Book Review: “Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor

Ashes of London

By Andrew Taylor

ashes-of-londonIt’s 1666 and the Great Fire of London is raging, but bodies are being found that have nothing to do with the flames. The burnt landscape of 17th century London is wonderfully grimy and decadent. Through the eyes of young Whitehall clerk, James Marwood and Catherine Lovett, the disgraced daughter of a once rich Regicide, we see people from all walks of life.

The charred London landscape is made richer by plenty of well researched history into the political landscape. Charles II is still dealing with the aftermath of his father’s execution and the disaster of Oliver Cromwell’s rule. There are still those who think of Charles II as a usurper; those who still await the return of the true king – King Jesus. Such believers, known as Fifth Monarchists, were supporters of Charles I’s execution, and have all but disappeared since the fall of Cromwell. Though most were pardoned by the new King, those men considered to be instrumental in his father’s death, have been charged of treason and sentenced to death.

James Marwood’s father was lucky and escaped execution. Catherine Lovett’s father is still on the run. Now, more and more of Lovett’s friends are turning up dead. And Catherine and James’ lives are getting more and more complicated. Cat and Marwood are complete strangers to one another and their individual plots run parallel throughout the novel, almost crossing many times. By keeping them divided, their apprehension (and therefore ours) keeps mystery, confusion and foreknowledge at the edge of the frame. These sensations – like the characters – chase, run and hide from each other constantly. While Taylor’s imagery isn’t the best, his plot development is first-rate. This is a novel chock-full of action and plot twists. Together with a hearty dollop of political intrigue, you are compelled to keep turning the pages.

“Dear God, I thought, my life is haunted by these religious fools.”

Review: “The Sunlight Pilgrims” by Jenni Fagan

The Sunlight Pilgrims

by Jenni Fagan

sunlight pilgrimsA wonderful story of humanity at its most pragmatic and enigmatic.

Set in 2020, Earth is about to have the worst winter since records began and they fear a new ice age is on the way. After the death of his mother and grandmother, Dylan moves to the foot of the Scottish Highlands, into the caravan that is his only inheritance. In the caravan park, Dylan meets Constance and her teenage daughter, Stella, who was her teenage son less than a year ago.

As the snow gets heavier and the temperature drops, the world is a whole new place – both beautiful and dangerous. In spite of the icy backdrop, an unlikely family unit is created, and their struggle to ward off the cold imparts the story with warmth of another kind.

“To lie like this. Let the snow fall out there. There is an ordinariness to their strange.”

The writing style took me a couple of chapters to get used to, but once I did, I found it to be very effective. The balance of pragmatic and enigmatic was like a kite flying up high but still pinned safely to the ground. The brilliant mix of raw, ethereal imagery and curt, dead-pan humour is simply brilliant. This tantalising combination is embodied in the teenage Stella.

“Our cells crave light because that is what we started as, it’s what we are. All humans are sunlight pilgrims. Except me. Cos I’m a goth. I could totally live without light.”

Stella’s character is sensitively drawn, particularly with reference to her alternative gender identity. It is important to recognise that she does not struggle with her identity, but rather laments that everyone else does, including her father and the boy next door.

“Outside there is a blue, blue sky and frost has dusted the Clachan Fells mountains silver. Stella Fairbairn feels like she is going to cry, and nobody is even up yet. She is a swan wrapped in cellophane and everyone can see through her skin. Lewis will never kiss her again. She might as well forget it. She isn’t pretty, and she’s angular, and she has a penis.”

And then there is Dylan, a man who loves a woman and her child. But struggles with a secret he doesn’t know how to share.

These “normal” concerns, by comparison with the apocalyptic approach of a modern ice age, are what fill the narrative with a palpable sense of humanity. Rather than focusing on the potential drama and jeopardy of the oncoming storm that would turn it into an action film, Fagan uses it as a way to bring out the beauty and fragility of the human experience. The quiet yearnings for a normal life far outshine all other fears. And this is a heartening, noble message. Ultimately, when we are faced with potentially insurmountable odds, all we can do is carry on living. Fall in love, fancy the boy next door, have a gin and grieve our mothers.

“The urge in him to lie with her in the dark and hold her. To drink wine and read books and ignore each other, but her foot just by his, her legs, her mouth.”

“Golden Hill” by Francis Spufford – Review

Golden Hill

By Francis Spufford

golden-hill-2

Woe-betide anyone who dared in to interrupt me mid-chapter! A glittering gem of a book, this historical New York adventure satisfies every requirement for a fantastic novel. Language that glitters and glides across every page. Delightful use of old English gave this historical novel authenticity and a sense of old-world grandeur. Combine that with a festival of characters, delicious and imaginative description and the perfect amount of mystery. Francis Spufford’s “Golden Hill” is encrusted, gilded, sheathed with magic. Pleasure beyond measure.

“When a log that has lain half-burned in a winter fire is struck suddenly with the poker, a bright lace of communicative sparks wakes on the instant. The sullen coals shatter into peach and scarlet mosaic, with a thin high tinkling sound, and pulses of the changing shades pass over the surface in all directions with rapidity too great for the eye.”

Twists and turns through every chapter kept this reader well and truly glued to the page and though I am generally a slow reader, I steamed through this book within a couple of days. It’s a testament to any book when its reader cannot have a spare moment that isn’t filled with hastily consuming another chapter – or three.

The more I like a book, the shorter the review is. Let this suffice.

 

Book Review: “The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop

Penelope Fitzgerald

the-bookshop-fitzgerald-2

A short and utterly compelling novel that I read within the space of a few hours. I simply could not sleep until I reached the final page… and then wrote a review.

Florence Green has a simple desire to open a bookshop in her quiet Suffolk town of Harborough. There’s an old, damp, unwanted building, stood empty for years and Florence has the idea to repurpose it as The Old House Bookshop. The old farts and local council botherers don’t like change and decide to kick up a fuss.

Mrs Green is an astonishing woman. Not in any sensational sense of fame or great feats of strength or ability. Hers is a quiet courage, juxtaposed with moments of delightful bluntness that the majority of her peers find intolerably rude. “Her courage, after all, was only a determination to survive.”

Half-baked officials for the Something-Or-Other Committee periodically appear out of the damp woodwork, as the self-important Mrs Gamart engages in ruthless tactics, determined to see the shop fail. Mrs Gamart, a petty woman and chair of various local committees, “always acted in the way she felt to be right. She did not know that morality is seldom a safe guide for human conduct.”

Some of my favourite moments in the book are the correspondence Florence is obliged to enter into it with the various officials that pop up. Letters filled with verbal parrying and barely concealed contempt are quintessentially British and delightful to read. When Florence’s decision to market a certain “unduly sensational novel” – Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov – gets a surprising amount of local attention, a certain prominent member of society sees fit to seek legal representation:

December 4 1959
Dear Mrs Green,
               I am in receipt of a letter from John Drury & Co, representing their client Mrs Violet Gamart of The Stead, to the effect that your current window display is attracting so much undesirable attention from potential and actual customers that it is providing a temporary obstruction … and that she, as a Justice of the Peace and Chairwoman of numerous committees (list enclosed herewith) has to carry out her shopping expeditiously.

 After much back and forth, Florence exhausts the pretence of polite correspondence and brings it to a close rather succinctly:

December 11 1959
Dear Mr Thornton,
Coward!
Yours sincerely,
Florence Green.

The descriptions of small town society and their petty commander-in-chief made me laugh out loud. While scenes shared with her ten-year-old assistant, Christine, and aging neighbour, Mr Brundish, are peaceable moments that deflate the barriers of age and status. The misanthropic Mr Brundish and the terse ten-year-old are her closest companions and biggest supporters of her bookshop. Neither of them are great talkers and Florence is fine with that. Moments of silence are used to great effect throughout the novel, demonstrating the ease with which mutual understanding can be found between kindred spirits without need for words.

Florence is quietest when among friends, while she is at her most effluent, ready with a quip, when confronted with her opposers, her letters being great examples of this. The silence also allows for the presence of the mysterious ghost that resides in the Old House, referred to as “the rapper”, as well as the absence of her husband, whose death is only briefly alluded to. Altogether creating a sense of lonliness to the novel, but it is not a self-indulgent or overwhelming. The silence, the lonliness, is an accepted part of her existence, and becomes a thing to be shared with her chosen companions.

“Lonliness was speaking to lonliness.”

The most touching stories are the ones that don’t try to be so. A Whole Life, The Book Thief, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. These titles are treasures because of their quality of being uncomplicated and reserved; their pages gently exude warmth and compassion with honest emotion, eschewing the kind of melodrama and tragedy that some authors pump into their chapters, determined that we should burst from the pressure of it all. No, the stories that stay in my heart, in my stomach, are the ones that creep up on me with their unassuming tones and humble offerings. To this list of pearls within oysters, I now add “The Bookshop”.

“A good book is the precious life-blood of a masterspirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such must be a necessary commodity.”

 

Review: “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind

By Patrick Rothfuss

5-stars

name of the wind

I have found my new fantasy series. “The Name of the Wind” is the first in “The Kingkiller Chronicle” series by Patrick Rothfuss.

“I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during the day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make minstrels weep.

My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.”

I haven’t had a good fantasy series to get addicted to since I was reading Anthony Horowitz as a teenager. “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss is surely a fantasy for adults. The most sophisticated of its kind I have come across. The language is rich and beautiful and the world Patrick Rothfuss has lent himself to flourishes under his care.

Any book preceded by a fictional map already has my attention. Why? Because it is an indicator of how rich this fictional world is; of how much thought has gone into its construction.  There is a sense of careful management that dictates the movement of the narrative as well as the development of characters.

At 662 pages, it isn’t a paperback that you can snugly fit into your handbag. The creased spine and dog-eared corners of my copy – an upsetting thing for any booklover – is proof of my need to make it fit into my handbag and carry it everywhere until I had finished. Its length might sound intimidating, but the lyricism and storytelling carried me through hundreds of pages without even noticing.

If I were to criticise this book, it would be to say that occasionally the language is so rich with imagery that it is slightly treacly. My other minor criticism is that the majority of the book consists of our protagonist, Kvothe, telling his past life story, neglecting the present of the story. And when I passed the 600th page, I realised that the story had barely progressed at all.

BUT, having said all this, I do not care. My criticisms fade into insignificance. I hope “The Name of the Wind” will be the extended preface to a long series of novels that will continue to capture my imagination for years to come.

Book Review: “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

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The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak

the book thief

This is a beautiful book. Exquisitely heart-breaking.

Germany is in the hands of the Führer, and Liesel Meminger is a book thief. Both Hitler and Liesel know that words have power. Words can save a person’s soul or inspire people to do unspeakable things.

In this novel, Markus Zusak is our omnipotent and benevolent wielder of words. His ability to capture the imagination is powerful and gentle. Master of the concise metaphor. I was drawn into the Book Thief’s world within the opening paragraphs and could not put it down. It begins simply and proceeds in uncomplicated terms. Its gentle twists and turns develop into a fully formed and complex story without you even realising. But I will not allow myself to over-analyse; I wish to leave this story unbroken.

Liesel stole books. And Death was her friend. Discover the rest for yourself.

Book Review: “The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes

 

The Noise of Time

By Julian Barnes

noise of time book

5-stars

I was already a fan of Julian Barnes before I read this book. But I was familiar with his more overtly humourous titles – “Flaubert’s Parrot” and “A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters”. While this new novel is still unmistakably stamped with Barnes’ wry style, it is of a blacker kind than I had previously encountered.

“The Noise of Time” tells the story of real life Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, during the twists and turns of the Russian Revolution. It is a tale of one man’s struggle, and the problem of artistic freedom versus artistic integrity. You might think – or hope – that the first will bring about the second. If the artist is free to create as he wishes, then surely what he produces will, if he possibly can, be naturally something with integrity. Not so, when the grip of Communism has so thoroughly distorted the nature of what it means to be free.

“Let Power have the words, because words cannot sustain music. Music escapes from words: that is its purpose, and its majesty.”

The distortion of language, of terms like freedom and truth, make the role of musician in our historical protagonist an interesting lens through which to view Russia at that time. Even if words have been betrayed, perhaps there is still hope for music. Perhaps music can be heard above the din of propoganda, and deliver secret messages to those willing to hear. But if Shostakovich’s music could reach worthy ears, would political “truths” and the ghastly practise of Revisionism so dismantle the Russian landscape and its people, that both the man and his music would be drowned out by the noise of time?

And in amongst the big political and cultural questions Continue reading

Book Review: “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler

The first book recommended to me by the staff at Waterstones:

a whole life book

A Whole Life

by Robert Seethaler

5-stars

Neither the economy of language nor the physical coldness of the landscape do anything to dampen the warmth of feeling woven throughout this short novel – both bitter and sweet.

There is a frankness and plainness to the words that creates a world without over-filling it. You feel that every word is necessary. It is ungarnished. The infrequent dialogue is made the more potent by its scarcity and blunt truthfulness. You feel as if these are memories hewn by time to their most composite form; memories whose accuracy encompasses all that is needed, all that is most affective. Our guide, Egger, is a man of fortitude and quiet strength. His many trials, though tragic, are without the solipsism of tragedy.

“But each time the rumbling died away and the clear cries of the jackdaws could be heard again.”

He limps through life as best he can, and his quiet, persistent trudging is honourable and life-affirming. An unstudied lesson in philosophy; gently shown, not taught. We are blown through his snowy valley as quiet observers. In Egger’s solitude, we are not made to feel like intruders, but rather to join with the quiet breath of the mountains that are his constant companions. And for our silent companionship, his unimposing wisdom is our gift.

“A Whole Life,” in less than 150 pages. As you read, the sense of empathy settles quietly within, without your noticing and Egger, though often a stranger within his own story, is not a stranger to you for long.