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Archive for the ‘Crime fiction’ Category

Mixed reception for Carl Hiaasen’s Stormy weather (1995) at September’s Book Group, meeting as it did in the immediate aftermath of the far from fictional Hurricane Irma, which provided a bit of context.  It was a re-read for me, but I was happy to do it.  Some thought the book ‘over the top’, which really, it has to be said, for Carl Hiaasen, rather misses the point.  Given Donald Trump’s political ascendency and his personal and business interests in Florida exactly how much over the top Hiaasen is – a native Floridan, investigative journalism came before the novels – how much he indulges himself becomes debatable.  Here’s a trademark Hiaasenism, taken from Stormy weather’s hurricane’s aftermath, “The death of Tony Torres did not go unnoticed by homicide detectives, crucifixions being rare even in Miami“.   That ‘even in Miami’.  You laughed, right?  Don’t worry, in context it is righteous.

Basically Carl Hiaasen is a moralist, a savage Swiftian humourist with harlequin bells on.  But he is also a relativist, so what happens is that in the end the bad guys usually get it in spades, but the nuanced bad and so not so bad guys and gals can sometimes get the breaks, while the good, suffering, people of his world will lean towards purity of heart if not deed.  His books start out with 5 or 6 people, maybe a couple of them paired up in some way, at a certain stage in their lives – something criminal, new or odd going on therein – whose lives get not so much thrown together as entangled in various ways by a triggering event (in Stormy weather a destructive hurricane) as the narrative unfolds apace with many interesting twists and turns along the way.  Again, some nay-sayers in the Book Group complained that Hiaasen’s characters are stereotypes; they may well be, but they are also magnificent living and breathing examples of their kind, complete with quirks and the potential to surprise; like, um, skull juggling.

Stormy weather also strongly features one of the great creations of late twentieth century literature; this was his third appearance.  Skink, an anti-superhero (not that he’s a force for bad, just no cool costumery or scientific backstory) who, Hiaasen subsequently, I hazard to suggest, resorts to when he needs something to help the plot on its entertaining way, along the lines of Raymond Chandler’s apocryphalWhen in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand“, except he transcends this usefulness to the extent one is disappointed when he doesn’t appear in a Hiaasen novel.  Skink, the ex-politician previously known as Clinton Tyree,  is big enough to have his own Wikipedia entry.

Here he explains himself to a tourist he has kidnapped (there are reasons):

My name is Tyree. I served in the Vietnam conflict and later as governor of this fair state. I resigned because of disturbing moral and philosophical conflicts.   The details would mean nothing to you.

Having failed to change the system from within he has retreated, gone native in the Florida Everglades.  Another kind of Swamp Man, he’d had high hopes of the hurricane.  Here are some of the details:

Clinton Tyree’s only political liability was a five-year stint as an English professor at the University of Florida, a job that historically would have marked a candidate as too thoughtful, educated and broad-minded for state office. But, in a stunning upset, voters forgave Clint Tyree’s erudition and elected him governor.

So far, so good.  But the “barkers, pimps and fast-change artists who controlled the legislature” weren’t unduly worried: “He was, after all, a local boy. Surely he understood how things worked.”  But when he won’t take bribes, they begin to doubt his sanity.  “Save the rivers. Save the coast. Save the Big Cypress. Where would it end?”  He might as well be a ‘damn communist’.  They use every trick in the book to foil him:

So he quit, fled Tallahassee on a melancholy morning in the back of a state limousine, and melted into the tangled wilderness. […] He moved by night, fed off the road, and adopted the solitary existence of a swamp rattler. Those who encountered him knew him by the name of Skink, or simply “captain”, a solemn hermitage interrupted by the occasional righteous arson, aggravated battery or highway sniping.

Imagine a beach or two with no ugly high-rises. Imagine a lake without golf courses,” he suggests towards the end of the tale.  Donald Trump makes an appearance in the capacity of a negative character reference, the kidnapee as it happens, who “was into ditties and jingles, not metaphysics. “And he doesn’t read much,” she added. “The last book he finished was one of Trump’s autobiographies.””  (Trump has ‘written’ more ‘autobiographies’ than David Beckham and Wayne Rooney).

Carl Hiaasen is deadly serious and laugh-out-loud funny.  He can drive a narrative, paint a vivid picture and delivers great dialogue.  Because I’ve given space to Skink here I’ve hardly touched the riches elsewhere to be found in Stormy weather.  He’s a highly quotable phrase maker too: a 160 home housing development (called Sugar Palm Hammocks) is “platted sadistically on only forty acres of land”  (yup, definitely ‘platted’, not ‘plotted’).  The damaging avoidance of building regulations is, someone bemoans, “exactly the sort of thing that gave corruption a bad name.”  How masterful a scene-setter is “after a day of inept drinking“?  Enjoy! 

A Scribal interval

As it happens, poster-girl Naomi Rose had a song called Hurricane in her immaculate October Scribal Gathering set.  She described it as ‘a worksong’.  Contains the lines “Know that you can never be good enough” expanding as the song progresses to “None of us … ”  (Thinks: is she singing about OFSTED investigations here?).  Naomi is a much more than good enough singer-songwriter and an intriguing guitarist.  Hear for yourself with a link https://soundcloud.com/naomi-rose-2/hurricane .  She also did her “song about football” which for all its “Smiling David Beckham’s on your wall” and damnably catchy chorus (says this Arsenal supporter) of “I love you Manchester United / and I would be delighted / to dance with you tonight / for the rest of my life” is not about football.  It’s a challenge i) not to sing along , and ii) not to be tripping the light fantastic in your waltzing head; you might find yourself agreeing if you go to:   https://soundcloud.com/naomi-rose-2/manchester-united .  I’ve said it before: sad (mostly) rainy day songs delivered with a sunny smile, queen of the earworms.  This was a Scribal with a difference, with Pat Nicholson ably MC-ing and Mitchell Taylor ending proceedings in fine voice, songs punctuated with a heartfelt spoken word anti-imperialist flourish.

Doesn’t time fly?

And so October’s Book Group book divided the team too, though thankfully not along the same lines as to Stormy weatherGeoffrey Household‘s extraordinary 1939 thriller Rogue male certainly took me by surprise.  In attitude and feeling it’s a revealing period piece, both cringe-worthy in places yet prescient in others – both ancient and modern, you could say.  As a founding genre classic of the better class of contemporary thriller it has lost none of its power, while retaining all the drive of a simpler enterprise.  One of the Book Group members said she was reminded of the excitement of reading as a child again, engrossed in the adventure.

It’s a first person narrative:

I will not mention who I am. My name is widely known. I have been frequently and unavoidably dishonoured by the banners and praises of the penny press.

That ‘dishonoured’ by the ‘praises’ tells you a lot about our man – sardonic, charming, socially aware.  This is on one level is his confession, decently left in case someone innocent might get the blame (and to let the government off the hook), on another a journal of self-discovery, replete with philosophical meditations and asides on the nation-state and Englishness among other things.  Given his affinity with the land and nature in general, the book’s title, Rogue male, has to take some of its meaning from the wild animal kingdom – the solitary, dangerous animal, adrift from the herd – an ‘anarchial aristocrat’ (yes, ‘anarchial’) as it is put to him at one stage, and he doesn’t demur.

Our man an experienced hunter, is captured in a foreign land with a dictator in his telescopic gun-sights.  Could be Hitler or Stalin; we are never told.  Claiming he was only doing it to see if ‘a sporting assassination‘ was possible.  (Was he really? – you’ll have to read the book).  Interrogation and a punishing, gruelling escape.  In London, accurately guessing that wouldn’t be the end of it, he puts his affairs in order, and goes to ground (literally, in an elaborately constructed burrow) in Dorset.  As if this were not gruelling enough, the agents of the totalitarian state find him and he becomes a prisoner in his own hiding place, interrogated at length, over days, through a ventilation space, with a subtlety out of a John Le Carré novel.  No big spoiler to say he escapes again – some tense moments indeed – and lights out for new territory.  It’s riveting stuff.

But as I say, there’s this weird mix of snobbery and decency, of one-ness with the natural world, and personal detachment.  It’s beautifully written, a wonderful mélange of by turns the calm, charming, candid and disingenuous; keenly literate observation accompanies the  enthralling, gruelling and scornful yet nicely self-deprecating prose.  A few tasters to whet your appetite.  After his first escape:

Glaring back at me from the mirror, deep and enormous,, it seemed to belong to someone intensely alive, so much more alive than I felt. My face was all pallors and angles, like that of a Christian martyr in a medieval painting. – and I had the added villainy of bristles. I marvelled at how such a beastly crop could grow in so poor and spiritual a soil.
[but then later, on a foray to buy materials in Lyme Regis]: 
I had a straggly beard that was quite as convincing as most of those one sees in Bloomsbury.

A couple of Ouch! moments.  Here he considers the ‘modern’ incarnation of the ‘hiker’ :

A hideous word – hiker.  It has nothing to do with the gentle souls of my youth who wandered in tweeds and stout shoes from pub to pub. But, by God, it fits those bawling English-women whose tight shorts and loose voices are turning every beauty spot in Europe into a Skegness holiday camp.
[and here’s another contemporary holidaymaker]: 
She was a sturdy wench in corduroy shorts no longer than bum-bags, and with legs so red that the golden hairs showed a continuous fur. Not my taste at all. But my taste is far from eugenic.  [Did I really just read that? – yes you did.]

Here, a couple more encounters with the common man:

There was a man on the fence, meditative and unbuttoned, and obviously digesting his breakfast while mistaking that process for thought.
[and of a naval man]:
I calmed his suspicions with two double whiskies and my most engaging dirty story, whereupon he declared that I was a Bit of All Right and consented to talk about his officers. [tell us the joke!]

And yet he has interesting things to say about class and class consciousness, and, in settling his affairs before disappearing makes plans to turn over his lands to a ‘Tenants Cooperative Society’.

The edition I read has a worthwhile introduction from by Robert Macfarlane, author of Wild places and another celebrated book on walking the old tracks and pathways, which enhanced my reading (always read such introductions last!).  Our man’s first escape involves resting up in a tree to convalesce: “I was growing to my tree and aware of immense good nature …”.  Then there’s the Dorset experience:

It was a disgusting day. The flats of England on a grey morning remind me of the classical hell – a featureless landscape where the peewits twitter and the half-alive remember hills and sunshine. And the asphodel of this Hades is the cabbage. To lie among cabbages in my own country should have been nothing after the pain and exposure I suffered during my escape, but it was summer then and it was autumn now. To lie still on a clay soil in a gentle drizzle was exasperating. But safe!

Asphodel? – “Old World herbs of the lily family with flowers in usually long erect racemes” the dictionary tells me.  And it’s no fun down in the bunker either: “I have no chance even of illusion. Luck has reached a stage of equilibrium and stopped.”  He befriends a feral cat, who plays a crucial role in his final escape, who he names Asmodeus.

There is a revelation near the end of Rogue male, conjured out of our man down in his wretched temporary abode as his interrogation progresses, but I’m not going say anything more about that other than that it prompts an outbreak of the most wonderful technicolour prose, a passage that is like nothing else in the book.

Rogue male is a great adventure story and so much more.  I leave you with what would be a great exam question for students of twentieth century history – discuss this!  Our man achieves a certain understanding with Quiver-Smith, his interrogator, that deep spy from a totalitarian state with the well-constructed English identity, but:

I didn’t tell him that natural leaders don’t have any will to power. He wouldn’t have understood what I meant.

 

 

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Thirty years on since the first of Peter Robinson‘s Yorkshire Dales-based crime novels featuring detective Alan Banks first appeared in print, Sleeping in the ground (Hodder & S, 2017), is the 24th in the sequence.  I think it’s something of a return to form that also holds the promise of refreshing the slightly tired platform for what is to come next.

Sleeping in the ground opens strongly with a funeral and a mass shooting at a wedding happening 150 miles apart.  Banks is back in Peterborough, where he grew up, at the funeral – an event that affects him deeply – of his first love, Emily Hargreaves, who’d dumped him – something he still doesn’t understand – back in 1973.  He returns north to the Yorkshire Dales to be handed the investigation into the massacre of the bride and groom and 4 others at a locally high-profile wedding, which appears to be cleared up with the apparent suicide a retired dentist and  shooting enthusiast.  Except he doesn’t fit the profile and there’s no motive:

After the team meeting, he was more convinced than ever that there was something fishy about the whole St Mary’s business. […] True, profiles aren’t always accurate, and Jenny had quite reasonably complained that she didn’t have enough to go on, but the comparison between what they knew of spree killers or mass murderers and what they had been able to discover about Martin Edgeworth’s character, life and actions just didn’t match up. Then there were the forensic and pathology details. It might be a long haul ahead, but there had to be a way of getting to the bottom of it.

And that’s what the police procedural aspect of Sleeping in the ground then proceeds to do, with Banks and various members of his team relentlessly talking to people, interviewing others, following a hunch picked up from reading a survivor of the shooting’s body language, and then sitting at the computer, digging in the records and local newspapers, and involving, naturally, the full pathologist and forensics CSI armoury.  This all rolls along nicely – with the slight early hiatus of the discussion on psychological profiling descending into a bit of a textbook recitation – to a thrilling and nail-biting climax in the raging waters of a flood, the outcome of which is by no means narratively certain, because – there’s no guarantee the copper involved will reappear in the next book (and I really hoped so).  The details and mechanics of the full crime are ingenious – or you could say, incredibly convoluted – but entirely acceptable to this reader at least in the overall context of the story.

The solution, the motivation for the massacre, goes back to another painful sequence of events in 1964.  So both Banks’s ruminative and nostalgic state of mind, and the origins of the crime, revolve around ghosts of the past.  Banks also considers, in passing, old cases he was involved with, and his failed marriage, and he finally gets to learn what went wrong with Emily.  The soap opera aspects of the Banks saga carry this looking back theme further with the return of two attractive characters from past books.

The profiler involved is one Jenny Fuller, last seen at about book 12, the woman Banks came nearest to committing adultery with when he was married.  She’s moved back in the area, and there’s no rush, they’re leaving things open as a possibility.  The other old face – not as previously prominent – is Annie Cabbot’s dad.  (For those unfamiliar with the books, Annie is an interesting longstanding member of Banks’ team, briefly his lover, who, frankly, Peter Robinson has lately wasted, through lack of focus).  Annie’s dad, Ray, has left the artists’ commune in Cornwall where Annie was raised – still sprightly enough, he’s feeling a bit old for all this modern concept stuff – and is looking to buy somewhere in the Dales to be near Annie; he makes a wonderful foil for Banks in his dotage.  There’s a joke about Annie warning Banks that Ray was listening to Dylan when he, Banks, was still in short trousers; to which Banks protests he was too listening to Dylan in short trousers.

So I hope that those two reappear strongly in future books, and that Gerry (Geraldine) Masterson, fast-track graduate who was impressive in the previous book and is a star in Sleeping in the ground, continues to have a prominent role.  The sparring of Annie Cabbot with Gerry and Jenny is an entertaining sideshow that also shows promise.  We also get a rare glimpse of the man back when:

It was a photograph. Banks held it by the candlelight. He and Emily in the early seventies. He was wearing a denim jacket over a T-shirt, and bell bottoms, and his hair was much longer than it was now.

For those who know the books, rest assured Peter Robinson continues to spray musical references and citations all over the place (I counted at least 35 – think it’s all getting a bit ridiculous and obscure, actually), along with a load of other cultural nods and winks.  As well as sharing musical tastes one playfully wonders sometimes just how much of Peter Robinson goes into his alter ego.  Like … here’s young Geraldine, unattached and not particularly looking, but:

When she let herself think about it, which wasn’t often, she realised that she wouldn’t mind at all going out with someone like Banks, if he wasn’t her boss, that is, that age wouldn’t really be an issue. He seemed healthy and young enough in body and spirit, was handsome in that lean and intense sort of way, and she certainly got the impression that he was interested in a wide range of subjects, so conversation wouldn’t be a problem. He also had a sense of humour, which she had been told by her mother was esential to a happy marriage. Not that she was having fantasies about marrying Banks, or even going out with him. Just that the whole idea didn’t seem so outrageous.

Anyway, the soundtrack for Sleeping in the ground (the title itself a song title, but later for that) touchingly starts and ends with David Bowie, with Starman from Ziggy Stardust played at the funeral, and Blackstar in the car near the end.  To which Geraldine says:

My dad likes David Bowie. I never really had much time for music.”
“You should make some,” Banks said. “It helps keep you sane and human in a crazy world, especially after a night like tonight.”

To which, Amen.  Banks is still reading poetry too, in particular, even before the funeral, Thomas Hardy‘s Poems 1912-1913, concerning the magic of first love; his novels get a couple of mentions too.  (Fuller details of the music and all this – not forgetting the alcohol modestly consumed – and more specific thoughts on the novel, can be found elsewhere here on Lillabullero at https://quavid.wordpress.com/about/peter-robinsons-inspector-banks-mysteries/, where it and others in the sequence are considered more systematically).

And so to the title.  It’s an obscure Blind Faith song, credited to Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood, and performed at that Hyde Park concert, though the song was never released until it appeared on the Clapton Crossroads box set.  It’s a mean-spirited, unredemptive and highly derivative – I might go so far as to say ‘nasty little’ – blues, that doesn’t constitute, be assured, anything like a plot-spoiler.  The Hyde Park rendition is also available on Youtube, but here’s some better keyboards:

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I love the opening, and title story, of Penelope Lively‘s first collection of short stories in twenty years.  And I love the opening of the opening story:

I am the Purple Swamp Hen.  Porphyrio porphyria, if you are into taxonomy and Latin binomials.  And, let me get this clear, I am Porphyrio porphyrio porphyrio, the nominate sub-species, not to be confused with the Australian lot […] And others. No, indeed, we are talking species definition here, the enduring stuff, and thus I endure – founding father, the Mediterranean nominate.

Do eighty year-olds write like this?  Well this one does.

Wondering where all this is going? Have patience. You’ll get your story. You know me. You know me on the famous garden fresco from Pompeii – somewhat faded, a travesty of my remarkable plumage, but nevertheless a passable portrait. You all exclaim over those frescos: the blues and greens, the precise depiction of flora and fauna. Oh, look! You cry – there are roses and ferns, oleanders, poppies, violets. […] You eye me with vague interest, and pass on. It’s just like a garden today! you cry.

That’s right.  We are being addressed by a bird on a fresco painted before 79 AD.  And it is anxious to rob us of any illusions.  Much is made in the other stories in this collection of POV – ‘point of view’.  A timeless garden scene?

      No, it isn’t. Wasn’t. […] make no mistake, the garden of Quintus Pompeius, where I passed my time, was nothing like any garden you’ve ever known.
      It hosted fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm – and that’s just Quintus Pompeius, his household and associates. We simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction; far more imaginative, Homo sapiens. […] Eat out, sleep out, wash the dishes, pluck a pigeon, gossip, quarrel, wallop an old slave, fuck that pretty new one, plot, scheme, bribe, threaten. Get drunk, utter obscenities, vomit in the acanthus.
I saw it all. I heard it all.
      Let me fill you in on the general situation that autumn …

Which is what happens over the next 6 pages.  Dispassionately, wryly – the specificity of the acanthus! – we get amorous intrigue, dark deeds and a slave’s escape as Vesuvius threatens, then does its worse.  A tour de force.  The swamp hens, in the garden for decoration, flee to an ecologically appropriate marshy place, a habitat somewhat but not catastrophically threatened these days, our frescoed narrator assures us.

The other fourteen stories in The purple swamp hen (2016) are set in a later age.  From 1947 (a mother doing a Mrs Bennet – the story’s title – for her three daughters, the social sands shifting as each ‘comes of age’) to pretty much now, a couple of them with a gothic tinge.  They may seem to concern mainly middle class problems, but there’s a universality to the causes and resolutions.

How changing social mores and times affect individuals, the simple random contingencies of how couples come together (and how they turn out), the aforementioned importance of recognising others’ points of view, the dilemmas and otherwise of getting old, all are exposed in neat, forensic, sometimes staccato prose, often the sweet being in the sour.

A young home-help discovering the woman she helps was a spy, the ‘truth’ of writing and publishing a biography of someone recently deceased, a scriptwriter finding her professional skills are failing her in her own life – these are just three of the stories.  Abroad – opening line “50 years ago there were peasants in Europe” – has ’50s artists living cheaply in Europe using peasants as subject matter … until they run out of money and have to pay their debts in kind.  Lorna and Tim , the history of a marriage, has rich-from-birth Lorna left still not understanding how it failed; last devastating line – “You were rich.”  I think I shall be reading more Penelope Lively.

On the right here is the bookmark I was using while reading The purple swamp hen.  Quite apt in itself in that the stories take place in the decades portrayed, and the revolutionary paperback imprint Penguin was launched just a couple of years after its author was born.  As it happens, there’s a character in the very next book I read who collects Penguins: “I got a couple of Graham Greenes,” said Clean Head with satisfaction. The three-and-six editions. With the full colour Paul Hogarth art.”” Clean Head is a shaven-headed African-caribbean taxi driver, whose name I suspect derives from the jazz and blues singer Eddie Cleanhead Vincent in whose band a young John Coltrane once played, but I digress.   Now while the specific editions mentioned are not actually represented on the bookmark – that would be too perfect – I have a weakness for these little synchronicities, and it’s close enough for me.  And it is precisely the charm of these specific details that has me hooked on The Vinyl Detective.

The invention of a ’60s rock group for novelistic purposes is quite a hard act for a writer to pull off, and Andrew Cartmel doesn’t do badly at all in the The Vinyl Detective: The run out groove (Titan, 2017), the second in a series featuring said VD, a man with no name, whose business is finding rare vinyl but whose innocent jokey business card usage of the word ‘detective’ gets taken literally by others and hence into various scrapes.  Unlike the globetrotting first book in the series, this one stays in the UK.

Valerian is both the band’s name – out of the ’60s Canterbury scene – and the name its charismatic vocalist (“an English Janis Joplin“) went by.  The band broke up with her unexplained suicide, and mystery has always surrounded what happened to her young child.  It has been surmised (myths ahoy!) that the run-off groove – you know, like on Sergeant Pepper – that the run-off groove of the band’s last single – only briefly released and quickly withdrawn after her death and hence extremely rare – might offer solutions to what happened.  A relative from the US and a journalist are looking for a copy of that single … and we’re off on a plot taking all sorts of twists and turns involving a variety of ’60s survivors, and including, not least, an acid trip in a burning house and some gravedigging.  Entertainingly absurd, of course, but all done racingly well, and coming to a satisfactory and heart-warming conclusion.   The writing is smart, the series characters – a good quirky team, including the two cats – full of charm.  It would make a great tv series, properly casted, à la Beiderbecke Tapes.

I’m a sucker for the incidentals, the details – a sort of obnoxious knowingness – which may be lost on many potential readers but ring bells for me.  Like: “They might have a copy of the Artwoods’ first album, the original Decca issue, with the Mod cover.” Tinkler’s voice had softened rhapsodically.”  Or: “It’s a Garrard 301,” said Tinkler. “It’s built like a Russian T-34 tank”” – vinyl rules, obviously.  There’s even a Clean Head disquisition on the re-badging of DAF cars with variomatic transmissions as Volvos – the factuality of which I do not doubt – which while to me gibberish, still entertains in context.  I just about remember Lita Roza, or at least That doggie in the window:

I went to put some music on, to lighten the mood. I chose a Decca ten inch of Lita Roza. It was one of her true jazz recordings. She was singing here with the Tony Kinsey Quartet, including the mighty Joe Harriott on sax. The Colonel turned and listened for a minute and said, “Didn’t this girl sing ‘(How much is that) Doggie in the window’?” “She did indeed,” I said, “but not on this record, thank god.”

Guitarist Eric Make Loud – Eric McCloud to his mum – is a great creation:

Erik Make Loud strode towards us, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “My involvement with her was that I had to use the toilet on the band bus after she did and breathe the stink of her shit. I breathed the stink of her shit for four years in that band. Four years in a career that has spanned fifty years.” he actually said ‘spanned’. “I’ve played with dozens of bands and hundreds of musicians. But all anybody wants to talk about is Valerian.  It was all over a lifetime ago, but all anyone wants to talk about is Valerian.”  We’d hit a sore spot all right.

They get around him by zooming in on his playing with Frank Zappa.  But it’s that “he actually said ‘spanned'” is the kitemark of quality.  I look forward to the next volume, which apparently moves into the world of classical music.

Last month‘s Book Group book was Patrick Ness‘s A monster calls, which for me was a re-read.  The Book Group copy was the plain text edition of 2012, as opposed to the stunning prize-winning 2011 illustrated one shown here, and for me it had lost none of its power, nevertheless.  Others in the group were less willing to overlook its origin as ‘teenage fiction’ and were less spellbound by its spellbinding blend of horror, fantasy, Jungian symbolism, compassion and a young teenager’s off-handedness.

Conor’s mum is dying, his dad elsewhere, his grandma is a nightmare ( “… the way she talked to him, like he was an employee under evaluation“) and he has withdrawn into himself at school when his situation became known.  A tree, a Green Man’s representative of a tree, walks up and starts telling him stories (You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?“) and leaving berries on his bedroom floor.  The resolution of all this, his pain at home, at school, the moral of the tale – I’m not saying – is beautifully done; it had me lachrymose and beaming. 

What I picked up on this time was the tone of the prose, Conor’s surface refusal to descend into melodramatics:

      The monster looked at him quizzically. How strange, it said. The words you say tell me you are scared of the berries, but your actions seem to suggest otherwise.
“You’re as old as the land and you’ve never heard of sarcasm?” Conor asked.
Oh, I have heard of it, the monster said, putting its huge branch hands on its hips. But people usually know better than to speak it to me.

How effective the italicisation of the yew tree’s voice is!  As is the defense of story: Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might awake?”  And, finally, how about this as a summation of young boy’s misery?:

Some bread in the toaster, some cereal in a bowl, some juice in a glass, and he was ready to go, sitting down at the little table in the kitchen to eat. His mum had her own bread and cereal which she bought at a health food shop in town and which Conor thankfully didn’t have to share. It tasted as unhappy as it looked.


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Augustus

How do you oppose a foe who is wholly irrational and unpredictable – and yet who, out of animal energy and accident of circumstance, has attained a most frightening power?”

It’s a problem, right?  In  this instance – John Williams‘ brilliant historical novel Augustus (1973) – they’re talking about Mark Anthony.  I am so in awe of this novel that I feel the need to escape from hyperbole by slipping into anecdotage.

One of those significant moments of advance in one’s intellectual life: an A-level essay on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which I kick off with a quote from Dylan’s recently released Maggie’s Farm – “Well I’ve tried my best / to be just like I am / But every body wants me / to be just like them.”  Turns out in the end he was a bit of a tosser “who did not even perform his own suicide well …

It is often suggested that life in Ancient Greece and Rome – events, ideas, dilemmas that I have skipped over – have in essence anticipated pretty much everything that has gone down since.  It seems a reasonable notion, and one I’m a lot more likely to explore after reading Augustus.

It’s an incredible story.  When he was 19, Octavius Caesar, Julius Caesar’s nephew, JC’s recently adopted son and successor, was off on a Greek island doing student stuff with his mates (and being educated).  No long after, in 44 BC,  JC was famously assassinated, and Octavius – like Brazilian footballers he took to being known as Augustus a bit later, as Emperor and, um, god – hastened back to a Rome that was in chaos, with civil war in prospect.  No-one expected him to pick up the reins, but he did.  When he was 19.  Diversionary tactic 2: cue my mate Naomi Rose’s song Nineteen because now it’s there it won’t go away:

By the time Augustus died he had left an economically prosperous Roman Empire at peace within itself and secure within its extensive borders – the era that is known as the Pax Romana.  But not without huge personal cost.  The story is told in a patchwork of lletters, memos and memoirs, petitions and poems, senatorial proceedings, reports, military orders, and journal notes – chronologically, but with the dates of the sources jumping backwards and forwards, providing a commentary on events. 

As the book progresses more and more space is given to the journal of Augustus’s daughter, Julia, whom he loves, but who has been callously, strategically, used over the years, and is sentenced to a lonely exile by him, for treason.  She has been on a hell of a journey.  Ordered by her father, “I returned to Rome in the consulship of Tiberius Claudius Nero … Who had been a goddess returned to Rome a mere woman, and in bitterness.”  Furthermore “I was not to be free. One year and four months after the death of Marcus Agrippa [an old, gay, mate of his] my father betrothed me to Tiberius Claudius Nero. He was the only one of my husbands whom I ever hated.”  Her fate: “So I am once again to be the brood sow for the pleasure of Rome.”  Hers is a tale that could easily stand as an outstanding work of its own.  She achieves a certain liberation, experiences sensual pleasure and ultimately reaches a peace in her situation:

Father,” I asked, “has it been worth it? “Your authority, this Rome that you have saved, this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?”
My father looked at me for a long time, and then he looked away. “I must believe it has,” he said. “We both must believe it has.”

The books ends with an astonishing 36 pages, as a lonely dying Augustus, voyaging out at sea, looks back over his life in a sequence of letters to the only surviving friend of his youth, a scholar.  It is one of the most powerful sustained passages I have read in a long time.  It’s fiction, of course, so one doesn’t know, but … well, try this:

Thus I did not determine to change the world out of an easy idealism and selfish righteousness that are invariably the harbingers of failure, nor did I determine to change the world so that my wealth and power might be enhanced; wealth beyond one’s comfort has always seemed to me the most boring of possessions, and power beyond its usefulness has seemed the most contemptible. It was destiny that seized me that afternoon at Apollonia nearly 60 years ago, and I chose not to avoid its embrace.

Compared to Alexander the Great, he opines that Alexander had it lucky, dying so young, “else he would have come to know that if to conquer the world is a small thing, to rule it is even less.”
“… I have never wished to conquer the world, and I have been more nearly ruled than ruler.”

He puts in a good word for the poets, whose company was often held against him:

Of the many services that Maecenas performed for me, the most important seems to me now to be this: He allowed me to know the poets to whom he gave his friendship. They were among the most remarkable men I have ever known …

I could trust the poets because I was unable to give them what they wanted …

Horace once told me that laws were powerless against the private passions of the human heart, and only he who has no power over it, such as the poet or the philosopher, may persuade the human spirit to virtue.

Great book.  Capital G.

Razor Girl

And now for something completely different.  I love reading Carl Hiaasen, just gulp his books down.  What it says on the cover.  He specialises in outlandish, yet I thought the actions of the woman of the title of his latest book were too much, even for the Florida of his oeuvre.  And then I read the disclaimer to Razor Girl (Sphere, 2016):

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. However, true events in South Florida provided the lurid material for certain strands of this novel, beginning with the opening scene. The author also wishes he’d dreamed up the part about the giant Gambian pouched rats, but he didn’t. Those suckers are real.

There’s a lovely rhythm to his writing that just pulls you along.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

On the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it.

That ‘He nearly made it’, if you’re familiar with Carl Hiaasen, is no harbinger of doom for Coolman, but rather an invitation to the reading treat in store.  He keeps a handful of narratives going and works seamlessly to intertwine them with calamitous and desperate irony.

There‘s the central character, Yancey, a disgraced detective who now, busted to public hygiene inspector, works the roach patrol in local restaurants, is anxious to get his old job back.  So he involves himself in what starts as a mistaken kidnapping which introduces into the plot a top-rated scripted fake reality TV show called Bayou Brethren about a hillbilly family business breeding speciality chickens for fly-fishing flies.  Enter a psychopathic fan of the show who has bought into its conceit – including unofficial dodgy right-wing rants on YouTube –  wholesale. Then there’s the out-of-his-depth guy running an eco-destructive con providing sand to hotel beaches who owes money to the mafia, who ends up mid-chase electrocuting himself trying to recharge a stolen Tesla.  Not to mention the tangled love lives and Yancey’s real estate problem of how to get rid of potential next-door neighbours threatening to build big and destroy his view. Among other things.

Hiaasen is basically a moralist, appalled at what big money has done and is doing to Florida.  Razor Girl displays less of the eco-warrior than usual – and it’s hard not to rue the non-appearance of Skink, the ragged one-eyed wild man ex-governor of Florida who’s gone native in the Keys, who features in some of his other books, but Hiaasen is still rooting – relatively speaking – for the good guys, albeit with many degrees of grey on the way.  The mafia guy is appalled to discover that the beach con man has been using a fake Helper Dog jacket on any old mutt to milk the privileges that one brings.

Carl Hiaasen is a master of dialogue and pushing the action along.  And he can be very very funny.

The reader on the 6.27

Weird, touching on desolation, yet charming, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent‘s The reader on the 6.27 (Mantle, 2015), translated by Ros Schwartz), is one of those shortish books that seem to only ever appear in translation.

Guylain Vignolles has not had it easy with a name that, subjected to spoonerist manipulation, gets him called ‘Ugly Puppet’.  He has a soul-crushing job in a factory pulping books.  He rescues random pages that escape the machine and recites them out loud next day to commuters on the train to work.  Some even look forward to it.  At work there’s a bossy boss and a jealous assistant.  There’s a sub-plot that takes in his reading for an hour, by invitation, at an old people’s home.

A while ago there had been an accident at work and a friend had lost a leg to the grinding machine; he, the friend, had traced how the pulp produced that day had been used, and was buying up copies of the cook book printed on that paper; he’s buying copies up.  Guylain helps him by pursuing second-hand copies at weekends, looking to help his friend get some sort of closure from a full set on his bookshelves.

One day on the train home Guylain finds a USB stick and discovers thereon a quirky document written by a woman working as a concierge in a public toilet in a shopping centre.  Enchanted, it is from this he now reads to his fellow commuters, and makes it his mission to find the writer.  And in the end, a drawn out love story.  Weird, charming, and highly recommended.

Scribal Gathering

You’d think the energy, industry and invention that went into The Antipoet would be enough for most mortals, but no, Paul Eccentric (“the mouthy half of … the beatrantin’ rhythm’n’views act” as estimable host Jonathan JT Taylor described him in the events page for the evening on FB) is an accomplished solo spoken word performer and, after a change of jacket, seated vocalist with the entertaining Polkabililly Circus,  who variously rocked, folked, emoted and mixed it up as you’d expect from their name. (Not to mention his other side projects:  http://pauleccentric.co.uk/ ).  Another fine way to spend an evening with Scribal: other poets and musicians were standing.

Archivists please note: JMD was unable to attend.

YorkieFest 2017

Best for me at YorkieFest this year, the fifth no less, were tucked away in the middle of the day.  Innocent Hare‘s repertoire draws masterfully from a number of folk traditions and the trio – a family affair – ebulliently led by Chloe Middleton-Metcalfe, went down a storm with the modest collection of souls in attendance at that time.  The ever immaculate harmonies and musicality of The Straw Horses followed, and in retrospect it was a mistake on my part to try to eat a vegetarian crepe (from La Crepe Franglais) – delicious though it was, it required concentration with that plastic fork – while they were on.  The continent-wide African guitar work from Safari Boots impressed. 

Special mention should also be made for my introduction to the sport and art of Tea Duelling from The Order of the Teapot, aka the local Steampunks.  It involves biscuit dunking, judgment skills and a lot of nerve.  Shame a few more didn’t come given all Pat Nicholson (one half of Growing Old Disgracefully, or GOD) and others’ hard work, but glad to say, money was made for the charities supported.

Chloe gave me a sticker to stick on an instrument to spread the word. I guess this my instrument. And I’ll stick it on the notebook I carry.

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Well, that was fun.  I enjoyed Andrew Cartmel‘s The Vinyl Detective: written in dead wax (Titan Books, 2016) a lot.  This rollercoaster romp manages to meld the humdrum existence of a laid back London-based vinyl record dealer onto a James Bond adventure fantasy occasioned by an international music industry conspiracy involving the original output of an obscure US West Coast jazz label back in the 1950s (though don’t let the jazz put you off).  We get a classic Bond villain in his lair (in the side of a mountain in Japan), a pair of highly stylised mercenary fixers, a couple of Bond (though more interesting) girls, and a two-pronged technology hit of retro valve-driven amps and accompaniments and high-end modern surveillance equipment.  Among other things.

The narrator of The Vinyl Detective is a man-with-no-name of charm, wit, and a neat combination of innocence and cynicism.  He buys and sells vinyl records for a living, had some business cards printed wittily touting his trade as ‘The Vinyl Detective’ a while back; it comes back to haunt him.  But before all this (I’m cheating a bit with the quote, but no harm is being done):

I put on my crate-diving shoes – I mean, my crate-digging shoes … hitting every charity shop, junk shop or antique shop that might be harbouring a box of records record fares, jumble sales … [record fairs and jumble sales also feature] …
in Chiswick I found it.
It was a copy of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, on the Capitol rainbow-rimmed label – an original mono pressing instead of the fake stereo. A British copy, but immaculate. That night I flipped it on the Internet and made enough money to buy food for me and the cats for the next two weeks.

Oh yes, our man also has two cats, Fanny and Turk; they play their part well.

It’s all so nicely done.  The pursuit – the fictional rarest record in the world, emanating from a suitably obscure corner of jazz history, with a story all of its own, is well-chosen – takes him to Japan, there’s an interesting and dramatic interlude in rural Wales, while there are some vivid escapades, landscapes and meetings in the inevitable trip to America; not to mention a recognisable London as backdrop.  The world of vinyl record collecting is both gloried in and lampooned, and little cultural references add sparkle (for me at least) throughout:

I sped through immigration and customs and found myself outside a few minutes later, blinking in the warm exhaust fumes. Ree was at my side. We collected her car from the long-term parking.
It’s a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda. Arguably the fastest production car ever made in America.”
I won’t argue with you.”
[…] The muscular lines of the dark grey car made it look like a dark crouching beast. “Is it the car from
Bullitt?”
She snorted with amusement. “That was a Mustang.”
Just trying to take an interest,” I said.

That’s one girlfriend, a singer, who wonders why it’s always the electric bass players always hit on her, while “ acoustic bass players are pretty much always perfect gentlemen”.  Here’s the other, Nevada, who I imagine as looking like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, our man giving her a disquisition on how it’s only cooked chicken bones that are a problem for cats, so:

… I’m always left with a freezer full of drumsticks. So I casserole them with olive oil and lemon and garlic.”
Oh, okay, I see,” said Nevada, getting up. “I thought it was your signature dish. Lovingly prepared especially for me. And now it turns out it’s the cats’ leftovers.”
That’s right.”

The Vinyl Detective is full of stuff like that, as well as all the action and twists.  I look forward to the two sequels already announced.

 

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Vita Brevis

vita-brevisI really enjoy Ruth Downie‘s Roman mysteries.  Right from the dramatis personae that introduce them. Vita brevis (Bloomsbury, 2016), for instance, kicks off by saying it’s a novel “in which our hero Gaius Petreius Ruso will be” variously “Accompanied by … / Commanded by … / Entertained by … / Disapproved of by … ” & so on,  with some characters appearing in more than one category.  At the end Ruth appends, “He will fail to meet the following characters whom his author devised but barely used.”

These books are fun.  Which is not in any way to denigrate the intelligence, wit, historical research, social observation and humanity – never mind the tremendous action, atmosphere and narrative drive – that they contain.  Parallels with contemporary life here and now are never far away.  Bad things happen to good people, and vice versa, set against a morality that can draw on many shades of grey in between.

I’ve said it before, but Ruso and his wife, Tilla, are one of the great double acts of crime or indeed any contemporary fiction.  Ruso is a military medic from Gaul who served with the Roman army in Britannia, where he met ex-slave Tilla, a native Brigantian.  A mixed marriage, then, a fruitful ground for an author to even-handedly play around with.  He the sceptic (“Perhaps he was just naturally miserable. Or perhaps the gods in whom he didn’t quite believe were getting their revenge on him“), she open to anything (“If you believe in ghosts and Christos and the normal gods and all your gods from Britannia” he chides).

In Vita brevis, at the behest of his old boss, the pair are taking their chance in Rome.  It does not go well from the start, the streets are not so much paved with gold as with a dead body in a barrel left outside their new abode, before they’ve even moved in, and subsequent events only make things worse.  They get involved with, among others, a dubious and powerful slum landlord, the local law enforcement, and, for good measure, are caught up in a dangerous romantic sub-plot for good measure.  No surprise, things work out in the end, the bad guys do not prosper … and this reader is delighted to discover they are heading back to Britannia again, hopefully for the next book.

Where I think Ruth Downie is particularly acute (cute even) is in drawing out the universality of social life over the centuries. In Rome Ruso and Tilla are seen as provincials, and Tilla, particularly annoyed at being assumed to be from Germania, struggles with the modernity of city life:

How will we ever be safe in this city? There is nobody in charge.”
There’s a chap called the urban prefect, and there are departments for -”
But it is not how a tribe should be,” she insisted. “I thought before we came … But there is no tribe called the Romans.”
There are several different -”
It is just lots of strangers all living in one place and fighting to get by.”
We’ll get used to it,” he promised, realising this was not the time for a lecture on the benefits of civilisation, literacy and the rule of law.”

The matter of the rise of the rebel Christian religion is neatly handled from many angles:

Tilla closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall. Whatever her husband might think of the followers of Christos, and no matter how much she herself might want to gag Sister Dorcas, the man with the child’s voice had been right about one thing. It was good to have friendly neighbours.

(Already) Sister Dorcas being a joyless dragon, blaming all bad luck on sin.  But with regard to a woman giving up her unwanted baby:

“I just don’t want him to go to no followers of Christos.”
Why is that?”
They meet in secret and kill babies and eat them, Ma says.”
Your ma has been misinformed,” said Tilla, because that sounded better than Your ma is an ignorant gossip.

(Our author also has a neat line in using italics in just such unspoken circumstances.)

Ruth Downie‘s prose is nicely paced, both relaxed and yet involving, and it doesn’t suffer any when it is cranked up for some action.  She handles the motif of Ruso and Tilla’s cultural differences deftly.  Tilla trying to be “a good Roman wife” but giving up, because “It was very confusing having to say one thing and mean another all the time“; as opposed to back in Britannia, where, Ruso says, “women tended to think they could get involved in whatever they liked, and where men saw the look in their eyes and tended to let them.”  But one sympathises with his reaction whenever she launches “ into one of her interminable songs about her ancestors” – a nice running joke.  There is also a lovely bit of framing of the whole narrative, too, involving a young character with no name, both unhappily literally delivering the source of our heroes’ initial problem on their arrival, and, who, having found a job that gives him some satisfaction, is there working on the boat that sets them on their journey away.

I have a suspicion that Ruth is a P.G.Wodehouse fan.  You want more evidence?

Ruso shrugged. “You know how it is.” It was a statement that he had found to be both meaningless and useful.  People rarely admitted that they didn’t know how it was.

And “Jupiter’s bollocks!” seems an entirely reasonable curse to me.

 

 

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ian-rankin-rather-be-the-devil

But it’s only the new one until the next one (why not a sticker if you must?); and thankfully it’s the same old Rebus – no remake or remodel – doing his stuff anyway.

Siobhan Clarke was in a corridor of the Royal Infirmary, phone held up to her face, when she recognised Rebus making his way towards her.
­‘You’re limping,’ she said.
‘Just to correct you, I’m actually walking like John Wayne.’
‘John Wayne had a limp?’
‘Technically it’s called “moseying”.’
‘So you didn’t hurt yourself kicking in a door?’

There is a lot of sharp dialogue in Rather be the devil, the latest installment in Ian Rankin‘s Rebus saga, and highly enjoyable it all is too.  The retired Rebus is picking over a society murder case that had frustrated him earlier in his career, while his old mate and protegé DI Siobhan Clarke is involved in a case involving an Edinburgh criminal gang boss.  An ex-cop that Rebus goes to see is murdered not long after their meeting, and to Siobhan’s chagrin that case is taken up by Police Scotland’s elite squad, where another Rebus regular Malcolm Fox is now working.

Inevitably – this is crime fiction, after all – the cases are intriguingly discovered to be tangentially linked, not to forget an East-European connection, and the plotting provides ample room for Rebus putting his oar in and generally getting in the way, and for inter-police re-organisation rivalries to be played out on various levels, down to an entertaining sub-plot as to who gets the milk and provides the biscuits.  Old rival old school gang boss Big Gerry Cafferty – still a player – ends up figuring significantly and the tantalising prospect is held out at the close of proceedings that the next book will indeed be, in current tv terms, a spectacular series finale involving a final conflict between our man and Big Ger.

I get the impression Rankin really enjoyed doing this one.  Don’t get me wrong, Rather be the devil rattles along as effectively as ever, Rankin the plot-juggler still more than adept at keeping the balls in the air and the tension up, but the writing seems at times to take on a more relaxed feel.  Rebus has health worries – a “Hank Marvin”, a shadow on his lung – and is drinking low alcohol beers, chewing nicotine gum; he is also (hurray!) in a stable relationship with a woman.  Even though Rebus’s cold case involves a rock musician, the explicit musical references – becoming something of a genre cliché in certain circles – are thankfully more restrained.  The book’s title is still taken from a track on John Martyn’s Solid air album, though …

john-martin-solid-airstaring out at the night. Then he had walked to the record deck. Solid air was still there from the evening Deborah Quant had stayed over. It was an album that had always been there for him, no matter the troubles in his life. And Hadn’t John Martyn been troubled too? Johnny Too Bad – hitting the booze, falling out and brawling with friends and lovers. One leg hacked off in the operating theatre. But barreling on through life, singing and playing until the end.

… and without giving anything away there’s Over the hill, another Solid air track playing in the background in the restaurant in the final pages.  Rory Gallagher is really the only other featured artist.  Rebus is on a long drive with Malcolm Fox:

… I need to do a bit of thinking, which necessitates muting you – sorry about that.’
‘Muting me?’
Rebus reached for the stereo, pushing a button. Music burst from the speakers, filling the car as Rebus pressed his foot against the accelerator. Had Fox been any kind of music buff, he might have recognised the guitar sound, Rory Gallagher, ‘Kickback City’.

Ah, Malcolm Fox.  I salute you, Ian Rankin, for keeping faith with the man you created in your writer’s holiday from Rebus, and I realise you’re trying here, with Rebus off-handedly tutoring him in the ways of becoming a ‘real’ detective, in his heroism, but he’s condemned in his own words: “nobody paid him any heed.  He remembered that he was good at this – blending in, becoming invisible. He’d always enjoyed stakeouts and tailing suspects“; I’m afraid he remains anonymous, I can’t visualise him.  Siobhan deserves better as a beau (which seems to be the way the wind’s blowing).

Ah, Siobhan.  Calls for a bit of a diversion beyond teh printed page.  The original Rebus TV series, with John Hannah in the lead part, didn’t really work; Hannah was too young, too handsome.  I seem to recall that Rankin – apart from a Hitchcockian appearance as an extra – said he wasn’t getting involved in the production or script side of things at all.  Not even wanting to watch the finished product.  Something about Colin Dexter’s Morse, how in Dexter’s later books Morse morphed into the character actor John Thaw was playing, that the author allowed himself to lose control of his creation.

rebus_7078788Subsequent series of Rebus, with Ken Stott’s Rebus the living breathing character straight off the page, have fared much better in reflecting the books.  I’ve been watching them again recently and they strike me as being one of the best cop shows out there.  What I do wonder is whether Ian Rankin has been watching; although the character in the book has not changed, the dialogue here is sharper and wittier and I can’t help but, when reading, see it coming out of Ken Stott’s mouth.

But Siobhan … how great is Claire Price’s portrayal of Siobhan?  Impossible, I’d say, to replicate her reactions in prose: the half-smile, her muted grimaces, the odd gentle smirk – sometimes all at the same time –  her whole facial repertoire of affection, amusement, appalled admiration and suppressed surprise; but they all had to be hinted there in the text for her to pick so fully up on.  Worth a mention too is Jennifer Black’s performances as DCI Gill Templar, Rebus’s boss and former lover; the scene where Siobhan Clarke discovers that past liaison is a joy to behold.  Tremendous performances that I don’t think get the credit they deserve, and fully born of the books.

Before we leave Edinburgh here’s a snippet, a taste and feel of the lightness among the mayhem in Rather be the devil:

The solitary barman was entertaining the only two drinkers in the place to a sullen silence, the new arrivals doing nothing except darken his mood.
‘Help ye?’ he snapped.
‘Bottle of your best champagne, please,’ Rebus said.
‘If ye want fizz, we’ve got cider and lager.’
‘Both of them fine substitutes.’ Rebus held out the two photos. ‘Care to take a look?’

… dialogue  the likes of which you are unlikely to find many examples in the works of Alice Munro, where the odd wry smile is more the order of the day among much else of emotional import and the forensic examination is mostly taking place in the particular region of the heart.  Come to think of it, Siobhan might have escaped from one of her stories.

alice-munro-dear-lifeNobel Prize for Literature winner Alice Munro has been on my check-her-out list for at least a couple of decades, so thanks to the Book Group I can tick her off that list and transfer her onto the almost-certainly-read-some-more one.  (These are not real lists).  Shame of it is I left the reading of Dear Life (2012) late for the Book Group meeting and so had to zip through it when really I should have been savouring every word.

Hers is not a flashy prose, but it sings, takes you straight into how her people feel the changes in their lives; she documents social change in communities – post-war rural church-going, small town Canada through to the ’70s – through the events in women’s and men’s lives.  Intense, insightful, poignant, painful, melancholic, nuanced, rarely but oh so sweetly celebratory.  Loves lost, love foiled, found or never had.  Hopes extinguished, held on to, or newly discovered through the shifting sands of contingency, coincidence, happenstance.  And growing old.  That title – Dear Life – puts it so nicely.

Dear Life, published when she was 81, so probably her last collection, consists of 10 short stories and a Finale of 4 “not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.”  These ‘not quite’ stories are fascinating, covering her childhood and early youth: the moment she failed to believe her socially aspiring mother; her father seeing her through a scary unhappiness, and various other events, described so vividly:

I think that if I was writing fiction instead of remembering something that happened, I would never have given her that dress. A kind of advertisement she didn’t need. [from Voices]

You would think that this was just too much. The business gone, my mother’s health going, it wouldn’t do in fiction. But the strange thing is that I don’t remember that time as unhappy. There wasn’t a particularly despairing mood around the house. [from Dear Life]

There’s enough in the ten stories for at least half of them to justify novels of their own.  Dolly, which starts with an old couple, the man a poet once celebrated for his first book of love poems, looking for the perfect place to end their lives together, before they become too decrepit (spoiler alert: they don’t) takes on some wondrous and distressing turns in the twenty or thirty odd pages as the story unfolds.  Haven, a multi-layered family tale of disastrous good intentions involving a cellist and sibling indifference, builds to a stunning climax at a big church funeral, and along the way contains a deliciously strident (what we could now call anti-metropolotitan elite) rant:

“Now tell me,” my uncle is saying, addressing me as if nobody else were there, “tell me, do your parents go in for this sort of thing? What I mean is, this kind of music? Concerts and the like? They ever pay money to sit down for a couple of hours and wear their bottoms out listening to something they wouldn’t recognize half a day later? Pay money simply to perpetrate a fraud? You ever know them to do that?”

Funnily enough, at Book Group, most of us loved Dear Life, save the youngest member and a Jungian therapist.  But I’ll be reading more.

 

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