Course of Love – Alain de Botton

You have got to love a good love story, haven’t you? The inhabitants of the worlds of fiction – both written and filmed – seem to care for little else sometimes, we can become very sentimental thinking back to first love – either our own or the first one we experienced in one of those fictional worlds – and we spend an absolute fortune each year on February 14th. And let’s not even start thinking about the average cost of a wedding these days…But are we really thinking about love in the right way?

the-course-of-love-alain-de-botton-boek-cover-9780241145487In The Course of Love de Botton explains that our traditional view of love is not so much wrong as too narrow. We focus so strongly on the beginning of love, the meeting, the falling and the wedding that we fail to consider how love grows and develops throughout an actual marriage. In this novel, however, we are briefly introduced to the two main characters as they meet, fall in love and marry: the bulk of the book investigates, in almost forensic detail, the course of the marriage itself. This doesn’t go smoothly since both Rabih and Kirsten have had difficult childhoods which colour their attitudes to life, work and romance.

This isn’t a book about hearts and flowers. It is not that it is unromantic but that it is quite realistic about how our views of what romance is fits in with the realities of life. How many couples, young or otherwise, fall out, argue or even split up over prosaic issues such as money (usually the lack of it), sharing domestic tasks or who is always the one to change the loo roll? This is real love – messy, upsetting but, ultimately, something which helps us to grow and develop as human beings. Because this is Alain de Botton we look deeply into the philosophy and psychology of the relationship. Which is maybe something we could all benefit from doing in many of our own relationships.

This is a book about love which is not sexy or romantic in any traditional way. It looks at the love couples have for each other but also that between parents and children – it is almost entirely unsentimental but I did find myself caring very much about whether Rabih and Kirsten would overcome their problems. I will also have to resist the urge to thrust passages from this story on various friends and relations – if I have learned anything it is that couples need to work out their issues in their own way – but I may be tempted to leave a copy in plain sight in the hope that some of them will read and learn about themselves.

Jane

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Hex – Thomas Olde Heuvelt

A tour of any decent bookshop at the moment can seem a bit like a literary Eurovision, or a United Nations of novels. Quirky Nordic novels, Spanish crime fiction, beautifully crafted bijou French novellas, series of Italian bildungsroman – and that’s before we start on the multitude of authors from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australasia…Personally I love it: while learning about differences between the writer’s culture and my own I am reminded of all the things which we have in common as human beings. The only problem I have is working out how names are pronounced so I do tend to mentally refer to Raskolnikov as Razzy, or, possibly, Bob…

Anyway, I digress. Oddly, with all this international literature around, one country I was woefully uninformed about, fictionwise, was the Netherlands. Honestly, I could name more famous Belgians than I could Dutch writers and we all know how challenging that is! Hex_jkt.jpg.size-230Hex, by the young Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt, could change all this though. There are plenty of people out there writing blood-soaked zombie horror or ‘urban fantasy’ but potential heirs to the work of masters like Stephen King or James Herbert are far and few between. Despite looking even younger than Owen Jones Heuvelt could very well be that writer…

The plot involves a seemingly idyllic town in upstate New York which harbours a dark secret. The whole community of Black Spring is under a curse, living their entire lives in thrall to the Black Rock witch, and it has been since her premature death back in the C17th. The witch’s eyes and mouth are sewn closed  and somehow she drives anyone who tries to leave the community (even just for a few days) to insanity and suicide. This is, of course, a modern community so the town leaders keep an eye on the witch via a sophisticated cctv system and do their best to discourage incomers. The one thing, however, which they are powerless to prevent is the frustration the town’s teenagers feel at the restrictions they must all live under.

This book isn’t scary because of what the witch does – although she is a deeply creepy and unsettling figure – but because of the actions of the townspeople. To quote Jean-Paul Sartre (which I don’t often do), ‘hell is other people’. The witch aspect of this book is pure speculative fiction – everything else that happens is down to the dark side of human nature and it rings all-too-chillingly true.

Jane

Everyone Brave is Forgiven – Chris Cleave

Some authors have very distinct ‘voices’ – you could probably open a Hemingway novel at any random page and guess it was the work of good old Ernest, for example, and others can be too busy trying to copy a popular author or style of novel (I’m mentioning no names here) to realise that they could have a voice of their own. And then, sometimes, you are lucky enough to find an author who seems to be able to give a voice to an amazing range of people – you could almost say they write in tongues…Chris Cleave, for me, is one of those authors. I read Incendiary, a novel in the form of a letter to Osama bin Laden from a woman whose husband and child were killed in a terrorist incident at a football match.  I was amazed to find that ‘Chris’ was a ‘Christopher’ rather than a ‘Christine’ because he had the voice and the emotional reactions of an uneducated mum from the East End of London spot on. The book was heart-breakingly sad. Next I tackled The Other Hand and found that Cleave could put the reader into the inner life of beautifully brave young asylum seeker, a troubled little boy and another unhappy mother. I cried, I laughed and I recommended it to just about everyone. His third book, Gold, was good but, for me, it was a slight disappointment because it wasn’t as brilliant as The Other Hand. But again it was written convincingly from the point of view of two female athletes. My conclusions so far are that Cleave writes amazingly good female characters, douses them in tragedy and is almost unbearably cruel to their children. The dip in quality, for me, with Gold was the only reason that his latest book, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, sat on my to-read pile for a few weeks. Silly, silly me…

everyone braveEveryone Brave is Forgiven is set in World War II – in London during the Blitz, the army training camps around Salisbury Plain, Dunkirk, Malta, in fact wherever upper lips were stiff or spirits were indomitable. It is the story of Mary, a bright young thing who, when war is declared, walks out of her Swiss finishing school and into a voluntary role as a teacher. Her story entwines with that of her friend, Hilda, and two young men, room-mates Tom and Alistair. There is a lot of interesting discussion of the class system which these young people were born into – the girls into a higher level than the men – and plenty of hints that they plan, after they have got the war over and done with, to change that system for the better.

There is a dark, brittle humour throughout the book. It shows that Cleave drew on the wartime experiences of his own grandfather because the rather biting wit is authentically sharp. When Alistair discusses Dunkirk with the regimental doctor after Dunkirk he describes it as ‘An awful little town. Not one fish-and-chip shop’. The descriptions of the Blitz and the Seige of Malta are grim, although shot through with wit and humour. There is a casual, beautiful brutality to the writing – you can understand why Mary, who was going to take the war by the scruff of its neck in 1939, feels so old when she needs to make a fresh start two years later at the ripe old age of 20. Of course, because this is Chris Cleave, there are also children in the story – Mary ends up teaching a small group of children who fell through the net of evacuation, a group of the disabled, the damaged and the social outcasts. There is a particularly touching relationship with Zack, a young black boy, which seems to bring out the very best in Mary and the very worst in those around her.

This is a book which, like The Other Hand, I think I am going to be thrusting into the hands of friends, family and customers. Well-written, funny, moving – I had to forcibly restrain myself from reading passages out loud to anyone who’d listen (or even just to the entire bus….) – this is a fabulous book. I want everyone to read it so that I can discuss just how fabulous is was with all and sundry!

Jane

Eligible – Curtis Sittenfeld

It is a hard life I lead. I have so many books to read that I don’t seem to get time to re-read anymore. That’s a thing, right? Not just me? Before I started this blog I read a lot but also made time to re-read some of my favourites every few years. Lord of the Rings. Enchanted April. Items from the complete collection of Georgette Heyer Regency romances my Mum gave me (when she needed space at home but couldn’t bear to lose the book altogether – the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree…). And, most often, the novels of Jane Austen. Honestly, I think I must have read them all about once every other year – these stories are timeless and, like the very best writing, always reveal a different facet with each reading. Not major revelations but nuances which reveal themselves to you as you mature. Hugely rewarding and, presumably, one of the reasons why Austen’s novels are still read, adapted for film and tv and used as the basis for sequels, pastiches and retellings to this day.

eligibleRecently Harpercollins embarked on the ambitious Austen Project – where a range of contemporary novelists were engaged to write versions of the six main novels, updated to modern day. So far Joanna Trollope has tackled Sense and Sensibility, Emma fell to Alexander McCall Smith and Val McDermid gave Northanger Abbey a make-over and what has been really interesting is seeing how the works of a relatively young, middle class, straight white woman have been tackled by writers of differing ages, genders and sexual orientations. Of course so far all the authors have been British but that has now been challenged by Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s take on the daddy of all Austen novels, Pride and Prejudice.

I’m going to be really honest here and say that I did enjoy this book but it wasn’t a patch on the real thing.  The updating of such a well-known plot was handled well – the Bennet sisters now range in age from early twenties to almost forty so that they can range from feckless youth to almost too old to have children, reputation is no longer lost by engaging in pre-marital sex but by breaking other societal rules. And these rules, largely based around race, gender and sexuality, are what give me problems. To update Mrs Bennet she has been made to be thoughtlessly ever-so-slightly racist and homophobic, but even the two oldest sisters (who have lived in New York City for years for goodness sake) seem to be quite ill-informed on the subject of transgender people for example. Maybe this is an extrapolation of Austen’s original small-town settings but it doesn’t seem quite right to me somehow.  I also found the fact that Lizzy was referred to as ‘Liz’ for much of the time as odd – Liz is a name which hasn’t aged well (unlike Jane, Mary, Kitty or Lydia…) – but that is definitely my fault!

This is a well-written book – although, oddly, I think this book will date much quicker than the original somehow. The quality of the bones of the story means it has a good plot and the characters, on the whole, have updated fairly accurately. My only real problem is Mary – she seems to have been treated pretty harshly throughout the book (no redeeming features for her!) and the glimpse we get of her psychology in the final chapter isn’t much of an improvement. I think Sittenfeld could probably write an interesting book about her, however, once she is removed from the constraints of Austen’s plot.

As I said before I did enjoy reading this but the main thing it has given me is a strong urge to revisit Pride & Prejudice itself. A story that timeless is always worth making time for.

Jane

Hitman Anders & the Meaning of it All – Jonas Jonasson

The recent trend for quirky Scandinavian fiction was started, in 2012, by Jonas Jonasson (quirky name, quirky guy…) with his first novel The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. There have been a number of novels with similarly oddball titles, some by Jonasson, some not and they have been fascinating us ever since. To be fair it seems that most of them are genuinely Nordic in some way – which maybe proves that living with midnight sun (or worse, polar nights) makes authors think slightly at right angles to what we see as reality in more temperate zones. Or maybe it’s just the pickled herrings – more research is probably needed…

hitmanJonasson’s latest features Hitman Anders (who is a fairly rubbish killer since it seems that he only ever kills in a fit of temper and has spent ever-increasing chunks of his life in prison as a consequence). We first meet him as a mostly reformed character who has improved his chances of freedom by giving up drugs and strong liquor. When he meets up with a female priest (who is an atheist) and a hotel receptionist with a totally forgettable name, however, things start to get complicated. The receptionist and priest make Anders look like the good guy, especially when he gets religion, and they become the number one enemy of the Swedish underworld. At this point rather than give away any plot spoilers I will just say that the words ‘madcap’ and ‘satisfyingly convoluted’ spring to mind.

This is a light read but it can lead you to think about your own attitudes to crime, religion, love and revenge (although this isn’t compulsory). The relationship between the three main characters is amusing but also, at times, quite touching – by the end, even though you know they are never really going to be counted among the ‘good guys’, you are definitely rooting for them.

Jane

Firemaker – Peter May

A while ago our shop reading group chose a Peter May novel, The Blackhouse. We were looking for a good, solid crime novel and the fact that the book was part of our (hugely successful) #BuyBooksforSyria campaign was a bonus. It was one of our more popular picks as, in my recollection, we all enjoyed the combination of gruesome crime and bleakly beautiful setting. The gaelic names, both people and places, gave me a little bit of a problem but that was part of the fun to be honest. I’ve also added the Hebrides to my list of ‘places I’d like to visit’ – for the scenery, obviously, rather than the chance to get mixed up in a complicated crime drama…I picked up The Firemaker, the first in the reissued China Thrillers series by Peter May, because I was interested to see how May would deal with a setting which is less familiar to him than his native Hebridean islands. There was an obvious danger that I’d be adding Beijing to my bucket list but I thought it was worth the risk.

firemakerI can start off by saying that I did enjoy the story – Margaret Campbell, a forensic pathologist, travels to China to spend six weeks teaching at a Chinese policing college and also to escape from her disastrous personal life back home in Chicago. She meets newly promoted Beijing detective Li Yan and together they investigate a series of murders which lead to the very highest of places. There are plenty of twists and turns, you get to really understand the emotional lives of both characters and, I think, you learn quite a lot about the differences between life in China and the West. Generally, a successful crime novel. However, there was a sort of romance element to the book, with a developing relationship between Margaret and Li Yan, which didn’t quite work for me. It wasn’t awful but I was slightly irritated by some aspects of it. I’m not sure I can even put my finger on what the problem was – it just didn’t quite gel for me – and hope that the relationship develops over the course of the next few novels featuring the pair. My only other issue was that I found some of the dialogue, in the mouths of the Chinese characters, a little cringeworthy. I can see that they need to reflect the level of English spoken by the characters but it did just sound a little bit like Ting Tong from Little Britain…

That said I can certainly recommend this book. If you like your crime novels to have a fast pace, lots of (fairly) plausible science and interesting settings then this will probably suit you. If you enjoy trying to work out which of the minor characters is going to be killed off despite how much we know of their background and how much they are loved or respected by the heroes then that’s a bonus for you! I’m probably not going to be planning a trip to China any time soon but if the next volume in this series came my way I’d pick it up…

Jane

The Road to Little Dribbling – Bill Bryson, The Pie at Night – Stuart Maconie

The Road To Little Dribbling

Bill Bryson returns to these shores. In 1994, Notes From a Small Island of course was a huge hit. A travelogue around Britain, written by an American, which meant his observations on the character of our people were as sharp and witty as his observations about the places he visited. I loved the book when it came out – his impassioned rant about Oxford architecture, his elegy for Morecambe, and his curry-precipitated U-turn of opinion on Bradford.

In the Road to Little Dribbling, Bryson – 20 years older too – returns to the theme to see how Britain has changed. Coming across as a genial, erudite ‘grumpy old man’, what I like about Bryson is that he’s not just a travel writer, he researches deeply to teach us obscure stuff we never knew and is not shy to call out injustices as he sees them. Did I know the Settle-Carlisle rail line was engineered by an unsung hero called Charles Sharland, who died at 25, never to see the line completed? No I did not, but there should be a statue of him. As in his previous book, Bryson’s focus is in three areas – architecture, and our total bodging failure to appreciate it and invest in the long-term to preserve the treasures we have, service without a smile (watch batteries in Torquay, anyone?), but fundamentally our beautiful, endlessly explorable countryside.

Bryson is careful not to retrace the exact same steps geographically. He frames the book round a route from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath – of course, quite a wild and wobbly route meaning he can go where he wants! It’s a strange and disappointing thing that of the 26 chapters, 16 are gone before he reaches the Midlands, one chapter covers Wales (but a lovely write-up of Tenby and St Davids by the way), and as for the whole of Scotland? Guess. You might argue that this reflects the population density, but even so, it’s tough treatment for that great nation. Having said that, Bryson is as ever a funny, perceptive and wonderfully opinionated travel writer and long may he remain so.
The Pie At NightIt might seem strange to combine this review with The Pie at Night – but this is my review and I’ll do what I like!  I first heard Stuart Maconie as a music journo, guesting on the Mark Radcliffe show along with Andrew Collins back in the 90s, with acerbic and bitingly funny music reviews. Now, he is for my money among the best homegrown travel writers around. Only nine years younger than Bryson, he feels and writes like a different generation. I’ve previously read and loved Pies and Prejudice, and Adventures on the High Teas, and now Maconie goes in search of what Northern England does for leisure. Be that football, the races, drinking, dancing or the more artful worlds of books, art and music.

Maconie, roots firmly in his native Wigan, describes himself as a romantic about the north’s industrial past, but a hard-headed one. He holds no illusions about a lost golden age of happiness – the reality of industry was back-breaking hard work. But work it was, and in return on precious holidays, those northern workers played hard too, and that is I think what Maconie’s getting at – laiking aht in the north, in whatever form, comes from a communal thing, an intensely shared culture that exists to this day.

And you get Maconie’s deep-rooted love for his North coming through in waves. In contrast to Bryson, his focus is more on characters and people, and he observes and seeks them out in a way that Bryson – more recognisable in the street – probably now cannot. Unashamedly political, Maconie’s writing is rich and lovely and often poignant to read as he travels though Stockport, Blackpool, Todmorden, Halifax, Great Gable and past High Force in Teesdale to name only a few places.

So is The Pie at Night only of interest to northerners then? Would southern people read this as a bit of pious ‘rootsier-than-thou’? I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Jane… but I loved it.

The Road to Little Dribbling – More Notes from a Small Island
Bill Bryson

The Pie at Night – In Search of the North at Play
Stuart Maconie

Rob