In our house money was a god. But it was an angry, careful god

Rebuilding Coventry
by Sue Townsend

Sue Townsend was reliably both funny and socially relevant, and she doesn’t disappoint here. The title doesn’t refer to the Midlands town’s destruction in World War Two – it is, rather, about a woman called Coventry.

Coventry Dakin introduces herself with two facts: she’s beautiful and she killed a man. Specifically, her neighbour Gerald Fox. And now she’s on the run in London, without her handbag.

Killing Gerald was a spur of the moment decision, hence Coventry’s less-than-perfect running-away outfit. We learn the story behind the murder and the fallout for Coventry’s husband and children, interspersed between Coventry’s survival on the streets of the capital.

This being a comedy, there is an element of the ridiculous to much of the action. The murder weapon is an Action Man doll. She had been in the middle of cleaning her chimney, so she’s wearing old clothes and covered in soot. Her husband Derek is really only interested in his tortoises.

Continue reading “In our house money was a god. But it was an angry, careful god”

The shadows resumed their jerky dance

The Silence of the Sea
by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

I picked up this book because Sigurðardóttir was recommended by Gav Reads and Savidge Reads, whose taste I often share. I managed somehow to start this crime series with the sixth book about lawyer Thóra, but I don’t think that spoiled the story and she seems pretty badass.

In this episode of Icelandic noir, a luxury yacht crashes into Reykjavik harbour wall with no-one on board, not one of the seven people known to have boarded in Lisbon. The parents of one of the missing people employ Thóra to prove that their son Ægir is dead – they really need to claim his life insurance money to be able to afford to raise their (now presumably orphaned) granddaughter.

A second timeline follows Ægir from the day he, his wife and their older two children leave Lisbon on the yacht. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience luxury beyond their means – the yacht is being repossessed by the bank Ægir works for. But from the surly skeleton crew to hideous seasickness, it’s a nightmare from the start. One that only gets worse.

Continue reading “The shadows resumed their jerky dance”

Washed gently by the lapping waves of time

high-windowThe High Window
by Raymond Chandler

Tim and I have both been working our way gradually through the Philip Marlowe books since I picked one up in 2011. He’s now a couple ahead of me and assures me there are no duds.

While Chandler may not have invented pulp fiction or purple prose, he really and truly mastered the art. From the first page, the language is exquisite. In the wrong hands this would be overwritten, or artificial, but Chandler uses it as the perfect reflection of his hero’s highly coloured view of the world.

Private investigator Philip Marlowe is really growing on me as a character. Deeply cynical and ever-so-aware of the worst of humanity, he is somehow not a morose pessimist who has given up on the world. Instead, he is ever hopeful, ever the gentleman, in his quiet take-no-notice-of-me way. Plus, he’s funny.

“I looked into the reception-room. It was empty of everything but the smell of dust. I threw up another window, unlocked the communicating door and went into the room beyond…a framed licence bond on the wall, a phone, a washbowl in a stained wood cupboard, a hat-rack, a carpet that was just something on the floor, and two open windows with net curtains that puckered in and out like the lips of a toothless old man sleeping. The same stuff I had had last year, and the year before that. Not beautiful, not gay, but better than a tent on the beach.”

Continue reading “Washed gently by the lapping waves of time”

The world has fallen into the shadow of something sinister

little black liesLittle Black Lies
by Sharon Bolton

I had a long train journey coming up so I thought I’d buy something for the Kindle and I’d heard rave reviews of this book from bloggers I trust. The book turned out to be so good that I snatched every moment to read it until it was over. It’s really good. And it’s crime, which I hardly ever read. Maybe I should read more crime?

The story is set on the Falklands, which is a setting I hadn’t read about before. We appear to be told in the first few chapters what the crime is going to be, but it then gets complicated by another crime having been committed – a young boy has gone missing – and the question becomes whether these things are linked and whether the planned crime will go ahead.

The book opens with Catrin diving for samples for the environmental organisation that she works with. Like the rest of the book, it is a lyrical piece of writing that combines nature, science, memory, contemplation and emotion to wonderful effect. I have zero desire to go diving in any sea or ocean but while reading those pages I was transported to a self that was right there with Catrin enjoying the experience.

Continue reading “The world has fallen into the shadow of something sinister”

I wish you to gasp not only at what you read

Pale Fire

Pale Fire
by Vladimir Nabokov

I need to let you know from the start that this is one crazy crazy book. The structure, the plot and the characters are complex to the point of inscrutable. This is truly experimental literary fiction.

How to describe this book? The poet and academic John Shade has been murdered and this is his last poem, introduced and analysed by a neighbour and colleague of the poet, Charles Kinbote. Kinbote is clearly crazy, but the question is exactly how crazy.

Kinbote’s “commentary” mostly ignores the actual poem and rambles on about the last king of Zembla, the country he has emigrated from to the small New England college where he met Shade. The story of this king is one of wild adventure, preposterous even, and Kinbote is clearly obsessed with it. He had told this story to Shade in the hope that the great poet would write a great poem about it, but that’s not what this final poem is and Kinbote’s disappointment is palpable.

“What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students)…I can do what only a true artist can do – pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and weft of that web.”

The whole conceit, and Kinbote himself, are often frustrating, occasionally tedious and frankly wholly ridiculous and yet at times it becomes almost, almost, believable. Kinbote’s obsessive nature has attached itself to his learned neighbour and he has clearly read the situation wrong time and time again, convincing himself that he became Shade’s dearest friend on the basis of flimsy evidence. It’s not a new story, but it’s nevertheless an interesting one and it’s being told in a very new way.

Thankfully, the scholarly frame of the novel is not entirely po-faced. This is a comedy, packed full of satire, poking fun at poets and scholars and literary criticism. Kinbote is somehow both subtly ambiguous and a broad comic character. The language is laughably over-the-top academic and delights in putting together pleasing sounds and amazing, if unwieldy, sentences.

“The heating system was a farce, depending as it did on registers in the floor wherefrom the tepid exhalations of a throbbing and groaning basement furnace were transmitted to the rooms with the faintness of a moribund’s last breath. By occluding the temperatures upstairs I attempted to give more energy to the register in the living room but its climate proved to be incurably vitiated by there being by there being nothing between it and the arctic regions save a sleezy front door without a vestige of a vestibule.”

It’s a clever balancing act and I would be thoroughly impressed by a book that made me laugh out loud despite such an outlandish structure if I hadn’t found other sections painfully tedious. This is a short book but it took me a long time to read, partly because I kept putting it down and declaring “This is batshit insane.” Which it is.

“The coming of summer presented a problem in optics: the encroaching foliage did not always see eye to eye with me: it confused a green monocle with an opaque occludent, and the idea of protection with that of obstruction.”

I must admit, this is one of those books I’m a little bit proud of having got through. Which perhaps undersells it. Many people consider this a masterpiece and I certainly see that there’s plenty to admire but I don’t think Nabokov will ever be a favourite of mine.

First published 1962 by G B Putnam’s Sons.

Source: Secondhand, probably from the Oxfam Bookshop on Park Street, Bristol.

London Road: a Musical

Bristol Old Vic Studio, 11 June
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
(Copyright: Graham Burke)

Describing this production too briefly would probably put off most people. It’s a musical based on the real-life murders of five prostitutes in the London Road area of Ipswich in 2006 – that’s fine, if a bit dark. But it’s also verbatim theatre – all the words are taken from interviews that writer Alecky Blythe conducted with residents of London Road and are performed as precise copies of the original voices – the intonation, pauses, repetitions, accents, ums and ahs are all learned by the actors. And then a level of stylisation is added in the form of songs and song-like sections that perhaps most closely resemble poetry.

All of which could have added up to something unwatchable in the wrong hands. But this is more than just watchable, it’s actually pretty good, though the verbatim dialogue does take some getting used to. Key to this is the excellent script. Blythe took what were presumably many many hours of many interviews and cut together a story of a community both haunted and hopeful, with plenty of those small humorous moments that real life serves up. But a good script is nothing without a good cast, and here Bristol Old Vic Theatre School really delivers.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
(Copyright: Graham Burke)

Once again the Studio Theatre was used to good effect, with the stage area and audience chairs arranged at the start as if for something like a town hall meeting. The cast milled about a tea trolley making cups of instant coffee and settled around a cheap folding table and a noticeboard covered with flyers. As the live orchestra on the balcony started up and hush fell over the small but eclectic audience, we learned that this was a Neighbourhood Watch meeting, that the London Road residents want to wrestle something good out of the horror they have lived through.

The cast all play multiple roles, fleshing out the story to include visiting journalists, police, prostitutes and other townsfolk, but they have clear principal characters who make up the Neighbourhood Watch committee – concerned citizens who obviously had plenty to say to Blythe and were trying to be positive for the future. This positive spin shines through the story, though it’s hard not to wonder what the tone might have been if a different set of people had opened up to Blythe.

With so many changes in character with just a subtle adjustment of costume or props, it’s perhaps little wonder that there was an occasional slip into comic overacting. And I couldn’t help but be irritated to spot that the first photographer depicted carried both a Canon camera and a Nikon, which is really not realistic. But that’s a pernickity detail that my being a bit of a photography geek taught me! More importantly, the “real words” added a certain something to the show – it felt more realistic than the average scripted drama despite all the repetition and singing.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
(Copyright: Graham Burke)

Though it is very much an ensemble cast, I’d like to give special mention to Bethan Nash who was excellent both in her main role as Julie, organiser of the local “In bloom” gardening competition, but even more excellent in the short scene of an interview with three prostitutes, which ended with Nash appearing near tears despite having said very little. That scene was exceptional and I don’t wonder that it is the one section of Blythe’s original recording that was selected to be played toward the end of the show.

For all my praise, this is an odd show that probably won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you’re willing or even eager to experience something a bit different, I would encourage you to try it.

Disclaimer: Tickets were kindly supplied to me by the theatre in return for an honest review.

Light bleeds in among the cracks

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
by Michael Chabon

I found this book hard to read and I’m finding it hard to write about, but I don’t want to give the wrong idea. It’s hard in a brilliant, literary way. And it’s sort-of SF. Which I took a while to twig to.

In a big Jewish settlement in Alaska (that should have been my first clue that something was askew), detective Meyer Landsman is called in to the scene of a murder in the very same seedy hotel that he lives in. The dead man was a junkie who played chess – and that’s all anyone seems to know. Landsman’s lifelong love–hate relationship with chess has him intrigued by the case but he is almost immediately told to drop it by his boss, who is also his ex-wife. She is tidying up loose ends before administration of the Sitka district is handed back to the USA, as the Jews’ 50-year lease on the land is about to end.

“She puts a hand to his mouth. She has not touched him in three years. It probably would be too much to say that he feels the darkness lift at the touch of her fingertips against his lips. But it shivers, and light bleeds in among the cracks.”

There is so much going on this novel and it’s all wrapped up in gorgeous language, a combination of the purple prose of, say, Raymond Chandler, and Yiddish. Yes, Yiddish, which I am not so learned in, I must admit. And there’s also a fair selection of outright obscure words (a “hortatory cigarette”, anyone?). Which makes for brilliant quotes (I have marked so many pages in this book) but does not allow a quick read.

“Until this minute Landsman didn’t realize what he and every noz in the District, and the Russian shtarkers and small-time wiseguys, and the FBI and the IRS and the ATF, were up against…You could lead men with a pair of eyes like that. You could send them to the lips of whatever abyss you chose.”

Landsman of course does not drop the case and drags in his partner for good measure, a half-Native-American, half-Jew called Berko Shemets. Which gives Chabon the opportunity to discuss the effect a sudden mass-immigration of Jews immediately following the Second World War might have had on the local Alaskan population, not to mention on US politics in general. Social history, race, religion and culture are central to the story. The Jews are split between the averagely devout, the really devout, or “black hats”, and the…lapsed.

Unsurprisingly, Landsman is the latter. He is your typical detective – divorced, family all dead, a drunk, without faith, obsessive about his work and he chain smokes. He loves his friend Berko but is not above using him badly. He also (and/or perhaps Chabon) has a wry sense of humour.

“Landsman watches the progress of Elijah the Prophet and plans his own death. This is a fourth strategy he has evolved to cheer himself when he’s going down the drain. But of course he has to be careful not to overdo it.”

Despite the familiar trappings of a typical whodunit, with an action-packed story and a variety of bad guys who are linked in various ways, this is not a rip-roaring read because it is just too complex for that. I found it hard to follow and I am honestly sure if this was deliberate or if it was me struggling with the language. There are definitely facts held back, not fully explained until later. And the characters, while being realistically unstraightforward, are kept at a distance, because we effectively experience the story from Landsman’s perspective and he is almost perpetually drunk, so it’s tough to get to know even him.

“Men tend to cry, in Landsman’s experience, when they have been living for a long time with a sense of rightness and safety, and then they realize that all along, just under their boots, lay the abyss. That is part of the policeman’s job, to jerk back the pretty carpet that covers over the deep jagged hole in the floor.”

This novel is to some extent an intellectual exercise. There’s more than one “What if” scenario being played out, but there’s also a lot of general information about Jewish tradition, history and culture, some of which I felt I was expected to already know, to recognise from page one and be at home with. Add to that all the chess discussion and there was a fair bit of this book passing me by. But I kept going, because though I found it tough, I also found it beautiful, in a rough and dirty sort of way.

“The reporters have tumbled their way through the black hats…they haul out the questions they have brought. They unpocket them like stones and throw them all at once. They vandalize the woman with questions.”

First published in Great Britain by Fourth Estate in 2007.
Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2008.

Retinas oxidized in the ether

the jump artistThe Jump Artist
by Austin Ratner

Although I knew that this novel was based on a true story, it was only in the last few pages that I realised I knew a little of its subject, Philippe Halsman, and his famous photographs. Which was perhaps for the best, because it meant that the story was new to me. But I don’t think it would matter if you already knew the story, because the writing is by far good enough to keep you enraptured.

The story begins with Philippe and his father on a walking holiday in the Austrian Alps in 1928. By the end of the day Philippe has been accused of murder and his subsequent trial and retrial reverberate throughout the world’s press. Halsman was a Latvian Jew, an intense, brooding, depressive man in a bewildering world of anti-Semites. Great thinkers of the day, including Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and Sigmund Freud spoke up on his behalf and he later became a celebrity photographer, but the murder and the imprisonment could never be struck from Halsman’s memory.

Ratner has done an excellent job of combining extensive research, with extracts from diaries, newspapers and other first-hand sources throughout the text, and yet he has still created a living breathing character in Halsman. He is not even a sympathetic character, at least not at first, though considering the seemingly hopeless situation you can forgive him for the flights of crazy. He self-harms, invents methods of self-punishment including starvation, and disappears into his own dark dark world of death and guilt and shame. Extracts from Halsman’s letters from prison reveal his slightly scary intensity and Ratner captures this in his own prose:

“When he’d seen Winged Victory on the Daru staircase at the Louvre, Papa and Mama and Liouba had had to leave him behind to go see the Persian friezes. He’d soaked up the pleasure of it in his eyes for more than an hour, and when he looked at his face in the mirror at the hotel, his eyes were wrecked with burst vessels.”

Despite this dark central character, and indeed the dark times covered, from 1920s Austria to 1930s Paris and the great exodus of 1940, this book didn’t depress me. In fact, the one time I cried it was at a beautiful moment of humanity. I was so engrossed that I powered straight through in just a couple of sittings, and then wished that I had lingered over it, savoured the often exquisite language:

“They’d been up at 5:30 that very morning and vaulted up the Schönbichlerhorn into its frigid airless winds, had their retinas oxidized in the ether, and their hands seared on the snow and the flint rocks, hot as sunburned metal. They had broken themselves on the mountain and been baptized there above the timber line at the top of the world, where the river of air meets the river of fire.”

In later chapters, I loved the descriptions of Halsman taking photographs and could often picture the finished result from Ratner’s description. From tentative beginnings, Halsman finally finds confidence and artistry in photography and Ratner evokes a believably troubled but brilliant man.

I am not sure why, after this was published to great acclaim in the US in 2009, it took three years to find a UK publisher, but I am really glad that it now has.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

First published in the USA in 2009 by Bellevue Literary Press.
Winner of the 2010 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
Published in Great Britain in 2012 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books.

I may break a few rules

The Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler

The first book in the Philip Marlowe series (though not the first I’ve read) this blackly funny story of the darker side of LA confirmed my love for Chandler and his purple prose. I read it for book club, which led to a hilariously highbrow conversation about what has never aspired to be more than pulp fiction. But it’s good pulp fiction.

The plot is…complicated. I was beginning to think I had missed something towards the end and then Marlowe explains the whole thing to another character, which I suspect his publisher made him put in there. The story begins with the private detective being hired by dying millionaire Sternwood to deal with a pesky blackmailer. It seems straightforward but one bad guy leads to another and Sternwood’s two daughters are both troublesome, turning it all into one big knot of murder and intrigue.

Marlowe himself is an intriguing character. He’s a good guy and has a strong moral code that he imposes on himself, yet he delights in pissing off the police or letting people believe that he’s up to no good. And he’s not above kissing a girl and then discarding her. He’s clever, but not so clever that he’s pieced it all together from the start. He gives the impression of a devil-may-care attitude but looking closely at his actions you realise he actually cares very much. As he explains to Sternwood, “I do my best to protect you and I may break a few rules, but I break them in your favour.”

Chandler’s LA is of course marvellously seedy. Even the rich Sternwood girls are caught up with gangsters and crooks, from the petty to the top of the pile. It is his (and by extension Marlowe’s) understanding of the criminal world, and how several seemingly distinct cases are tied up together by the associations between people, that makes the book brilliant and confusing.

And it’s funny. Marlowe’s narration is full of sharp observations and ironic humour. I love lines like “You have to keep your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes.” The language in general is gorgeously overblown, which is a style some members of my book club found offputting. But I can’t help adoring a book that sets a scene: “I got down there about nine, under a hard high October moon that lost itself in the top layers of a beach fog.”

For a book written in the 1930s, there is an interesting attitude towards homosexuality. Marlowe uses language that would be considered homophobic today but elsewhere he appears open-minded about such things. When joking about his impending death, he says “Don’t scatter my ashes over the blue Pacific. I like the worms better. Did you know that worms are of both sexes and that any worm can love any other worm?”

I think I preferred Farewell My Lovely, but this was still a great read and I fully intend to read the rest of the series.

First published 1939 by Alfred A Knopf.

What if?

Murder Born
by Robert Reed

This intriguing novella explores ideas around murder, revenge and capital punishment. It’s not the lightest read, but definitely one to make you think.

In his introduction, Reed says “[State] executions carry huge consequences…in the end not even the most Old Testament of these souls [families of the victim] are left happy, or even at peace…I asked myself what would make state-sponsored murder into the only moral response…I guess this is my bid for transparent justice.” Still intrigued?

Shawn is a photojournalist who is travelling home from an assignment in Asia when he gets a call from his ex-wife to say that their teenage daughter is missing, last seen with her boyfriend. So begins Shawn’s descent into the world of crime and punishment, with a science-fiction twist that makes it all even more complex and difficult.

And that’s as much as I can say about the plot without giving too much away, because the idea is revealed slowly, step by step. It has been carefully thought through and every “what if” I thought of came up and was dealt with. It is a very clever, hugely thought-provoking idea that I imagine will stay with me for a long long time.

That said, this novella won’t be for everyone. The story is all about the idea and, while characters weren’t wooden, they weren’t completely rounded either. It also owes a certain something to the murder mystery template, with the plot suddenly wrapping up very quickly after the “big reveal”. But it is well written, with a middle America setting that is both anywhereville and completely real. And while the topic could be considered political, the story doesn’t actually take sides or offer a clear solution, though you can take a guess at Reed’s position from the idea that he has come up with.

I really recommend not just that you read this, but also that you get someone else to read it so that you can talk it over afterward. Many thanks to Tim for doing just that to me!

First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction February 2012 issue