The Secret History
By Donna Tartt
Quite a cult book and one I've been tempted to read for years. Now I've read it, I know why it's so highly regarded. I really enjoyed it and it turned into one of those rare books you recognise as special as you read it, and one you don't want to finish.
Right from the start, you know the name of the victim and the perpetrators; the rest of the book is a slow but fascinating exposition of why this happened. As Tartt has said, this is a whydunnit not a "whodunnit". We know all the details of the crime and what led up to it half way through the book and are left with the consequences.
The novel follows a group of six students at a Vermont College through the eyes of Richard Papen, a newcomer and outsider. From California, he invents a more privileged back-story to cover his humble origins and to try and fit in with the others. They're East coast and richer. One or two are extremely well off, although there's a bit of an aura of dissolution around. Henry is the dark core of the group: tall, strong and a language savant, in love with the ancient world but cold and a bit odd. This group are "elite" in that they decide to drop almost everything except Classics, studying with one teacher only, the charismatic scholar Julian Morrow. They live and breathe in Greek and are submerged in a world very different to the modern. In fact, for much of the book, the world I felt submerged in was more F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and the "gilded" 20's rather than the 1980's. The occasional reminders that the world we're in is actually the modern one was a jolt sometimes.
Great characters are the centre of the book and the story is driven forwards to an unexpected conclusion; you see things are starting to fall apart somewhat but never know where the pieces might end up.
I have also bought Tartt's The Goldfinch and look forward to reading it.
By Emily St. John Mandel
Existence is very fragile, as is civilisation, and few think about the perils of living without running water or electricity. They are exactly the sort of thing you need to do if you're writing a book like this though. If a virulent flu virus was ever to sweep the world again, as one did in 1918, civilisation might come to crashing halt.
Emily St. John Mandel's novel tells the story of some people caught up in such a calamity, as things fall apart after a new flu epidemic kills most of the planet's inhabitants. There is enough realism here to make you face the likely effects, a horror or what it means as everything stops working and people die, but she doesn't dwell on the horror and this is not a horror story. Switching between a select few characters whose lives intersect in some way pre and post-fall, the story never becomes morbid or hopeless. Kirsten, one of the main characters, acts in a travelling theatre and orchestra, staging Shakespeare to scattered survivors living in various settlements in the American and Canadian heartland. There is no one main character but enough characterisation is done to create believable people.
When I got to the end of the book, there was some sort of "study guide": questions a teacher might ask students to think or write about. Although the book does not seem to have a "young adult" label anywhere I could see, it had that feel about it. I think I started to consider this about half way through; perhaps the lack of swearing. This was nothing I missed.
A good novel and one I enjoyed.
Noise of Time
By Julian Barnes
When you chop wood, the chips fly: that's what the builders of socialism liked to say. Yet what if you found, when you laid down your axe, you had reduced the whole timberyard to nothing but chips?
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, the first Julian Barnes I've read. It tells the story of Dmitri Shostakovich, the famous Russian composer, in his own words, as he lives and tries to survive the calamitous 20th Century. Born before the Bolshevik Revolution, he lived his entire working life in Soviet Russia, much of it under Stalin, with all that meant.
The book is very funny in parts, but also sad and poignant. There are some beautiful descriptions of the strange life one has to lead in such a world and the contradictions he faced. And of course, the compromises made. A wonderful book about a man who knew his limitations and struggled to create his art under the most trying circumstances.
By Michel Houellebecq
Quite a timely novel, and it caused a bit of stir on release a year or so ago. In the near future (I think 2020 or so in the book), the French Presidential election run-off comes down to Marine Le Pen of the Front National and an Islamic Party. In this alternate election, both the Right and the Left in France have imploded and the Muslim Brotherhood party just pip the Socialists to the run-off. France looks to be headed to civil war and to stave off calamity, the Socialists and Islamists strike a deal, win the election and form a government. Crazy?
It's very funny in parts, and Houellebecq writes a very good, jaded French Professor, an expert in a particular 19th Century French writer. The ennui of an academic. He's apolitical and uninterested in much of what's going on, other than it distracts from chasing girls. In the end, big changes actually happen and the French establishment seem to accept it.
Maybe a bit far-fetched but Houellebecq has fun with it and the book's a quick and easy read. It's interesting reading a French perspective but also quite unsettling in the matter of fact way a societal change like this might get rationalised. On the big day, the media seems to have a bit of a blackout, and mobile communications go down. There's a hint of smoke in the distance, gun shots and one or two bodies seen; but then maybe we can get used to the new order?
For the Professor, a large pay rise is one welcome thing on the cards, but what really sets him thinking about the future is the dangling of the likelihood of an arranged wife, maybe more than one. All satire of course, and it is funny in parts, which makes up for the fact that it's only a slight "novel" and many characters are only hooks for him to hang some political and economic background..
So, finally Le Pen is crushed again and President Macron takes the crown. But as Peter Hitchens writes, what happens next time around?
His column is worth a read and very thought-provoking. Houellebecq's novel worries you in a similar way.
By William Golding
From Milton's Paradise Lost:
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.
Golding's novel is a tale of good and evil, morality and immorality. The nameless young boy who survives the Blitz though horribly burned down one side of his face and body is given the name "Matty", and we follow his odd progress through life. There's something strange with him: he sees "ghosts" and has memorised the bible. He does not know "what he is". The second strange character is Sophy, one half of a set of twins. Her sister Toni grows up, runs away and seems to be some sort of terrorist. There also seems to be something wrong with Sophy. Not only does she see a "Sophy-thing" inside her head, she can play act an innocence and take advantage of a keen intelligence, and a female body. Matty and Sophy are unsettling protagonists and it makes for uncomfortable reading being in their heads sometimes.
I had quite a bit of trouble with Darkness Visible, sometimes losing the sense of the narrative and re-reading a section to try and pick it up. I often couldn't, especially the strange inner landscapes of Matty's or Sophy's head. The last Golding book I read was Lord of the Flies, a long time ago for a school exam and I felt I needed crib book with notes again. This might explain some of my difficulty here; or maybe I'm a bit denser than I used to be. However, the book had a power that kept me reading to the end even though I knew that I probably would not understand it.
Nobel Prize winning authors are definitely trickier to read sometimes.
A Long Way to Shiloh
By Lionel Davidson
This novel should have been great: an author I know can write absolutely stunning adventure books full of great characters and action, and a backdrop of ancient history, Jewish scriptures, archaeology and treasure hunting. Unfortunately, the book is quite lacklustre. It really must have been an off day for Davidson. The main character, an English academic and archaeologist, is also quite an unlikeable man: a drunkard and a sexist. Not an awful lot happened really, and you were in his company all the time.
by Bram Stoker
Dracula is a book impossible to come to without preconceptions today; it has been read, adapted and discussed so much that it has seeped into the modern imagination almost completely. I disliked almost all the film adaptations over the years, particularly the Hammer versions, and for many years these killed the character and any desire to read the book. However, a few weeks ago I found myself wanting to pick up the book for some reason and I am very glad I did : I thoroughly enjoyed it and it really is a classic.
The initial arc of the story: the eerie journey through the dark forest, wolves and strange coachman, the forbidding castle, creaking and rusting doors, superstitious peasants, all seem so familiar today. One might even groan a little inside recalling a satire like Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein film. So much cliché; but the story soon forges on and becomes exciting. This was quite new and fresh when written all the way back at the end of the 19th Century.
This is at heart a great adventure book, with action and drama, and above all, fright. Surprisingly, given how much the story's been rehashed, it still has a huge power to shock and surprise with real horror. Some of this is due to the characters themselves; characters I actually cared for, particularly the stricken Mina Harker herself. A very good book with some great and powerful moments; and still not for any faint-hearts.
A History of Christianity
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
This is the reason there was a significant hiatus on any reading updates recently. An immense subject and a very big book is to blame!
At over a thousand pages, I picked up MacCulloch's book with some trepidation but having read his history of the Reformation a few years ago, and heard him talk many times on radio, I know how good he is, as a writer and speaker. MacCulloch's history of Christianity covers "three thousand" years because he considers the genesis of the story as starting long before the time of Herod "the Great": with the Jews, and then the Ancient Greek and Roman world. A useful starting point I think because Greek philosophy and Roman mores come to play very important roles in Christian thought and belief. Some might say, too much.
The thought and philosophy of Christians has sometimes been that of extremes, both good and bad. To many people throughout the world, it was literally a matter of eternal life or eternal damnation however, and this mattered a great deal: so much so, that people were willing to kill and be killed. In addition, theology can also hinge on some very subtle distinctions that are hard to grasp now. Be prepared for some theology then, but if you are prepared, this is fascinating and well written. MacCulloch has a dry wit and can sometimes brings a smile (or even laugh) throughout, keeping the narrative alive and interesting.
So far, always an excellent writer and historian.
By Jung Chang
In Wild Swans, Jung Chang tells the story of her family over the course of the 20th Century in China. This was a century of massive change and calamity in the Middle Kingdom: from "warlordism", to civil war, the cruelty and corruption of the Kuomintang and then the victory of the Communists under Mao. At first a lot of idealism as the Communists took over: stability returned, some prosperity. But over a short time things changed greatly for the worse again.
The book is a moving and fascinating account of China and the Chinese people and culture, and Ms Chang's love of the country and its history shines through, whatever the appalling hardships and cruelty she describes. Her youthful adoration of Chairman Mao slowly turns to anger and shock at the realisation of his central and personal role in the destruction of the country: its people, material and spirit.
Perhaps the saddest part of the book is about her father, a communist "true believer" in the ideals the party said it stood for. Incorruptible, and so straight and fair that he antagonised and caused many in his family (especially Chang's mother, his wife) to despair and anger Not willing to bend the knee as the party became deranged and things descended to chaos and brutality, he paid a heavy price.
In the end, once Mao was gone, things could open up a bit and Chang escaped to London and academia. Even though things are materially much better in China now, the country has not come to terms with the Mao legacy still and there are many people who still worship his memory. They are still denied a true account of their history.
By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky
Score : 4/5
This is a short novel by the Strugatsky brothers, written in the 1970's in the Soviet Union. The book was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky as Stalker.
The premise is that aliens have visited Earth but no one saw them, and all that's left of their visit are a number of "zones" spread across the world, areas now contaminated with very strange and sometimes dangerous artifacts. The main character is Redrick "Red" Schuhart, a stalker, someone who goes into a zone to find and extract things to sell. It's like prospecting. It's a dangerous job because the objects might be very strange and possibly lethal: instantly or at some later time. The zone itself is full of almost supernatural elements and has effects on visitors, their minds and bodies, and also their children. Red's daughter is born with fur and referred to as the "monkey". This is all a bit strange, but compelling.
The story is almost a "hard-boiled" tale of misfits, criminals and police in a gold mine boom town but the unsettling strangeness and horror of the magical landscape at the centre makes the novel unique. Of course, Red makes a last expedition into the zone, in search of the wish-granting "golden sphere". At this point you also have a glimpse of the "meat-grinder".
A short book and a quick read, but something that will stay with you.
The Restoration of Rome
By Peter Heather
Score : 4/5
Heather's history book looks at three main characters who, wittingly or not, almost managed to restore a Western Roman Empire to existence after its dissolution in the mid-5th Century. Much of the huge amount of disruption of the 5th and 6th centuries was first caused by the eruption of the Huns into Europe, and subsequently the fighting over the spoils Attila and his tribe had accumulated. Enter the Goths.
Starting with Theoderic, King of the Ostrogoths. His high water mark covered all of Italy, Southern Gaul, Sicily and Spain, but it all disintegrated after he died in 526 AD with internecine fighting and the deaths (mostly unnatural) of successors.
Next we have Charles the Great, Charlemagne, King of the Franks and crowned Western Emperor in Rome in 800 AD, by the Bishop of Rome no less. His empire covered vast tracts of Europe (minus Spain, conquered by Islamic armies), including the Germanic heartlands over the Rhine and Northern Italy. But once again, family feud and a chronic inability to settle inheritance problems caused much to fragment a few generations after his death.
Heather then comes to the third "character", the Papacy. Initially content to play a small role in the Empire, and taking a subservient role to the Emperor even on matters of faith, the later Papacy truly found its voice. This was in large part due to the money and reformation initiated during and after Charlemagne, many changes in education and policy driven by northern Popes (the "barbarian popes" Heather mentions in the book title). Churchmen and educators were reacting aganist some serious Roman corruption in the 9th and 10th Centuries (the so-called Pornocracy).
Peter Heather doesn't shy away from using modern vernacular, or cultural references when explaining the way the world worked back then. His more laid back style might not always work but he pulls it off because he obviously knows his history and he manages to be both serious and sometimes funny. History should not be a dry discipline and this book isn't. It is a very good read because of that.
Not a book review (yet), but I have been reading Peter Heather's history of the early medieval period, post-Western Roman Empire, The Restoration of Rome, and finding it very good. Heather's got a way with words sometimes, putting events of the day into familiar terms, sometimes quite amusingly. It might jar sometimes, but he gets away with it because his book is good history with his own research behind some of it.
The period after the political demise of the Western Roman Empire was full of drama, including a lot of fighting and killing (not much change then, perhaps). This included intra-family decimations. Take Clovis, King of the Franks circa 480 AD. To achieve and cement his power, he killed a vast number of people, including perhaps seven rivals, some of them relatives.
From Heather's book, describing Bishop Gregory Of Tours history of the times :
Gregory closes the chapters with a speech Clovis is supposed to have made at a Frankish assembly
How sad a thing it is that I live among strangers like some solitary pilgrim, and that I have none of my own relations left to help me when disaster threatens!
Gregory's comment on this is typical of his own dark sense of humour
He said this not because he grieved for their deaths, but because in his cunning way he hoped to find some relative still in the land of the living he could kill.
So far, a fascinating book. Now we move from the Ostrogoth Theoderic to the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian.
By Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
This edition of The Leopard is a beautifully produced hardback Everyman's Library edition. It is also one of the best novels I have read, and something I thoroughly enjoyed reading.
The book is set in Sicily during the 1860's, Garibaldi has landed on Sicily and the reunification (Risorgimento) of Italy has been set in motion. Centred on the aristocratic family of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, as he struggles to come to terms with the new order and the changes that arrive in a traditional and rural Sicily, the book is funny, sweet, sad and extremely well written (and therefore translated). This is a novel I realised I wanted to savour from the start and was sad to finish.
The introduction by David Gilmour is also well worth reading, as he gives a background to the author. The Prince of Salina, family and household is based on author Tomasi di Lampedusa's similar trajectory :
.. from wealth to penury, from influence to impotence, from an abundance of male descendants to sheer physical extinction. The last Prince of Lampedusa died, childless and impoverished, in Rome in 1957. He left few possessions except the manuscript of a novel which had recently been rejected by two leading Italian publishers".
Similar rejections of what turn out to be classic works is familiar. One wonders how many wonderful works might never find an audience, but must be very grateful that this one did. A wonderful book: I cannot recommend it highly enough.
By Greg Egan
Score : 3 / 5
Egan's science-fiction is perhaps the wildest and most speculative stuff I've read, but the wildness comes at a cost: sometimes a lot of exposition of the maths and physics behind it all. Schild's Ladder is a case in point: I have to admit to skimming some of this after a while but still enjoyed the book. This novel perhaps pushed the "hard" science a bit more than usual, even for Egan.
In the far future, a researcher creates a state of vacuum more stable than our own by accident and it starts expanding inside our universe, destroying "normal" matter as it does (at half the speed of light). The novel has two opposing camps of humanity: those that want to reverse and destroy this novo-vacuum, and those that want to stop its expansion and study it.
Right now, both factions are on an outpost (seemingly) pacing the expansion, sitting in front of it and studying it. Fighting, a war of words at the moment. These are not your average humans though: essentially immortal because they exist as information that can inhabit flesh-and-blood artificial human bodies, inhabit artificial exo-skeletons or decide to stay incorporeal. Gender is fluid, AI ubiquitous and everyone seems to know a lot of math! The physics of the new matter inside the expanding new vacuum is described, as well as a mind-bending voyage inside to investigate its secrets. "Normal" space is fairly mind-bending as it is anyway but Egan can stretch things further when we get down to planck scale physics :
The Planck scale is the universal limit, beyond which the currently known laws of physics break. In order to comprehend anything beyond it, we need new, unbreakable physics.
I didn't really care about the characters, and didn't really understand a lot of it, but it is quite a dive into the far future and it is very thought provoking. I hope humanity makes it to the far future.
By James Smythe
Score : 3.5 / 5
I've recently finished reading James Smythe's first book in his "quartet", having read the second a few weeks ago. The wrong order but I don't think it really mattered in this case.
This first novel of the four has a similarly unsettling and claustrophobic narrative as the second; even more so in some ways. It also has a similarly nightmarish trajectory. The Explorer tells the story of the mission of the first spaceship sent out from Earth to meet the "anomaly"; once again things go very wrong. The journalist they take with them ends up faced with quite a shocking story, with himself as the main character.
There are plenty critics of some aspects of this book, particularly the science (it is not realistic). Personally, the science is good enough: it is not a "hard" science book but just the bare minimum to get by and move the story on. This book is really atmosphere and horror rather than science and as such it worked for me and kept me turning pages until the end. One thing, I had quite a feeling of claustrophobia and helplessness here and it might be a good idea to take a break between reading books in this series! That's it for now though. It will be interesting to see how it goes from here.
Kafka on the Shore
By Haruki Murakami
Score : 3.0 / 5
I decided to pick up one of Haruki Murakami's books and expected something a little different. That turned out to be true in this modern day story containing so many fantastic elements. Not just a taste of Japanese culture (some) but an odd tale mixing a road trip, a philosophical discussion about life, music and metaphors and an alternate world of magic and myth. As well as people that can talk with cats.
There are two alternating stories which intersect at the end. One follows a fifteen year old runaway, with an odd curse and prophecy from his father; and the other has an old man, simple-minded after losing everything he knows in a childhood accident. The old man is Mr Nakata, unable to read or write but with the special ability of being able to communicate with cats. After a particularly bad day involving a bad man who looks like Johnnie Walker (of whisky fame), he ends up on a quest to fix an old problem. Actually, describing this "quest" and the reasons for it is not easy; one of the problems with the book is that I'm not really sure what a fair amount actually means. There's depth to it, and mythic or fantastical happenings, but much was beyond me. I enjoyed some of the "intellectual" interludes - discussing the meaning of metaphor in life, Truffaut's cinema or the Archduke Trio (YouTube) piece by Beethoven - but they were quite unreal in some ways. It was so full of other meanings that it's the sort of book that needs a followup explanatory text book perhaps. In fact, as wikipedia says :
Metaphysics is also a central theme of the novel as many of the character's dialogues and soliloquy are motivated by their inquiry about the nature of the world around them and their relation to it.
So, there you go. It sounds heavy, but isn't too bad.
Having said this, my mystification was balanced by the charm and oddness of the old man, Mr Nakata, and his companion Hoshino, a truck driver who drops everything to help get him across Japan and complete his mission. Nakata and Hoshino are funny and sympathetic characters ("Nakata isn't very bright"). Hoshino's not the brightest bulb either, but his slow realisation that his life has been pretty meaningless until now, and the way he starts to see the world differently, is one of the highlights of the novel.
The reason for a score of 3.0/5.0 is only that I found some of the boy's story a bit stilted, and there were odd sex scenes that seemed out of place
A book I quite enjoyed then and I'll definitely try another sometime.
By James Smythe
Score : 3.5 / 5
A team of people is sent into space to investigate an "anomaly": a region of complete darkness, perhaps growing, and perhaps heading our way slowly. Twenty years previously, another spaceship sent on a similar mission failed to return and its status is unknown. Things do not go as planned and a quite shocking sequence of events await them in space, something even the best brains on the planet could not imagine.
I really enjoyed this novel, even though it was hard initially to get over the narration by one of the twin scientist brothers sent into space. He "won" the lottery; his brother stays on earth as mission control. Both are quite unlikeable: very clever but very "nerdy", probably autistic. However, the story takes off and it definitely keeps your attention.
The front cover blurb comparing this book to the film Gravity ("If you liked Gravity ...") is ridiculous but another blurb gets it just about right : Creepy and compulsive. This is definitely creppy and even horrific, an unsettling sequence of events that takes us into the Twilight Zone.
I do have one complaint here. Apparently, this book is book two in a quartet, but this fact was well hidden. It seems that the first book covers the original, lost mission. I don't think this matters in the end, The Echo seems to work standalone. But a bit annoying nonetheless.
By Umberto Eco
Score : 2 / 5
Eco's last novel before he died this year is not one of his best. It has his love of meandering conspiracies and secret history, but is a short and slight book without much depth. It meanders itself to a disappointing conclusion.
Set in the 1980's, some of the book is very funny and a lot of it reads like satire on a certain type of news business. Italy has a Street of Shame just as grubby as ours. It also has a full complement of very shady characters and plots, something Eco spends many pages describing. Unfortunately, the funny bits and the local colour cannot save it.
Losers, like autodidacts, always know much more than winners. If you want to win, you need to know just one thing, not to waste your time on anything else: the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers. The more a person knows, the more things have gone wrong.
I notice a blurb on the cover of the paperback : "A Triumph", Scotland on Sunday. Just like movie advertising and blurbs, completely untrustworthy statements! You cannot trust anything a publisher chooses to stick on a book as an enticement.
The Children Act
By Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan seems to be a prolific author and one of the major writers in English. He's been nominated for a few Booker Prizes as well, and won it in 1998 with Amsterdam. With that, there's a certain assumption of a good read. This is the first of his books I've read: a short one but good.
The Children Act is about a high court judge, Fiona Mayes, who works in the family courts: so there is much divorce and child cruelty in her life. In this book, she's having a few marital problems herself when a case comes before her: a seventeen year old boy refusing a blood transfusion because of his religious faith. The book looks at the moral choices here and the limits of law, coercion and our individual rights. To me, the professional interactions in court were the best part of the novel, and the to and fro between Mayes and the boy in hospital were also riveting. Some surprising and beautiful musical references as well.
A good book, and I expect to read more from him in the future.
By Greg Egan
Greg Egan writes a form of science-fiction often labelled as "hard", meaning that he's careful to use believable science close to what we think is real or possible, at least potentially. It might also mean that his work is sometimes quite difficult to understand. Having to think a little is a good thing sometimes though.
Permutation City concerns a mid-21st Century future where we can scan ourselves and create a digital "Copy" running on a computer. This is not a new concept of course, but it is explored in new, and sometimes slightly unsettling ways by Egan. Your flesh and blood self might die, and your "Copy" is all that's left of you. Is it "you"? What if your "Copy" decides to clone or copy itself, running another copy, perhaps in a simulated computing system inside a computer.
In this world, after being scanned, you wake up with a marker pen message scrawled on your arm : "you are not the copy". If you wake and look for this message, expecting to find it but don't?
I really enjoyed this novel, even though I had to stop trying to understand the "theory" behind a lot of it (Egan has a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page for some of this stuff). To me, it is a "mind-blowing" type of book: something that makes me think about odd scientific and existential concepts. Philosophy as well. I think this is a worthwhile thing to do.
In 2975, the orphan Yatima is grown from a randomly mutated digital mind seed in the conceptory of Konishi polis.
Not your average novel, but science-fiction does throw up some amazing work sometimes. It's a shame that the "genre" (is this the ghetto?) gets side-lined or looked down on so often. These are very memorable books exploring some deep philosophical concepts.