Reading Challenge – December choice

And so, the final month of the year begins and it’s time for the last book in my 2021 reading challenge. I usually choose a theme for each month, but this year I picked a very specific book for December- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I almost always select something short for December because it is such a busy month, and this novella fits the bill perfectly at less than 100 pages, which should be easily achievable. I have an almost complete collection of vintage Dickens editions, bought in secondhand bookshops in the 1980s, as I did a special study of the author for my English literature degree. Strangely, A Christmas Carol is not in my library so I will have to acquire a copy. I quite fancy one of those lovely clothbound editions, even though they are quite pricey, to match all my other Dickens hardbacks.

We all know the story but how many of us have actually read this 1843 Dickens novella?

I love Dickens and A Christmas Carol might be one of the only books of his that I have not read. Honestly, I cannot remember if I have because of course most of us will know the story and all the main characters – Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley and Tiny Tim. Published in December 1843 it was an instant best-seller. It has never been out of print and has been adapted for stage and screen many times. It was Dickens’s sixth work to be published; his well-known classics Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop had already been serialised to great acclaim. My own personal Dickens favourite, Barnaby Rudge, came out just before A Christmas Carol.

November was a very busy month for me so after my Booker Prize reading marathon, I have not actually managed to read very much this last month and have only just started my reading challenge choice (Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying). I don’t expect it to take me very long, however; it’s quite a page-turner! My day job has kept me very busy, my kitchen renovation drags on and my youngest child had an operation (a routine procedure) so life has been pretty hectic. I am expecting December to be quieter and I am looking forward to a gentle build-up to Christmas. With the Covid Omicron variant threatening to alter everyone’s plans in the coming weeks, I will most likely be hunkering down at home with the family and not doing too much in the way of partying. My Christmas shopping will be largely local and outdoors, no bad thing, as I await my booster jab.

So, I hope to be able to get back to regular posting in the coming weeks and will be sharing my usual thoughts on bookish Christmas gift ideas, so look out for those.

Happy reading!

Book review – “Dark Matter” by Michelle Paver

I chose this book for October in my Reading Challenge, the theme for which was a ghost story. There were quite a few that I fancied, including many classics that I have long wanted to get around to, but I liked the sound of this one and Paver is an author I have always wanted to try, having read some great reviews of her work. She mostly writes stories for young people and this novel was one of her early ventures into writing for adults, although I am loathe to make that distinction.

The book has a tantalising opening; it is a letter from one Algernon Carlisle (‘Algie’) in response to an enquiry from a Dr Murchison, who is researching ‘phobic disorders’, applying for information on an Arctic expedition he was part of. Algie’s reply is cool; he seems somewhat affronted by the suggestion that the events of the Arctic expedition were a result of a ‘phobic disorder’ and writes that, since one of his friend’s died and the other was deeply damaged by the experience, he therefore does not wish to be reminded of it.

Set in 1937, the book’s narrator is Jack Miller, an educated but lower class civil servant who is bored with his job and rather bitter about his situation in life. He meets a group of upper class Oxbridge-educated young men who are setting up a year-long expedition to the Arctic and are seeking a wireless operator. After meeting Jack they invite him to join them and it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime, as well as taking Jack away from his repetitive and uninteresting existence. He has mixed feelings about the group but he gradually develops a close friendship with one of them, Gus.

When they set off on the trip in midsummer, they are full of enthusiasm, but the first alarm bells ring when the captain of the ship commissioned to take them to the abandoned mining settlement known as Gruhuken in Spitsbergen (which sits between Greenland and Norway in the Arctic Ocean), is anxious about travelling to the place. He is unspecific about his reservations but it is clear that something deeply untoward happened there at the time when the place was populated by miners.

When the three arrive at this strange and desolate place they are initially energetic and keen. They have their team of huskies and even though it is challenging coping with the 24 hour daylight they manage well enough. Jack finds ALgie trivial and annoying but his friendship with Gus deepens. After a few weeks, Gus becomes very ill and appendicitis is suspected. He must be removed to the mainland and it is agreed that Algie will accompany him. Jack will be left alone, although it is hoped for no longer than two to three weeks. It soon becomes clear that this is unrealistic and Jack finds his situation increasingly difficult. This is especially so when the daylight gives way to constant night and the disturbance to his body clock begins to have mental repercussions. He begins to see and hear things. Jack is visited by a trapper who also lives in Spitsbergen, though far too distant to be any sort of regular companion. Jack welcomes the company, but the trapper tells him the story of what happened years previously in Gruhuken, when a man was killed. It is said that his ghost stalks the area. Jack wants not to believe the story and declines the trapper’s invitation to join him at his own settlement. Jack is determined that he will get through this period, and prove his worth to Gus.

The rest of the book is about Jack’s mental decline as he loses all sense of time and the physical isolation leads him to become increasingly fearful and desperate. He becomes close to one of the huskies in particular, but this is also indicative of a kind of decline in his essential human-ness. The weather deteriorates, equipment breaks, the physical environment begins to collapse. The degeneration of the fragile physical set-up is a metaphor for the mental and emotional breakdown.

What is so clever about this book, and with all really good ghost stories is that the author lets the reader decide whether there really is a ghost or whether it is a ‘phobic disorder’. Algie’s view is clear from the opening of the book.

This was a real page-turner and I loved the Arctic setting which is brilliantly evoked. Paver apparently has a deep affection for this part of the world but it is clear from the book that she is also aware of its treachery and its power.

I really enjoyed this book. Recommended.

Facebook reading challenge – November’s choice

Three days after Hallowe’en and I still haven’t quite finished last month’s book!

The beginning of each new month seems to come around ever more quickly, and I can’t believe that I’m on the second last book of this year’s reading challenge. I’ve been reading my way through the Booker Prize shortlist these last few weeks so I am still not quite finished with October’s book, Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. It’s a quick read so I am looking forward to its conclusion in the coming days. Look out for my review next week.

This month’s theme is going to be interesting – classic erotic fiction! There are some great titles to choose from, much of it a century or two old, surprisingly enough. There are some French options, of course, but the book I have chosen is Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. Its central character and narrator is poet Isadora Wing who accompanies her academic husband on a trip to Europe where she decides to act out her sexual fantasies in encounters with other men.

Published in 1973, the novel was highly controversial and caused a storm. It is also credited with setting off the second wave of feminism. The book has sold over 20 million copies worldwide and I believe we have a copy in the house on a shelf somewhere. I did not buy it so I think it must have been my husband’s – that should provide for some interesting conversations!

Fear of Flying was Erica Jong’s first novel, published when she was 29 years old

At the time I wrote Fear of Flying there was not a book that said women are romantic, women are sexual, women are intellectual and that brought all those parts together.

Erica Jong, 2011

So, I am hoping this one will be a page-turner after all the highbrow Booker shortlist reading. I’ll let you know in about four weeks time!

Booker book review #6 – “A Passage North” by Anuk Arudpragasam and my prediction for the winner

My final review from this year’s Booker shortlist, and just getting in under the wire, since the winner is to be announced at 7.15 this evening in a live broadcast from the BBC Radio Theatre. You can listen on Radio 4’s Front Row programme, This is the first time, in the four or five years that I have been setting myself this challenge, that I have managed to read all six books in the six or so weeks between the publication of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner. I have really only managed it by being able to listen to some of the books (four of them) on audio while I was out walking or running and, in recent days, while cooking, shopping or drying my hair!

I hope that my appreciation of the last couple of books I read has not been compromised by my having read them quickly. I particularly regret this in relation to this last book that I tackled A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam. It is by far the most meandering, langorous and philosophical of the six books and I would rather have read it at just such a pace than at speed. The author is a young Sri Lankan Tamil who recently completed his PhD in philosophy at Columbia University in the US. This is his second novel. His first, The Story of a Brief Marriage, was published in 2016 and widely acclaimed. Both novels draw heavily on Arudpragasam’s background and his home country’s troubles during and after its three decades-long civil war.

Sri Lankan Tamil author Anuk Ardpragasam’s has a philosophy PhD and A Passage North is his second novel

A Passage North takes place some time after the end of the civil war, which concluded in 2009 when government forces finally defeated the insurgents (known as the ‘Tamil Tigers’) who had fought to establish an independent Tamil state in the north of the country. The UN estimated that as many as 100,000 deaths may be attributable to the war, including about 40,000 civilians, and the Sri Lankan Government has often been accused of war crimes. The civil war pervades every aspect of this novel.

The central character of the novel is Krishan, a young man who works for a non-governmental organisation in Colombo, the nation’s capital. He lives with his mother and grandmother, both of whom are widowed. His father was killed in an explosion during the war. The novel opens with the death of Rani, his grandmother Appamma’s private carer. She was engaged by the family when Appamma’s health deteriorated, and Krishan and his mother needed help with caring duties due to their work commitments. It is Rani’s daughter who comes to the house to inform them of Rani’s death; she had been discovered in a well, her neck broken, and it is assumed that a tragic accident has occurred and that she fell in. We soon learn, however, that Rani a refugee from the north, had lost both her sons in the war and suffers from depression and anxiety.

This is a novel about relationships conducted in the context of the aftermath of a civil war. Krishan has known nothing but war in his life and yet, as a resident of Colombo, he has not been as directly affected as others. Life, its meaning, the impact on society and on individual citizens of protracted conflict and wartime atrocities are explored by young Krishan. He is on various journeys in this novel, whether it is an evening walk through the city or a train journey to the north to attend Rani’s cremation and during these travels he contemplates his relationships. All are considered in the context of whether the person is more or less affected by the war. For example, he considers at length, his relationship with his girlfriend Anjum, a young Indian woman who works as a political activist. But her distance from the Sri Lankan civil war makes him feel distant from her. When he considers what Rani has gone through, he seems to feel that he can never fully connect with Anjum because they lack an essential experience in common. There is so much suffering, whether it is Rani’s or his grandmother’s whose health is declining rapidly, that he cannot take seriously what he sees as Anjum’s more trivial preoccupations.

This is a powerful novel that deserves a slower and more considered reading than I have given it. It has been described as ‘Proustian’, with its long meandering passages. It is beautifully written and the audiobook was wonderfully read by Neil Shah.

So, who is going to win the Booker?

Last year, I read four of the six novels on the shortlist before the winner was announced. Of those, the standout book for me was Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, so I was delighted when it won. Having read all six books on the shortlist this year, the one that I have most enjoyed has been Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead and I also think this is the standout work. Its scale, its scope, its concept, characters and the quality of the writing are superb. It simply has everything you want from a book, including a cracking story. This was also the case with Shuggie Bain, which is why I wonder whether the Booker judges will, for the second year running, award the prize to such a novel. A case could be made for all the nominees actually, but I will stick my neck out and say that if it’s not Great Circle I think it will be The Promise. Like A Passage North it explores the impact of national trauma through the lens of individual crises. I loved all the books this year, any one of them would be a worthy winner.

Booker book review #5 – “The Fortune Men”

This is my penultimate review of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist, just one more to go before the winner is announced tomorrow night. Nadifa Mohamed is a Somali-British novelist and The Fortune Men is her third novel. She lectures in creative writing at Royal Holloway College, University of London (my very own alma mater!) and attended the University of Oxford. She was born in Hargeisa in what was then Somaliland, but moved to the UK with her parents when she was a child. She is the only British author on the shortlist.

The rest of this review contains spoilers.

The Fortune Men is a fictionalised account of a true story about the last man to be hanged in Cardiff in 1952. Mahmood Mattan was a Somali merchant seaman who came to Britain to escape poverty in his homeland and settled in Tiger Bay, Cardiff. There was already a significant immigrant population in the area, including other Somalis, but they still faced discrimination and racial abuse. For Mattan this was made worse by the fact that he married a local woman, Laura Williams, and they had three sons.

Lily Volpert was a middle-aged shopkeeper in the town. She and her sister were themselves immigrants, Jews who escaped the growing Nazi threat in mainland Europe, and they too experienced discrimination and abuse. The picture painted in this book is of a town divided, disparate communities existing alongside one another, but with violence and antipathy always beneath the surface, and often above it.

When Lily is murdered one March evening in her shop, her throat brutally slashed while her sister and niece prepared dinner in the adjoining apartment, the police immediately start looking for a black man; Lily’s young niece reported seeing a dark man in the shop doorway around the same time. The evidence upon which Mahmood is arrested and charged is flimsy and entirely circumstantial, so much so that he assumes it will be only a matter of time before he is released. To him, the arrest seems ridiculous and he is both affronted and angry. Mahmood’s pride does not help him; it seems only to further raise the heckles of the local detectives whose only interest is in securing a speedy conviction.

We learn a lot about Mahmood’s background in Somaliland, his family, his faith and his upbringing. We also learn a lot about Lily, the murder victim, and her family. Both are victims of a racist society and a corrupted justice system. The novel makes it clear that neither the victim, the accused or the community are served by the police or the courts in this case. The chapter covering the trial is interesting. It is written as if from court records and the plain reported proceedings expose the sham nature of trial. These scenes are heartbreaking and made me feel ashamed.

A newspaper cutting from the time of the events of the novel

Mahmood and Laura were living apart at the time of the events in the novel; Mahmood lived a shady life as a gambler and petty thief and there were clearly tensions in their relationship. But the love between them and for their children comes across clearly, particularly when Mahmood is being held in prison. Ultimately, Mahmood’s defence could have been strengthened by an alibi had he not chosen to protect Laura from an uncomfortable truth. In real life, Laura fought for decades to clear her husband’s name and his conviction was finally quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1998 in the first case to be referred to it by the newly-formed Criminal Review Cases Commission.

This is a story that needed to be told, and Nadifa Mohamed has done the job powerfully and sensitively in The Fortune Men. I listened to this one on audio and it was beautifully read by Hugh Quarshie.

Highly recommended.

Booker book review #4 – “The Promise”

The fourth of my reviews of this year’s Booker shortlist – they are coming thick and fast now! This novel is by South African author Damon Galgut, a writer who I’m ashamed to say I had not heard much about before picking up this book, and certainly someone whose work I will turn to again after reading this. This is his eighth novel and the third to be shortlisted for the Booker (he was shortlisted previously for the The Good Doctor in 2003 and In A Strange Room in 2010). He has also written several plays and a collection of short stories.

South African writer Damon Galgut and his novel The Promise, his third to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize

The novel centres on the white South African Swart family and spans the early 1980s to contemporary times. More specifically, it charts the decline of the family and the deaths of most of its members, all of them in difficult, tragic or insalubrious circumstances. Their gradual decline, from affluent landowners with servants and status, through corruption and addiction to decay is a metaphor for the country itself, making a tottering transition from apartheid to immature democracy and majority rule and the many and various challenges that presents.

The novel begins with the death of ‘Ma’, Rachel Swart, and the family gathering at the homestead near Pretoria. Her husband Manie (‘Pa’) is grief-stricken, though it is clear that he was a weak husband and in many important ways he was neglectful of his wife. He finds a new devotion now she is dead, although the primary cause of his grief seems to be that she will be buried in the Jewish cemetery, her family having sought to reclaim her in death, and thus he will be unable to lie with her in eternity. Rachel and Manie had three children, Anton, Astrid and Amor, who is only a teenager at the time of her mother’s death and is recalled from boarding school to attend the funeral. Only Amor seems capable of acknowledging and articulating ‘the promise’, the dying wish of her mother that their lifelong servant, Salome, should be granted ownership of the property that she occupies on the family’s estate with her son Lukas. Amor’s concerns are repeatedly dismissed; the family has more important issues to grapple with they insist, but really they are in denial about the direction of travel for South Africa.

Apartheid has fallen, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity. It’s just the living part we still have to work out.

“The Promise” by Damon Galgut

There are deep tensions within the family and in this first part of the novel, the scene is set for conflicts that will re-emerge and intensify. Each part of the novel is centred around a death; the second part is the death of ‘Pa’, and the third and fourth, the deaths of Astrid and Anton, Amor’s two elder siblings. After the trauma of her mother’s death Amor becomes increasingly estranged from the family, disappointed by their continual dismissal of her efforts to ensure her mother’s promise to Salome is fulfilled, and feeling increasingly separate from them and their narrow-minded selfishness and bigotry.

But Anton can see once more inside his sister, cold and clear as the clapper of a bell, that it’s her own death she’s feeling. If it can happen to our father, it can happen to me. This nothing, this state of Not. She mourns herself in terror.

Death and the fear of it pervade this novel, yet death also stalks all of them.

The characters make this novel and the author explores each member of the Swart family deeply. He probes their motivations, their neuroses, their most-private thoughts and fantasies. They are all profoundly flawed and their ends are inevitable. In addition to the main members of the Swart family, there is a strong supporting cast, from Manie’s overbearing sister, Marina and her husband Ockie, always inappropriate, which would be laugh out loud if it were not so tragic, and Alwyn Simmers, the lacklustre, half-blind priest who manages to persuade Manie to build a church on the farm land. Plus of course there is Salome, almost-invisible, always ignored and yet who remains loyal to the family and outlives them all.

I loved this book, with the twists and turns of events that befall the family, the insightful portrayal of character and the parallels drawn between the rotten centre at the heart of the Swart family and the governing authorities of South Africa who continually let the people down.

Sometimes it’s South Africa that disappoints her. Who could have foreseen that her daddy, who everybody used to respect and fear, would have to go in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and admit to doing those horrible and necessary things? The problem with this country in her opinion, is that some people just can’t let go of the past.

The thoughts of Desirée, Anton’s wife, and daughter of an apartheid-era government minister

This book is highly recommended and surely a strong contender to win.

Booker book review #3 – “Bewilderment” by Richard Powers

This is my third Booker review of this year. The winner will be announced this coming Wednesday. At this point I have completed four novels, almost finished the fifth and have yet to start my final one, although, at this point, I am pretty hopeful that I will succeed in my goal of completing and reviewing all six before the winner is announced. That will be a first and I am particularly pleased with that since my house in in chaos, due to a long-awaited kitchen refurbishment, my day job has been super-busy and there has been a lot of family stuff going on these last few weeks.

I was really looking forward to reading Bewilderment; Powers’s 2018 novel The Overstory, which was also shortlisted for the Booker that year, remains one of the most powerful books I have ever read and is particularly apt for our times as the Cop26 negotiations get underway in Glasgow today. The Overstory did not win in 2018, Anna Burns’s Milkman did. That was also a brilliant book, although for me Powers had the slight edge. I don’t envy the Booker judges!

The stunning cover of Bewilderment

The reviews of Bewilderment have not been quite as strong. It is indeed a very different book, but it bears the author’s characteristic attention to detail, and a quite breathtaking amount of research.

Theo Byrne is an astro-physicist whose life’s work is to try and uncover the secrets of the universe. His research has furthered knowledge on the stars and planets with whom we share this universe and he is pursuing the biggest question of all – is there other life out there? And yet, he struggles to understand his nine year-old son Robin. Theo’s partner Alyssa, Robin’s mother and an activist advocating for the rights of animals, is killed in a car accident and their lives are thrown into turmoil. Robin, neuro-divergent, it is intimated, struggles at school, both with the constraints of the routine and getting on with other kids. After he fractures another child’s nose when the boy repeats a disparaging remark about his dead mother, Robin is threatened with exclusion from school. Theo comes under significant pressure to medicate his son, which he refuses to do. Instead he takes the decision to home-school him, but this presents numerous other challenges, not least with managing his own work.

Before they had Robin, Theo and Alyssa were involved in some highly experimental research by an esteemed neuro-scientist and former lover of Alyssa’s, Marty Currier. He is trying to map the brain patterns associated with certain emotional responses in the hope that in the future, others might be able to learn to manage their behaviour through a treatment which would involve their brain ‘learning’ from the better response patterns of others. Theo and Alyssa agree to be early guinea pigs. When Theo approaches Marty for help with his son, Marty suggests putting Robin through the treatment where his brain will learn how to mimic his mother’s responses to events. Although she is dead, Alyssa is a powerful presence throughout the book. Theo places her on a pedestal and is constantly reaching for her as he grapples with what to do about Robin, believing she was the only one who could truly understand him and was therefore able to support him.

They share a lot, astronomy and childhood. Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp. Both theorize wildly and let possibilities multiply without limits. Both are humbled every few weeks. Both operate out of ignorance. Both are mystified by time. Both are forever starting out.

“Bewilderment”, by Richard Powers

Theo finds his own ways of parenting his son and the relationship the two of them develop in the absence of Alyssa, the new way of being that they must find for themselves, is delicately and beautifully handled by Powers. Theo is able to share his fascination with the universe with his son, but also learns from his attention to detail, his fascination with the minutiae of nature, that Robin has inherited from his mother. The degree of knowledge and understanding of these disciplines (astrophysics and natural history) that Powers brings to the story is astonishing, as it was in The Overstory.

Powers won the Pulitzer Prize for The Overstory. Can Bewilderment bag him the Booker?

This is a powerful story with two highly contrasting themes – the devastating human impact on the natural world, and the struggle to parent in the face of tragedy and adversity, especially in a world that seems so hostile to anything outside the norm. It has a huge canvas (the universe), but also intimate detail (a father-son relationship).

I did not find the book as gripping The Overstory, but frankly, it would be unjust to compare anything to that book, in my view. Some parts of it I struggled with, the long passages on the universe, for example, I found the least engaging. But the characters are well-drawn and I felt close to both Theo and Robin, pulled into their small world.

Highly recommended, but a tough read at times.

The river of forms is long. And among the billions of solutions it has so far unfolded, humans and cows are close cousins. It wasn’t surprising that something on the fringe of life – a strand of RNA that codes for only twelve proteins – was happy, after one small tweak, to give another host a try.

A devastating disease amongst livestock threatens to jump the species barrier in “Bewilderment”.

Booker book review #2 – “Great Circle” by Maggie Shipstead

When I set out a few weeks ago out on my annual quest to read the Booker shortlist ahead of the announcement of the winner early next month, I decided I’d need a strategy. I have never actually managed to get through all six books in the six weeks or so between the shortlist being publicised and the award ceremony, but this year I am determined. Looking at the relative heft of each book, I decided that Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead would have to be ‘read’ as an audiobook. It is by some distance the longest on the shortlist – 608 pages, which amounts to 25 hours listening time. Between twice or thrice weekly runs, a bit of driving for work and a bit of solitary walking, I decided I could probably get through it in the month. My book club also decided to read it, though with some trepidation, as its longer than most books we select.

Well, here we are, just over halfway through the month and I have finished it – I COULD NOT STOP LISTENING! This is an extraordinary book, a huge achievement. Fascinating, clever, brilliantly conceived, exhaustively researched, intricately plotted and beautifully written. Whilst wishing to take nothing away from the author, I suspect there was a brilliant and meticulous editor involved with this book too.

The novel’s heroine is Marian Graves, an early 20th century aviator, a contemporary of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. The novel begins with an account of the circumstances preceding her birth. She and her twin brother Jamie (who will later become an artist) are the only children of Addison Graves, a ship’s captain, and a 19-year-old socialite who falls pregnant on their first, casual, liaison. Their mother Annabel is emotionally disconnected from her babies, appearing to suffer from postnatal depression. When the ship that Addison Graves captains, the Josephina Eterna, sinks following an explosion in the hold, he chooses to rescue himself and the baby twins rather than remain on board until the last passenger leaves, as is his duty. His young wife is never found and when Addison is sent to prison he leaves the twins in the care of his brother Wallace, an artist and a drinker, who lives in Missoula, Montana.

The children have a wilderness childhood, thriving on neglect. They develop a close friendship with local mixed race boy Caleb, whose mother is also an alcoholic, and who spends most of his time at their home. When she is about fourteen, Marian watches an acrobatic air show held locally by two amateur pilots. She is mesmerised and decides thereafter that her only ambition is to become a pilot. Her life’s mission from then on is to accumulate enough money to take flying lessons. Marian has little formal education but she is an avid reader and works her way through the small library that her father left in the care of his brother. Having taught herself to drive and to mend cars she gets work as a delivery driver, distributing baked goods and, at the bottom of the baskets, bootleg liquor (this is the era of prohibition). She makes a delivery to the local brothel where she runs into local gangster Barclay McQueen. He is a big-time liquor distributor, importing from Canada and with an operation that spans the country. He is mesmerised by the young Marian and after slowly and gently building a relationship with her, he pays for flying lessons and will eventually buy her a plane. But he is no benevolent benefactor; he wants Marian and will eventually marry her. She finds herself drawn to him too, and there is a powerful chemistry between them, but it is also a dangerous and destructive passion.

Jacqueline Cochran, the real-life founder of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots appears in the novel. https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/flying-homefront-women-airforce-service-pilots-wasp

As we move slowly through the events of Marian’s life we follow her flying career, which goes from strength to strength, despite the times, as her natural brilliance, her driving ambition and ingenuity, combine with the many and varied flying challenges she undertakes. The greater the risk, the more expertise she gains. She catches the attention of another high-profile lady pilot who sets up a special air service in England during the second world war, where women pilots are used as aircraft couriers, flying planes to different locations where they are needed.

A present-day story is being told in this book too. In Los Angeles in 2014-15, young actress Hadley Baxter finds her life is a mess. Made famous as a child actor in a highly successful television show, she finds further fortune with a franchise called Archangel (think Twilight), but then fame turns to infamy when having broken up with the co-star, with whom she had been in a long-term relationship, she is spotted in the arms of a bad-boy rockstar, and then in a clinch with a married producer. Hadley is offered the role of Marian Graves in an arthouse biopic which is focussing specifically on Marian’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe via the north and south poles – the great circle. It was during this attempt in 1950 that Marian and her co-pilot, Eddie Bloom, and their plane disappeared. A journal Marian kept was found by chance in Antarctica years later and published. A novel was also written by a woman distantly related to Marian by marriage. These two documents will form the basis of the new film.

There are parallels between Marian’s and Hadley’s stories; Hadley was also brought up by a neglectful and drunken uncle after her parents died when their light aircraft plunged into a lake, their bodies never found. At first the novel moves back and forth between the two. It’s mostly Marian’s story, but the Hadley episodes are laugh-out loud funny, utilising every possible Hollywood caricature and absurdity. In the last third of the novel they gradually begin to intersect, however, when at a film dinner party Hadley meets the artist Adelaide Scott, who is related to Marian. The producers suggest Hadley meets Adelaide, almost as a way of getting inside Marian, in preparation for the role, an idea which is mostly ridiculous since Adelaide met her only once when she was just five years old. By this time, Hadley has developed an interest in Marian which goes beyond the role and, through Adelaide, she gradually uncovers truths about Marian, about the expedition and about what eventually happened to her, which help her to reach a place of peace with the events of her own life.

There is much more to this novel than I have been able to convey in the above paragraphs which just goes some way to indicating how rich the story is. I have barely touched on Marian’s twin brother Jamie, whose story is also powerful, and Marian’s relationship with Caleb, the childhood friend who is also the love of her life. There are many ‘great circles’ in this novel, not just the circumnavigation of the globe. It is a book about the links between beginnings and endings, how we all end up back where we started somehow and about the connections between us and how these may cross, years, decades, even lifetimes.

For me this was ‘unputdownable’. An extraordinary book, it would be a worthy winner of the Booker Prize.

Book review – “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This was the September choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a YA novel. I had not heard of either the author or the book despite the fact it has become an international best-seller since its publication in 2012. It’s always nice to discover an author for the first time and I am certainly glad I read this. It is a heartwarming story and covers some very interesting topics.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

I don’t usually have spoilers in my reviews, but when I review children’s or YA books, I do include them as I am assuming that any adult readers of this blog who might want to get hold of the book for a child they know, will also want to know what’s in it. So, you are hereby warned – there be spoilers!

Dante Quintana and Aristotle (Ari) Mendoza are two Mexican-American teenage boys who meet at a swimming pool where they live in El Paso, Texas. Ari cannot swim so Dante offers to teach him. The two are very different characters: Dante is the only child of academic parents. He is bright, quirky, bookish and artistic. Ari is the fourth and youngest child of somewhat more troubled parents. Ari has an older brother whom he has not seen since he was four years old because he is in prison, for reasons he does not know and which his family never discusses. Also, Ari’s father is a Vietnam veteran, a closed man, unable to talk about his war experiences. The novel is set in the 1980s.

Continue reading “Book review – “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz”

Booker book review #1 – “No One is Talking About This” by Patricia Lockwood

And thus begins my annual attempt to read my way through the Booker Prize shortlist before the winner is announced. Customarily, the shortlist is announced in mid-September and the winner announced at the beginning of November, giving about six weeks to read six novels. I have never yet managed all six. I think the closest I have come is about four. I am optimistic this year as I have a strategy – a mixture of audiobook, e-reader and actual book – and a plan. So far I have completed one (the shortest), am part-way through another (the longest) and I am the proud owner of a signed copy of a third. With just over four weeks to go I am, if not optimistic, then at least hopeful. I expect kitchen renovations at the end of the month to disrupt all my plans!

The first book I am ticking off the list is Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, which has become one of the most talked about books of the year since it was first published in February. This is Lockwood’s first novel; she is better known as a poet and published a memoir in 2017 entitled Priestdaddy which was highly acclaimed. No One Is Talking About This has been compared variously to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. I count all three of those among my all-time favourite reads so I should have loved this book.

It is a really difficult book to describe (for me, that’s where the comparison with Ulysses ends). I should also add, by way of a caveat, that I listened to this on audio and may well have been affected by the slightly manic reading of it. It is narrated in the first person by an unnamed character who has an unnamed family but who lives, we can assume, in New York City. The first half of the book is pure stream of consciousness, a portrayal of the wildness of modern life, particularly those parts conducted through ‘the portal’, which is pretty much everything. We see the ridiculousness of life lived out online, where only appearances matter, where substance and empathy and humanity appear to have vanished. Where photographing and documenting your food is more important than eating it. Where how your relationships look is more important than the relationships themselves. I think most of us can recognise this as the way we might all actually be heading if we are not careful. If indeed, we are not already there.

The second half of the book, described by the author herself as ‘autofictional’ centres around a devastating family event. The narrator’s sister becomes pregnant and the journey is duly recorded on the portal, until a scan reveals an irregularity in the baby’s head measurement. The pregnancy and the baby are no longer as photogenic or fit for the portal, but the event will have a seismic impact on the family and on our narrator in particular. She is completely unprepared for the immense love she feels for the severely disabled baby girl her sister delivers, a child whose life expectancy is limited and whose quality of life would usually be described as poor. And yet, the baby, with her rudimentary abilities, her dependency on her loved ones and her complete helplessness, draws out the humanity in those around her, that, because of the evils of the portal, they had forgotten they had.

This second half of the book is based on an event in Lockwood’s own family – her sister gave birth to a child with Proteus syndrome – and knowing there is truth in it, makes it a powerful read indeed. For me, it is not Ulysses, and Lockwood is not yet Woolf or Faulkner. I wasn’t awed or stunned by the book, but it is innovative. Her instincts as a poet serve her well. It reminded me a little of the 2018-shortlisted book Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman, which I have recently finished. I have to say I found that book better, but Lockwood has a good chance of winning with this novel.

So, recommended. I’m looking forward to what the rest of the shortlist has to offer.

%d bloggers like this: