The City and the City

Well, he’s done it again. China Mieville’s amazing genre blending journey is a very interesting read. He introduces us to Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad who is investigating a murder. A woman has been found on a housing estate by a group of young kids. This is all quite Chandleresque in its approach here until you find out that Beszel, where the action takes place, is a city unlike any other we have experienced. It is a ‘crosshatched’ city with Ul Qoma as its siamese twin. However, you soon realise theat the citizens of both cities cannot, or will not, see each other. In fact, they actively ‘unsee’ one another’s citizens, buildings and cars (!).
This is so deliberate that to fail to do it will invoke ‘Breach’ and this is dangerous. Breach are the body that oversee it’s citizens’ laws in relation to seeing each other.
Borlu soon realises that the crime is more complex than he at first thought and when Breach tell him that it is not their problem, he has to cross over into Ul Qoma. It is here that the real action begins.
Mieville takes a bit of time to get to the action, and given the complexity of the construct it’s easy to see why. I did find myself losing a bit of patience with the backstory and the contextual stuff, but once the story proper began I was enthralled. His use of language, as usual, is inventive and clever. His writing is unobtrusive and seamless and the plot, once it got going, had enough twists to keep me entertained.
A great read if you can be patient with the first quarter or so of the book.


Finished the Fugue

I completed the novel a few days ago with a bit of sadness, that it was done. I really enjoyed reading it and now have to get the rest of Clive Barker’s work. The third part of the novel began with a bit less action than the rest, with Shadwell and Hobart looking for the Scourge. Things quickly heated up ( literally!) when they headed back to England to search for the Kind. The tension racks up a bit here and then stays at a high pitch for the rest of the time. The ending was well done and not predictable at all. Clever, imaginative writing, fast paced and well structured. Highly recommended.

Fforde’s Greyest book yet?

I waited with bated breath for this to arrive from Amazon in the US and even though they told me that this would be six weeks!!! it actually arrived very early and I have just finished it. My first thoughts were that it was very different to anything else he has written, which of course is a good achievement, but in this case, I did find the writing less exciting than that of the fabulous Thursday Next series.
Maybe it was because the world that he was trying to render was very complex and difficult to portray, or maybe it was just that the lead character was not as compelling as Thursday, but I did not find myself wanting to drop everything to finish it as I had with the other series.
Edward Russett lives in a world where people are classed according to colour perception. The strict heirarchy comes with numerous and complex rules about how people should live and communicate with one another. Communal life is severely proscribed and it is almost impossible to veer off the beaten path. The book could be described as a dystopian fiction, a genre which I usually love, but in this case, the darkest aspects of dystopian worlds simply seem mildly annoying. I don’t want to criticise it for something it is not however, and it is clearly not meant to be dark or political.
Edward discovers that things are not as they seem when he is sent to the outer fringes after a minor indiscretion. The people he meets there, show us glimpses of life under the colourtocracy and it does take a little while to actually understand the world that Edward inhabits. He meets Jane, a rebellious Grey, who eventually opens his eyes to the deceptions in his world and he joins with her to fight them. The twist at the end is mildly annoying and the novel ends with the typical generic cliffhanger so that we will follow Edward’s adventures in the next installment.
Edward as a character is faintly annoying, he’s weak and vaguely stupid, and, while I realise that is the point, he did not really enamour me. Jane was interesting, she was more feisty, but we did not learn enough about her unti much later in the novel. Edward’s ‘friends’ are odious and he reacts to them mildly when they betray him.
While Fforde has built a complex and interesting world here, and you can never argue that he is not original and clever, I just don’t think that there was enough here to be really good fiction. I ended up feeling slightly disappointed that the book did not live up to my expectations. Maybe that says more about Fforde’s previous work than his current work, or maybe my expectations were too high.

The Good Terrorist – Doris Lessing

This is an old one but I really enjoyed reading Doris Lessing’s novel about a group of leftist revolutionaries living in a London Squat in Thatcher’s Britain. It could just be at first because I perfectly understood their frustration with the politics of their time, but as I read on it quickly became apparent that I had absolutely nothing in common with the ragtag bunch of middle class and upper class English squatters who dreamed of anarchy and revered Lenin and yet tried to get the IRA to help them to subvert the dominant paradigm. When they were laughed at by the IRA and then the Russians it still didn’t dawn on them that their cause was futile.

We are told this story mostly through the eyes of Alice, who is the mother figure of the group. She is in love with Jasper, a love that is happily for her, unrequited. She has a way with people, except for those really close to her, like family. She wheedles the Council until they grant the flat a semi-official status and she works like a trojan to get the place clean so that the police will not bother them. The way that she sees it they are saving a perfectly good flat, that the council scandalously is letting go to waste. The political sensibilities of the core group of squatters are radical enough to ensure that real crisis is not too far off and the story deals with the ideals and hopeless utopian dreams that they harbour. The most important thing about any Doris Lessing book is the psychology, she reads human nature so minutely that there is never a false note. You can believe her people, even if you don’t necessarily like them, in fact in this case you can’t. It’s fairly obvious that Alice is crazy, but Lessing never overdoes this.

I have to admit that I approached it with hesitancy, as I was not sure whether Lessing was going to poke fun at leftist intellectual politics in the eighties, not having read much of her writing before, except for The Cleft,, but she really deals with the whole idea very carefully and subtly and with warmth. I will be reading more of her work.

An Uncommon writer

Alan Bennett’s An Uncommon Reader was an inspired Christmas present (oh, ok, I hinted quite substantially) The power of literature works its mischevious magic on the uncommon reader (HRH) She perseveres after borrowing Ivy Compton Burnett’s book from the moblile library parked in the palace grounds and discovers the joys of literature. Of course all of this dedication to literature has a disastous effect on her public duties. And who will sit and discuss Proust with her? It’s fun and a quick and easy read that will stay long after the covers are closed. Thanks Santa.

Pat Barker – Life Class

I was really looking forward to reading this one. I am a big fan of Pat Barker and have read all of her previous novels. Like most people I was introduced to her through the Regeneration Trilogy but when I read a bit about her I wanted to read more of her books. I must confess it does have a bit to do with the fact that she’s a Geordie and I was feeling a bit homesick at the time, but anyway, I came to her she has not let me down. I loved the early novels set in Newcastle and the later, more critically acclaimed stuff such as Border Crossing, which has been on the VCE English text list, showed great depth in her writing. She has been willing to tackle big issues in complex ways and deserves a good following. So Life Class was there at Borders Chadstone and I had to get it. I read it in a couple of nights but was left slightly disappointed at the end as the plot just seems to stop. It’s about a young Northern (what else?) man, Paul, who has a calling as an artist. He is accepted into the Slade School in London and thanks to a generous elderly relative who left some money he is able to go and fulfil his dreams. Of course nothing comes that easily. He is mortified by the criticism of Tonks, the experienced art teacher and almost gives up. He falls in love with a girl, after dating her friend for a while, until the friend’s husband beats him up and she leaves to go back up North to escape such a brute of a husband. He begins to form a relationship with Elinor after being invited to her house, along with another admirer Neville Kitt. Neville, Paul and Elinor uncomfortably circle around each other. Neville is well bred and so is Elinor, but Paul is not really of their circle. This is 1914.
Paul tries to join the army but has TB so they won’t have him. He then decides to join as an orderly and later becomes an ambulance driver. He stoically deals with the war and we read his letters to Elinor and hers back to him. Gradually their relationship changes as she falls in with the Bloomsbury set and he is struggling with the horrors of war. Barker’s characters are believable, the flighty and independent Elinor, the insecure upper class Neville (although at times he is a little stereotypical) and the dour Paul. I just didn’t really connect with Paul as much as I would have liked to. I understood that Barker didn’t want to turn him into a cliché by having him traumatised by the war, but I didn’t really feel that he had a lot of emotional depth. Maybe some people don’t, but I don’t necessarily want to read about them.
All in all it was an interesting read, the whole time is interesting, the outbreak of World War I and the beginnings of independence for some women (particularly upper middle and upper class ones) and the whole Bloomsbury set’s idea that they could just ignore the war(!). However, I finished this one feeling a bit unsatisfied. What a shame.

Shakespeare – Bill Bryson

Ok, another book about Shakespeare, what could I possibly want that for? Well, firstly, because it is another book about Shakespeare, and let’s face it, we can’t have enough of them. Secondly, because it’s written by Bill Bryson who just knows how to tell a story in an amusing and eclectic way that keeps his readers with him. One more thing is that although there are lots of books about Shakespeare, from lots of different perspectives, lots of them are not made for a general readership. They’re often written for academics or literature students or conspiracy theorists or something of that nature. Bryson knows his reader pool and we dive in. He gives us nothing new here. He goes through the whole background and touches on the authorship debate and then discusses the plays. He openly acknowledges that it is impossible to really ‘know’ anything for a fact about Shakespeare, but he is a believer and he writes about his love for Shakespeare’s writing. This is well worth the money. Buy it and curl up, then pick up another play or some sonnets and immerse yourself in the bard.

Sleep Pale Sister

Joanne Harris’ novel Sleep Pale Sister was loaned to me by a student who knows that I like gothic novels. It definitely fit that criteria. It was a nicely gothic tale about a girl who is married to an artist after being his child muse. He is a twisted character (as all good gothic characters are) and he wants Effie for his own purposes, but it’s not what you think. She is not allowed to call him by his first name and allowed no intimacy at all. One of his acquaintances, a disolute young man decides to seduce her. The affair brings her into contact with a whole new world and changes her life irrevocably.
This was an interesting novel, although lightweight. The only criticism that I have is that it was gothic by numbers. If you had to define the gothic genre, this one would tick all of the boxes. This led to it feeling a bit contrived. However, don’t let that put you off. It was enjoyable.
thanks Pheobe 🙂

Enduring Love

Ian McEwan’s novel, which I actually read for work, was an interesting one. It deals with a popular science writer who is caught up in a calamitous situation when out one day taking a picnic with his wife. He is one of five men who try to save a young boy from a ballooning accident. This event proves to be an epiphanic moment for one of the would be saviours and a cataclysm for another.

Joe is stalked by Jed, a sufferer of deClerambault’s syndrome, an illness whereby the sufferer becomes fixated on another person, believing that they love them and that the love is mutual. McEwan practices an illusion on his audience by including an appendix ostensibly written by two doctors for the British Review of Psychiatry which completely outlines the case that he has written about in his novel. Several reviewers have been taken in by this clever ruse and it adds an interesting twist to the story.

The writing is beautiful, McEwan deals in the minutae of everyday life with precision and the emotions of his characters are carefully controlled. I do think that perhaps Joe is a bit too controlled, considering this man is ruining his life and his wife suspects him of making the whole thing up. Eventually he sets off on a more dangerous course when he decides that the law cannot help him and there has already been an attempt on his life. This creates more dramatic tension, but I still get the feeling that Joe is much too well behaved. He is the epitome of a middle class Englishman, manners are much more important than anything else.

This is an interesting novel, beautifully written. I guess the main problem with my reaction to it is the fact that I did not really empathise with Joe, I found it hard to believe that someone would react so passively, and of course this is the thing, that is what causes Clarissa to disbelieve him in the first place, I suspect that in this case it is more of a problem with the reader than the writer. Although I enjoyed it, I did not fully believe in Joe.

History Boys

I’m a bit behind the times. I actually saw this play last week and I’ve not yet blogged about it even though I did rave about it a bit through the week. It was a funny and thought provoking play about a group of sixth form boys at a Sheffield school. We were introduced to them through their General Studies class with Hector and old iconoclastic teacher who loves the classics, particularly another old bugger, Auden. He gives the boys lifts home on his motorbike and feels them up on the way home. The boys aren’t traumatised by this, in fact they vie for his attention and are very fond of him. Hector teaches the boys to love poetry and classic literature and even teaches them French, much to the disgust of the Head teacher who is unable to quantify Hector’s teaching and so brings in a much more educationally acceptable teacher Irwin (Matthew Newton) who knows how to get the boys to pass their final exams and get into the much coveted Oxford University.
Alan Bennett shows his scorn for this character by giving him a job on BBC2 after having him fall of Hector’s bike because he ‘leant the wrong way’.
The boys are the wittiest bunch and wryly observe the goings on at the school. They are resilient survivors who show us that teachers don’t really understand them (with the possible exception of Hector). They are confident and accepting of one another.
The educational debate threaded through the play is particularly apt at the moment given the governmental concern for quantifying everything that teachers do and the possibility of performance pay for teachers who ‘value add’. Irwin would get paid under this system as he could be percieved to have taught them how to pass the exams and get into Oxford; Hector would not get paid even though his is the spine that exists in the body of their knowledge and his teaching will continue to support their love of learning. Get that Julie Bishop!
This is a must see play if you are at all interested in education, learning (yes, they are separate things) and like a good laugh. The funniest scene was the French scene where the boys were using the subjunctive to wish for what all 18 year old boys wish for. The head teacher enters the room and the boys become wounded soldiers crying ‘Aidez moi!’ . They clearly do not need help as they frolic around the room, one trouserless. At several times the audience was convulsed by the wit threaded through the play and it is one that will stay with you for quite some time, much like Hector’s teaching I suspect.