More Booker bookish goodness

I posted recently about my fairly appalling record with Booker Prize winning/shortlisted titles so I decided that this would be the year when I broke my apparent one book rule. I prowled around the shortlist table at work – shamelessly trying to work out which were the shortest/quickest to read – and then plumped for a couple of titles which the helpful folk at Random House had made available on Netgalley. One, Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, was on my personal wish list of ‘short books’ and the other was the slightly more substantial A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.

satinLet’s start with Satin Island. Being rather shallow I decided that 176 pages wouldn’t take me long (the Anne Tyler is 480…)* so I threw myself into the world of U., an anthropologist working for a large modern company – only ever referred to as ‘The Company’ – and tried to ignore all the reviews that referred to the book as being avant-garde. Because I’m not sure I like avant-garde…

Maybe I’m better at the modernist/post-modernist/other sorts of -ist stuff than I thought, however, as I found the book to be quite absorbing. I have friends who studied anthropology to degree level and worked in a University bookshop where textbooks on the subject featured quite heavily so I felt fairly familiar with the basics. I think I even got to the fact that the study of material culture has given way to that of social and cultural anthropology before the plot did so I did feel like a bit of a genius. Briefly. Until I was bludgeoned down by all the references to Leibniz, Nietzsche and Levi-Strauss. Oh well, it was good while it lasted…I was particularly amused by the fact that the study (and associated ‘Smart Thinking’ type book) which made U.’s name in the 90s was on the tribes of club culture – I reckon if I searched hard enough I could find the real life version.

What I got from the book as a whole – since it didn’t really do plot – was mostly the fact that modern businesses, and much of modern life, seem to need people with backgrounds in a number of subjects if they are to understand how they operate (especially in the wider world). Although I have a feeling that Sir Alan Sugar would not agree. He certainly wouldn’t employ someone who basically did so little at work that even Dirk Gently would have trouble justifying his salary. In fact, in the end, the book seemed to me to be a critique of the way that the world of business and money and modernity can suck all the goodness out of any academic discipline and make it, well, undisciplined. The modern world is not about what you know but about how you present your findings.

SpoolA Spool of Blue Thread, on the other hand, is a novel about, on the face of it, very normal people to whom not very much happens. The Whitshanks are a family who are not brilliant, beautiful or rich – they are average and familiar. While you may not know the whole family you know aspects of them – the bossy older sister, the mother who, by trying to draw her children to her, can make them resent her interference or the one child who doesn’t quite fit in (or, indeed, want to). It is not that you dislike them or that they are bad people – they are just people.

I have seen some listings which describe this as ‘women’s fiction’ but that would seem to deny the place that men take in building a family. And the menfolk in the Whitshank family are easily as interesting as the women – the relationship between brothers Denny and Stem is dealt with in far more detail than any of their two sisters’ connections – and have most of the secrets as far as I can see. And secrets seem to be at the heart of the story. The family seems so ordinary and there is very little that actually happens but we do gradually dig deeper into those secrets. They are, on the whole, not major revelations but they do mean a lot to those involved and they shape how the family is formed.

I think I have picked a good year to expand my Booker repertoire as I have enjoyed all three of the shortlisted titles I have read. I still feel that A Little Life will win (it has that special something and it does tick so many of the boxes which win prizes) but the judges this year, hopefully, will have enjoyed their work…


*I read the 480 pages in a day less than the 176. Go figure, Anne Tyler is just very, very readable.


Death in the Dales – Frances Brody

I seem to have come rather late to Frances Brody, the Leeds-based author of the Kate Shackleton mysteries, as this is the seventh book in the series. Maybe I have been avoiding them because they sat in our (short-lived) ‘cosy crime’ section – although I am a big fan of tv’s Midsomer Murders (or Murder Most Reassuring as they are known in our house) – but I now think I’m going to have to find time to go back over the first six!

death in the dalesI think my first mistake was in assuming that ‘cosy’ meant simple and maybe a bit twee. Lets face it, up until this month I’d never even read any Agatha Christie – once again relying on the tv adaptations – and when did I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed them. I think the tv angle is my problem – these are staples of Sunday evening viewing so how violent and sordid can they be? Well, on the evidence of Death in the Dales, the answer is ‘really quite violent and sordid’.

The story is set in the Yorkshire Dales, around Settle and the North Craven district, and the descriptions of the countryside are beautiful, calm and soothing. But nowhere can always be as relaxing as it appears to be on the surface. The setting is 1926, during the General Strike, with a strand of the plot dealing with the events of 1916 (a rather lethal combination of the Great War and the Easter Rising) so there are undercurrents of unrest from the beginning. And, of course, a murder…

This book is ‘cosy’. There is tea on the terrace, horse-riding in the hills and lots of hearty food. But we also get to see the darker secrets lurking in the most familiar of settings. Which is rather like watching Countryfile and seeing reports on illegitimacy, murder, the exploitation of child workers, incest and mercy killings – I mean, it is interesting but rather surprising. The actual crimes themselves are not treated in such an in-depth and graphic way as most modern crime fiction but the motives and undercurrents are as bleak as any… And the relationships in the book are, in the end, much more complex than they first appear. The author is very good at mentioning key points that occurred in previous novels so I never felt that I was missing any of this book by not having read the others. However, I enjoyed the book enough that I will soon be having to make some time to read about Kate Shackleton’s earlier adventures.


Eat, Sleep, Cycle – Anna Hughes – and One Man and his Bike – Mike Carter

mike_carter anna_hughesEarlier this year, I got on my bike and for the first time, attempted and completed a multi-day cycle trip. For me, it was the 171-mile Way of the Roses, a coast-to-coast ride from Morecambe in the west to Bridlington in the east. Each day I got up, ate a (pretty hearty) breakfast, packed my panniers and got on the bike, rode through beautiful scenery on – usually – peaceful roads, and in the evening ate an even heartier meal and slept – for just four days it was a lovely routine and a bit of time out of life, out of the daily grind.

The book I took with me in the front bar-bag was Anna Hughes’ Eat, Sleep, Cycle. In 2011 Anna decided to attempt a ride that dwarfs my little achievement – not the standard Land-End-to-John-O-Groats run either, but a 4,000 mile circuit round the entire coast of Britain, starting and ending in London.

A book I considered but didn’t take with me is Mike Carter’s One Man and his Bike – on the face of it, a similar book – again, in 2008, Mike took time out of the rat-race, got on his bike and rode round Britain’s coast – but the books are sufficiently different in style that a ‘compare and contrast’ review is worth it.

Firstly – Anna’s book is closer to my own experience as a cyclist. Straightforward, authentic and cleanly written (despite her admission of being a first time author), Anna takes a nature-focussed, descriptive view as she passes through the counties. Her sparse and often quite poetic descriptions give a lovely feel for the geography, the weather and the day to day experience – her own low points included, when she barely found the will to carry on. Anna is clearly sustained by a love of fish and chips! It was a real pleasure for me after each day of my own ride, to read a few chapters of Anna’s book as a prelude to a very sound sleep.

Although she frequently rode accompanied, Anna’s focus is self-discovery, but not in a fey chakra-balancing way, you simply get the feeling that the solitude and time to think out her life is something she needed, the reward for her endeavour. I finished the book feeling like I’d ridden with her and liking her immensely.

Mike starts his book, clearly adrift – a 45-year old freelance journalist at the Guardian, but tired and demoralised, contemplating going to South America, fed up of the broken-Britain selfishness that was all around, worried about the economic crash which was unwinding in 2008. One day he just didn’t cycle to work and started to ride the coast instead.

Mike’s book is much more densely written and event-filled, with a lot more human encounter and dialogue. During the journey he proves to himself that Britain is anything but ‘broken’, that the spirit and yes, the gorgeous eccentricity of our people can carry us through anything. Mike’s character is intelligent and likeable, his prose is sharply observed and often funny and I particularly loved his encounter with the obnoxious Dutch cyclist on Mull! Mike seems to have the journalists’ knack of finding the story, or often the story finding him, and made for a rich and rewarding read, in many ways more true ‘travel’ writing, although a few other reviewers have commented that he seems to rush through the final leg of the journey.

So which is better? Well, I don’t like to make the comparison. Both books convey the highs, the lows, the pain and exhaustion, the adrenalin and joy that is cycling. Mike’s is, I would say, better writing, but Anna – not a professional writer – somehow spoke to my own experience more. The two books appeal to different parts of my head and there’s nothing to lose by reading both. I know Anna herself has read Mike’s book and enjoyed it. As ever, your own mileage may vary!

Eat, Sleep, Cycle – A Bike Ride Around the Coast of Britain, Anna Hughes, Summersdale, 319pp.

One Man and his Bike – A life-changing journey all the way around the coast of Britain, Mike Carter, Ebury, 343pp.
One Man and His Bike

The Shepherd’s Crown – Terry Pratchett

So, I’ve been putting this one off for a while. Almost as if I were trying to convince myself that if I didn’t read the very last Discworld novel then it wouldn’t the last one. Silly really, but I bet I wasn’t alone.

shepherds crownI think I’ve read most of the Discworld novels – some just once and some a number of times – but I think I wouldn’t be the only person to say that, at times, the books were not all of an equal quality. And that was another reason why I was a little bit scared to read The Shepherd’s Crown. What if the last book wasn’t one of the top quality ones? I’d never even read any of the Tiffany Aching stories, what if I didn’t like her? I didn’t want my last memory of a favourite author to be sullied by being not quite satisfactory. It would be like Basil Brush being investigated by Operation Yewtree.

I’m pleased to report that I shouldn’t have worried – and that I also promise to go back and read all the other Tiffany Aching books. I’ve always had a soft spot for the witches – I want to be Granny Weatherwax, want to cook like Nanny Ogg and worry that I may actually be Magrat – so an addition to their ranks is very welcome. And I think Tiffany is wonderful as the shape of witches to come – a great blend of the traditional and someone who can think in ways the older witches wouldn’t ever have considered. She is definitely the future of witchcraft – I know we will never see how Pratchett would have told that future but I think that the Discworld has been written so completely and so well that it now has a life of its own.

I did, it is fair to say, shed a few tears while reading this. One or two for what happens in the story itself and then more for all the stories which will not now be told. But I smiled more so I’m counting it as a win…


A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

I have a bit of an odd relationship with the Booker Prize – looking over the list of winners (and shortlisted titles) since its inception in 1969 I have only read five of the winners and maybe a dozen other shortlisted books. And most curiously of all it seems I have never read more than one book on any shortlist – this year is no different (so far) as the only book I have read so far is Yanagihara’s A Little Life. If the bookies are to be believed, however, this year I have chosen wisely as A Little Life at 6/4 is a runaway favourite – I have also read the most substantial looking of the titles. Who knows, I may find time to read the Tom McCarthy and Chigozie Obioma before 13th October…

little lifeA Little Life was never going to be an easy read: the story of four men who meet at University and remain close through their adult lives involves child abuse, self-harm, disability and horrific injuries. It is, however, a book I am hugely glad I read because the characters are so wonderfully drawn. Jude is, understandably, the focus of the novel – it is his early life which is revealed as the story unfolds – and the other characters seem to revolve around him. But these others – architect Malcolm with his privileged background and low self-esteem, JB, the self-centred artist who we want to love despite his bitchiness and Willem whose bleak childhood doesn’t prevent him becoming an acclaimed actor – are developed throughout the book. We also have a large cast of others – Jude’s adoptive parents, his doctor and work colleagues and assorted artists (including two Henry Youngs…) – who are all allowed to grow and to become important to the reader.

One of the most interesting things for me about this novel is that certain issues which are seen as of over-powering importance in reality – race and sexuality in particular – are almost treated as being relatively unimportant. Malcolm and JB are both black, African-American and Haitian respectively, but they have much more privileged backgrounds than Willem and Jude. Willem is white, descended from Scandinavian immigrants, and from a tenant farming family and Jude is of unknown ethnic descent. But, on the whole, these issues are not of concern to the four friends – maybe because they become, as adults, the kind of relatively wealthy, successful and well-known people who don’t have to worry so much about ethnicity. Sexuality is also a fairly fluid concept within the book which I found quite refreshing. Some characters are gay, some are straight, some move between the two and one, at least, would rather not have to deal with sex at all and, in the end, it is not seen as their defining characteristic. As I said, refreshing to not be considered as the sum of your sexual parts (and what you do with them…)

I did really love this book but for so much of it I was angry. Jude has had an appalling early life – gradually revealed over the course of the book – and although he becomes a successful and well-respected lawyer he seems to be beaten back by life at every turn. And his childhood has almost programmed him into believing that everything that happens to him is his fault, that he deserves punishment, degradation and hate. I’m not just angry that he feels like this but I was livid when I thought of how many people in the world are made to feel this way. I don’t, to my knowledge, have friends who have suffered abuse at these levels but at so many points I was reminded of many individuals (no names, they know who they are) who are struggling every day with issues of self-harm, depression and disability. I hope that people reading this novel will, as well as hearing an emotionally exhausting story, be encouraged to be a little kinder to others.


The Interconnectedness of historical things

When I was young – pre-teen I think – I was introduced to historical fiction by my Mum in the form of the works of Jean Plaidy. I read stories about the Empress Matilda, Mary Queen of Scots, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth I and Victoria and Mum still reckons one her proudest moments was when I came to her with my discovery that they all came in a particular order. That Matilda (and Steven) came before Eleanor and that Elizabeth I reigned before Victoria was something I worked out for myself from the stories. It is something which seems so obvious now after seven years of dedicated history lessons at school – not to mention nearly forty years of historical fiction reading and numerous tv series from David Starkey, Helen Castor, Neil Oliver and others – but at that age working out that there is a chronology and an order to events in history seemed an achievement. The subject has often in the past been taught in a piecemeal manner – Vikings followed by Tudors followed by the Victorians and then back to Romans – although recent curriculum changes mean that a chronological approach is now used. I don’t often say Gove was right but in this case he may have had a point…

Recently I have been following an online course on Richard III and that has given me another revelation on the complete interconnectedness of events in history. The Black Death was a contributing factor to the Peasant’s Revolt. Which meant, in turn, that the armies which followed Henry V to Agincourt were largely free men being paid for their service rather than vassals of the Lords they served under. And then, of course, Henry V’s early death eventually led into the Wars of the Roses and the rise of the Tudors….It almost seems, at times, as if Dirk Gently was right – it’s a wonder historians aren’t a lot richer (but they could be if Dirk was in charge of the billing!)

agincourt england ariseWhich leads me on to the actual history books I have been reading. Both are by Juliet Barker, a historian born in Yorkshire and still living here, and both shed new light on historical events which we tend to think we know about. And yet, it turns out that many of these ‘facts’ are the kind of thing that could lead to klaxons and minus points if they came up on QI. Luckily, Barker provides lots of background and explanation for why what we thought we knew we were wrong about and fleshes out her history with plenty of personal details for many of the people involved. Her style is really readable but there are lots and lots of lovely footnotes if you really want to lose yourself in the period.

Let us take Agincourt as an example. We all know that the British won at Agincourt because our archers were so deadly they killed the French men-at-arms with their hails of arrows – and we are all wrong. apparently, although the archers were instrumental in ensuring that the French army was not as effective as the English and the French casualties were much, much higher than the English the majority of them occurred during vicious hand to hand combat. However, to compensate for the loss of that ‘fact’ we learn a huge amount about how and why Henry V fought the campaign. It certainly seems an added tragedy that Henry V died relatively young – he was, it seems, a fine king who combined being a soldier and a diplomat with a strong grasp of what was necessary in terms of politics and finance. He took the responsibilities of Kingship very seriously and seemed to make sure that this attitude was passed down the hierarchical line. He appears to have tried to ensure that he had the support of everyone – the nobility, the people and the church – before he went to war and this seems to be a lesson which many in the modern age are still to learn.

England, Arise, on the other hand, is Barker’s look at the so-called Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Which was the work of men and women from all walks of life – merchants, gentlemen and even MPs – rather than a ‘working-class’ uprising, which shed very little blood (but destroyed a large amount of documents and property), and which was probably not necessarily led by Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Balle. We do end up with some really interesting speculation about Richard II – he was very young but seemed to be willing to compromise on many of the people’s demands and was only deterred by the older men around him. It is fascinating to think that if he had been just a little older and more in charge of his own rule, if the revolt had taken place just a few years later, the social structure of English society could have been radically altered.

daughter of timeFinally this took me back to my reading of Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time. This was a book which many of the people on  the online Richard III course I took recommended everyone to read – particularly the Ricardians who saw it as correcting the lies told by the Tudors about the king they defeated at Bosworth – so I thought I should give it a go. In many ways they were right to recommend it as it is an interestingly written crime novel with a typically maverick detective and a mystery which needs solving. In terms of the historical mystery – why is there such a contrast between what we know of Richard’s evil reputation and our instinctive reaction to his face? – the solution given is a little too easy and seems to involve some slightly dubious facts but I still enjoyed reading the book. Mostly because it made me think about history itself and how we read and write about it. It seems to me that we need to be constantly reminding ourselves that history is almost always dealing with assumptions and that facts can be open to interpretation.