Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh

This was a book club choice and definitely not something I would usually read. I remember there being a Waugh author study module at uni many moons ago, which was one of the first ones I ruled out when choosing my 2nd year modules, so this is the first Waugh novel (novella?) I have ever read- and I have to say it was rather a pleasant experience.

You cannot, as a reader, help but feel sorry for poor Paul Pennyfeather. As if his name is not daft enough, he always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, acting in utterly the wrong way to limit any damage caused by any such misunderstandings. Expelled from Oxford for indecent behaviour (not really his fault) Paul is denied his sizable inheritance by his guardian. Forced by the pinch of poverty into a teaching position at a sub-rate boarding school in Wales, Paul has absolutely no experience or inclination to teach, and is advised by some of the other "Masters" at the school to just keep the boys quiet and blag his way through the instruction of sports, the organ and other randomly assigned duties. There are an assortment of similarly inept staff at the school, the mysterious, superior butler Philbrick with his many aliases and tall tales, the wooden-legged Grimes who finds himself constantly 'in the soup', the grumpy former man of God, Prendergast who is forever lamenting about his doubts and wears a wig, so finds discipline beyond him. The school is presided over by the pompous and inept Dr Fagan and his two plain daughters.

At the school's disastrous sports day that sees shootings, awful bands and the vilest sounding sandwiches, hapless Paul falls for one of his students' mother, the glamourous widow Margot Beste-Chetwynde which sees him spirited away from the Welsh boarding school to her ugly but immensely expensive house, installed as a private tutor and eventually promoting himself to fiancee. As you might by now expect, the arrangement is far from straightforward. Swept up in the glamour of society, Paul is arrested for his involvement in the human trafficking slash prostitution ring that he knows nothing about- it appears that his betrothed's fortune has its roots in high class South American brothels. Oh dear. How different can prison be to public school, really? There will be some familiar faces, more Unfortunate Events and an unlikely rescue of poor Paul Pennyfeather. You can't help but like him, mildly lurching from one disaster to another.

Published in 1928 (at the ripe old age of 25) to an apparently obliging audience, this novel is variously considered a 'comedy of manners', satire, picaresque and a farce. The story line is undeniably absurd, the characters ridiculous and flawed. Paul is not the only one that staggers from disaster to disaster, apparently oblivious to his fate and any type of consequence, or with any mind for his plight. It's a playful, well timed charade- Waugh lazily flicks obstacles into the paths of his creations and almost a century later it's still funny to watch them stagger around cluelessly, getting themselves deeper and deeper 'in the soup', hopelessly implicated and unfortunate to the last. It seems that not much has changed in the intervening years- money is no ticket out of trouble, the ruling classes are hopelessly divorced from reality and good intentions regarding getting on the straight and narrow are a guaranteed recipe for trouble.

Decline and Fall reminded me of Lucky Jim, in that same Series of Unfortunate Events kind of way...of lumbering from one disaster to another and somehow ending up in academia. There is obviously not much regard for the toil and dedication of scholars and academics, as according to most literature about them, they seem to have washed up in their wood paneled studies entirely by accident.

Monday, 19 June 2017

See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt

Loved loved loved this. Is there anything more maddeningly delicious than a real life murder mystery that was never satisfyingly solved?

The book begins with “Someone’s killed Father”. Yes. Yes they have. Killed him so hard that apparently his eyeball was cleaved in two. Andrew and Abby Borden were hacked to death with an axe in their home in Fall River, MA on August 4, 1892 at some time between 9:00 and 11:00 AM. It is believed that Abby was killed first and then Andrew, though Andrew was the first to be found. Their bodies were discovered separately- Abby was upstairs and Andrew was on a sofa in his office. Andrew's youngest daughter Lizzie was arrested for the murders and spent 10 months in jail. After an 90 minutes' deliberation, the jury acquitted her of Murder. Nobody else was ever formally tried as a suspect.

Personally, I had never heard this rhyme, but apparently it is quite prevalent:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.


Sarah Schmidt spins an oppressive, heat soaked narrative of the Borden Murders, creating a disturbing and dysfunctional picture of family life; an unhappy collection of people forced under one roof, plagued by rivalry, resentment, paranoia and generally very unhealthy relationships. Andrew Borden, though wealthy, is incredibly frugal, a self made man but despised in the business world. Abby, step-mother to the girls is hated by them both, despite getting along well when they were young. They are stiff, formal, apparently insular. They do not seem to connect.

Firstly, the writing is absolutely beautiful. It's eerie and oppressive and visceral in that music-box-music-playing-too-slowly kind of way. It gets under your skin and possesses you and is utterly, utterly compelling.

The story is told using the multiple narrators format and this is an absolute textbook example of 1) how this should be done and 2) what kind of effect can be created when used properly. The perspective shifts between the childish, coddled Lizzie, her neglected, put upon sister Emma, maid of all work Bridget who just wants to GTF out of there and ne'er do ruffian Benjamin, an associate of Lizzie and Emma's uncle. We see Lizzie through the eyes of strangers, the people closest to her, and from her own perspective. It's a fascinating examination of a very unusual woman. The narrative moves through time seamlessly, examining the day of the murder in forensic detail, sliding to the day before, then jumping forward 10 years to the trial and acquittal of Lizzie Borden. Each narrator has a distinctive, tangible personality and voice, each one is a living, breathing person, detailed and with depth, earnestly committing their memories to the page. Their voices are distinct, and unique, their stories are there to be believed or discredited.

The characters then. Lizzie and Emma are just so fascinatingly messed up. Lizzie is the most unreasonable, manipulative person, she completely controls Emma's life and influences her parents' opinions of her. Despite their ages, both sisters still live at home, simmering in their co-dependency and bitterness, never allowing the other to break away. Emma wants to escape, had the chance to get married, but Lizzie would never allow her to go. The Lizzie of this novel comes across as greatly infantilised, spoiled, spiteful and tempestuous, while Emma is bitter, forgotten, longing to escape the family home. She feels responsible for Lizzie, enables her behavior and tries to keep her happy for ease's sake. I was especially fond of Bridget - she seemed to be the narrator with the best assessment of the situation. Trusting nobody, keeping her head down, she seemed to slip unnoticed through the Bordens' house, keeping her accumulating impressions quiet and biding her time. I think she best represents the reader, the outsider, the person with the best objective view. She knows from the beginning that the Bordens are odd, and we see how manipulative they can be from her several attempts to leave, their constant retention of her.

As the narrative progresses, there are surprises, the introduction of unlikely characters, witnesses and developments. Lizze's account of her movements changes, the murder weapon is lots, a sinister Uncle lurks around the house. There is lots of vomit. We are thrown a possibility, sent off in certain directions. However, the book has decided its killer, and its fascinating to see that net close around the characters, to see how they change as suspicion turns to confession. I love historical fiction when it uses real history as its skeleton- easier to mess up, sure, but when someone gets it right, it is *the best* fiction. It put me in mind of The Haunting of Hill house, two co-dependent, sisters, one socially stunted and possibly a killer, the other trying desperately to carry on as normal, shielding her sister yet quietly terrified...also of Alias Grace, as there's that idea that truth, innocence, guilt and identity are very slippery, subjective things and that the same events viewed through different eyes will reveal different things. I loved the inclusion of the timeline and the will excerpts at the end- it just underline the factual elements of the book. So this might be a fictionalised account, but these murders happened, these people were real, the lived lives and had motives and they alone know why they behaved in the way they did.

I would absolutely recommend this to crime readers, to Real Crime fans, to anybody and everybody that loves an unsolved, much speculated about historical mystery. Lizzie is a compelling and fascinating character, her dysfunctional family home the perfect incubator for her obsessions and questionable sanity. I loved the sultry prose, all sweaty backs and heat haze, over-ripe pears and stifling rooms. It really is a stunning debut, executed perfectly, if you'll pardon the pun.

The Sport of Kings, by CE Morgan


Things I am a sucker for:
  • Things that proclaim to be 'The Next Great American Novel'
  • Anything vaguely Frontier-ish
  • Family spanning sagas
  • Anything that whiffs of Red Dead Redemption: plains, horses, log cabins, the Old West, buffalo
So bearing this in mind, you would've expected this to be right up my street. So did I. It's quite disappointing. This book took me upwards of 2 months to read, such was the unending slog...and then I DNF'd it 50 pages from the end. At least, it's highly unlikely I'll ever go back for those last pages.

Henry Forge- from the Old Kentucky stock, ancestors built the state with their bare hands. Proud, racist and stubborn as the mules that would probably disgust his thoroughbred breeding self. His lifelong obsession with breeding some kind of superhorse consumes his life- a desire that is shared by his only child, daughter Henrietta. This shared dream apparently makes some father daughter incest acceptable, because it's common practice to "breed back into the line" with horses so okay then.

Allmon Shaughnessy- a young black Irishman that learns to work with horses in prison. Sentenced for essentially being in the wrong place at the wrong time during some riots, he's hungry for success and money, having seen his beloved, uninsured mother waste away in poverty from curable lupus. His ambition draws him to the Forge farm, where he is assigned as a groom to the superhorse Hellsmouth and he begins a super awkward, not entirely into it relationship with Henrietta. He's a very angry, embittered man, definitely the most interesting of the three protagonists. The section on Allmon's promising youth and his potential scholarship, all that was snatched away due to poverty and circumstance was perhaps one of the most engaging parts of the narrative.

Horse racing is a high stakes, phenomenally high cost game, and this epic, multi-generational uber-saga is only to happy to hammer that home, with the relentlessly grim toil, the racism, the betrayal, the death, the ruination, the redemption, the lust, the heat, the everything. It's all incredibly melodramatic, with threats and births and incest, formal dinners and horse genealogy and  Derbys. And all in the most horrendously tiny type to have ever been committed to the page.

I really liked the parts with Scipio, a former slave and ancestor of Allmon. If the whole book had been about Scipio and his traumatic travels with Abby, his life and legacy, I would've been well up for that. I gather that he journeys immense distances from his life of bondage only to hang himself- what a fascinating character. I was always disappointed to leave the enigma that was Scipio and return to the banal, cruel sport of horse racing. Though the novel was fraught with commentary of America's turbulent and shameful past and the abhorrent practice and legacy of slavery, I just found my attention slipping far too frequently to ever make any emotional connection with the narrative.

What I initially thought was beautiful, fever-dream prose, fraught with imagery and symbolism and the blood and sweat of enslaved generations just descended into over written, florid nonsense.

Monday, 12 June 2017

The Fallen Children, by David Owen

The Fallen Children is an updated retelling of John Wyndham's The Midwitch Cuckoos, a book I read about 7 years ago and absolutely adored. I definitely think this leans more towards John Carpenter's enjoyably bonkers Village of the Damned than Midwich Cuckoos though, inspiration wise- only a selection of women are found to be inexplicably pregnant rather than all, and there is a great plot emphasis on the missing child- aborted in TFC, dead at birth in VotD which I do not recall even featuring in Wyndham's original (though there is a gender imbalance of 30 girls and 31 boys). It's a really successful transplantation of the story into the 21st century and focuses thematically on the idea of the mob mentality and their angry, auto-hostile judgement, the fear of the 'different' and the difficulties faced by young people in defying expectations, clawing at the slippery scraps of social mobility and the crippling lack of options to those born into poverty.

One evening, the residents and everyone in the immediate vicinity of Midwich Tower black out. It's at night, so many people miss the odd event entirely. However, in the days that follow, our narrators realise that they are all inexplicably pregnant, and that their babies are developing at a supernaturally fast rate. The four young women become the targets of hate crime and violence as they try to discover what happened that night, how come they can read each other's thoughts and feel the others' emotions and how the hell are they going to be able to look after babies. The book was really effective at creating an atmosphere of menace and hostility as it becomes more apparent that the characters are pretty much under siege by their neighbours. It showed how quickly people can turn on those they perceive to be different or dangerous.

Interestingly, The Fallen Children focuses on the lives, emotions and reactions of the young women that find themselves pregnant, something that until now nobody has explored in any great detail. Here, they are 17 (ish) year old Keisha, a former bad girl that's turned her life around, studies hard and has set her sights on university as a route out of the poverty of the Midwich Towerblock. She is furious and disgusted at the violation of her body and mortified that after all her efforts to make something of herself, she is just another estate girl with a baby. Her former friend Siobhan, directionless and damaged also finds herself in a similar situation. She is furious about the hijacking of her body and is most vocal about doing something about it (note: I felt I was supposed to be disgusted by Siobhan being overweight as it was referenced frequently and commented on by more than one character- that just didn't really feel right to me...I think that made me like her more because people were being so horrible to her). Third victim is timid 14yo Maida, a Muslim girl trapped into a future she doesn't want who sees this baby as an opportunity to change her course, and a nurse in her 20s, Olivia, who had previously known herself to be barren and so is overjoyed at the idea of being a mother by any means necessary. I don't recall any sections from Olivia's POV...The last narrator is Morris, ex-boyfriend of Keisha, in trouble with the local thugs, under financial pressure from his family and debtors and, incidentally, not pregnant.

Written in alternating perspectives, I honestly quite struggled to distinguish the voices of the narrators as the POV switched between them- perhaps it's because dialogue continued through some conversations despite the POV switch? I've never really had this problem before with multiple narrators. It would've flowed better for me if the characters' Voices were a little more distinct, if they exhibited more of their personality through the way they spoke and thought- they were just a little bit too similar to keep them all separate and distinct in my head.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and felt it kept up a good pace, kept that oppressive atmosphere of fear and hostility, kept that ticking tome bomb of the imminent baby and the race to find out the truth about the Night Out...however, I did feel that after the babies arrived, it lost its momentum somewhat and became a bit more confused with its messages. I really did not like the attitudes of Keisha and Maida regarding Siobhan's successful attempt to end her pregnancy. Like, even if it's a mysterious alien baby that you've no idea where it came from, hearing characters direct hatred, judgement and pain at a person for terminating a pregnancy (ever a supernatural one) leaves a bit of a nasty taste. I get that the super-powerful-babies were physically preventing their carriers from directly inflicting harm on them (that was really well done throughout the narrative- it really feels like the girls are absolutely at the mercy of the fetus inside them) like when Siobhan tried and fails to step off the roof, and when the fetus erase the word "abortion" from their mothers' minds- that read like an unnatural manual override from a parasite within...but to hear some of the post baby bile directed at Siobhan by her former friends just didn't sit right and just didn't feel like it was part of the same book. Like, the baby is out of you now, act like a human. Once the babies are born, we drop Siobhan as a narrator and pick up Maida instead, who suddenly comes across as Children Evangelical and is all for unleashing them on the world.

I really liked how the latter part of the book the shifts the focus onto the idea of belonging, it rescues the third act. Zero, the sole male Child, feels adrift and angry because his twin did not survive- there's an interesting question about nature and nurture lurking under that storyline that asks to what extent we are in control of our own behaviour and destiny. Similarly excluded and lost, Maida feels like she has created something extraordinary but cannot truly be a part of it- Marvel and Helena, the Female Children, share a bond that she cannot ever hope to experience.  During these later section of the book, the characters are beginning to make sense of the similarities and joining the dots between the Midwich occurrence and a similar one in Cornwall, a nice little nod to the (possibly Cornish) fictional village of the source story. There is a lot of delicious mystery left unsolved because sometimes things cannot be explained.

So all in all, it's mostly really good and is definitely an interesting and engaging modernisation- I would definitely recommend The Fallen Children as a fast paced kind-of-mystery about teens placed in impossible situations and having to battle against their whole neighbourhood just to live their lives- I loved the setting and the updating of classic sci-fi, thought the themes of prejudice, difference and that lack of autonomy, either socially or bodily were explored well. I liked the evolution of the story into a story of belonging and being in control of your own direction, but I felt that it fell down by its characters a little. I just couldn't fathom their behaviour- towards Siobhan after the births, Maida's super-villain story arc, how Morris just seemed constantly in denial and hopelessly useless. Maybe that's just totally acceptable teen logic, I dunno.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Beautiful Broken Things, by Sara Barnard

Such a brilliant, thought provoking book about the strength of female friendships and how intense they can sometimes be- how in giving so much to a friend, you can lose sight of yourself. The narrative also explores the importance of boundaries, severe trauma and mental health problems, and the tragic truth that sometimes, trying to help, trying to 'be there' for someone is damaging, no matter how good your intentions are. You can be the best, most thoughtful and accepting friend in the world, but some people need rescuing from themselves.

Caddy and Rosie have been best friends their whole lives, despite their separate schools. Caddy's set up is a woefully boy-free affair, filled with too-high expectations and extra curricular activities. At the start of year 11, Rosie meets new-girl Suzanne, and Caddy is determined to hate this super gorgeous, witty, self deprecating interloper that Rosie has brought into her life. But Suzanne- enigmatic, secretive, hurt, has just escaped an unsafe home life and is struggling with her behaviour, her destructive tendencies and her self esteem. Caddy does not come off well to begin with. She's jealous, kind of spiteful and spends a lot of time being self obsessed, lamenting that nothing interesting ever happens to her, unlike Rosie who has a baby sister die and her sister Tarrin who is bipolar. Yep, she really is wrapped up in herself to the extent that she is jealous because her life lacks the drama of death and mental illness. As with many 'shy/boring/too-nice' narrators, she's determined to shed her shyness, become more Rosie, become more interesting. Get a makeover and a boyfriend, in true teen priority style.

Thankfully, Caddy does grow as a character. The duo becomes a trio and for once, it's really refreshing to read a story about three girls where one is not ostracised. As the girls get closer, the reasons for Suzanne's increasingly erratic behaviour becomes clearer. Is friendship enough to save Suzanne? Will listening help? So Rosie seems more aware of Suzanne's state of mind, seems to view her struggle more objectively- Caddie is just desperate to be there, to be a good friend to Suzanne. She kind of gets off on being Suzanne's go to- not just the friend of a friend. She still parades around like a fool as Rosie begins to become concerned about Caddy and Suzanne's developing friendship and the intense closeness that they suddenly have. Caddy thinks she's jealous. Caddy's family think Suzanne is an awful influence and is jeopardising their daughter's future. Suzanne is a brilliantly crafted character, heartrendingly vulnerable and deeply sympathetic- she's frustrating and reckless and in many ways quite unlikable. But she is hypnotic. Rosie and Caddy’s deep, lifelong friendship is such a beautiful one- I absolutely believed in their bond and knew that they were both in it for the long haul.

Teen rebellion is explored brilliantly, and the rites of passage, the bust ups, the friction and the solid foundations of teen friendships are beautifully explored. Anybody that has ever been a teen will relate pretty hard to this. Sara Barnard captures that teen intensity, that NEED to be accepted, to be liked by your peers, perfectly in a complex and engaging character study. The prose is gorgeous- sensitive, resonant, and enthralling. These girls are so real: their changing relationships, the lessons they have to learn and the challenges each faces are so authentic and absorbing.

It leaves the reader with a weird mixed feeling cocktail of melancholy, happiness, hope and that sort of tragic acceptance of inevitability- it's the very definition of bittersweet. In her notes at the back of the book the author herself afterwards calls it "A love story without a romance", which it so absolutely is; it's really refreshing to find a contemporary that willfully neglects boy meets girl romance so steadfastly and instead spins a tale of the deepest and most life changing friendships. The support, the craving and finding of acceptance, how heady that can be. How occasionally, intentionally or not, such intensity often leads to destructiveness.The fallout from such a friendship makes bad decisions seem like good decisions, fosters an impulsiveness that overrides sense. The book is so realistic in its depiction of that process, and in the aftermath and the consequences of such an intense, impulsive friendship.