Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Month: May 2010 (page 1 of 3)

Too little too late?


All That Follows
 by Jim Crace

It’s 2024 and the eve of jazzman Lennie Less’ 50th birthday.   Leonard is on a break from sax-playing – he has a frozen shoulder. Sitting in front of the telly, he hears about a siege in a town not so far away, then he sees a photo of the hostage-taker;  it’s a figure from his past.  It’s Maxie – Maxim Lermontov!  What’s he to do? Leonard used to aspire to be  radical like Maxie, back in their student days when Dubya was in the White House, but he never went through with it.  This time, rather than ring the police and tell them about Maxie, Leonard sets off to visit the siegeand bumps into Maxie’s estranged daughter; this is the start of getting himself into some serious hot water, which is compounded by him not being truthful with his own wife Francine.

Read the blurb of this novel and you’d think it was a thriller – which may make your heart sink, for esteemed literary authors don’t have a great record when they turn their hand to thrillerdom.   However, All that follows  only has some thriller elements, at heart it is really a novel of mid-life crisis.

Leonard is very good at talking himself out of things, the only time he lets his heart really rule his head is when he’s playing sax.  Like jazz hero Coltrane, he likes going off-piste in his improvisations…

These are the moments – the blacksmithing, the bleats – that most please and terrify Leonard, the moments of abandonment when he can sense the audience shifting and disbanding. He fancies he can see the flash of watches being checked. Certainly he can see how many in the audience are on the edges of their seats and how many more are slumped, looking at their fingernails or fidgeting. He knows he is offending many pairs of ears. They’ve come for those cool and moodily bluesy countermelodies that have made the quartet celebrated, not for the restless, heated, cranked-up overloads. But still he has to carry on, he has to nag at them, because he won’t be satisfied until he has lost and possibly offended himself.

The rest of the time, apart from a real hardline health-food diet, he takes the path of least resistance in life, and being around all day is driving him into being very passive.  It’s affecting his relationship with Francine too, which is already under pressure over the absence of her daughter Celandine.  But seeing Maxie makes him want to do something spontaneous and rebellious before he’s 50 – it just doesn’t turn out quite the way he anticipated it.  Having just had a certain big birthday myself, I was very pre-occupied with it looming, so I did sympathise with Leonard more than I expected to, and I did like Francine’s strength of character in particular.

I’ve read two other Crace books that I really enjoyed;  Arcadia and Signals of Distress are both better than this novel, however All that follows is not bad – just not quite as good as the others. (6.5/10, I received this book from the Amazon Vine programme).

To read more, John Self at Asylum has written an excellent in depth review and an author interview with Crace.

More modern vampires

Fledgling by Octavia E Butler.

Fledgling was the last choice for the season of the ‘Not the TV Book Group’, and the lively discussion was hosted by Kim at Reading Matters.

Published shortly before the author died, Fledgling is another different and slightly SF take on the vampire novel. Shori looks like a twelve year old black girl, but is actually a genetically engineered 53 year old vampire – as long as she covers up, she can go about in daylight. She awakes injured in the woods with amnesia and once she kills and heals, goes in search of her family with the help of her ‘first’, a man who stops to help her and ends up being her symbiont. They discover that her family has been wiped out, and go in search of other of her kind. Luckily they end up finding a friendly ‘Ina’ group, for that’s her race’s real name, and they initiate her into their ways. It becomes clear that her family were murdered by other Ina, and the novel takes on a courtroom mode as Shori tries to prove their guilt.

This is a novel of big themes – race, sex and fitting in dominate. It’s written to shock – Shori is a sexual being but her body’s young appearance makes it really awkward for us to read.  One thing that came through for me in the discussions was the subtle master / slave relationship between the Ina and their ‘families’ of symbionts – who once bonded to their Ina cannot live without them.

Although I enjoyed reading the book, ultimately it underwhelmed as the author did far too much explaining about the Ina, telling us in too much detail rather than showing. This reduced the immediacy of the otherwise sophisticated plot and also made for some plodding dialogue.  Once Shori found her friends, the quasi-courtroom setting made the last section drag too.  This being Butler’s last book, I have no idea whether it is typical, but do happen to have ‘Parable of the sower’ which has more of a SF sound on my TBR pile to read some time. (6.5/10, I bought this book).

Gaskella’s Midweek Miscellany #11

With the nice weather we’ve been having, I was musing about taking some cushions and a book out into the garden, but then thought again.  I just can’t concentrate on reading a book outside.  I’d be too distracted, listening to the birds, admiring the flowers, being hay-fevery, being on bug patrol, thinking ‘I need to mow the lawn/do more weeding/scoop the duckweed from the pond/insert your own gardening task here’.   I could go to the park, but then I’d be people, dog and cloud-watching.  

Ironically, indoors, as long as I’m snug on the sofa or in bed, I can read through anything – the radio or telly is often/usually on in the background.   I also can’t read in cars, buses or coaches due to car-sickness headaches (get’s me out of navigating duties!), but trains and planes are fine, I can turn off surrounding stimuli there and read too. 

Do you have places or situations where you just can’t read?

* * * * *

I haven’t told you about any new books that have arrived at Gaskell Towers this month, here are some of them. If you persevere to the bottom, I also have a giveaway for you!   So, from the top …

Seeking Whom he may Devour by Fred Vargas. I’ve yet to read any of her off-beat existentialist French crime novels – but looking forward to getting started.
Genesis by Bernard Beckett – a YA novel about philosophy and artificial intelligence (has a great cover with a robot apple too).
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa – sounds brilliant and DGR loved it.
Love and Summer – now out in paperback, this will be my first William Trevor read.
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E Pearson. Another YA novel – girl wakes from a coma …
Peace by Richard Bausch. I’ve heard good things about this wartime story.
The Book of Disquiet (Serpent’s Tail Classics) by Fernando Pessoa. Looks intriguing but I’ve Paperback Reader has described it as ‘a Portuguese Ulysses’ – but it’s nowhere near as long.
Botticelli Secret, The by Marina Fiorato. A comfort read historical author of mine – her latest. Based on Botticelli’s wonderful painting ‘Primavera’.
Affair of the Mutilated Mink, The (Burford Family Mysteries 2) by James Anderson. Billed as Christie meets Sayers with a dash of Wodehouse. Could be fun.
The Middle Mind: Why Consumer Culture is Turning Us into the Living Dead by Curtis White. Charity shop find – I couldn’t resist given the title, and cover full of zombies, but it is a halfway serious look at the dumbing down of culture apparently.
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. One of Nymeth’s all-time faves I gather, which has been on my wishlist for some time too.
Tony and Susan by Austin Wright – just looked totally intriguing!
The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan. A comedy set in the 1960s as told by Maf – the dog that Frank Sinatra gave to Marilyn Monro. I enjoyed Me Cheeta: The Autobiography so this could be fun too.
The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno. Jackie loved this one – I’m sure I will too.


* * * * *

Which brings me to my giveaway

For no sooner had I received a copy of The Great Perhaps
for my birthday, than an ARC arrived. So I will give the ARC away – I’ll send anywhere, but will have to send surface outside Europe due to weight/cost.  Just leave your name in the comments and I’ll make the draw on Sunday evening.

A delightfully quirky children’s adventure

The problem with getting into your forties and beyond is that you inevitably need reading glasses.  I managed to lose mine for a whole day this weekend, but luckily I found them this morning – phew!  So yesterday I had to read with my old glasses (which are now perfect for computer work, but no good for small type).  I had to find something with bigger print to read, hence I picked out this book for children aged around 7+ from my daughter’s bookcase.

Hugo Pepper by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell

My daughter and I are big fans of Chris Riddell’s Ottoline books. Indeed I’m a fan of Riddell’s wonderfully quirky and intricate illustrations in general – he currently does the Literary Review front cover each month (see right), and designed the cover for The Graveyard Book amongst others.  He has a very particular style, and his girl faces in particular are fab in an Alice in Wonderland meets Wednesday Addams sort of way with their high foreheads and intelligent stares.   So while I was familiar with him, I’d not yet read any of his collaborations with Paul Stewart, of which there are a growing number, including the bestselling Edge Chronicles.

Hugo Pepper is the third in another series called Far Flung Adventures, and it was an absolute delight.  The babe in arms Hugo was found in a crashed sledge by snowmen, who then left him on the doorstep of a reindeer herder couple in the Far North, who adopt him and bring him up.  Although he loves them dearly, when he’s about ten years old, the discovery of his parents’ wrecked sled leads him to seek his home. So he sets off on an adventure, eventually arriving in Firefly Square.  There he meets a whole group of family friends who are under siege from the new evil editor of the town newspaper which used to be edited by Hugo’s grandfather. It is now publishing scurrilous attacks on his friends to drive them out of town…

We meet weird and wonderful characters in this adventure – walking Mermaids, Lighthousekeepers, Pirates, Artisan tea-blenders and carpetweavers, a one-eared cat and lots of big footed snowmen.  If you like Lemony Snicket, you’ll definitely enjoy this tale and its illustrations; and if I’m honest, I’d love to read the rest of this series and more by this pair – even with my normal glasses!  (9/10) We bought this book.

A delightfully quirky children’s adventure

The problem with getting into your forties and beyond is that you inevitably need reading glasses.  I managed to lose mine for a whole day this weekend, but luckily I found them this morning – phew!  So yesterday I had to read with my old glasses (which are now perfect for computer work, but no good for small type).  I had to find something with bigger print to read, hence I picked out this book for children aged around 7+ from my daughter’s bookcase.

Hugo Pepper by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell

My daughter and I are big fans of Chris Riddell’s Ottoline books. Indeed I’m a fan of Riddell’s wonderfully quirky and intricate illustrations in general – he currently does the Literary Review front cover each month (see right), and designed the cover for The Graveyard Book amongst others.  He has a very particular style, and his girl faces in particular are fab in an Alice in Wonderland meets Wednesday Addams sort of way with their high foreheads and intelligent stares.   So while I was familiar with him, I’d not yet read any of his collaborations with Paul Stewart, of which there are a growing number, including the bestselling Edge Chronicles.

Hugo Pepper is the third in another series called Far Flung Adventures, and it was an absolute delight.  The babe in arms Hugo was found in a crashed sledge by snowmen, who then left him on the doorstep of a reindeer herder couple in the Far North, who adopt him and bring him up.  Although he loves them dearly, when he’s about ten years old, the discovery of his parents’ wrecked sled leads him to seek his home. So he sets off on an adventure, eventually arriving in Firefly Square.  There he meets a whole group of family friends who are under siege from the new evil editor of the town newspaper which used to be edited by Hugo’s grandfather. It is now publishing scurrilous attacks on his friends to drive them out of town…

We meet weird and wonderful characters in this adventure – walking Mermaids, Lighthousekeepers, Pirates, Artisan tea-blenders and carpetweavers, a one-eared cat and lots of big footed snowmen.  If you like Lemony Snicket, you’ll definitely enjoy this tale and its illustrations; and if I’m honest, I’d love to read the rest of this series and more by this pair – even with my normal glasses!  (9/10) We bought this book.

A Promising Pair from Peirene Press

Peirene Press, named after a Greek nymph who turned into a water spring which was drunk by poets for inspiration, is a new publishing house specialising in contemporary European literature in translation. I was lucky enough to win a copy of their first novel from Librarything, and was offered a copy of their second by Meike who runs the company, so I’ve read them together. Both books are short and beautifully produced, making reading them a pleasure.


Beside the Sea

by Véronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter.

A single mother takes her two young children to the seaside for the first time. Sounds nice doesn’t it, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  It’s a budget outing – they arrive late at night on the coach in a dark little town where it’s raining cats and dogs. The hotel is sleazy; they’re given a grotty room on the top floor and there’s no lift.  So, they try to make the best of a bad thing.  The threesome do go onto the beach, but it’s still bad weather; they go to a café for hot chocolate, but the clientele aren’t friendly at all; then later they go to the funfair, and the boys go on the dodgems until they’re sick.

Narrated by the mother, we feel for her plight straight away. It’s obvious she’s virtually penniless and there’s no mention of her children’s father.  We discover she has no front teeth, and would normally be medicated – she is in a bad place mentally, but one thing shines through – she does love her boys.

In a way, I was thankful that this novel is short.  It’s so intense and bleak, building up the portrait of this damaged woman who lives for her boys, and you sense that there are more shocks to come. I won’t say more.  The translation excellently captures the mother’s voice, and you really feel sympathy for the mother and her sons.

I had one niggle – the boys are called Kevin and Stan – very English names – were they changed for the translation?  This just didn’t make it seem very French to me.  Wherever the setting though, it was an extremely thought-provoking and uncomfortable read that will stay with you. For other reviews see Dovegreyreader, Savidge Reads, A Common Reader.  (8/10) I received this book from Librarything.


Stone in a Landslide

by Maria Barbal translated by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell.

Maria Barbal is one of the most influential Catalan authors. This successful short novel was published in 1985, and has only now been translated into English.  It is the story of one woman’s life and love.

Conxa is a Catalan peasant. At the age of thirteen, she leaves her family to live with her aunt who has no children.  She works hard and earns her place in their family yet still knows no life outside of the cluster of villages, and only sees her own family at the festivals.  A few years later she meets Jaume, a builder rather than farmer, and they fall in love.  They remain living with her aunt, for Jaume works mostly away, but soon start raising their own family. The years pass, lives continue then the Spanish Civil War intervenes leading to tragedy. Conxa survives it all into old age and is able to rejoice in her children’s own families.

Despite being a mere 126 pages, this is a masterful portrait of a rural life in the Pyrenees.  It’s subsistence living, each family struggling to get by with their few fields, but it’s a good life for those that are lucky enough to find a soul-mate like Conxa. This is a story of strong characters, dominated by Conxa and Jaume of course whose love story shines through the hardships. The passage of time just flows by without any unnecessary explanations, and all too soon I reached the last page.  A hugely enjoyable read.  (9/10) Book kindly supplied by the publisher – thank  you.

I shall look forward to future Peirene publications – to paraphrase the Masterchef slogan, contemporary European literature doesn’t get better than this!

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