Monday, 24 September 2012

Review: The Snow Child

There are certain books that I pick up, read the first page, put down again and say "... damn."

Often, this is because the book is bad. Sometimes, though, it is because I have just read something so wonderful that I need time to come to terms with the fact that I did not write it. Reading the first page of The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey made me shrivel up with jealousy like a thwarted fairy-tale witch. It is a masterclass in the vivid, tactile transmission of a scene - from the first sentence you're right there, totally caught up in the action and a paid-up member of Ivey's marvellous and slightly magic-realist world. And it just gets better from there.

The Snow Child is the story of Mabel and Jack, an aging couple who have never been able to have children. They're both slightly weird and introverted (an understatement in the case of Mabel, who begins the book suicidal and with a total distrust of all other human beings), and they've come to Alaska to start again all on their own. Jack won't even let Mabel do any of the farming, so she spends her days baking pies and thinking about death. They're at the lowest point in their lives when they go outside one night and on a random impulse make a snow sculpture of a little girl. The next morning they wake up to discover that the statue has been destroyed - and there's a child hiding in the woods next to their house.

You can probably tell where this one is going. But the clever thing about Ivey's story is that some of her characters know it too. As the couple befriend the little girl, Mabel becomes obsessed with the idea that they've made their own snow child who, like the girl in the story, will melt in the spring: essentially, she believes that she's stepped into her own fairy tale. It's a clever idea, done delicately enough to make the reader genuinely unsure what's real and what's a myth in the universe of the novel. Even better, Ivey has split The Snow Child into three different sections in which she plays with three different versions of the basic Snow Child story, each similar to but subtly unlike Jack and Mabel's experiences with their girl from the woods. It's a nice comment on the essential differences as well as the similarities of each retelling of the same fairy tale.

Nothing truly fantastic ever happens in The Snow Child. The little girl's presence in Jack and Mabel's back yard has an explanation; she is certainly not made of frozen water. But at the same time, Ivey always leaves a little gap for conjecture. The snow child is a real person, living in the real world... but she can still summon a snow-storm with her mind. Maybe. Or maybe she can't. It's never entirely clarified, and that leaves the reader beautiful blank space to decide what they think.

Ivey's Alaska is wonderful in the literal meaning of the word: she is so good at conveying the wonder and beauty of the wilderness that surrounds her characters without turning it into a twee little snowy cottage garden. But even though it's got a gorgeous, out-of-the-ordinary backdrop and a weird central character, The Snow Child is really all about how exceptional everyday life can be. Sure, it's got a kid who might have unearthly powers, but its real magic comes from the relationships that are built up between the characters.

I know, that sounds really sugary and awful, as though the characters spend all their time crying and hugging each other and discovering their purpose in life. But while that does literally happen (the discovery, not the crying and hugging), Ivey does it in a really organic, sensible way. The snow child gives Jack and Mabel the chance to experience a version of parenthood; their nutty next-valley-over neighbours let them discover how nice it can be to have friends. It's sweet, but realistically so, a kind of wish-fulfilment that makes sense.

I'm aware that I'm raving about The Snow Child. But it's not often that I'm seized with the need to go online and find out how many awards a novel has won because I'm so convinced that it needs ALL THE PRIZES. This is an interesting story, yes, but what really makes it stand out is how gloriously good its writing is. A rational fairy tale with a spice of magic to it, it's so much more unusual and interesting than a totally mystical or completely factual retelling. I can't recommend this enough.

4.5 stars.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Delicious Death: The Detection Club

I am currently recovering from a dissertation about crime. So naturally, the only thing I want to read about is crime.

I bought Ask A Policeman as an extremely tenuous bit of dissertation 'research' (because Agatha Christie wrote the introduction and Dorothy Sayers wrote one of the chapters) but also because it is extremely relevant to my interests. I am competely and tragically obsessed with Golden Age detective fiction. My father gave me an Agatha Christie novel when I was twelve; I read one page of it and realised that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

Not that it hasn't had competition. In the extensive game of Imaginary Historical Friends that I've been playing for years, I've never been able to decide whether I'd prefer to be a Pre-Raphaelite Brother or part of the Byron/Shelley Sexual Licentiousness and Monsters tour of 1816. Or maybe a beat poet. So many choices. But I have come to realise that all this is kind of contingent on me suddenly becoming a man, because the ladies in each group tended to get a raw deal. I am now, therefore, beginning to think that what I would really like to have been is a member of the Detection Club in the 1930s.

The more I read about The Detection Club, the more I discover how awesome it was. If you're a Christie fan, you've probably read about it (in a thinly disguised form) in her book of Miss Marple stories The Thirteen Problems. Basically, it was made up by a group of crime novelists in 1930 to 'further the cause of the clue puzzle form' ie. hang out, get squiffy and talk about murder. Not only were quite a few of the principal members women (Dorothy Sayers even wrote the official oath, which is hilarious), but it's pretty clear that the club members had a totally great time together, as witnessed by the fact that one of their favourite activities was making fun of each other in the things they wrote. Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case has a spot-on send-up of Agatha Christie, and in Ask a Policemen, one of the club's collaborative efforts, the writers all swapped detectives in order to be able to take the piss out of each other with even greater ease than usual.

Now, even though I know its authors have done this (because the blurb says so), I didn't find Ask a Policeman quite the humour-fest they clearly intended it to be. This is because, apart from Lord Wimsey, most of these detectives (and their authors) mean absolutely nothing to a reader from 2012. Certain things age well, and certain things don't, and although I would like to make the case for Anthony Berkeley (if you're interested in him, he also wrote as Francis Iles for some incomprehensible reason), Helen Jackson and Gladys Mitchell ... have gone deservedly into that good night. Without any idea what was being riffed on I could sense the presence of jokes, but that was about it. I didn't know who Mrs Bradley or Sir John Saumarez were, and because of that a large part of Ask a Policeman's central premise fell flat for me.

I felt kind of bad about this - what kind of Golden Age crime novel buff am I? - but I would have felt far worse about my bewilderment if the entire novel had not been such a swirling maelstrom of well-bred confusion. The four writers were each given the same information about the murder and then told to go away and solve it without consulting each other, and the result is that none of the timings match up, people miraculously fall ill and get well from one chapter to the next and there are lots of bizarre plot threads left dangling in the breeze.

Now, to an extent this is par for the course for the genre they're writing in. The main criticism of Golden Age crime novels is that their plots are - to put it bluntly - bloody ridiculous. In the words of Raymond Chandler, they all feature 
the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poignard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests.
For me, that's one of the most charming aspects of them, but if that annoys you, you should definitely not come within one hundred feet of Ask a Policemen. Ridiculousness oozes out of its every pore. 

Consider its set-up. Evil media mogul Lord Comstock (think Murdoch before Murdoch even existed) has been shot in his study while surrounded by a motley and unlikely list of haters who include a Bishop, an upper-class twit, a mysterious lady, a Police Commissioner and the inevitable effeminate male secretary. In a twist of fate so painfully unlikely that it makes my brain ache, the Home Secretary decides to call off the police force and draft in four amateur detectives to solve the case. Because when a major public figure has been murdered, the people I want investigating his death are an old rich woman, an actor, a Lord and... some sort of wealthy jobless person (I've read a few of Berkeley's Sheringham books by now and I like them but I STILL haven't been able to work out what he does). 

Where do you go from there? How can you make the whole thing not crushingly stupid? The answer is, you can't, and none of these authors even tries. Each detective comes to a different (and totally whacky) conclusion from their version of the facts (I use the phrase 'their version' advisedly), and the result is brain-melting non-linear information stew with lashings of super-British jolliness.

Ask a Policeman is the result of a lot of people having a lot of slightly elitist fun with each other. I really wish I had been one of those people, and it was clearly hysterically funny to write, but the result is the purest silly froth that doesn't translate well out of its original moment. When you read a Golden Age crime novel, even a daft one, it's hard not to be infected by the sheer joy of it, but I cannot underestimate what an enormous pile of nonsensical nuts this particular book is. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then Ask a Policeman is a camel with five humps, zebra stripes and a tail made out of moustaches.

This is a book for the very specialised reader. I found the Sayers and Berkeley sections charming (if crazy) because I know their work, but the other two parts were absolutely lost on me. It's a period piece that's aged like Poundland cava, a glimpse of a craze that was weird at the time and seems even weirder now. I love this genre like nothing else in the world, but I still have to give this particular novel

2 (affectionate) stars.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Review: The Chrysalids

Look at this book, this book is amazing
Confession: I completely forgot I had even read this book. But then yesterday I was ill, and I realised that I absolutely had to read Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones.

Please note that I have read this book approximately 30 times before, as I have everything Diana Wynne Jones has ever written. She is one of the main reasons why, whenever I hear someone say that they are (or worse, tell off a child for being) 'too old' for a particular book, I want to set myself on fire. There is NO SUCH THING IN THIS UNIVERSE as being too old for a book. Sure, you can be too young for a book (consider American Psycho before you tell me this is not so), but you can never, ever, ever be too old to read a book that you love. If you think you are, then you have gone sadly wrong in life.

Hexwood is a classic tale about knights, dragons, intergalactic travel, robots and a contract killer with a heart of gold, and it could take most of the stuff that is sold as 'teen fiction' these days and grind it under its blood-red cyborg boot. In it, main character Ann has grown up with four imaginary friends constantly chatting away inside her head, but as the story unfolds she begins to realise that these people might not be imaginary after all. When she asks them to stop behaving as though they're real, they're each shocked, because she's the one who's not real - and of course it then emerges that all five of them are living human beings with a special mental connection.

Anyway, I read that part and suddenly remembered that I finally know (or at least can strongly guess) where Diana Wynne Jones got that particular idea from: I'd read something just like it two weeks ago in John Wyndham's The Chrysalids.

Which is when I remembered that I'd read The Chrysalids. Oops. To be fair to me, I read it in two hours, on the train to London and then on the train back again, so I must have failed to register it as an event. But on the other hand (it's all coming back to me now) I loved it. I loved it more than anything else I've reviewed on here for months. During the two hours it took me to read it, I sent a series of over-excited capslocked texts to my boyfriend telling him that HE SHOULD READ THIS and EVERYONE SHOULD READ THIS and THERE SHOULD BE TEN SEQUELS TO THIS. Also (and most relevantly to this post so far) that I HAD FOUND THE BOOK THAT THE X-MEN CAME FROM.

I know I get really over-excited about literary influence (please see: my dissertation topic; countless other tinhatty rants), and I also know that it is impossible to second-guess the referential workings of the human subconscious, but I really struggle to see how a book first published in 1955 about people whose genetic mutations give them superpowers but also make them reviled by non-mutant society could NOT influence the content of the X-Men comics (first published 1963). The main characters are telepaths (they are all linked at the mind, hence the similarity to Hexwood), and that's really the only ability that's properly explored, but there's a fascinating background range of mutants who have incredibly long arms and webbed feet and so on, all just begging to be turned into superheroes. There is even a mutant described as 'the spider man' (to which I say: I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE, STAN LEE).

John Wyndham is an author I don't talk about much. For some mysterious reason potentially to do with mind control (he is a science fiction writer, after all) I can never seem to remember how highly I rate him until I pick up another one of his books, at which point I am amazed afresh at what an understated genius he is. Like all the best sci fi writers, he goes about the business of writing fantasy as though it was fact, taking a particular proposition (in this case: a nuclear event has resulted in extreme genetic mutation) and following it through to all its logical conclusions. The hyper-religious civilization he has imagined in The Chrysalids has laws, prohibitions, holy texts, sayings and subcultures, and it all seems not only plausible but disturbingly likely.

Set in underpopulated, post-apocalyptic fronteer land, The Chrysalids is the story of the early life of David Strorm, son of the district's most outspoken and fanantic critic of all things mutated. In his society, mutant crops or animals are known as 'deviations', and mutant humans are 'blasphemies', and their holy book says that thou shalt not suffer a deviation or blasphemy to live. David doesn't really question this until the day he meets a little girl who is extremely kind and nice but who has six toes on each of her feet. Not long after that, he discovers that his ability to talk to his cousin and some of his other friends in his head is not exactly normal, and not long after that he realises that if he isn't careful, his natural desire to live without fear of being killed or maimed might suffer a considerable setback.

The Chrysalids is such a simple, linear story, but its background is so beautifully thought out that the novel could have been twice as long (or three times, or four sequels) and still have been just as fascinating. At times, actually, I got frustrated at Wyndham for making up something so great, dipping his toe into it and then getting bored and wandering away. There's so much that isn't fully explained that you're left crazy for more detail. How is it fair that the Twilight saga is half a million dribblingly pointless words long when this piece of perfection is less than 150 pages?

Nevertheless, what is here is mind-bogglingly smart and self-assured, an out-of-left-field work of the imagination that reads like lived truth. I love John Wyndham, I loved this book and I want very badly to resurrect its author so I can get him to write another five of the same.

4.5 stars.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Delicious Death: The Anatomy of Ghosts

As you may know, my dissertation was all about CRIME and therefore (and I feel awkward about admitting to this, as though I had a root canal and didn't even need to ask for an anaesthetic) alarmingly fun to write.

My theory, really only a theory in the way that 'The Pope is probably a Catholic' is a theory, is that Golden Age detective novelists like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey used real Victorian crimes as a basis for their plots. I mean, they did. It's true. Clouds of Witness is a rehash of the Road House Murder, about half of Agatha Christie's short stories use the Chocolate Cream poisoner and Brat Farrar is just the Tichborne Claimant case with a bit of window-dressing. QED, we can all go home. The difficult thing for me to work out was why almost no one else has ever written about this.

Anyway, so there was I in the British Library Reading Room, wading through piles of useless criticism and feeling more and more as though I could actually be wrong and on dissertation hand-in day I might be patted on the head and led away to a nice quiet locked room. Then I turned a page of an essay by Andrew Taylor on Tey and read the phrase 'Brat Farrar is Tey's version of the 19th century case of the Tichborne Claimant'.

I made a noise that can basically be described as a high-pitched animal howl with added sob of joy. I very nearly got up and did a victory lap.

It felt good to be agreed with, is what I am saying, especially when the person agreeing with you is a crime writer himself. I ended up emailing Taylor just to make sure he didn't know something I'd missed (like an essay where Josephine Tey talked about her great and abiding love for the Tichborne case) and he replied saying no, it just seemed obvious. Which made me approve of him as a person.

This all made me want to find out whether I approved of Andrew Taylor as a writer. So down I went to my local library and lo and behold, there was his latest novel, The Anatomy of Ghosts.

The last historical crime novel I read left me colder than the nipple of Satan. As a commenter pointed out, that might just have been me, but nevertheless, I hated it. The writing felt off, the period detail felt off and the characters felt so 'historical' they might as well have been aliens. Thank god, then, that Andrew Taylor has reminded me that historical crime fiction can sometimes be pretty great.

Set in Cambridge in 1786, The Anatomy of Ghosts starts with a meeting of a club in which students get catatonically wasted while pretending to be Jesus and his Apsotles. As you do. Of course, because this is That Kind Of Club, to become a full member you have to go through an extremely unpleasant ritual, and of course, because this is that kind of book, tonight that ritual has gone... very badly wrong.

Cue intrigue.

From that snappy and beautifully alarming beginning, though, things get a bit more diffuse. I was expecting a simple, linear murder mystery, but that wasn't what I got. Yes, there's murder in it, but the book and its characters are more interested in what happens after people are dead than in working out exactly how they came to be dead in the first place. The main character, Holdsworth, doesn't even know he's supposed to be an amateur detective - the author of a rational pamphlet on why ghosts don't exist, he's been drafted in to disprove the haunting of one of the University's students.

Said haunting, by the way, is one of the worst ever, and one of the book's weaker points. Yes, eighteen year old boys are stupid, and drunk eighteen year old boys are even more so, but surely even the drunkest, stupidest eighteen year old boy would wake up the next morning and realise that ghosts don't generally take corporeal form and hang out under trees? I wondered why Holdsworth was spending so much time trying to find a logical explanation when it would have been far more easy to give the kid a whack on the head and tell him to stop being so criminally silly.

Luckily, The Anatomy of Ghosts' other hauntings are much more effective. Holdsworth's got a sad, eerie backstory, and there's a creepily simple side-plot about a dead girl who talks and talks and won't leave the poor maid she shares a room with alone. As I said, the actual murder is a fairly slender part of the whole, and I was surprised to find that I didn't find the result structurally thin. Taylor's very strong on interesting, fun background detail, and because of that his 1786 is a place that I enjoyed visiting for as long as the book lasted.

A lot of this is because Taylor has given real thought to the way the people in his novel would reasonably be expected to behave. His characters aren't stock Historical Folk, gurning and capering and throwing slop buckets on each other, but they're not anachronistic transplants from 2010 either. Taylor's gone at least some way towards giving them the prejudices and belief systems actual people from 1786 would have had, even when those prejudices don't match up with our own.

I've written about the problem I have with this in C. J. Sansom's novels. His historical detail is great, but his detective Shardlake is liberal in a way that is pleasing to a twenty-first century audience but potentially unlikely in the late sixteenth century. In The Anatomy of Ghosts, though, we get a 1786 that's recognisably different from today. Freedom and democracy may be creeping in, but the upper class characters don't have to like it. Characters who are presented as basically good human beings are still shown reacting furiously when a lower-class person steps out of line, men behave awfully to women (not that that's changed at all) and pretty much everyone is a horrible snob.

Really, The Anatomy of Ghosts is a historical novel with a dash of murder on top. For me, it was the perfect combination of historical facts I knew and could relate to, and new information that I could use to flesh out my existing mental image of 1786. Taylor's made his time period come to life, and the result is a book that reads easily and well, a text that's smart without seeming clever-clever. I approved of it and, what's more important, I enjoyed reading it. It's not your conventional historical murder mystery, and you shouldn't quite expect it to be, but for what it is I liked it a lot. And now I shall be reading all of Andrew Taylor's other books.

3.5 stars.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

1001 Books Review: The Master

No matter how hard I try, all the books I write turn out to be about people saving the world. One time I tried to write a gentle romance where nothing happened and a) it was terrible and b) they ended up saving the world anyway. Therefore, I am consumed with admiration for authors who manage to make plots about characters just wandering around houses and talking to each other seem elegant and interesting.

I don't mean those books that do not feature the invasion of giant rats from Mars or werewolves or decapitated heads in pies or something, like the novels of Dickens or Byatt or Ali Smith, I mean books in which the entire point is that literally nothing happens. The plot is that there is no plot, just some dude walking about and thinking.

Where do all the words come from? How do you keep going when you know that nowhere in the 100,000 words you have yet to write does anybody blow up a power plant or transform into a dragon? Don't get me wrong, I love reading that kind of book, but the thought of writing one makes my brain short-circuit. Evidently, though, there are lots of writers out there who have no idea why anyone would ever write about werewolves, and since those are the writers who win the Booker prize I guess I should envy them even more than I already do.

Just such a writer is Colm Toibin (which I learnt today is pronounced Collum Toebean, you can thank me later unless you are Irish and knew that anyway), and just such a text is his novel The Master.

Not this one
No, Doctor Who lovers, not that Master. The Henry James kind of Master. I'm not sure if that's a nickname all the cool academics use, or if Toibin just made it up to convey the idea that James wrote a lot of masterpieces, but the point is that this book is about the later life of Henry James, as he travelled around Europe gathering plot ideas for his novels while failing to have meaningful life experiences or form emotional connections with other human beings.

This one
Toibin's James is a man chronically afraid of feelings. He watches other people being bereaved, or falling in love, or struggling with depression, and sucks it all up into his head to use in his books. He refuses to actually vocalise or act on any of his own emotions - instead, he hides them in his novels in the fond and mistaken belief that no one will realise he's writing about himself.

There's a story that gets told repeatedly in The Master. In his younger days, in Paris, James once stood all night outside the home of a man he fancied, just glaring up at his window and getting rained on because he couldn't bear to actually go on in and try his luck. That's pretty much the pattern of the life of Toibin's James. He makes eyes at men but fails to sleep with them; he makes friends with women but fails to invite them to stay with him (after which the women die and James suffers hidden inner tragedy).

It's all written in a very peaceful, detached way, like looking at the reflections of buildings in water rather than the buildings themselves. There's a sense of unacknowledged things lurking in the depths that make the surface calm seem a little bit creepy - which is completely genius on the part of Toibin, because that's precisely how it feels to read one of James' stories. The one everyone knows, of course, is The Turn of the Screw, which you should ABSOLUTELY READ THIS MOMENT if you haven't already (that is how strongly I feel about how brain-wigglingly brilliant it is), but I had to read 'The Beast in the Jungle' for an MA module last year and it has exactly the tone that Toibin has captured in The Master. In 'The Beast in the Jungle', two people are waiting for something creepy to happen, nothing happens, nothing happens and then it turns out that the creepy thing they have been waiting for is... nothing. And yet it is still creepy. 'The Beast in the Jungle' is (probably) about being gay, which is (probably) what Toibin's novel is about too, but like everything to do with James, you can never quite be sure.

In The Master, Toibin has pulled off something pretty special. It's a well-researched, interesting and pitch-perfect homage to James' fiction, a book about James that could almost have been by James. For a book in which literally nothing happens, it's amazingly compelling, and (the test of a good piece of writing about an author) I came away wanting to read a lot more of James' novels. On balance, I probably prefer to read about werewolves and decapitated heads, but if you want a bit of elegant nothingness in your fiction, Toibin - and by extension James - is a very good way to go. Yes, nothing happens in a Henry James novel or in The Master, but it doesn't happen in a really interesting way.

4 stars, and 20.68% of my 1001 List finished.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Dickenstown review: Girl in a Blue Dress

I don't know if you've heard, but I moved recently. I now live in Rochester, a town whose greatest claim to fame is that it was once touched by the heavenly hand of Charles Dickens. Our greengrocer's is called Pip's, the clothes shop opposite is Estella, there's an Indian restaurant called Two Cities and the real Satis House (aka Restoration House) is just off the High Street. Also, if you're on the way to the library you can stop off at Charles Dickens' writing shed, which for some reason is stitting in the garden of Eastgate House with bits of paint peeling off it.

Here, look I took a bad picture of it on my phone just for you. Sorry about the quality. Just imagine that Dickens is just about to emerge from it in a blaze of heavenly light and disclose the real ending of Edwin Drood. Also, please note that whereas for most writers a writing shed would mean just that, Dickens required a two-story writing chalet with applique lion on the front (you can't see the lion, but it is there). This seems like unneccessary literary bling to me. After all, how do you write on two floors at once?

Basically, around here, Dickens is the man. We even have Dickens World in the next town over, where I hear they have mechanical Miss Havishams bursting into flames every half hour. (I might have made that up).

I am not sure I am entirely comfortable with all this jazz. Yes, I once wept openly in the car over the ending of A Tale of Two Cities, but I have a funny feeling that in person the Great Man may not have been that great. Not only do I suspect that spending more than half an hour in his hyperactive, egotistical presence would have sent me crazy, but there's that whole leaving-his-wife-of-forty-years-for-a-teenage-actress thing, and also his weird penchant for hot dead teenage girls.
Kate Beaton's excellent take on the situation
No, I do not exaggerate. I have explained the hot dead girls here in an article I wrote for Litro a few months ago. Suffice it to say: think about how many hot teenage girls there are in Dickens novels. Think of how many of them subsequently die. Now think about how much hotter they are presented as being once they are dead angels in heaven. See what I mean?

Essentially, Dickens liked his women daft as brushes, dead as doornails and fifteen forever, and so his real, not-dead, not-teenaged wife seems to have had a fairly awful time of it. I stress seems. Since she never actually wrote anything about her life, we don't actually know, and this leaves a lot of room for people to speculate.

That's exactly what Gaynor Arnold has done in her Girl in a Blue Dress, a book about the neglected wife of a very thinly disguised Great Victorian Writer who, yes, kicked her out years ago to make way for his youthful actress broad. The novel opens on the day of Charles Dickens' Alfred Gibson's funeral, as his wife Catherine Dorothea reflects on her past life and tries to decide once and for all whether her husband was an out-and-out heel or whether he just behaved like one sometimes.

At first, all the evidence is on the former side. Arnold's Great Writer Gibson was a man with a manic need to be SUPER FUNNY AND INTERESTING 100% OF THE TIME, something presented as superficially charming but secretly extremely exhausting and annoying. But, of course, it's not all that simple. Over the next few weeks, as Dorothea reunites with her estranged children, meets the queen (note: this part was stupid) and hangs with her husband's mistress we hear the whole story of their life together, which turns out to have been somewhat good and somewhat bad - essentially, as standard and non-surprising as this book.

What I liked about Girl in a Blue Dress was that it didn't really try to turn Catherine/Dorothea into a lurking feminist superwoman. I recently read Lilian Nayder's biography of Catherine Dickens, and it was basically just Nayder desperately trying to reclaim her for the feminist cause on really tenuous (read: absolutely no) evidence. There were many, many women from history who lived fantastically interesting lives, and who deserve recognition, but just as most rich white men (despite all those advantages from running the world) still managed to be normal and boring, most women just existed, being nice and thoughtful and good but not necessarily doing anything that needs to be written about now.

In another time, those women might have been able to accomplish something awesome. If she had been alive today, Catherine Dickens might have been one of the world's great human beings. I don't know what she was capable of. But what she actually did with her life was pretty much a) stare at the wall and b) have babies. The strength of Arnold's novel is that she doesn't try to add random suffragist canvassing or a passionate fling with a sympathetic gentleman. She goes with the ordinary material she has, and in the process shows that small domestic activities can still make up a valid life, if not a totally satisfying one for the person living it.

Girl in a Blue Dress was never going to be a rip-roaring adventure book. This is partly because its subject matter's pretty staid, but more because Arnold's not a fine enough writer to make chatting about not doing anything seem gripping. But it's mumsily enjoyable, and probably fairly close to the emotional truth of what went on in the Dickens household. Yes, everyone in the novel has an irritating tendency to talk in dramatic capslock and quotation marks, and yes, it's all a bit cute at times, but on the whole this was both pleasant and admirably ideologically restrained.

2.5 stars.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Swiss wine and cheese reviews part 2: The Riddle of the Sands and A Single Man

First, I would like to share some good news with you. The furniture has gone. It has ALL GONE. There are NO MATTRESSES IN THE HALLWAY ANY MORE and there is NOT A WARDROBE IN THE BATHROOM EITHER. I am euphoric but also slightly suspicious, in case this is all too good to be true and I wake up tomorrow and discover that it has returned, bringing friends.

I seem to recall that I only reviewed half of the books I read on holiday. This is because the furniture made me too angry to think. But now it has gone, and I have room in my brain to get angry about books again.

Actually, neither of these books made me particularly angry. One did make me sad (you'll see why), and one just confused me, but both of them turned out to be not at all well-chosen holiday reads. Oops.

First up, The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers.

If this book was a person, and I met it on a singles website (go with me on this), we would immediately flag up high uncompatability and any date we were forced to go on would be a disaster. If it was a dog, it would be a short-haired chihuahua and I would be looking for one of those dogs that look like an enormous toilet brush. What I am saying is, this book was not the book for me.

If you want to find out whether or not you will enjoy The Riddle of the Sands more than I did, you need to ask yourself one important question. Do you like boats?

For me, boats are like horses: I find them pleasant from a distance, but quite puzzling close up. They have lots of bits to them, like jibs and booms and all manner of little clippy things (?) that need constant attention, and I am daunted by this. This is not to say that I am incapable of getting on board with aquatically-themed novels. I read the whole Swallows and Amazons series in my youth (although I did mentally look away during the more naval parts), and I think boats are excellent places to put a plot. But there are books featuring the sea and there are books where THE WHOLE STORY is people belaying the fore-top-poop-sail and then letting it out again. (Or is belaying letting it out? Answers below please). And the second is the case in The Riddle of the Sands.

Unfortunately, my duffer of a brain does not allow me to focus properly on seafaring terms, meaning that I was only able to take in approximately one-third of the words in The Riddle of the Sands. To me, a typical paragraph looked something like this:
"??? the ??? ???!" said Davies. I quickly ???? ???? and jumped into the ?????. "Quick!" cried the normally taciturn Davies, turning a violent shade of puce. "We only have three hours until the ??? fills up the ??? and we are left in the ????" "But what of the villainous Germans?" I asked. "Surely their ??? must ???? on the ???? at ????." "Nonsense," said Davies. "Remember the ??? ???? ????? ???? at eight ????. Also, canals."
The narrator, Carruthers, is a twerp - he begins the story by complaining about how BORED he is of London because all his friends are away and both(!) of his clubs are being cleaned - but even though the real hero is sweet, silent Davies, he is still too nautical to make me feel like I had discovered a kindred spirit. Our intrepid heroes (?) have to foil some sort of plot to do with Germans and canals, which they are either in, or not in, or in the wrong ones, or something. Anyway, the important point is that they are VILLAINOUS, like all Germans in British novels at the beginning of the twentieth century.

If you want a good tonal comparison for The Riddle of the Sands, think The 39 Steps but with boats. It's got the same jolly-ho British gentlemen, casual racism, open-air chases and random but very dangerous danger. I think I would have found The Riddle of the Sands gently amusing in its own unintentionally offensive way had I not been so befuddled by all the boat words. If you do like boats, I think you'll find it charming but dated, but because I don't I have to give it

2.5 stars.

My last holiday book was A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. So far, I have had 100% success with Isherwood. Even though I'm not sure Isherwood's someone I'd like to hang out in a pub with, I love his prose style, and both of the books I've previously read by him were pretty dark but unfailingly funny. In this novel, though, he has magnificently lost his sense of humour.

It's clear that Isherwood was going through a very, very bad time when he wrote A Single Man. Every page of it washes you with utter black despair of the kind I haven't experienced since the last time I read The Bell Jar (which I keep doing because I love it, even though I know that afterwards I will have to crawl into bed and stare at the ceiling for a while thinking about doom). Like The Bell Jar, it feels intensely personal in a way that makes you want to phone the Samaritans on the author's behalf.

Set in sixties America, it follows one day in the life of George, whose life-partner Jim has suddenly died. Because George is a man and Jim was one also, he can't acknowledge his grief, he can't properly mourn and he has no physical or legal claim on the person he loved. (Sounds familiar? Of course it does. And the worst thing is that it's not just ancient history. In the kind of life-mirroring-art that you wish would never happen, George's exact story played out again last year. That last link, by the way, is to a youtube video made by the surviving partner, and you should probably be in a strong mental state before you click play.)

Feel depressed yet? It gets worse. If that whole scenario wasn't awful enough on its own, A Single Man is set in Los Angeles, the most grim city in the universe, where the roads are neverending circles of hell, the sky is a permanent weird shade of yellow and everyone is starving hungry and hates each other. Everything is horrible, George hates everyone and his life is just A LITANY OF DESPAIR. And that is how this book goes.

I felt uncomfortable and upset while I was reading it, and disliked George intensely, which I'm sure is exactly what what Isherwood wanted to happen. The idea he's trying to get across- and it's an extremely powerful one - is that if you're subjected to hate all your life, you will become a hateful person. If you simply feel soggily sorry for George, you've missed the point. He's not a tragic martyr, he's a painfully angry, sad man, and that's the fault of all the people who have made sure that he can't be open about the life that he's lived. Isn't that a jolly holiday thought?

A Single Man was incredibly powerful, but also incredibly embittered. Rage and sorrow just shoot out of it in waves. I think it'll stay with me, and I know I agree with what it's got to say, but I didn't actually enjoy the experience of reading it.

I just wish it wasn't still so completely relevant.

3.5 stars.