REVIEW: The Marlows and the Traitor – Antonia Forest

Girls Gone By paperback cover

Girls Gone By paperback cover

(Girls Gone By Publishers 2003, originally published Faber & Faber, 1953)

Antonia Forest published her first book, Autumn Term, in 1948, and her last, Run Away Home, in 1982, but she was not a prolific writer, and, during and after the 1960s, unfashionable. Most of her books feature the Marlow family, unmistakeably upper middle class types, who go to private school, have and ride ponies, and are exemplars of old-fashioned virtues and traits. Her school stories are set at a traditional sort of girls’ boarding school, but they are anything but traditional stories: they are realistic depictions both of girls and staff, and nothing very implausible happens. There is unfairness which is never righted, for example, and several rows, the aftermath of which go on to affect the subsequent school careers of Nicola (the youngest-but-one) in particular.

The longevity of the series and the relative infrequency of Forest’s output means that after the first three books, which are set in 1947-8, the books are roughly set at the time they were written, though for the family only about two and a half years have passed. The school stories are generally quite easy to find second-hand, since they were re-published by Puffin, but the non-school stories, and her three non-Marlow novels – The Thursday Kidnapping, The Player’s Boy and The Players and the Rebels – were rarely reprinted and are now hard to find. Girls Gone By republished all Forest’s books, but with limited print runs, and even these are now of limited availability.

I came across Forest’s books at my school’s library, and was immediately drawn into this world, different to my own, but far more realistic than the other school stories I read at the time. The Marlows were believably talented and their family dynamics – particularly for Nicola and Lawrie as the youngest with six elder siblings (four sisters and two brothers) – were well drawn.

In the second of the books, The Marlows and the Traitor, the four youngest Marlows – Ginty, Peter, and the twins Nicola and Lawrie – are staying with their mother at St Anne’s-Byfleet during the Easter holidays. Peter, who is fourteen, and a cadet at Dartmouth Naval College (his father and elder brother, Giles, are both in the Navy), feels the holiday overshadowed by what he calls ‘the boat thing’ – an incident the previous term where he failed to react to a gybe while sailing which led to one of his fellow cadets being knocked overboard, and a “blistering ticking-off on the hard” afterwards by their instructor, Lieutenant Foley. Not long after telling his sister Nicola about this incident, they both meet Foley unexpectedly, and are both startled when he completely ignores Peter.

Later that day, they both find an empty house called Mariners, and while exploring it, seem to find some connection with the Foleys: from the crow’s nest at the house they can see something called Foley’s Folly Light. The next morning, Nicola mentions this to her friend, Robert Anquetil, a local fisherman, and he explains that Mariners does belong to the Foleys and that Peter’s Lieutenant is Lewis Foley, youngest son of the family, and long-time friend of Anquetil’s. Anquetil says enough about Foley to warn Nicola not to return to Mariners, but she’s unable to dissuade her family from exploring there that afternoon. Things do not then go well.

I don’t want to add too much more with respect to the plot, but, despite being a children’s story, the events are plausible and the children’s actions realistic. Unlike many such adventure stories, the characters are well-drawn and three-dimensional, and Forest takes care to show the ‘traitor’ in a humane light, pointing out his good qualities as well as the bad (which Nicola, in particular, recognises and sympathises with, even if disagreeing with his ideology). The differences between the children are nicely marked, too: Ginty is the eldest of the four, aged fifteen, but since she has four elder siblings, she is unused to being in charge, and so is probably hardest hit, mentally, by the events of the book (and which Forest acknowledges in the following book, Falconer’s Lure). Peter is very interesting: generally competent, but with very bad personal judgment, afraid of heights (again a running theme in the books), and prone to exaggerating the smallest mistake into a massive failure. Then the twins are nicely differentiated, too, Nicola is more practical and bookish; Lawrie seizes the opportunity to escape, but she fails to capitalise on it, and is not, eventually, much help. Again, unlike in, say, Enid Blyton’s adventure stories, Forest pays an equal amount of attention in the narrative to the adults involved, and their reactions and actions are realistic.

Quite apart from the realistic narrative and sympathetic characters, there is also some fantastic descriptive writing. I like this, from near the beginning, when Nicola and Peter are walking in a storm:

The rain streamed down their waterproofs and the sea creamed round their gumboots, while the sky grew steadily more copper-coloured as if a fire had been lighted behind it. And then, suddenly, the sky cracked open above their heads, and a ball of light rushed along the horizon and fell into the sea: the thunder bellowed, the hail came down like a white wall and the sea swirled about their thighs.

(p32)

I like Forest’s writing very much, and her books are interesting. They stand up very well to being re-read as an adult, and maybe because she never intended to write solely for children, they are psychologically complex and never simplistic novels, despite their youthful protagonists. The later books do, I think, suffer a little by being set during a time frame which is not synchronous with the characters – for example, the family were evacuated to Maidenhead after their home in London suffered damage during the Blitz, yet Nicola’s classmates can watch Star Trek in The Attic Term – but minimises this disconnect by the timelessness of her settings.

The Marlow family books in chronological order are:

Autumn Term (1948) – Nicola and Lawrie’s first term at Kingscote School starts ignominiously but ends in success;
The Marlows and the Traitor (1953);
Falconer’s Lure (1957) – summer holidays at Trennels Old Farm, the introduction of Patrick Merrick, and with a background of falconry and a death in the family;
End of Term (1959) – Nicola falls foul of Lois Sanger at school, and Lawrie is convinced that she should play the Shepherd’s Boy in the end of term Christmas play;
Peter’s Room (1961) – Ginty’s fascination with the Brontës leads to the children role-playing;
The Thuggery Affair (1965) – pigeon fancying, drug-smuggling and juvenile delinquency during a half-term weekend;
The Ready-Made Family (1967) – the eldest Marlow girl, Karen, returns from Oxford and marries a man with three children;
The Cricket Term (1974) – which contains one of the best descriptions of a fictional cricket match that I’ve ever read;
The Attic Term (1976) – Ginty fails to cope with the absence from school of her best friend Monica, and Patrick’s opposition to the Vatican II changes does not make things easy for him at his school;
Run Away Home (1982) – the family assist a young boy trying to return to his father.

I would recommend them all if you can obtain any.

Posted in Adventure, Fiction, Re-read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

BOOK TO FILM: Parade’s End – Ford Madox Ford

Adelaide Clements, Benedict Cumberbatch & Rebecca Hall (image from BBC website)

Adelaide Clements, Benedict Cumberbatch & Rebecca Hall (image from BBC website)

Since I’ve caved in and subscribed to Amazon Prime, I’ve been watching a lot of films and US TV shows this way. One of those included in the subscription was Parade’s End, a dramatisation of three of the novels comprising the trilogy (or tetralogy, depending on whose authority you take) Parade’s End, by Ford Madox Ford. The dramatization by Tom Stoppard (who’s a brilliant playwright), inspired me to start reading the books, and so I may comment on those when I’ve finished them.

The TV series, shown in five episodes of about an hour long each, stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens, Rebecca Hall as his wife Sylvia, and Adelaide Clements as Valentine Wannop – the main characters. From my reading of the first chapter of Some Do Not… (the first novel), I’m not sure about the casting of Cumberbatch to physically resemble Tietjens as he’s described – he’s described as a large man (tall and beefy), and Sylvia refers to him as an ox, which puts one more in mind of someone of rather different stature. That’s not to say that Cumberbatch is not anything but excellent as Tietjens, and Rebecca Hall does fantastic work making Sylvia both appalling and yet strangely sympathetic – for which Stoppard also deserves credit, since his script does deviate from Ford’s novels.

The series is told in roughly chronological order, skipping through the four or five years prior to the First World War, and showing us Tietjens as the younger son of a long-established family in (of all places) Yorkshire, his relationships with his family (Rupert Everett as his elder brother, Alan Howard as his father), his friend Macmaster (Stephen Graham), godfather General Campion (Roger Allam), and his wife Sylvia. Neither is happy in their marriage, Sylvia having married him to save herself from ruin as an unmarried mother, and so exasperated by her husband’s code of behaviour and lack of expression of emotion that she flirts with other men and has actually gone abroad with one ‘Potty’ Perowne (Tom Mison). Although Tietjens takes her back, with conditions, they are ridiculously ill-suited and have almost nothing in common. Her mother, Mrs Satterthwaite (Janet McTeer) puts it rather well that Sylvia has married a man much her superior in intellect (though one who has no idea what his wife is like or thinks about).

That said, until the last episode, Sylvia’s actions and motivations seem entirely plausible – an emancipated woman with an active sex drive, shackled to a man whose emotional inarticulacy is both the result of personal conviction and family pride, but whose education (probably almost nil) doesn’t allow her any connection with Christopher. This is in sharp contrast to young suffragette Valentine Wannop, whom Christopher meets in Rye on a golf course while she’s protesting against a cabinet minister. Valentine is the daughter of a recently deceased professor and a mother (Miranda Richardson) who writes good historical novels, and she’s well-educated and passionate about women’s suffrage. She and Tietjens make an immediate connection, but since he’s married, he refuses to acknowledge those feelings – not that this saves either of them from destructive gossip.

The last two episodes are set during the war, both in France, where Tietjens is acting as a draft officer under the command of Campion, and in England, following Macmaster’s rise, Sylvia’s (amusing) manipulations and her trip to Rouen, and Valentine’s (and her mother’s) life as a pacifist and as a teacher (of games, which seems to be wasting her talents rather). Adelaide Clements is lovely as Valentine, though she doesn’t seem to age at all during the six or so years over which the drama’s set, so that she seems often as young as her pupils.

You have to pay attention to the drama and the dialogue, since not all the relationships are obvious or set out clearly, but it definitely will repay watching again; and I will. The cast is excellent, and the costumes beautiful. The settings are nearly all excellent and appropriate (the ones set in wartime France are particularly good), though I’d quibble with the rather obvious shot of Sylvia and Christopher standing at the top of chalk cliffs at a point where they are meant to be in Northumberland (not known for its chalk outcrops).

Well, we’ll see how the novels go. Have to say that Tietjens is so far more appealing as Cumberbatch than as he’s described in the novel, but Hall seems spot-on as Sylvia. There do seem to be some variations – Tietjens has more family in the book, and Sylvia’s son is Tommie in the book, Michael in the dramatisation, and so on – and there is explicit reference to sex even if there’s nothing gratuitous on show (though there is a scene with a naked Sylvia having her bath and Tietjens can’t look at her, even though she’s his wife, which is a beautifully well-observed moment). Even so, the writing is appealing, and I think I’m going to enjoy the books.

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REVIEW: A Civil Contract – Georgette Heyer

Originally published 1961

When I first discovered Georgette Heyer in my teens, and started devouring her books wholesale, this was never one of my favourites. The plot – how two people enter into a marriage of convenience and how that works out – is low-key and almost sad, and it’s certainly more reflective and much more tied into real events than many of her Regency-set novels. Nothing really much happens: there are no high jinks with smugglers, or similar adventures. The hero and heroine are quiet, self-contained people – not at all demonstrative – and this is in great contrast to the majority of Heyer’s books, where there is high spirits and a sense conveyed that nothing can really go wrong. So this book is much more appealing to me now, as an adult, than back in the 1980s, as a teenager.

There’s an excellent plot summary on Wikipedia, though beware spoilers. In short, Adam Deveril is forced to sell out of the Army in 1813 upon the death of his father, Viscount Lynton, and discovers that he has been left with a pile of debt. In order to honourably settle with his creditors, and provide for his two younger sisters, Adam thinks he must sell Fontley, the estate where he and his family grew up, return to the Army, and live off his pay. Rather than proceed to these extremes, Lord Oversley (friend of the family and father of Julia, with whom Adam has been in love for some time, but whose own circumstances are such that neither can think of marrying each other) suggests that Adam enter into a marriage of convenience with Jenny, daughter of a rich City man, Jonathan Chawleigh. While reluctant, Adam is brought round to the idea, despite the fact that Jenny is not very tall, plain, and painfully shy; and her father is loud, brash, and prone to talking about how much money he’s spent on things. Of course, Julia hates the idea, too: while she’s also in love with Adam, she feels as if her friend, Jenny, has betrayed her by agreeing to the marriage.

Adam and Jenny gradually negotiate married life, despite their different outlooks and upbringings, and their families and friends. It’s quite a different marriage of convenience compared to Horatia and Rule’s in A Convenient Marriage, for example, which is a far more traditional romance. There is some humour – particularly in the characters of Adam’s mother (a snob who delights in feeling herself ill-used by the world), younger sister Lydia, who is charming and outspoken and open-minded enough to enjoy Mr Chawleigh’s company – although it’s not as evident as usual. Heyer doesn’t make anyone a complete villain: despite Chawleigh’s vulgarity and over-bearing nature, he’s well-meaning, loving, and genuinely passionate about his interests – Adam contrasts his love for his china compared with the knowledge Jenny has, but no love for. Likewise, Adam is no shining example of heroism, though he comes to appreciate his father-in-law, and even realises that the quiet affection he feels for Jenny is actually more comfortable than the young man’s passion for the beautiful – but spoiled and selfish – Julia. It’s also much more psychologically nuanced than many of Heyer’s other works – such as that Adam doesn’t fall in love with Jenny, or when Lord Oversley, for example, specifically informs Adam that he’s sure that Lynton died accidentally (of a broken neck in a hunting accident), and certainly did not kill himself purposely, something that I can’t imagine being mentioned in Bath Tangle, for example.

The setting is very much tied into real events. Adam’s reluctance to sell out, for example, at a time when the Peninsular War was still ongoing and Napoleon seen as still a menace to the security of Europe, is important, since it also informs his keeping track of events. In 1815, too, towards the end of the novel, the events of Waterloo provide a means of Adam gaining some financial independence of Mr Chawleigh. Likewise, there’s a lot in the book about the agricultural reforms of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, since Adam is trying to make Fontley more profitable, and real people, such as Mr Coke of Holkham, are referred to, as well as other current events such as the visit of the Grand Duchess and the marital troubles of the Prince of Wales. Unlike The Quiet Gentleman, which I also re-read recently, which could almost have been set at any time in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, A Civil Contract depends for its plot on being set in this moment of history – it also ties in nicely with Heyer’s An Infamous Army, which takes Waterloo as its primary subject (and is a romance only in a minor way).

I suspect that if you don’t like romances in the normal run of things, you might like A Civil Contract; I am very fond of its quiet charm and its realistic characters and plot.

Note: If you’re interested in Heyer’s novels, I suggest you look on the Tor.com website where Mari Ness did a read-along a couple of years ago, and which discusses the books in some depth.

Posted in Fiction, Historical fiction, Re-read, Reviews, Romance | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

BOOK TO SCREEN: Filming Shakespeare

Firstly, an apology for not posting anything since April: as usual, it’s not as if I haven’t been reading during this lacuna. Secondly, recent re-watchings of Avengers Assemble and Thor: The Dark World made me go in search of other film performances with Tom Hiddleston (yes, like the rest of the world, I’m sure), and thus to the BBC’s recent (2012) filmed versions of Shakespeare’s later history tetralogy consisting of Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, The Hollow Crown, which I watched on DVD. And that led me to reading the plays – I already had, for some reason, a copy of Richard II in my bookshelves, and thereafter bought the other three.

It’s interesting to see what the three directors (each of whom adapted the plays for television) did with the plays. Rupert Goold, I thought, cut less text from Richard II, but he conflated some characters, and treated Richard’s death in an explicitly martyred way . Richard Eyre made some interesting decisions in filming both parts of Henry IV, and I liked the way Doll Tearsheet appeared as a character in Part I even though she didn’t have any lines. I also liked Thea Sharrock’s Henry V, though her Agincourt scenes suffered by comparison with Branagh’s version of the play, through not having the same scale: having (so far, only skim-) read the play, I did wonder why she’d left out Queen Isabel from the last scenes in France (particularly considering that Henry IV Part 2 had Niamh Cusack as Lady Northumberland for one scene and about three lines!).

That said, these versions of the plays made me think about other filmed versions which I’ve watched – and now I count them up I realise I’ve watched more than I’d realised.

Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night, with Imogen Stubbs and Stephen Mackintosh as Viola and Sebastian, Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia, and Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Michael Hoffman with Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania, Kevin Kline as Bottom, and a quartet of lovers consisting of Dominic West, Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale and Anna Friel (the whole thing is an all-star cast, if ever you wanted one).

Much Ado About Nothing – Kenneth Branagh’s version and Joss Whedon’s.

Love’s Labour’s Lost as a musical, also directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh (who has done quite a lot of Shakespeare on film, including Hamlet and As You Like It, which I’ve not seen).

Henry V – again, Branagh’s version. I’ve not seen Olivier’s, but the clips I’ve seen have been astonishingly hammy (and Olivier’s voice is surprisingly high-pitched).

Coriolanus directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, with Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Chastain.

It’s interesting to compare Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing with Branagh’s, since in tone they’re almost complete opposites:

Cast from Branagh's 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Cast from Branagh’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Branagh’s is saturated in warm sunshine and bright colours, Whedon’s is black-and-white (and lit using natural light, which doesn’t set off black-and-white filming as it should);

Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker as Benedick and Beatrice

Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker as Benedick and Beatrice

Branagh’s is loosely period set, whereas Whedon’s is modern day. The casts are generally good, both in terms of characterisation and how they speak the language, but with infelicities (though Keanu Reeves seems to have a lot more fun with Don John than Simon Mather does, and Nathan Fillion is infinitely better as Dogberry than Michael Keaton is): everyone does actually seem to be have had a great time during the filming. I think Branagh’s version works slightly better in conveying the gender politics with respect to poor Hero’s treatment by Claudio and her father – it’s not as believable in a modern-day setting – not to mention Beatrice going to Benedick for restitution for her cousin against Claudio.

Imogen Stubbs & Steven Mackintosh as Cesario (Viola) & Sebastian

Imogen Stubbs & Steven Mackintosh as Cesario (Viola) & Sebastian

Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are, if I recall correctly, fairly straightforward versions of the plays. In Twelfth Night, the cast is excellent, and the setting interesting. I remember a fabulously awkward bit where Viola, disguised as Cesario, is in attendance on Orsino, who’s in his bath… However, the relationship I remember being most struck with was that between Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter) and Feste (Ben Kingsley), who have a fantastic chemistry together.

The quartet of lovers from Michael Hoffman's film

The quartet of lovers from Michael Hoffman’s film

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has its setting updated to the early 1900s, and the sets are gorgeous – rich and detailed, and there are plenty of extras giving the sense of a real city and a real court. The cast is packed with well-known names – Stanley Tucci as Puck (who is great), David Strathairn as Theseus, and Sophie Marceau as Hippolyta, amongst others – and they do the language justice. I particularly like Sam Rockwell as Snug, and how he makes the tragedy of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ moving despite the mangled words and appalling staging.

Branagh does something very interesting with Love’s Labour’s Lost, which is not one of the most well-known of Shakespeare’s comedies, by making it into a sort of 1930s Hollywood musical. The songs are great, by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and the like, and link nicely into the verse: Rosaline and Berowne’s exchange about dancing with each other “in Brabant once” segues beautifully into Jerome Kern’s ‘I Won’t Dance’. The set is fairly minimal, but I think that works quite well, given that it’s wordy play with little action, and the costumes are gorgeous (and colour coded!).

Cast from Branagh's film

Cast from Branagh’s film

It’s an imaginitive way of staging this play, and Branagh’s decisions as to what to excise for the film seem spot-on (my DVD has a deleted scene of the main characters making rather cruel fun of the entertainment provided by the secondary characters, which thankfully isn’t in the main part of the action). Branagh even demonstrates iambic pentameter in one of Berowne’s speeches, accompanying it with taps of his feet. This is one of my favourite films of a Shakespeare play, partly because the cast is delightful and charming (even Matthew Lillard’s clowning is bearable), and partly because the language is done so very well.

Coriolanus, which I watched yesterday, was almost like a war film in its realism (and there was an added resonance in realising, during the credits, that the whole thing had been filmed in Serbia and Montenegro, not so long ago the site of such ruthless and bloody fighting). Fiennes doesn’t shy away from showing Coriolanus’s or Aufidius’s ruthlessness, though there’s an interesting scene when he sees Aufidius’s easy ‘common touch’ with and interest in his people that Coriolanus lacks. Shakespeare’s language is kept intact (I don’t know how much was excised, since I don’t know the play), and the updating to a sort of present-day setting was well done: I particularly liked the use of news bulletins, where even the news anchor (a slightly distracting Jon Snow) and his guests speak in verse.

A victorious Coriolanus surrounded by family and Senate

A victorious Coriolanus surrounded by family and Senate

Fiennes also made Coriolanus an understandable figure, one of those military men who are infinitely more comfortable in uniform and in the presence of other soldiers, unable to deal with civilians and their ways of thinking. The relationship between Coriolanus and his terrible mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), was also very well done – there’s more than a hint or two that they are too close (particularly when his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) comes upon her bandaging Coriolanus’ shoulder and leaves them alone – Chastain’s wordless demeanour says volumes here). There’s no colour in Coriolanus’s grim world, and he’s not a sympathetic character – in fact, there’s hardly a sympathetic character in the whole thing, though Brian Cox’s Menenius comes close.

Fiennes and Redgrave as Coriolanus and Volumnia

Fiennes and Redgrave as Coriolanus and Volumnia

So what makes a good Shakespeare adaptation? In Henry V, Shakespeare’s Chorus says “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts”, since on stage a director is always limited in terms of set and the action which can be shown: on film, there is much more scope to leave less to the imagination. I think this is why Fiennes’ Coriolanus works so well, both as Shakespeare’s play and as a film, since he fleshes out the action fully and very realistically, with a large cast of extras, and the battle scenes are extremely convincing; there’s also a real sense of location and landscape. The more I think about it, the more this film impresses. Then, at the other end of the scale, there’s Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, which is both stagey and cinematic, in a very consciously old-Hollywood kind of way, but updated for the modern era. Those films which are consciously very faithful to the play do also work, but aren’t, I think, as interesting.

How ‘authentic’ does one make the play? Although Shakespeare’s plays are often nominally set in the past, or in other places, I doubt very much whether they would have been originally staged in that way – with the cast in tunics and cloaks for Ancient Athens, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance – and so those which update the plays for modern times can work extremely well.*

As long as you get a cast which understands the language and can speak it well – I like the conversational style of speaking Shakespeare’s verse that actors like Branagh do so well, as natural as speech, rather than artificially as ‘poetry’, though others don’t – it makes adaptations so much more memorable. After all, Shakespeare wrote his plays to be staged, not to be read, and a great deal of the meaning depends on having the actors able to convey it. And of course, the themes of his plays, the most popular ones, anyway, still say a great deal about us in our modern life – about leadership, and love, hatred, revenge, ambition, bitterness, pride, youthful excess, even the political elite’s contempt for the masses. The best productions and the best films show us that these are still universal.

 

*That said, I was amused to note that several people had commented on the BBC’s website about The Hollow Crown’s Henry IV Part 1 (which showing was originally delayed in the UK due to extending coverage of the matches at Wimbledon) that it was “not accurate”. Shakespeare himself was not accurate when it came to period detail, confusing Scroopes and Mortimers, and having people executed who weren’t, not to mention Richard’s death, so I don’t see why modern productions should be held up to better standards of period accuracy.

Posted in Discussion, Filmed adaptations, Historical fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

LIST: Books to read

I’ve recently finished Thumped, sequel to Bumped, by Megan McCafferty, The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb (thanks to Chris at calmgrove for that recommendation!), and Jasper Fforde’s third in the Last Dragonslayer series, The Eye of Zoltar, all of which I’ve enjoyed tremendously. Reviews will be written up after Easter, so sorry for the delay!

I’ve currently got on the go Oliver VII, also by Szerb, and Selected Poems by Louis MacNeice. To start is Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver, a recommendation by Firefly back in August last year.

We’re going away for Easter to north Wales, and I’m wondering how many of Susan Cooper’s The Grey King and Silver on the Tree related locations we can visit in two and a bit days! Cader Idris (which actually looms large in The Eye of Zoltar, too), or the Bearded Lake, maybe (no afanc, I hope!). We’ll see.

Cadair Idris (image from Wikipedia, reproduced under creative commons licence, user NotFromUtrecht)

Cadair Idris (image from Wikipedia, reproduced under creative commons licence, user NotFromUtrecht)

Wishing you a Happy Easter!

Posted in 2014 New Reads, Lists, Not A Review, Poetry, Read on my Kindle | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

REVIEW: Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry – B. S. Johnson

2013 Picador paperback cover (by La Boca)

2013 Picador paperback cover (by La Boca)

Picador 2013, originally published by Collins 1973

The title of this novel may seem a bit rude, but it refers to a method of accountancy invented by an Italian monk in the late fifteenth century (apparently).

Christie Malry, being a simple sort of young man, needs to earn a living. And so, being without any sort of qualifications, and with a fear of criminal methods, he begins work at a bank. After a few months of this menial occupation, something better comes along, namely an accountancy position at the firm of Tapper’s, which manufacture cakes and sweets. It’s while undertaking his accountancy training that he comes across the system of double-entry book-keeping (which Johnson informs us was invented by a Tuscan contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Luca Bartolomeo Pacioli), and which inspires him to set up a system of moral double-entry book-keeping. For every ill the world enacts upon him, he will take some revenge, some counter-measure, against Them.

How Christie gets on in this endeavour, while making friends at his new place of work and meeting a fabulous girl called the Shrike at the Hammersmith Palais, is detailed in this short novel (187 pages). It sounds quite dull when summarised, but is funny and mordant, and very very aware of its artificiality. Johnson addresses the reader directly, not describing Christie except in such terms as to specifically request that the reader uses their own imagination, and there are frequent references to the fact that everyone in the book is a character in a novel, such as, “‘Parsons looks like being indisposed for the rest of this novel,’ went on Headlam.” (p95)

This does create something of a distance, but Johnson writes his creations with a dash of humanity so that although they are obviously not real, it’s almost possible to forget it. As a result of the unreality, the first occasion of Christie and the Shrike having sex (which is described in the most wonderfully dead-pan kind of way) is an unrealistic fantasy of sex but which is far from soft porn. Then there’s Christie’s mother, who has one chapter of exposition and then dies, and which provokes this bit of dialogue:

SUPERVISOR: Where were you yesterday afternoon?
CHRISTIE: At my mother’s funeral.
SUPERVISOR: Why didn’t you ask permission?
CHRISTIE: She died at very short notice. In fact, with no notice at all, on the evening before last.
SUPERVISOR: Long enough for you to arrange the funeral for the next day?
CHRISTIE: There wasn’t any more time. It’s a short novel.

pp 39-40

Christie’s revenges for being subjected to incessant advertising, general exploitation by his place of work, dressings-down by his boss, and other such irritants, are usually inventive, and detailed in example double-entry sheets for each month. The revenges become more and more elaborate and detailed, and then Johnson ends the book in the only possible way.

I’d never really heard of Johnson before, but this reissue of the last novel to be published in his lifetime comes with an informative introduction by John Lanchester. Johnson was apparently one of the best-known novelists in Britain in the 1960s and 70s, known, as the blurb states, “for his forthright views on the future of the novel and for his unique ways of putting them into practice.” Normally I’m not a huge fan of such artificiality and metafiction, but Johnson writes very well, and his prose and plotting is amusing and thought-provoking. I enjoyed this a lot.

Posted in 2013 New Reads, Fiction, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

REVIEW: Perfiditas – Alison Morton

'Perfiditas' e-book cover

‘Perfiditas’ e-book cover

Self-published/SilverWood Books 2013

Inevitably, a review of this book will contain spoilers for the first title in the series, Inceptio, so if you haven’t read it and don’t like spoilers, look away now…

Perfiditas is set seven years after Inceptio (which came as something of a surprise, since I’d assumed the first book was set in our present day, which was perhaps silly of me). Carina is still working for the PGSF (the Praetorian Guard Special Forces, a sort of cross between MI5 and MI6 and the US Special Forces, maybe), somewhat complicated by the fact that her husband has just been appointed legate, or head, of the organisation. She’s also just won the position of strategos (head of strategy) in the recent reorganisation, and starts the book slightly distracted from making her first presentation by a friend, Mossia Antonia, who’s angry with and worried about her lover and employee Aidan, who’s accused her of unfair working practices and stolen from her, and now disappeared.

Carina’s investigation of Aidan’s disappearance reveals a conspiracy, leading to her own hurried departure from PGSF and the legate’s imprisonment. She resurrects her criminal identity, Pulcheria, from the previous book, and the rest of the team, firstly to extract Conrad from prison, and secondly to find out what’s going on, who’s behind it, and how to stop them.

This novel is much more straightforward, plot-wise, than Inceptio, since there really is only the one plot strand, and the book’s all the better for it. Carina shows her competence and care for her team and her friends and family, and there’s a lot more detail of the Mitela family and the political web which binds the chief families together, which is interesting (and allows Morton to circumvent due process in the legal system when it comes to one of the chief conspirators). I didn’t like the ending, though, or at least the revelation of the identity of one of the conspirators, partly because Morton had drawn him as a really interesting character, and partly because it allowed Conrad (ugh) to be right about him rather than Carina.

I dislike Conrad because he’s a typical alpha male, always convinced he’s right – unfortunately events seem to prove this belief founded, which is annoying – and he still doesn’t trust Carina – who is eminently competent – or, indeed, anyone else, to do a job properly without him. He’s always so serious, and there’s absolutely no levity or silly side to him. He doesn’t consider the difficulties to Carina of their relationship – though I do think she’d be better off in the Department of Justice where she started her career in law enforcement, where she wouldn’t have to negotiate her work around her husband as boss: it makes the power dynamics in the relationship feel off, since there’s no sense that Conrad is the junior partner in a civilian situation.

Apart from that, I found the casual use of torture in the book rather uncomfortable: when extracting information from four of the conspirators, Carina and her colleague Justus essentially beat them up, and there’s no real acknowledgement that it’s wrong – it’s justified in this context, because the conspirators are planning worse (and indeed she discovers are doing worse):

‘You don’t like this side of it, do you?’ Behind the curiosity in [Justus’] eyes I saw unexpected sympathy. ‘I remember from before, you preferred to trick them.’

‘I’m realistic enough to know we don’t have time now,’ I conceded. ‘But no, I don’t.’

I’d given up counting how many laws I’d violated.

(p109)

That doesn’t sound like someone who believes torture is wrong, and when the evidence thus extracted is presented to the investigators afterwards, it’s not seen as inadmissible, either.

The conspiracy itself seems realistic enough, though their methods seem unnecessarily vicious for a country which has had predominantly women in charge for so long (but then, maybe no worse than the Taliban’s treatment of women in Afghanistan during their regime).

So, not bad, and an interesting exploration of Roma Novan society, though with the reservations expressed above.

Note: I received an ARC free from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in 2014 New Reads, Fantasy, Fiction, Read on my Kindle, Reviews, Thriller | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

REVIEW: Bumped – Megan McCafferty

'Bumped' Corgi UK paperback cover

‘Bumped’ Corgi UK paperback cover

(Corgi 2011)

I’d been meaning to read Bumped for ages, having previously read and enjoyed McCafferty’s excellent Jessica Darling series, to which I was introduced by my sister back when Sloppy Firsts was first out in 2001. Bumped is quite different in premise to that series, which is firmly rooted in the real world and real world events, being set in a near future earth in which a virus means that almost all people become infertile as adults, making teenagers almost the only people who can reproduce. Thus condoms are proscribed, teenage sexuality is encouraged, and young mothers encouraged to (essentially) sell their children to older couples. Melody makes a few references to other cultures such as “the awesomely abundant Chinese”, but otherwise the book focuses on what is happening in the United States. The book’s told from the alternating viewpoints of separated-at-birth identical twins Melody and Harmony, and each has a nicely differentiated voice.

Melody’s adoptive parents are “Wall Streeters turned economics professors”, and have foreseen this commodification of teen pregnancy, with the most genetically advantageous teens commanding pre-birth contracts from would-be adoptive parents; Ash and Ty have thus done what they can to increase Melody’s value on the pregnancy market – good school, tutors, any number of extra-curricular activities. As a result, Melody has signed up for a good contract with the Jaydens which includes college tuition, a car, and a post-partum tummy tuck. Contrasting with this is Harmony, who’s been brought up in a religious commune, Goodside, whose response to the Human Progressive Sterility Virus is to marry off teenagers within the commune, and measure their worth by the children they produce. At the start of the book, Harmony has stunned her twin sister by suddenly turning up – they have never previously met – at the age of sixteen, when Melody’s on the point of being matched with a suitable baby-father.

Gradually the reader becomes aware that Melody’s lack of enthusiasm for the idea of pregnancy stems from an experience with her friend, Malia. Despite the detachment drugs, despite the cultural pressures, Malia wanted to keep her baby, and blamed Melody for failing to support her. It also turns out that Harmony isn’t telling all the truth, either, about why she’s suddenly left the commune to find her sister. It’s not a surprise to find out that there’s a case of mistaken identity, and the furore which results, but McCafferty runs with it very nicely, setting the story up to be continued (in the sequel, Thumped).

There’s a lot of slang and euphemism, as well as tech speak which takes a little while to get into – calling someone “reproaesthetic” for example, rather than beautiful, or referring to sex to get pregnant as “bumping” – but makes sense within the context of the novel.

It’s a satire on teenage sexuality, though maybe not a very obvious one, and Melody is increasingly angry at the way that her fertility and that of her friends has become a commodity to be sold off. It’s this more reasoned distaste for the process which makes her, in my opinion, a more likeable protagonist than Harmony, who has a capacity to delude herself which is quite extraordinary. It’s something of a shock to realise that Melody’s parents have encouraged her fame for monetary gain, too. I also liked Melody’s friendship with Zen, who’s not a suitable partner, despite his high intelligence, due to lack of height (and his mix of Asian-Hispanic genes isn’t acceptable to those couples who want nice white blue-eyed blond babies to adopt), and how this changes with Harmony’s advent into their lives.

McCafferty presents information in a pleasingly non-info dumping kind of way, but puts the reader in the middle of the story, with things from the past coming out in an organic way. The bit where Harmony and Jondoe make their scheduled public appearances, and he’s mobbed by rabid fans is reminiscent of modern-day celebrity, and is genuinely disturbing.

There are some really mixed reviews on Amazon, so this may not be your cup of tea. However, I really enjoyed this, though with the reservation that the ending is not entirely resolved, and really does require the sequel.

Posted in 2014 New Reads, Fiction, Reviews, Science fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

REVIEW: Inceptio – Alison Morton

'Inceptio' e-book cover

‘Inceptio’ e-book cover

(self-published/SilverWood Books 2013)

The premise for this book, the first in a series set in Roma Nova, is that Rome never really died out, but colonisers left the city during the downfall of the Roman Empire to found a new colony (somewhere around Slovenia) which has existed to the present day. Since the men of Roma Nova’s twelve founding families were always off fighting for the colony’s existence, the government was taken over by women, and as a result Roma Nova is a matriarchy. Quite apart from this, the world and its history has developed quite differently from ours: in America, for instance, where our protagonist, Karen Brown, grew up and lives, the Dutch retained a much greater influence on New York, in particular, than in our world. When Karen inadvertently seriously annoys one of the founding families when volunteering in Kew Park, she is put onto a watch-list by the security services, fired from her volunteering job, and it even makes trouble for her at work (for an advertising agency). Her mother was from Roma Nova, and her father naturalised American, but both died when she was young, and she spent the rest of her childhood on the Nebraskan farm of her father’s relatives.

Very soon, she’s pitching for a job for a Roma Novan client, Sextilius Gavro, and meets Gavro’s very attractive interpreter, Conradus Tellus. Not long afterwards, however, Karen’s world falls apart, particularly in realising that the security services are concerned that this new association with a foreign power will lead to loss of influence over Brown Electronics, Karen’s father’s company, which she had not previously realised would come under her control at the age of twenty-five. Fearing for her life, she takes sanctuary in the Roma Novan embassy, and once there finds that she’s heir to the Mitela family’s wealth and influence, a position of high status. Under attack from a covert security services fixer, Jeffrey Renschman (though it’s only later that his personal animus against Karen becomes apparent), she heads off to Roma Nova, and connects with her grandmother, head of the Mitela clan, and other family, reverting to the name given her by her mother, Carina.

A few months later, after settling into life in her new homeland, shopping, investing her now considerable wealth, she proposes a scheme to combat drug smuggling, and gets enlisted into the police force for an undercover mission.

Given the premise, Morton does nicely giving the details of her alternative universe, particularly changes in global politics and technology, and sets up Karen’s departure from the Eastern United States with real incentive. By making her a patrician who also has no sense of her real status in Roma Nova also makes her more relatable as well as the reader’s guide to this new world, as well as giving her access to high ranked politicos such as the Imperatrix, which wouldn’t have been the case if her mother had just been an ordinary citizen.

Karen/Carina works nicely as an undercover operative, but Roma Nova, in retrospect, does seem a bit restrictive – though maybe that’s understandable given its history – even if crime does occur and career criminals do exist.

I enjoyed this as an entertaining alternative universe thriller, but there are a couple of reservations I have. The first is that I never entirely believed in Carina and Conrad’s relationship: it’s all a bit insta-love, and although things don’t go smoothly for them, there’s nothing in the way he’s portrayed, apart from his fierce desire to protect her from harm, which seems remotely attractive. He’s easily angered, doesn’t trust her to make her own decisions – doesn’t actually seem to trust her at all, properly – and there’s way too much angst in their relationship for me to enjoy it. I actually much preferred Carina’s relationship with her handler at the Department of Justice, Cornelius Lurio, who does trust her, praises her good job, and who actually makes her laugh (though their sexual relationship is described in a way which makes her seem worryingly passive, since she admits she doesn’t “love him, or really lust after him”).

The second is that I think Morton tries to pack in a bit too much plot, such that the time frame seems a little hasty, and characterization is limited. I’d like to have seen a bit more bonding with Carina and her grandmother, for example, and an acknowledgement that her friends back in America were still in contact with her even after her move to Roma Nova – or, if this wasn’t possible, an explanation of why. The crime thriller plot in the main part of the book works quite well, even if Renschman’s part in the last part of the book seems a little unnecessary.

Anyway, I enjoyed this enough to read the sequel, Perfiditas (review to come later). Inceptio, by the way, is Latin for a beginning, or an enterprise, which nicely sums up both the plot of this book and its starting point as the first in a series.

Note: I received an ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in 2014 New Reads, Fantasy, Fiction, Read on my Kindle, Reviews, Thriller | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

REVIEW: Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

'Fangirl' UK paperback cover

‘Fangirl’ UK paperback cover

(Macmillan 2014)

I picked this up in Foyles in Stratford a few weeks ago, having vaguely remembered that Jenny at Reading the End had enjoyed Eleanor and Park, also by this author: I read a bit in the middle, and was hooked.

Cath and her twin sister Wren are off to university in Lincoln, Nebraska. For the first time, they’ll be separated, because Wren wants to start university not as a twin but as herself, and Cath is left upset and off-balance by this decision. Terrified by the newness of the place, it takes her some time even to find the dining room in her own residence hall, and it’s only by the determined and exasperated intervention of her older room-mate, Reagan, that she starts loosening up a little and exploring parts of the campus apart from her room and lecture halls. She signs up for a creative writing class, writes with a fellow student, Nick; eventually makes friends in her other classes. Then there’s Levi, Reagan’s boyfriend, who’s friendly and charming to everyone, and who scares Cath at first – making him wait outside their room when Reagan’s not there, for example – before they become friends.

The book’s also about Cath’s fan-fiction. She’s a prolific writer, who has fans of her own, writing fic about a series of children’s fantasy novels, reminiscent of Harry Potter, about a boy named Simon Snow and his career at the Watford School of Magicks, and his antagonism with room-mate Tyrannus ‘Baz’ Basilton Pitch. Cath wants to finish her epic fan fiction (in which Simon and Baz are actually in love – reminiscent of Harry/Draco fan fiction) before Gemma T. Leslie, the books’ actual author, brings out the final book in the sequence and, as it were, sets the canon in stone.

This sounds like a pretty bald summary, but Fangirl is just delightful. Cath is nerdy and bookish and bright, despite her apprehension, and her friendships with Reagan and Levi grow naturally and organically. She gets into trouble for submitting a piece of fan-fiction for her creative writing course, not understanding her tutor’s view that she’s plagiarising – to her mind, she has written something entirely new, just using the characters Leslie has created – and only at the end of the book, once she’s finished her fic, can she write about something personal and important. But Rowell never minimises the importance of fan fiction in Cath’s life (or indeed in Wren’s, even if she isn’t quite so invested), nor suggests that fan fiction isn’t a valid form of expression.

The supporting characters are excellent, too. Wren finds the freedom of college life a little too heady, and it’s only the intervention of their father after she’s hospitalised with alcohol poisoning which brings her closer to her sister again. Their father is also really interesting – as is the way the two girls are concerned about him – but their departure from home prompts him to make some changes to his life so that they won’t worry so much. Reagan is fun, too; at first inclined to ignore her younger room-mate, she sees that unless she does something about it, Cath will not go anywhere or see anything, and so makes her come to breakfast with her, and when Cath’s meeting Nick at the library in the evening to write with him, encourages Levi to meet her and walk her back to her room. Cath’s at first distrustful of Levi’s charm and affability, and says some amusingly sarcastic things about him:

“I didn’t know you had a mother,” he said. “Or a sister. What else are you hiding?”

“Five cousins,” Wren said. “And a string of ill-fated hamsters, all named Simon.”

Levi opened his smile up completely.

“Oh, put that away,” Cath said with distaste. “I don’t want you to get charm all over my sister – what if we can’t get it out?”

p80

I really like the way all the characters seem entirely realistic. Levi is really sweet in a way that isn’t sickly and he’s certainly no bad boy romantic typical of YA fiction. He has difficulty reading, though he has an excellent memory for things said, and the first time Cath really connects with him other than as the nice boyfriend of her room mate is when she ends up reading aloud S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders to him for his class assignment. Reagan is sardonic and cynical, but ultimately kind-hearted, and she and Cath achieve a genuine friendship. It’s also lovely to see how Cath grows in confidence in the academic year over which the book is set, both personally, and as a writer.

The UK paperback also has some lovely illustrations of some of the characters on the inside covers, by Noelle Stevenson:

Art is Cath and Wren's dad, by the way

Art is Cath and Wren’s dad, by the way

 

Posted in 2014 New Reads, Fiction, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments