but who she can mould - and the result? reread Larkin's poem.

A seemingly slight book, this is a novel that you can come back to again as you think about the mother - daughter relationship, the expected role of women in marriage as the nurturer and the issue of female identity after marriage.
A great book club read.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Secret Scripture
Sebastian Barry
' I did not know that a person could hold up a wall made of imaginary bricks and mortar...and be made the author therefore of themselves'
Roseanne McNulty is living in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, an asylum for the insane. She is believed to be 100 years old and has decided to write the story of her life which she keeps under a loose floorboard in her room. She regards herself as 'only a thing left over,a remnant woman' but through her narrative we are asked to consider the nature of history and Barry's central premise that
'History,as far as I can see, is not the arrangement of what happens but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth'
The history of Roseanne is told in the first person - with all that implies about the reliability of the narrator. Indeed, we are given our own detective in the form of Dr Grene, Senior Psychiatrist at the hospital which is due to be closed. He has been charged with the task of assessing the patients to see who should be moved to the new facility and who can be moved out into the community. Thus begins the dance between Dr Grene and Roseanne with the Dr wanting to establish the circumstances under which Roseanne was admitted and Roseanne herself keeping back information.
We are also given the history of Ireland, the competing versions of freedom and truth during it's wars and the enormous and insidious power of the Catholic Church through the priest Fr Gaunt, who Dr Grene describes as 'obviously sane to such a degree it makes sanity almost undesirable'.
Roseanne's history is intimately affected by Ireland's past, her father is caught up in an attempt to bury a dead Irregular fighter and involves Fr Gaunt which results in her father loosing his job as grave digger to become rat catcher to the town of Sligo. Roseanne herself is accused of telling the Free State Soldiers about the Irregular fighters, which results in their deaths. Her mother sinks into madness and her father dies - by his own hand or murdered? Just one of the competing versions of truth Dr Grene has to untangle.
Happiness and marriage to Tom McNulty are again interrupted by the power of Fr Gaunt who has his own views on Roseanne and her proper place and who has previously tried to take Roseanne under his wing - despite her being a Presbyterian. It is Fr Gaunt's view of Roseanne and her actions that result in Roseanne being committed to the asylum where she spends the rest of her long life, consigned to the margins of society and the footnotes of history - as many women were.
Sebastian Barry has created a novel full of repeating images: cliffs, feathers, music, temples and murder, the repetition of which act as a beat within the novel over which is laid the melody of Roseanne's life and, as counterpoint, the life of Dr Grene who is supposed to be assessing his patient but who instead is consumed by his own life and mistakes. Each character's life has an echo in the other which finally intertwine at the end of the novel.
And a note about the end of the novel, which has been much talked about. I do not believe that the author who created such memorable prose and characters would be so careless as to sink to soap opera plotting for his finale. I prefer to believe that Roseanne's life is once again affected by outside forces and that our view of her once again shifts depending on the knowledge we have of her - and that maybe Barry was so involved with his character that he wanted a little spark of happiness at the end.
A book to savour and read slowly - again and again - and attempt to come to grips with the untidiness and unresolved nature of history and memory.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Hi and welcome to Midleton Book News, a blog run by Midleton Books for book lovers. We hope to bring you details of new releases, book world info, reviews and general musings about life behind the counter of a bookshop. Our first major post will be on the 1st April with news of the new releases for the month ahead to be followed by a review of the potential Booker long-lister and Giller winner 'Through Black Spruce' by Joseph Boyden.

Keep us updated with what you are reading and what you think of the book via comments to the blog.

We are also considering nominating a book of the month to be reviewed by us and hopefully read by and commented on by you.

We will not be restricting ourselves to adult books, children and teen fiction is a very exciting area at the moment with a lot of good new titles and we hope to bring you reviews and news of these.

Is there a book you loved or loathed and you don't feel that a mere comment will do it justice - why not email us a review and we will consider it for a post of it's own on the blog.

The intention is that this becomes an active forum for book lovers so the more we hear from you the better.

Best Wishes

Midleton Books