Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, by Agatha Christie

I've had a really tough time this autumn (this year really) finding the motivation to read. My annual 'books read' total is almost half what it usually is...not that I set targets as such, but I do keep track of what I read and when, make notes and lists, and record any particularly impressive quotes or passages that I like. So whilst I don't keep records specifically to track how much I'm reading, it is easy to tell how much I've read. Maybe it's the horror show of 2016, the year that humanity irreconcilably pushed itself over the social PONR. Maybe it's because I got a puppy this time last year and now she's a big massive dog that demands dog-time, not book time. Maybe it's the books I'm reading. Maybe it's just one of those things.

However.

In an attempt to kick start the official festive season (any festive inclinations in November are really just pre-amble) and as a return to a tried and tested remedy for sluggish reading vibes, I turned to the queen of crime, the first lady of the drawing room mystery, the Mistress of Murder Agatha Christie. And it worked a treat.

Christie describes this book in the preface as a Christmas dinner of two main courses, two entrees and a sorbet, along with a glorious description of her childhood Christmases in an old, draughty country manor with a boiled turkey, a roast turkey, mince pies and plum pudding.

So the setting of the first main course, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding is quite familiar; an old country manor house, two types of turkey, mince pies and plum pudding. I see what you did there AC. Only is M. Poirot enjoying these festivities, not the author. Poirot is dragged, as he often seems to be, to the countryside over the festive period, lured by the idea of central heating and all the mod-cons, to find some rubies stolen by a dastardly ladyfriend of an Eastern prince. Naturally, it is a matter of the utmost delicacy, and Poirot manages to kill two birds with one very large, very valuable red stone.There's a staged murder that takes a turn for the too-real that turns into a happy Christmas for everyone. Appearing originally in 1923 and then subsequently expanded, it's nice to see that almost 100 years ago, people still griped about Christmas not being what it used to be. Even in 1923, the concept of decorating a tree, having an excessive dinner and having the whole family round was seen as kitsch, old fashioned and somehow under threat from the relentless march of modernity. Our trees might look different, our food might be more lavish and a bit more additive-ridden, but our complaints about the cessation of tradition never seem to alter.

The other main course is The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, an old school body-in-the-chest while everyone has a party round it. It reminded me of Hitchcock's Rope, a massively underrated film that also has a big, boxy dead elephant in the room that nobody notices. It's a bit of a nod to Othello and has an interestingly small number of characters/suspects and a pleasingly convoluted, absurd series of motives. Not particularly festive though, if you don't count all the eating.

Then come the entrees, because maybe that's the order that post people eat in. The Under Dog,  a reasonably familiar lots of people living in a big house and one of them is killed deal where our M. Poirot has to look through all their bedrooms in the manner that he seems so thoroughly to enjoy, and Four and Twenty Blackbirds which seems to have been included purely because it is a food based mystery. But what is more festive than food?  Lastly, the sorbet; The Dream, a short, twisty tale with a mad Home Alone style booby trap, identity swapping and murder.

Yes they'e silly and daft and old fashioned and mostly variants on the same themes, but these short stories definitely did the job. I found myself *wanting* to pick this book up; I thought about it when I wasn't reading it; I sacked off boring crap like cleaning and ironing to have an hour with Poirot, careering round country houses and telling everyone why the could've been the murderer but weren't. Anyway. I've ordered the Mystery in White next, cos cosy crime is by bag at the moment and it's too early for A Christmas Carol.

Has anyone else had a really long book slump before?
What do you recommend to get over it? What are your go-to authors or books for re-invigoration?

Monday, 28 November 2016

Broadway Book Club Discussion of Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

So we only had one person at the meeting who actually managed to finish the book- even I didn’t make it to the end of this one- the first time in almost 5 years that I haven’t finished a Book Club title. 
Thanks to Ruth for filling in the plot gaps for the rest of us and Clive for listening to the audiobook and providing us with a handy guide to name pronunciation. Team effort!

So. We began with a discussion of the characters of Half of A Yellow Sun, most notably Richard, Ugwu, Kainene and Olanna. We concluded that as the reader we are offered the story mostly through Ugwu’s eyes, but felt that the author saw Olanna as the novel’s central figure. Olanna’s presentation was almost too good to be true; demure, intelligent, beautiful, kind and graceful- we felt we were supposed to be enthralled and captivated by her in the same way that Odenigbo and Ugwu (and more or less every other man in the book) are. However, we talked about how directionless she was, how she drifted through the narrative. She was incredibly well educated and privileged, convinced she was revolutionary and modern by refusing to marry her lover but ended up in a very feminine, wife/mother role anyway. She was incredibly conventional, but we felt that the author really felt that she wasn’t. Kainene on the other hand was a practical woman with a ruthless business head. Successful, independent- so obviously she had to be kind of ugly. It’s the sort of thing we’ve seen a million times before. Kainene emerged as the strongest character throughout the discussion. We talked about Richard, how he served little purpose and tried to adopt a Biafran identity, resolutely determined to be a Native African despite very little acceptance from the community around him. We felt kind of sorry for Richard and his endless writing- he really was quite pointless as a person- supported financially by his great Aunt, then his lover Kainene. And then there’s Ugwu. Creepy from the beginning, with his sexual fantasies about a girl that might be a relative, his weird voyeurism of his sister’s body…his listening at doors and silent fumbles with servant girls. I didn’t even *Get* to the bar-girl scene, but it sounds like his creepiness only intensified into actual war crimes. His treatment of women aside, Ugwu is an awful snob and a troublemaker among the other help, constantly playing the compound’s staff off against one another. Similarly Odenigbo, for all his high minded liberalism takes zero responsibility for his actions, his mother is awful, Olanna and Kainene’s parents are corrupt, classless and shallow, their friends are interchangeable suck-ups and nobody in the whole novel seems even half way decent as a person. We guessed that this was supposed to cay something about the rotten, corrupt core of Nigeria as a country.

One of the things that we thought was very well done was the Olanna’s internal conflict about her background and education. Adichie writes gorgeously about what it is like to be an educated, African woman of colour; about how education is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a “white” thing, and any attempt by a black woman to educate themselves, to benefit from learning, to be academic is seen as a bit of a betrayal of the community, a move away from the village and its inhabitants into white space, an alignment with the oppressors. “Too much book” as Olanna’s aunty phrases it.

We talked about Nigerian history, and how lacking an English education is in any historical events that did not directly impact upon England. We talked about the colonial MO and how often it has been repeated around the world. Bloody Britain.

We agreed that parts of the book are beautiful and the prose is quite lyrical in places. Significantly, the scenes that really stand out are the traumatic, horrifying events witnessed by Olanna and Richard (personally I never made it much past the Biafran independence, but am assured there was more horror to follow). The scene of the Igbo slaughter in the airport and the things that Olanna witnesses in the village of her relatives and on the train home have a savage, arresting intensity to them. These scenes are incredibly well written; shocking  and intimate and horrifying all at once.  For me personally, these are probably the only parts of this book I will remember.
As with All the Light We Cannot See, we decided that the out-of-sequence structure added nothing to the book. Though it was presumably done that way to make Baby’s parentage and the mess between Richard/Kainene /Olanna more of a reveal, it was pretty writ large what was coming, so it wasn’t really worth disrupting the narrative flow for so little twist. Numerous readers said that they struggled to keep track of events, characters, relatives and dates and that it was kind of jarring to be introduced to young Baby, then almost immediately whisk  back in time so she suddenly disappears. It’s hard to keep track of, especially amongst a backdrop of constantly appearing and then disappearing poets, academics, politicians, revolutionaries, party guests  and so on.

I think the general consensus was that whilst this is probably a worthy and very emotionally affecting  socio-historical novel, none of us really got much out of it and found it a completely uphill struggle. Maybe it’s not the right time to read a book about civil war, state-sanctioned violence and relentless suffering. Maybe it’s just too horrific a subject to expect to enjoy a book about. Maybe socio-historical novels just aren’t our collective bag.
Here’s a recent article highlighted by our resident history source Clive on the lasting implications and deadly legacy of Biafran independence. 46 years later, tensions still seem as high as ever. 

Anyway- we break for Christmas now, so I’ll see you guys in the new year for our discussion of His Dark Materials in January (it’s grim in parts, but hopefully will offer a bit of an antidote to all the suffering we’ve read lately). We will resolve to choose some more uplifting books in January to take us through to Easter, so come armed with a list of things you missed out on when they came out, things that have sat on your shelf for years, new paperback releases or something that you’ve always wanted to read but never got around to.

I’ll email nearer the time, but for now- Happy Christmas! 🎄🎆🎄🎆🎄🎆And may your 2017 be better than this absolute shocker that has been 2016.

You can find me on FaceyB or Twitter🐦 (@LeanneWain) and via email if you want to throw some recommendations or suggestions at me, or to keep me up to date on what you’re reading over Christmas. I’m nosy like that.

Monday, 14 November 2016

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

So apparently this sold the most copies in the wake of its nomination for the Booker Prize shortlist, but did not win in the end. But winning isn't everything, right?

His Bloody Project begins with a preface by the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet, recounting how he found the manuscript that you are about to read, intact and inexpertly bound, in the archives of an Inverness repository. The story re-imagines the supposedly real-life story of 17-year-old Crofter's son Roderick Macrae, perpetrator of a triple murder in 1869, the bloody project from which the book gets its name. The narrative is constructed of testimonials from Roderick's neighbours, teachers and other crofters in the township. Opinions of him vary wildly, from gifted (if slightly contemptuous) scholar, to quiet loner, to murderous, dead-eyed miscreant. After the short testimonials, Roddy tells his own story, in an unlikely, flowing prose from his prison cell, recounting the series of events that began with his mother's death, and led up to a triple homicide.

It's interesting in that it is not a whodunnit, because Roddy is never in any denial about his guilt. The interest arises in why. Why did this boy, an apparently clever, thoughtful lad feel driven to murder his neighbours? A boy that, on his first day of employment working for the landowner on a shooting party, scared a stag off to save such a magnificent animal from being slain. What drives a person like that to kill someone? Not just kill them, but full blown smush them to a pulp?

It's an intriguing little book- sort of a literary found footage. It's unexpectedly humorous in parts, with an oddly compelling narrator in the softly spoken, literary Roderick. It reminded me in parts of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, in that it is a memoir written with the noose around the neck. The difference was, that narrator was innocent. It reminded me most of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood; the idea that multiple versions of a person exist to different people perceiving them. The idea that guilt and innocence are slippery ideas, that if a person is devious enough, clever enough, if they believe their story enough they can dupe almost anyone. The innocent party becomes a character to be played, even to  themselves.

In His Bloody Project, the reader is left to make up their own mind about the accused, but they are heavily influenced by his own, lengthy account. We end up sharing Macrae's own perception of himself, whether that is what his peers see or not. We see his background, his treatment at home. We see how his beloved sister is gradually dimmed by toil, abused and then extinguished. We see his aspirations, his unlucky sequence of events. His acceptance of them. His arrival at the only conclusion; a win-win- he is freeing his father from both the burden of his torment, and the burden of his useless son.

It's an enjoyable book that paints a picture of the bleak inevitability of life in the Scottish islands- a simple, ancient life made unbearable by the arrival of power and tyranny. It's unusual in its format, and some readers might be put off by the verbose prose of Macrae's account of his life. I've just realized the author shares a name with his protagonist. *so dense*. I'd definitely recommend this to people who enjoyed Alias Grace, and to readers of crime generally. It's certainly a new and compelling twist on a very, very familiar genre. It must be hard to write a really original crime novel, but GMB has managed well. Memorable.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Broadway Book Club Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr,

Everyone in attendance had enjoyed the book; we talked about the readable, engaging prose style, the interesting central characters and the fact that Occupied France and the campaigns on the Eastern Front as World War II narratives that seem to be less common.

Most people agreed that the interweaving of the two plots  was well managed and each strand was equally interesting, but that the jumping backwards and forwards in time and location added nothing to the book. We thought that a chronological narrative would have been easier to follow and would have told the story just as competently. We could never remember if Werner was in the basement of the hotel, in the Orphanage, on the Eastern Front, back in the basement again or at Nazi school because it seemed to change too often and didn’t feel particularly consistent.

We talked at great length about how well the author portrayed the gradual rise to power of the Nazis and how sympathetically Werner and Frederick (poor, poor Frederick- he confirmed what happens to people that don’t fit the fascist mould)  were depicted despite technically being Nazis. How Germany was ruined after the First World War, its citizens struggling to survive- then jobs began to emerge and prosperity gradually returns, thanks to these apparent saviours. People are eating meat again, manufacturing is thriving and gradually more opportunities become available…a frenzy of nationalism emerges, where you are either part of the frenzy or an enemy of the state. We really felt for Werner, whose intelligence and ability bring him to the attention of the Party and he is taken away for training at the most horrific soldier school. We talked about how many ordinary Germans there must have been that were either indifferent to the emerging Nazis or quietly opposed to them, but how ineffective and dangerous this opposition must have been- so they just went along with it. It’s frighteningly familiar. One day it’s not defending a neighbour or keeping quiet when a foreign accent is derided. Pretty soon you’ve got full blown fascism and we all know the rest of that story.

We talked a lot about the book’s other characters; we loved the PTSD suffering Etienne, trapped in his house with the badass resistance leader and long-time maid Madame Manec. The impressive, brutal super-German Volkheimer, a legendary, ruthless giant that trained and posted with Werner. Though he seems so unsympathetic, we really felt for the post war Volkheimer who had sank from Nazi notoriety to a solitary, grim anonymous life of a radio installer. We were universally disgusted by the gross gemologist von Rumpel and his disgusting overflowing neck fat and his obsession with the Sea of Flames

We discussed the diamond and all the coincidences that it had encountered since its ejection from the earth- unable to decide if it was a supernatural object or just another reason for people to fight each other through history- another trinket to own. Fate, coincidence and free will are pretty consistent themes throughout the book , exemplified quite well via the mysterious diamond.

It was a really enjoyable book that prompted a lot of discussion about the tragedy of war, good and evil, doing the right thing, virtual and literal entrapment and the generally interesting things about the French Resistance and other lesser known aspects of the Second World War. We seem to know all about the Blitz and Evacuees and D-Day, but it’s easy to forget the hundreds of thousands of other stories that exist of that time.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Martian, by Andy Weir


It's highly likely that you have read this book and/or seen the film (Award winning Comedy film, The Martian) but I'm going to write it up anyway.

Mark Watney is an astronaut and a member of the crew of the Ares 3, a manned mission to Mars in a future near enough to be indistinguishable from the present, but distant enough for Mars missions to be kind of old hat. This Mars mission *is* Historic, but not because it's pioneering. About a week into the mission while out in a storm that's worsening by the hour, Commander Lewis makes the decision to abort. The wind is high and fast enough to compromise the return craft, so it's back to the MAV for everyone and an early 8 month return to Earth. In an intense, confusing, deadly instant, Mark Watney is hit by flying debris and flung into the fug- visibility is close to zero and his suit is recording no signs of life- Mark is dead- the first person to die on Mars.

This is where the book starts; with a battered, patched up and barely functional Mark Watney surveying his options. He's injured. Has limited food supplies. He's alone on Mars. He's pretty much dead.

The rest of the novel comprises of first person logs by Mark as day by day (or Sol by Sol) he battles against the odds and the never ending hostility of Mars to survive. Luckily as a botanist, engineer and all-round McGyer style scientist, he manages to overcome the most obstacles: growing food, creating water, making contact with Earth in miraculous feats of engineering and pluck. Reading this, I couldn't help but Imagine how I would handle the same circumstances- probably just de-suit and walk out of the airlock to certain, swift death. So I had to very much admire Mark's insane resourcefulness, determination and refusal to die, despite the explosions, depressurisation, flippings, tumblings and starvings that Mars threw at him.

This is one of the few occasions ever where I'm glad to have seen the film before reading the book as so much of the science went over my head. It was also handy to have pre-imagined faces to attach to all the names at NASA- characters that have some pretty amazing dialogue but as characters are kind of interchangeable. Having Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor's famous faces pre-loaded into my head really helped.

Though the NASA guys and the other astronauts are important supporting characters, we find out very little about them- it's very much the Mark Watney show. There's no big emotional reunion with Earth-bound family, no weepy fiancee on the news, desperately waiting for an update on their space stranded betrothed- which I found really refreshing. It wasn't a particularly emotional story, not a vast personal journey- just a really resourceful guy with a sense of humour as dry as his planet, trying not to die or drive himself insane with loneliness, bad 70s TV and disco music and barely managing.

It's pacy and funny and full of action- even if there's never really any suspense (even if you haven't seen the film, it's pretty obvious that Mark isn't going to die- even if he wanted to he probably can't even). It's basically Robinson Crusoe in Space, but funnier. And with more science. I'm pretty sure most of the world have read this- but if you haven't, it's definitely worth giving it a go. It's one of the most universally appealing stories I've read or seen in ages. The film is a really stellar adaptation of the source material, and the book just provides more of the same. More Mark, More Mars, more laughs.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Muse, by Jessie Burton

Starting in the summer of 1967, Odelle Bastien a Trinidadian expat 5 years in London, aspiring writer and current shoe salesgirl, applies on the off chance for a job at the Skelton, an upmarket art gallery. It's the beginning of a period of change in her life, one that sees her finally begin to feel at home in England- new job, the introduction of the enigmatic, glamorous Miss Quick, the gallery director and her best friend and room mate Cynth moving out and getting married. It is at her wedding reception that she meets Lawrence, the producer of the painting which will serve as the historical art whodunnit.

Lawrence brings with him a painting something inherited that may or may not be valuable- a grim, unnerving but beautiful picture of a girl, holding the head of another girl, with a lion. Ms Quick looks like she has seen a ghost and Odelle is immediately curious about what might connect Quick and Lawrence, who profess to have never met before and the painting.

The mystery of the painting and its provenance are gradually unravelled as the story sweeps back to Southern Spain in 1936. Here we meet the moony, romantic teenager Olive Schloss, a secret artist and daughter of a prominent Austrian art dealer (Harold) and a glamorous but mentally ill English socialite mother (Sarah). Olive has turned down a place at art school, perhaps due to a crisis of confidence, perhaps a lack of faith in her future as a female artist- perhaps because she feels that something else is planned for her. Olive's life diverges from her original intentions with the arrival of Isaac Robles and his half sister Theresa. Originally mistaking them for man and wife, Olive learns that they are in fact the children of a local landowner and partial gangster- they are soon integrated fully into the Schloss household, indispensable, essential. Though their intentions are unclear, their influence is palpable. 

Olive quickly becomes at home in Spain, encouraged artistically by the enthralled Theresa and politically awakened by fellow artist and political aggressor Isaac, the man that Olive is, incidentally, infatuated with. The coming Civil War and its obvious early warning signals are steadfastly ignored by the Schloss clan. Olive, knowing that she is at risk of being returned to England and in pursuit of a pure creativity free from the burden of acclaim, hatches a plan with the Robles': they will trick art man Harold into securing the patronage of wealthy american collectors to launch Isaac onto the scene. 

Juggling the two time periods, the two narratives and the two casts expertly, Jesse Burton paints a picture of the burden of creativity, its hidden rules and the double edged sword of public acclaim.  Theresa secretly exposes Olive's talents, while Quick does much the same for Odelle, putting her short story in a literary magazine, also without her knowledge. The success is valuable, but at what cost? The author asks some incredibly complex questions about the creative process- can success extinguish creativity? (With the immense success of the Miniaturist it's not hard to see where this theme might have emerged from!) Does an artist produce for themselves, or for public consumption? When a piece of art/writing/etc is unleashed into the world, does its meaning change? Does the artist ever truly own it after that? What is art actually for?

It's a passionate, fierce novel, filled with themes of identity and creation. The act of expression and the alchemy of painting are explored in a way that is both relateable and very evocative. Both time periods seem to come alive, they are richly written, texture-filled places that are inhabited by entirely real creations- as a reader I felt more drawn to the Spanish narrative not because it was more fully formed, or more realistic, but because the act of painting featured here, an act that seems so vital to the character and to the plot. I loved the detective researcher element of the London story, but the actual act of putting paintbrush to canvas and the feelings released in the process was rendered so fully in this novel. I enjoyed too the not-so-subtle rage-flow of feminist fury at the persistent, even to this day, suggestion that anything produced by a woman is inherently inferior to something produced by a man.

The Muse is a beautifully written and lovingly crafted novel, thoroughly researched so, mercifully, not prone to fall into some of the rookier traps of Historical Fiction. Themes of identity, the elusive nature of creativity and inspiration, love, politics, gender, race and the role, value and purpose of art are combined and gathered into a fascinating mystery, unravelled by a lovable, canny and endearing protagonist- a writer, turned typist turned amateur sleuth. I enjoyed this thoroughly and wish Jessie every success with her next venture and with the TV adaptation of the Miniaturist. That genie is well and truly out of the book bottle now.

Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead

Really, really enjoyed this, and I can see it becoming quite the go-to Middle Grade book for quite a catalogue of events and issues.

Set in contemporary New York, Goodbye Stranger tells the story, in the first person, of Bridge Barsamien,a 7th grader, car accident survivor and medical marvel. It also occasionally jumps forward several months to another story, in the second person, of an older teen, an unnamed girl who is skipping school in an anxious attempt to avoid the consequences of a terrible mistake.

But first Bridge. Convinced she survived her earlier accident for a reason, Bridge is having a bit of an identity crisis- why is she here? What does she bring to the world? Who is she, really? A bit of an oddball, she has recently started wearing cat ears to school. Best friends Tab and Em think it's a bit odd, but whatever- both have their own things to deal with. Em is now a rising soccer star and the recent owner of some new curves that are starting to get her noticed by older students. Tabs is busy excelling at languages, getting into human rights and civil disobedience and gobbling up a (somewhat outdated, 1970s flavoured) feminist agenda from her worshipped teacher Ms Burman. Bridge is quite confused and put out by the focus and talents of her friends, and find herself drifting to the Stage Crew as an after school activity where she meets Sherm, a kid she lives really close to, goes to school with yet has somehow never actually spoken to.

It's a beautifully written book, with gorgeous, evocative prose that washes over the reader. Though not terrible plot driven, it is incredibly realistic and does an excellent job of showing what it must be like to be 12 or 13 in the modern era. The three central girls are working out who they are and what matters to them, whilst trying to navigate the rough seas of adolescence. The book asks some really interesting questions about identity and what makes a person *them*- can you be the same person now that you were 5 years ago? Will your future self be the same person? Can you be two people at once, one that dud something terrible and regrets it, and simultaneously one that understands and would probably do it again?

A lot of middle grade fiction has the trials and tribulations of friendship at its core. The way that friendships can break apart, evolve or become toxic and damaging. We get to see that via the unnamed second person voice, how friends can change and become people that seem like strangers. Bridge's trio fare better throughout the book. Though they have their ups and their first downs, the girls' friendship seems to weather the storm of the 7th grade.

Though not an issue driven book, Goodbye Stranger still offers the opportunity for valuable conversation around important issues in the lives of modern tweens. There is the perennial issue of friendships being made and broken and how to deal withe the emotional fallout, embarrassing, fraying or broken families and the stresses of school, but we also see the emergence of more modern issues- 'sexting', slut shaming (though neither terms are specifically used) and the way girls in particular are expected to behave, scrutinised and judged. There's a lot to unpack for such a short book- I particularly liked how Em's picture being leaked was presented as quite a complicated thing. She was mortified, rightly or wrongly, but still liked the picture and how she looked in it- something that Bridge is baffled by . Em explains "the bad part wasn’t that everyone was looking at the picture. I mean, it was weird and not great. But the bad part was that it felt like they were making fun of my feeling good about the picture. Of me liking myself". It's a big thing to have to think about, surrounded by sub themes of consent, self love and agency.

All in all, it's a wonderful, dual story that points out that age does not always come with wisdom and that older kids make mistakes too,  Nobody is infallible. Some friendships will survive and some will go bad. New friends eventually become old friends. Past and future are mysteries. Teachers will always spend their own money to make things that they care about a success. Girls and boys will, however unfairly, be subjected to different treatment.