Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

bluebird, bluebirdYou can tell by the languid poetry of the prologue of Bluebird, Bluebird that Attica Locke isn’t afraid to challenge her readers. As Geneva Sweet talks to her dead husband and son in the graveyard, bringing them offerings of fried pies and songs, she draws you in with deep characterisation and a rich sense of place. You’re not immediately sure why you’re here, but you’re intrigued.

Then you learn that two bodies have been washed up from the bayou in recent weeks, the first a male black lawyer, and the second a poor white woman. Texas Ranger Darren Matthews, currently on suspension, decides to investigate and uncovers a complex web of racial and personal conflicts going back decades.

I loved the prose style and the complex personal stories in this book. Darren Matthews has a unique perspective, shaped by the two uncles who brought him up. He is from a family of affluent black Texas landowners, one uncle a lawyer, the other a ranger, and he feels a strong attachment to his home state. The racism he sees makes him only more determined to assert his right to be there. His story does wander perilously close to cliché at times (drinks too much, wife wants him home more) but there is also much to think about and a twist which nicely sets up the next book in the planned series.

The portrayal of small town life is vivid – the racism, the feuds, but also the traditions and culture. And yet – in the latter part of the book, I found my interest wavering. The plot got a little messy and contradictory, as did Darren’s behaviour. When he tries to provoke a confrontation with a group of racists and the scene fizzles out, he wonders why he did it. I wondered whether those were his thoughts or the author’s.

On balance though, I’d rather have a crime novel that’s ambitious, that evokes a world, that raises big questions and outruns its flaws, than a clockwork plot populated by stock characters (I seem to have picked up – and discarded – a lot of these lately.) I haven’t read Attica Locke before but I definitely want to read some more now.

I received a copy of Bluebird, Bluebird from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

fools and mortals bernard cornwellI haven’t read any Bernard Cornwell before. I like social and political history while his novels appear to be  more about battles and action. However, Fools and Mortals really appealed because of the setting in the Elizabethan theatre.

In Fools and Mortals, Richard Shakespeare has run away to London and is cramping his big brother’s style. William Shakespeare is a sharer (shareholder) in a theatre and an established writer and actor. Richard is an annoying teenager (and he’s better looking). Richard is working in the theatre but he is no longer pretty enough to be the female lead and is playing dowagers. Richard is also poor while his brother is doing rather well. He wants to become a man – on and off stage – and with an important play for the Lord Chancellor coming up, he hopes to have his chance.

This is a great fun book, packed with atmosphere and humour and flamboyant characters. It is rich in detail about the birth of the theatre as we know it today, the creative process, the skills of the actors, the very oddness of having a day job where all you do is pretend. There is the warmth, the rivalry and the players’ ambiguous social status – performing for royalty but still struggling to pay the rent.

The book maintains this light tone without ducking darker issues – the brutality of executions, the poor treatment of child apprentices, persecution by the Pursuivants (the anti-Catholic enforcers known as the ‘Percies’).

I particularly like the subtle portrayal of the relationship between the brothers. Richard inevitably sees himself as hard done by, but we see the ambiguities of Will’s behaviour. He is brusque, mocking and apparently dismissive but he is also giving Richard chances to shine and grow.

The only thing which marred the book for me was a lack of editing. There’s a lot of repetition and the resolution, featuring the performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is too long, overstuffed with exposition which has already been covered in the rehearsal scenes.

Worse, about a third of the way through the novel, Richard is thrown into turmoil when he receives a shocking offer and has to decide where his loyalties lie. This should be a crucial turning-point, but Richard has apparently forgotten that the offer was already outlined to him three chapters earlier. (At this point I would have thrown the book across the room if it weren’t on my Kindle.)

However, leaving aside these flaws it’s a playful, engaging read and has made me think again about reading Cornwell’s other books.

I received a copy of Fools and Mortals from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of Morality Play by Barry Unsworth

Point of No Return by Martha Gellhorn

point of no return martha gellhornFor a book about war, Point of No Return has an oddly gentle pace. It follows a US infantry battalion in northern Europe in the later stages of World War Two.

We see their privations and boredom, the cold, the harsh conditions and their camaraderie, alternating with bursts of battle and brutality. Soldiers are killed then replaced and the cycle begins again.

The main characters are Lt Col Smithers and his new driver, Jacob Levy. Smithers has almost mythical status among his men because he has never been wounded. Levy has been injured three times and hopes his proximity to Smithers will afford him some protection. Smithers, though young and from an ordinary background, has risen through his skill but the responsibility weighs on him as he is caught between his troops and the orders handed down from the faceless higher ranks.

Both Smithers and Levy dream of home and try to imagine a future after the war. They know that war has changed them, that they won’t be able to fit easily into their old life. Levy gives much of his time to daydreaming and falls in love with a woman in Luxembourg. Even though they lack a common language, he imagines she will share his plans for the future.

The end is jarring, deliberately so, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. There is an afterword from Martha Gellhorn where she says she wrote the book entirely for that ending and this somehow undermined my involvement in what I’d read before. Still, it’s an interesting and thought-provoking read and definitely worth a look.

I received a copy of Point of No Return from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Enjoyed this? Take a look at Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy

 

 

 

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

beautiful bureaucrat helen phillipsThe Beautiful Bureaucrat made me laugh on the first page with its description of Josephine’s unfortunate interviewer (I won’t spoil it for you). Josephine wouldn’t, ordinarily, want to work in this rather unprepossessing office, entering a single figure per record time after time in a database, but she and her husband have moved to the city because of an economic crisis and have been forced to lower their sights.

It was easy to identify with Josephine and her husband Joseph – it brings back memories of crappy temp jobs when you perform apparently meaningless tasks over and over with no context or sense of purpose, before returning home to a grotty tenancy, hoping that this is not forever but just the route to a better life. The difficulties for Josephine are lightened by her strong relationship with Joseph, his humour and the small pleasures they find in the everyday.

Despite this, the job does undermine Josephine’s confidence and her identity. There are some nice vignettes highlighting the small humiliations and odd rituals of office life, the stock characters who apparently find this bizarre world normal and comprehensible. Then Joseph starts to behave oddly too, and she begins to question the purpose of her work.

After a promising start, my interest wavered. Although this is a short book it felt too long. The relationship between Joseph and Josephine, which at first was kooky and endearing became too much, like a couple who use their pet names in public. They have little shared games such as wordplay which, endlessly repeated, grate. The mystery around Josephine’s job takes a fairly predictable trajectory and I felt at the end that I hadn’t really learnt anything.

I’m also a bit weary of the trope that administrators are soulless and sinister. Without administration, nothing gets done. What about a book about the quiet heroism of the office manager, coordinating resources and people and systems in a game of three-dimensional chess, leaving the neurosurgeon or maverick entrepreneur or touring orchestra free to shine?

I liked the quirky prose and odd perspective of The Beautiful Bureaucrat so would probably read something else by the author but this feels like it needs more substance and fewer words.

I received a copy of The Beautiful Bureaucrat from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Looking for another Kafka-related disappointing read? Here’s my review of Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

 

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

forest dark nicole kraussForest Dark is a book of two halves. There are alternating narratives that never cross (or do they – the end is ambiguous). Jules Epstein, a wealthy and influential Jewish lawyer who has spent his life acquiring stuff, suddenly decides he wants to give it all away. He takes a trip to Israel with this in mind.

The other narrator is also headed to Tel Aviv. She is an author (who happens to be called Nicole). She is struggling to write and is contemplating the end of her marriage.

The book opens with Epstein and I enjoyed the book at this point. It has a dry humour while also asking some interesting questions. I loved the prose. I don’t normally highlight fiction while I’m reading, but there were sentences that were so beautifully crafted and nuanced that I wanted to return and reflect on them (although I haven’t, yet).

When I got to the author narration I stalled. She just wasn’t very interesting. The realist elements felt too banal and the absurdist elements too ridiculous. It felt like the author (Nicole Krauss, not the ‘fictional’ Nicole) had some issues she wanted to work through (creativity, marriage, kids) and was still too close to them to make them into art. (I understand, her ex, Jonathan Safran Foer, has also written a novel about marital breakdown, Here I Am, so maybe she felt she had to put her side.)

There is an odd Kafka storyline. I’ve noted an apologetic tone in some reviews, words to the effect of, ‘I don’t really like this book but I’m probably just not clever enough.’ Just because a novel references Kafka it does not mean it’s good!

The privilege of the narrator grates. She lives in a world where relatives keep spare apartments in world cities which you can drop into any time, where the Hilton is like a second home and the manager knows your name. She never appears to notice that not everyone lives like this. Given that this world is satirised in the Epstein story, I assume the ‘real’ Nicole has more sensitivity in this than the ‘fictional’ Nicole but I couldn’t find any sense of irony or self-deprecation in the narration which might have made her more bearable.

It’s taken me a few weeks to get through Forest Dark. I kept hoping it would get better (it didn’t). Then I reached that point where I felt I was too far in to stop. I focused on the Epstein bits (there were some nice set pieces, though it didn’t quite hang together for me) and I gritted my teeth and skimmed the author story.

I’ve heard that Nicole Krauss has written some great books and the quality of the prose made me want to try another one, but this was, for me, was something of an ordeal.

I received a copy of Forest Dark from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Forest Dark on Goodreads

Want to know more? This interview with Nicole Krauss from The Guardian is interesting. She talks about the nature of the self and why she included Kafka in Forest Dark.

 

 

The Break by Marian Keyes

the break marian keyesI’m not normally interested in mainstream romantic fiction but Marian Keyes is one of those writers who transcend genre. Over the years she has managed to combine some very dark issues (domestic abuse, addiction, bereavement) with sharp humour and zeitgeisty references (though she does write rather more about shoes than I would like).

The Break is about Amy, a woman in her forties with two daughters (and care of her niece) and a loving, responsible husband, Hugh. After a crisis in his life, Hugh suddenly decides he wants to take six months off and backpack round Asia. Amy is left in Dublin to cope with her busy PR career, the three girls, the machinations of her friends and extended family and her own emotional turmoil.

The Break has all the Keyes staples. It’s packed with the usual cultural references. There’s a big, eccentric Irish family (with more than a passing resemblance to the Walshes, who feature in many of Keyes’ other novels) and lots of stuff about clothes, minor celebrities, YouTube vloggers, social media sensations and the ever-shifting norms of middle-class life. Amy is a tougher, more pragmatic heroine than in some of the other novels and so, despite her sadness around Hugh, you feel like nothing too terrible will happen (although conversely there weren’t as many laugh-out-loud moments).

I whizzed through it and mostly enjoyed it but I did feel that it lacked something – and that something was probably a stern editor and another draft. (I’ve felt this a few times with big name authors, presumably the limiting factor is time rather than money.) There’s a lot of repetition. The period between Hugh saying he’ll go and him actually going drags on for far too long. There are plot points that are set up but never paid off and some of the reversals come from nowhere. Amy has a superfluous sibling who adds nothing to the plot and becomes just another name to remember (perhaps not coincidentally, there are also five Walsh siblings and Keyes herself is one of five). Key events lose their impact because they take place off camera.

All in all, The Break has an episodic feel, more like a soap than a novel. Big issues are raised, dealt with and then forgotten, rather than contributing to a building of the narrative.

Despite these reservations, it’s a fun, breezy read, with some good set pieces. Hardcore Keyes fans will love it.

I received a copy of The Break from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Misery by Stephen King

misery by stephen kingI’ve been wanting to read Misery for years but have somehow not got round to it till now (and miraculously have managed to avoid spoilers).

Paul Sheldon is an author who wakes from a car accident to find he has been ‘rescued’ by Annie Wilkes, a self-professed fan. He has horrific injuries to his legs and cannot walk. The good news is she’s a nurse and has taken care of him, up to a point. The bad news is she has told no one he is at her remote farm and she isn’t going to let him go.

Paul needs surgery and hospital treatment. Annie is more concerned with reading his latest paperback. She is devastated when she realises he has killed her favourite character from his historical romance series, Misery Chastain. She insists he has to bring Misery back – and under the circumstances he doesn’t feel he has a choice.

This is a great thriller. The writing is taut – there is none of the verbosity of later Stephen King novels (I’ve always assumed he just got too big to edit). Like a writer’s life, most of the novel takes place in one room but King makes that confinement absolutely gripping.

You can also read this as a book about creativity. It is writing that keeps Paul sane and even leads to an odd alliance with Annie. They discuss deus ex machina and the distinction between realistic and fair plot devices fiction. While writing the next instalment of Misery’s melodrama (the extracts provide some light relief), Paul describes the ‘gotta’ feeling a story can engender and his own inner conflict. Finishing the novel will mean Annie has no further use for him, but still he keeps writing, because he has gotta know how the story ends.

There is also the fraught question of the relationship between author and fan. There is the paradoxical nature of author worship – on the one hand Annie attributes almost magical powers to Paul’s ability to create, on the other she thinks she can coerce him into giving her the story she wants.

King has written about how Annie is a metaphor for his addiction – she is both nurturing and destructive, she takes away his pain, but only on her terms. Paul in turn attributes magical powers to Annie – overawed by her strength, her power over him, her apparent indestructibility.

Misery is unusual for King in that it has no supernatural elements. While Paul’s kidnapping may seem unlikely, there have, shockingly, been comparable crimes which show that such a scenario is possible. The realism means we identify with the full horror of Paul’s situation and wonder how he can possibly get free. Misery is simultaneously a book you can’t put down and a masterclass in how to write a book you can’t put down. The gotta got me.

View Misery on Goodreads