Monday, 4 December 2017

Munich by Robert Harris

Reviewer: JJ Marsh


What we thought: 
Fascinating and un-plug-outable (I listened to the audiobook).

This novel details the tense lead-up to the Munich conference in late 1938 with exemplary research and human insight. Two men, both insiders in the opposing regimes, observe the frantic diplomacy required to avert war in Europe. Hugh Legat and Paul Hartmann met at Balliol, Oxford, becoming friends, co-travellers and political debaters. Now, they are working for their respective governments but share a single aim. To defeat Hitler.

Harris is a master on this subject and in this genre - historical fiction from the perspective of those who could have changed the key moments of modern history. Despite our hindsight, this diplomatic dance around a despot is involving, and gives us hope. There are good men prepared to do something, regardless of the risk.

This fictionalised account sent me scurrying to learn more about the events which could have precluded WWII. Period details such as the enormous undertaking of flying to another country and the brutal ugliness of gas masks transport the  reader to the 1930s with a sharpness which underlines the danger.

Anyone with a passing interest in politics must draw parallels to current events and feel a shiver of sinister familiarity when the egotistical dictator grows incensed at his depiction by the foreign press. We should be grateful such a short-fused, power-crazed man didn't have access to Twitter.


You’ll enjoy this if you like: Fatherland, Enigma, Downfall

Avoid if you don’t like: European politics, details of diplomacy

Ideal accompaniments: Cigarettes, whisky and liverwurst

Genre: Historical fiction, spy thriller

Available on Amazon


Wednesday, 29 November 2017

24 Hovrs in Ancient Rome by Philip Matyszak

Reviewer: JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult and the Overlord series.

What we thought: It's not often you come across a book which is so deliciously rich in historic fact, and yet presented in the most readable and engaging manner, but that is exactly what 24 Hovrs in Ancient Rome offers. It presents a day in the life of your average ancient Roman citizens, from an Imperial messenger to a washerwoman, spice trader to my favourite, the water-clockmaker.

Each person's tale is one hour (hovr) long, describing in detail their comings and goings, challenges and accomplishments, told in a believable way, as if spying upon these people as they go about their business, observing interactions, talents and trade.

The text is interspersed with extracts from ancient texts, supporting the story-like narrative, and in some instances illustrations.

In the case of the water-clockmaker, you discover rare insight into not just his life, but that of the Roman way of life as a whole:

Unknowingly, Copa has identified a major reason why the Romans will never become a fully mechanized culture. The Romans have so much cheap manpower available that there is no incentive to invent machines to do all the work or reason to use these machines if they are invented.

An again, when reading of a mother nursing her sick child, we're abruptly made aware of how easily life slips away in ancient times and the sickness rife in cities:

As do most working-class girls, Sosipatra married in her late teens. In the ten years since, she has continually been either pregnant or nursing a baby. Yet for their best efforts, the couple have just one healthy child. This is their daughter, Termalia, who is now seven years old. That's about two years after the age when Roman parents can be reasonably sure that their child will survive. That is, survive the illnesses that in Rome kill two to four of every newborns before they reach the age of five. 

It's these glimpses, far from the gladiators and gloriously epic scenes we witness on television and in films, which makes this books so compelling. It is fiction untouched by sensationalism, allowing the true history to breathe on the page, telling us of another side of Roman life; that of the people who truly lived there.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Ancient Rome, facts, knowledge

Avoid if you don’t like: Non-fiction, ordinary life

Ideal accompaniments: honeyed bread and herbal tea

Genre: Historical, Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon

The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory


Reviewer: Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit, Crimson Shore, False Lights & Sacred Lake (www.gillianhamer.com)

What we thought: Covering the life stories of the three Grey sisters – Jane, Kathryn and Mary – it gives a little known viewpoint of the cruel and scheming Tudor court in the years following Henry VIII’s death through to the tyranny of the court of Elizabeth I.

We start with the most famous of the sisters, Jane Grey, queen for only nine days and sentenced to death for refusing to denounce her faith after her own father and his allies made her a scapegoat. Her story was both stoic and touching, told with compassion and grace and I found I really connected with her story and admired the character Gregory created.

Next in line, Kathryn, also died young, always seen as threat to Elizabeth’s rule, she was imprisoned after secretly marrying Edward Seymour, and spent the rest of her days captive either in the Tower of London, or under the charge of one of the Court’s trusted followers. A similar curse fell on youngest sister, Mary, who never wanted to challenge the throne, and was denied the peaceful life the craved, when she too followed the same path as Kathryn by being imprisoned after secretly marrying the man she loved.

The storylines here, while loosely based on real events and dates, are mostly written from the author’s imagination. But after so many years researching the Tudor court, and getting to understand the paranoia rife at that time, every conversation and decision taken are wholly believable. Gregory has a superb way of bringing character, setting and story to life – be it the girl’s love of animals or their petty sisterly squabbles – everything worked perfectly for me and I was sad when the book came to an end. But glad at least one of the sisters survived the cruelty of the royal court to get the quiet life she deserved and craved.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Elizabeth Chadwick, Alison Weir.

Avoid if you don’t like: Tudor history.

Ideal accompaniments: Roasted ox and a tankard of small ale.

Genre: Historical.

Available on Amazon

















Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett (http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.co.uk/ ) author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and Don’t Look Down.

What We Thought: I usually give a despairing sigh when celebs bring books out. Just a way of extracting more cash from the fans, I think. Not so here, I have to say. With Uncommon Type, a compilation of short stories, Tom Hanks proves he can actually string sentences together. And paragraphs. Indeed, whole slices of life spring from his pen, and very good they are, too. I was prepared to maybe read a few, skip a few, pick a few faults, but I found that as soon as I finished one I happily started on another. As far as faults go, there was one instance of head-hopping that caught my attention but didn't seem at all problematic.

Hanks gives us traditional tales alongside quirky futuristic fantasies, stories of the past as well as modern instances, comedy as well as serious topics, and he is never dull. As might be expected, there are many stories told from the point of view of boys, youths and men. There are, however, stories with female protagonists too, and though they may not pass the Bechdel Test, they are not solely a man’s-eye view.

The common theme is typewriters. Most stories include a reference to one. Sometimes the typewriters are integral to the story, sometimes they are simply there in the background. Despite the prevalence of elderly writing machines, these stories are diverse in style and structure. Most are good humoured and made me smile throughout and sometimes even laugh. Others have the emotional pull that leads the reader to contemplation.

I found myself warming to the writer as I read, for the sense of a very human and caring intelligence is always present. It is this sense of someone behind it all that gives the collection coherence, I think. Though the stories are varied in tone and characterisation, there is also a sense of them being part of a larger whole. I found them all entertaining and enjoyable.

I received an ebook from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

You’ll enjoy this if you like:
Stories about people who are essentially good, if prone to human frailty sometimes.

Avoid if you dislike: Lack of evil antagonists – apart from war and life itself.

Ideal accompaniments: A nice cup of tea and some ginger biscuits.

Genre: Short Stories

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett (http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.co.uk/) author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and Don’t Look Down.

What We Thought: Don't expect another Visit from the Goon Squad from Jennifer Egan – Manhattan Beach is an entirely different beast altogether. Set in the hungry 30s and wartorn 40s, it is the story of the Kerrigan family, told mainly through the eyes of Anna, the elder daughter.

Anna works at the US Naval Yard, sizing parts for ships – an important but repetetive job. She dreams of becoming a diver, of donning the diving 'dress' and going down to fix ships below the waterline. Her chance comes when the war starts to cut down the numbers of good male divers. Anna fights prejudice at work through the day and helps her mother care for her disabled sister, Lydia, at night. Her father, Eddie, whose story this also is, has disappeared.

Eddie operates on the fringes of the mob. Involved first with the Irish longshoremen and waterfront tough guys, he hooks up with Dexter Styles, a man who himself straddles the divide between legitimacy and criminality. Styles runs nightclubs for Mr Q, an aging Italian mobster. Eddie becomes his bagman.

Slow to start, this novel gradually pulled me in. At first it seemed as though nothing much was happening and at times I had very little sense of where it was going. Once I became involved in it, however, I realised that the book was a kind of experiment, an attempt perhaps at the Great American Novel. It is a Moby Dick of a book: we get long (possibly overlong) accounts of war work, diving, shipboard life; we learn intricate details of how people lived – what they ate, drank, wore, played with as children.

Detail is piled on detail and it will depend on the reader whether this is seen as an added richness or an irritating diversion. I was, at times, torn between these views but overall came down on the side of richness. Once one gives in and goes with it, rewards are reaped. I don't think Manhattan Beach fully works as a 'great' novel but it is a valiant attempt.

I received an ebook of this novel from NetGalley in return for an honest review.

You’ll enjoy this if you like:
Lots of detail.

Avoid if you dislike:
Slow burners.

Ideal accompaniments: "Here Comes the Navy" by The Andrews Sisters

Genre:
Historical/Literary Fiction.

Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I have been travelling back and forth to Canada quite a bit these past few years, and every time I do, I try to come back with a book by an indigenous author – books that are often difficult or impossible to obtain on this side of the Atlantic.

My latest acquisition is the Giller shortlisted Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson. Robinson is a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations of British Columbia, and this is the first of a planned trilogy of books about the Trickster, Wee’git, the shape-shifting Raven of Haisla stories, the bad example who teaches children the rules by breaking every one of them.

This is no traditional folk tale, though. Robinson places Wee’git firmly in the modern world. Kitimat, where the author lives and the book is set, was a town dominated by the Eurocan pulp and paper mill – a company that was at once a big employer and a big polluter. So when the mill closed, despite the harm it had done to the land, it sent a seismic shock through the community.

It is in this world that Jared is growing up. His parents have split up. His father is unemployed. His mother is on drugs and his dog has just died. Jared wants to get through Grade 10 and keep his family safe, but nothing is ever quite that simple. Especially when (as one of his grandmothers insists) your father just might be Wee’git.

Just because this book has a teenage protagonist and deals in magic, don’t imagine this is a YA novel, or that it bears any resemblance to Harry Potter. The book explodes into swear words (including the c-word) within the first couple of pages. Drugs, alcohol and violence fuel a good part of the action. And the magic it deals in (from talking ravens to eco-warrior otters) is neither good nor evil, but dark and unquestionably dangerous.

For a good part of the book it is unclear – to Jared or to the reader - whether the strange things that keep happening are the result of magic or the product of too many drugs. Just when you think you’ve got to grips with it, the novel twists and turns and throws up more surprises. What is clear – despite what appears to be his wildly dysfunctional upbringing – is both Jared’s kindness and his intelligence. You care about what happens to him because he cares so much about those around him (even when it hardly seems to be reciprocated).

This is a wild trip of a novel, and not for the faint-hearted. I look forward to getting my hands on the next part of the trilogy when it comes out!

This excellent interview with Eden Robinson from Prism Magazine explains at lot of the background to the novel – the Haisla stories that shape it, and the social and ecological conditions in the troubled communities it describes.

The interview also finishes with a fabulous list of Canadian indigenous women authors I shall be adding to my wish list for my next visit.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Augustown by Kei Miller, Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, The Break by Katherena Vermette, Disposable People by Ezekel Alan

Avoid If You Dislike: Swearing, drugs, alcohol and violence mixed with magic

Perfect Accompaniment: Spaghetti and moose meatballs

Genre: Literary Fiction, Coming-of-Age Novel

Available on Amazon



Wednesday, 15 November 2017

We Are The End by Gonzalo C. Garcia


Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought: This would make a perfect art house film. It has all the right elements: rain, ennui, obsession, motifs and a tragic (in)sensibility.

Chilean games designer Tomás is trying to start again. New life, new game. His girlfriend left him with the crushing line, “I never knew I could do better”. She’s taken everything they had – except an album by Serge Gainsbourg and some unreliable memories.

Self-absorbed beyond millennial navel-gazing, Tomás is not a good neighbour, friend, son, brother or casual lover. He made all the wrong choices. Now his best mate is a successful rock star (with the band Tomás left), his ex-girlfriend is in Antarctica and he cannot up his narrative game. His university teaching gig depends on him being a games designer, but ever since Bimbo – the elephant that can jump but doesn’t come down again – his IDEAS book is full of non-starters.

Adventures with Tomás are just around the corner. He has big plans but planning is as far as he gets. His imaginary world and reality overlap as he floats into one situation after another until he finds himself onstage at a Satanists’ meeting, talking about the end of the world.

This is a darkly comic insight into a barely functioning adult who can shave, make coffee and single-mindedly try to rewind his world. Symbols of home and escape abound: mountains encircling Santiago, the hole in the ceiling, the plastic windmills, chewing-gum constellations and our not-quite-hero’s decision to camp in a tent in his own living-room.

A book to make you sigh, smile and acknowledge the internal loop of self-deception, all the while hoping Tomas might still bring his elephant back down.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked:
Model Behaviour by Jay McInerey, L’Etranger by Albert Camus or The Ten O’Clock Horses by Laurie Graham

Avoid if you don’t like: Languor, introspection, fractured storytelling

Ideal accompaniments: Piscola, sopaipillas and Ana Tijoux’s 1977.