Category: England Page 1 of 9

Sarah Hall: Burntcoat

The latest addition to my website is Sarah Hall‘s Burntcoat. Our heroine is Edith Harknesss. We follow her life from when she was ten and her mother, a successful novelist, had an aneurysm but survived though much changed. Edith decides to become an artist, focussing on monumental works using shou sugi ban, a Japanese charred timber technique and has considerable success. However a pandemic strikes – seemingly worse than covid just as she is starting the love affair of her life with a Turkish chef and the pair hide out in her huge converted warehouse called Burntcoat. The pandemic leaves Edith with the equivalent of long covid, though this form seems it be generally fatal, as she works on her final monumental work. It is another superb work from Sarah Hall and confirms her as one of Britain’s leading novelists.

Pat Barker: The Women of Troy

The latest addition to my website is Pat Barker‘s The Women of Troy. This follows on from Barker’s previous novel, The Silence of the Girls, where we followed the story of Briseis, a captured royal who became Achilles’ trophy. At the beginning of this novel, Achilles, rightly fearing his impending death, marries her off to Alcimus. The events in this novel takes place after the events described in The Iliad, starting with the Wooden Horse and the fall of Troy, with the focus on what happens to Briseis and the other Trojan women after the fall. We see the men drinking, holding games and having rough sex with the women, while the women suffer, burying (or, in the case of King Priam, trying to bury) the dead, tending the sick and trying to survive. As always in war and its aftermath, it is, as Barker clearly shows, the women who are the greatest victims.

Michel Butor: L’Emploi du temps (Passing Time)

The latest addition to my website is Michel Butor‘s L’Emploi du temps (Passing Time). I had already read and reviewed this novel (link is to the old review) but a new edition of the English translation has just appeared from Pariah Press so I have read that. (I read it in French for the previous review.) This is a complex story of a Frenchman Jacques Revel who spends a year as translator in the fictitious Northern England town of Bleston (based on Manchester). Jacques reads a murder mystery – The Bleston Murder by J C Hamilton – and finds it might not be entirely fiction and that it is also a key to some of the mysteries of Bleston, a town he hates and which seems to have an evil personality of its own. We follow his travails around the town and with some of its inhabitants as well as The Bleston Murder, its author and the mysterious fires which keep breaking out in Bleston. It is a superb book and very much worth rereading.

Ellis Sharp: Neglected Writer

The latest addition to my website is Ellis Sharp‘s Neglected Writer. The eponymous neglected writer may well refer to Sharp himself, a British experimental writer who is still relatively unknown. However, it probably refers to Eliot Blount, the narrator of this novel. Blount is an Englishman in Hollywood in 1932. He receives an anonymous phone call telling him that Paul Bern, the film director and husband of the actress Jean Harlow, is dead. This leads him on a trail. Did Bern really kill himself? Who was the mysterious caller? And can he make a gangster film out of a Virginia Woolf novel? For while, there is a fascinating plot, Sharp has a lot of fun and games,mocking Hollywood, making obscure literary and cinema references, telling in-jokes and following Eliot’s weird and often erotic dreams. (Yes, Freud also makes an appearance). It is clever, witty and a highly enjoyable read.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Klara and the Sun

The latest addition to my website is Kazuo Ishiguro‘s Klara and the Sun. The novel is set in the not too distant further in the United States and tells the story of Klara, an AF, i.e. an artificial friend, a robot that acts as a friend to a child, not least because children do not seem to go to school but learn online. We follow the story from Klara waiting in a New York shop to be sold and being bought by the mother of Josie, a girl with health problems. Klara is astute and sensitive and tries to help Josie, not least by invoking the sun, the source of Klara’s energy and nourishment. We meet Rick, next door neighbour and close friend of Josie, we learn how Klara struggles to fully understand humans and the issues with Josie’s divorced parents and whether Klara can save Josie. As in many of Ishiguro’s books there is an underlying sense of foreboding, exacerbated by a hint – but only a hint – of societal breakdown. This book clearly sees Ishiguro back to form and is an excellent work on our possible near future.

Jonathan Coe: Mr Wilder and Me

The latest addition to my website is Jonathan Coe‘s Mr Wilder and Me. This is a funny and serious story about a young woman who accidentally gets involved in the making of Billy Wilder‘s second-to-last film Fedora, leading her to a career in composing film music. We follow in some detail the making of he film that does not, on the whole, go well but we also get a serious side, as Wilder, a Jew whose family were murdered in the Holocaust, confronts Holocaust denial. Our heroine/narrator Calista (she is part Greek) carries on the story to the present day where her career, like Wilder’s, is taking a downward turn. Another superb book from Coe, both funny and serious and, as always, telling a good story.

Alex Pheby: Mordew

The latest addition to my website is Alex Pheby‘s Mordew. This is a very original dark fantasy novel, part Dickens, part Peake, all Pheby. While it has some of the usual themes – good versus evil, rich versus poor, betrayal and dirty deeds – Pheby is a thoroughly original writer, telling his story well, both by using familiar and decidedly unfamiliar characters, scenes and events, and also keeping you guessing to the very end. Indeed, this is apparently the first book of a trilogy, so though we have an ending, we can be sure it will not be the final ending. If, like me, you tend to keep away from modern fantasy and find, Harry Potter, well, just a bit childish, this may well be the fantasy novel for you to read.

David Mitchell: Utopia Avenue

The latest addition to my website is David Mitchell‘s Utopia Avenue. The story starts in January 1967 in London and tells how a group is formed by a Canadian manager of four different characters, three men and one woman and the various trials and tribulations they face including but not limited to sex, drugs, family issues, band relationships, the press, a US tour, record companies, publicity and money. Many real-life famous and not so famous musicians and others make an appearance as we follow the band from their disastrous first gig to US fame and the inevitable problems a band faced in the 1960s as well as one or two not so inevitable problems, including the psychological problems of the lead guitarist. Mitchell tells an excellent story but you will enjoy it more if you are familiar with the era and the musicians of that era.

Hilary Mantel: The Mirror and the Light

The latest addition to my website is Hilary Mantel‘s The Mirror and the Light, the brilliant conclusion to her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the adviser to Henry VIII. The novel starts and ends with two beheadings. It opens with the beheading of Anne Boleyn and ends with Cromwell’s own beheading, some four years later. In the meantime, we have seen Cromwell, a mixture of kind-heartedness towards to those in trouble and ruthless antagonism towards his and Henry VIII’s enemies, show cunning and skill in manoeuvring to make sure Henry’s will is observed but, at the same time, making numerous enemies, including being hated by many of the ordinary people, as well as the powerful lords, the latter taking full advantage of his weakness when the marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves goes very wrong. Mantel gives us a superb and complex portrait of a man whom history has not looked upon favourably but whom she clearly respects and admires, despite his many faults.

Ian McEwan: The Cockroach

The latest addition to my website is Ian McEwan‘s The Cockroach, a satire on Brexit. He uses two clever twists in the book. The first is from Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis). We start off with the eponymous cockroach who metamorphosises into the prime minister, a thinly disguised Boris Johnson, though, at the time of writing, McEwan could not be sure Johnson would become prime minister. The second is that it is not between Brexit and Remain but between Reversalist (equivalent of Brexit) and Clockwise (equivalent of Remain), Reversalism being an imaginary and ridiculous economic theory involving reversing the money flow. The prime minister had been dithering somewhat till he is cockroached and then becomes ruthless and determined. It is amusing but to fully appreciate it, you would need a knowledge of the ins and outs of the political mess that is Brexit and, of course, it has already been overtaken by actual events.

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