Lessons by Ian McEwan

It’s going to be difficult to talk about this book, Lessons (2022) without giving away too much of the plot; no spoilers. I’ll try.

The story is about Roland Baines and with a title of Lessons, it’s appropriate that it begins with a lesson: a piano lesson, but this one has lifelong repercussions.

The story isn’t linear but it progresses like a complex cable-knit from that piano lesson when he was 14 years old right into his early 70s.

The writing is dense and not conducive to the one and a half page read in bed before you go to sleep. This book demands your time and attention. It’s also a bit of a history lesson as world events impinge on Roland’s life from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, through the fall of the Berlin Wall 1989 to the lockdowns of the 2020 pandemic. Roland was born in 1948, a real Baby Boomer, but only a few years before me; there’s little bits of my history that match Roland’s and those little bits are mainly reflected in his mistakes. It’s Roland’s mistakes – or, if you like, the lessons he didn’t learn – that lay down the path of Roland’s life.

For readers of Roland’s age you too will, I predict, see little bits of your own history as we all can’t be immune to the world and what goes on in it.

Roland’s life, in its teenage beginnings, has enormous potential as a pianist, a tennis player, and as a writer. What he does with that potential and how those choices affect him and those around him make up the spine of the story.

There is, of course, the piano teacher, Miriam, then his first wife Alissa and her German family, his only child, Lawrence, his second wife, Daphne, and an unknown brother, Robert, are all dragged along by the history around them; some do well, others do not.

After his trite little book, Nutshell (2016), which I thought was way below par, so much so that I didn’t bother with his next one, Machines Like Me (2019) Lessons is a return to the classic standard of his Enduring Love (1997), Atonement (2001), Saturday (2005), and The Children Act (2014). It’s not a return to his early work which was full of darkness and the macabre, but it’s a mature and serious work that delves into what it really takes for a person to fulfil their dreams and how easy it is for those dreams to turn to smoke.

The complexities if its timeline annoyed me a little in the first third, but there is a rhythm there you need to tap into but once you do the book rollicks along to its conclusion; well it did for this reader, anyway. I loved it! (But, please, make time for it and attend to it wholeheartedly)

Lessons is his most autobiographical work, about a quarter he says, and you can hear him talking about the book and his writing life here, in a short but fascinating video from the CBS Sunday Morning program.

You can purchase the book in various formats here.

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965) British novelist, playwright,
& short story writer

I used to have a serious crush on the works of W. Somerset Maugham. I’ve read most of his fiction, novels, and short stories and always find something fresh on re-reading them. I usually don’t mention this past-passion: Maugham is very much now out of fashion. However, a recent conversation with a student about short story writing sparked my interest again and serendipitously I discovered this novel Cakes and Ale (1930) in my local second hand bookshop. I bought it.

Modern short stories tend to be more like anecdotes. Maugham’s stories are very neat, some would say old-fashioned: with a definite beginning, middle, and an end. So, to anyone interested in writing, especially short stories, I would highly recommend reading a lot of W. Somerset Maugham.

In his day Maugham was the most famous, the most successful novelist and playwright. His early success was in the theatre. In 1908 he had four plays running simultaneously on the West End. After writing thirty two plays he abandoned the theatre in 1933 to concentrate solely on writing fiction, many of which have been produced for film and television. His greatest fiction masterpiece, some say, is Of Human Bondage (1915), the film adaptation (1934) – the first of four – featured a then unknown actress called Bette Davis.

Cakes and Ale (1930) with an alternative title, The Skeleton in the Cupboard, is a satire on the literary world of Maugham’s day. The 1st person narrator is a writer and ex-medical student called William Ashenden – a name Maugham had used several times when writing autobiographical flavoured fiction.

The plot swings around a noble writer, Edward Driffield who has reached the lofty accolades of his literary career and is considered the ‘father’ of British literature. However, he came from very humble beginnings which Ashenden can attest to as he knew the Driffields, Edward then an unknown writer, but more importantly he knew the first Mrs Driffield, an ex-barmaid and very forthright woman called Rosie. The story opens with the literary rumblings about who will write Driffield’s biography now that the grand old man of British letters has died. It is Ashenden’s recollections of his student days when he knew the Driffields that provide the background and understandings of the great man’s past, and especially the skeleton in his cupboard: Rosie.

The book created a furor when it first appeared as is was believed it was a blatant jab at the recently deceased British writer, Thomas Hardy. “Trampling on Thomas Hardy’s Grave” and “Hitting below the Shroud” were only two of the vindictive reviews that appeared at the book’s publication. Maugham denied the association, of course. He asserts it began as a short story about a notable writer whose famous works were all written while he was married to his first ‘common’ wife but whose second wife, his secretary, ‘made him into a figure’.

Maugham took his title from a line of Sir Toby Belch to Malvolio in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Cakes and Ale were literary symbols (thank you Aesop, whoever you were) for the good life.

It’s written in the literary style of the day and despite the often self-deprecating remarks from the narrator Ashenden, he (Maugham) comes across as a self-serving sarcastic ponse. Yet, the highlight of Cakes and Ale is the character of Rosie. Maugham was particular good at creating ‘common women’. He gave them self-awareness, honesty, and the ability to undermine the pompous men who usually sought their company.

It’s as entertaining as any of Maugham’s work but doesn’t quite meet the standard of his most famous, his novels The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and The Razor’s Edge (1944). The curious characteristic of both these novels is that they are both about someone who isn’t there: in the former it’s about a painter (based on Paul Gauguin) who is dead, and the latter is about a young American, Larry Darrell who is always abroad searching for the meaning of life. Their stories are told by those who were left behind.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Here is the link to the W. Somerset Maugham page at The Gutenberg Project where you can find most of his novels, plays, and short story collections, all ebooks and all for free.

The BBC dramatised it for television in 1974 starring Michael Hordern and Judy Cornwell.

Young Mungo by Douglas Stewart

Scottish – American writer Douglas Stuart

After I’d finished reading Shuggie Bain, Stuart’s Booker Prize winning novel from 2020, I imagined his second novel might be ‘Shuggie Bain grows up and falls in love.’ That’s exactly what Young Mungo (2022) is like, and what the rather audacious cover photo fortells. There is the same Scottish estate bleakness, an older brother, Hamish, this time one not so accommodating, and, of course, a child-like drug-addled and flirtatious girl-mother who doesn’t want to be one, a mother, that is. The characters are all different but to some degree similar. But, here there is also a sister, Jodie, desperate to get to university and not only away from her childhood and family but also away, far away, from ending up like her mother and the deathknell to any girl in her position is getting pregnant. That would seal her fate, as it did the fate of most girls her age and that of the mother, Mo-Maw – she hates being called Ma.

Writing a similar second novel to an extremely successful first is a sure way to consolidate a writer’s reader base. Hanna Kent did it very successfully with her second novel The Good People (2016) after her debut hit, Burial Rites (2013).

Stuart’s central character, Mungo Hamilton, is a nineteen year old Protestant lad and a victim of his mother’s inexpert, and downright malicious, mothering style. To counter Mungo’s un-masculine behaviour she packs him off with two very unsavoury men to ‘make a man of him’. This narrative thread is juxtaposed with the events that lead up to this ‘camping’ trip: namely his home life with his absent mother and violent brother which sees him attach himself to a young Catholic man, and pigeon fancier, James. This friendship staggers into a clumsy but charming romantic friendship that overwhelms both of them and sets them adrift from their families and society.

Although the camping trip to a Scottish loch is certainly a coming-of-age experience its double-climax is nothing that anyone, including this reader – and the writer, I’m guessing – ever expected. When these two narrative streams finally converge both James and Mungo, both battered and bruised, stare at each other across a busy road and dare to dream about a life together, even though us readers know Mungo’s future is most probably battered beyond salvation. I suspect we may hear more about young Mungo.

Young Mungo has the assured hand of a writer steeped in his Scottish background, and like Shuggie Bain, his handling of the Scottish accent, written phonetically, is the main driving force in painting the characters so vividly. This ‘reading’ of the phonetic dialogue is worth practicing. It doesn’t take long to master it, and it gives so much weight to the characters and the tone of the book. Give it a try.

Yes, like its predecessor, Young Mungo is harrowing at times especially with its depiction of what lengths families will go to keep their own in check. Selfishness is rife; love has nothing to do with it. If such writing upsets you it can’t be denied that your strong reaction to the contents or the characters, be it revulsion or annoyance, is solely due to the strength of the writing. Good writing elicits strong reactions, even negative ones.

Douglas Stuart is going to be a major player in the literary landscape for a very long time.

In this short video Douglas Stuart introduces Young Mungo shortly before it was released.

And here, you can follow Stuart talking about writing in general and his personal take on it. It’s mainly about what made him write in the first place, and therefore is more about Shuggie Bain, but those thoughts and ideas are also relevant to Young Mungo; about truth in fiction and how fiction comes from a very mysterious place.

Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale

British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall

Patrick Gale is a very busy man. He is a cellist, lives in Cornwall and plays in a local string quartet, a keen gardener, artistic director of the North Cornwall Book Festival and a Patron of The Causley Trust. Oh, and, of course, a best selling novelist. Mother’s Boy is his 17th novel released in March 2022. He may be British, but he is also most definitely Cornish. Who else then to novelise the early life of another Cornish hero, the poet Charles Causley.

This is a mother-son story; Gale is particularly good with mothers.

Laura is in service when she meets Charlie Causley, also in service to the local doctor. He is a dashing lad and their romance is brief but strong. All is set for a happy married life together, but WW1 takes him away and returns him a broken man; his life is cut short leaving Laura a single mum with a baby to keep. She takes in laundry, the wine stained alter cloths of St Thomas’s church as well as the other-stained bed linen from the local ‘boarding’ house where the proprietress’s children, Aggie’s brood, all look surprisingly different. A stain is a stain to Laura Causley and each deserves her expert attention.

Charles grows into a concave-chested studious little boy, more at ease with a book than a ball. As a teenager he plays the piano in several dance bands, writes and directs plays, and occasionally takes girls to the pictures and shakes their hands good-night. Laura may be a little disappointed in her son but would never show it. A boy is a boy to Laura Causley and each deserves a mother’s love and protection.

The book is a gentle read; Gale is a master of wry observations while plunging into serious emotional depths. It is as much about Laura Causley as her son, Charles. Gales evocation of a mother’s love is particularly moving:

He had woken already and was straining to look about him. Seeing her approach, he cried out with something like a laugh and reached a hand towards her. She kissed his tiny palm, then scooped him up, furling him in her shawl to hold him against her shoulder where he sucked noisily at her neck. She rocked gently from foot to foot, loving the warm weight of him against her. ‘You,’ she said. ‘Oh, you.’

Another major theme is forbidden sexuality. We first become aware of it when Charles lets his best friend Ginger inveigle them up to Charles’s room where Ginger …

persuaded him to hold him close to demonstrate the steps of the foxtrot and then had taken advantage of the moment to kiss him full on the lips while doing things with his tongue Charles was fairly sure never happened on screen to Claudette Colbert.

But later Ginger takes Charles to the nudist section, men only, of the Plymouth Lido and disappeared for a time only to be seen later exiting a single change room only moments after a big half dressed man had emerged, who then finished dressing, and left. While walking home …

‘You do know,’ Charles wanted to tell him, ‘that what you were doing, or what I suspect you were doing, could have you up in the courts in Bodmin and wreck your prospects, even send you to prison?’ But he said nothing about it because what he longed to do was ask questions instead, and he knew the answers Ginger might give would change the dynamic of their friendship for ever in ways for which he wasn’t ready.

The Second World War sees Charles called up. He was too slight and weak-eyed for active duty so trained as a coder: sending and receiving coded messages usually on board ship but never-ending seasickness had him transferred to land: Gibraltar, and Malta. It was in the Navy that he experienced his sexuality, one relationship slightly abusive, another almost loving. But outside the flimsy protection of a male dominated existence such indulgences could not be contemplated. This is the tragedy that happened to thousands of homosexuals over thousands of years: their man-made social environment precluding their natural natures; in some parts of the world it continues still.

I was a little disappointed that a writer writing about a writer didn’t spend a little more time investigating writing itself, but this is a minor and picky response to an otherwise very enjoyable and evocative read.

Here you can purchase the book in various formats.

Charles Stanley Causley,
(1917 – 2003) British poet, teacher, and writer.

Here you can find a short biography of Causley and a short essay on the poet by fellow poet and author, Kevin Crossley-Holland.

And here you can watch a trailer for the Boatshed Films’ Cornwall Native Poet, Charles Causley which as screened on BBC 4 in 2017 to celebrate the centenary of Causley’s birth.

The Echo Chamber by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

  ‘But you live in Croydon,’ he said.

  ‘What on earth has that got to do with anything?’

  ‘If you don’t know, then there’s very little point in me trying to explain.’

   ‘I’ll have you know that Croydon is becoming quite gentrified these days.’

   ‘I just prefer a postcode that begins with a SW, that’s all,’ said George.

‘My father instilled certain values in me from the start that have stood me in good stead over the years. Carrying a monogrammed handkerchief, for example. Having a good tailor. Matching one’s belt with one’s shoes. The stuff of civilised living.’

‘You can’t make life decisions based on letters of the alphabet.’

‘I don’t see why not.’

It sounds like Boyne’s channelling Noel Coward! But if you’re out to write a comic novel Coward isn’t a bad role model. 

Boyne calls The Echo Chamber, his 13th novel for adults, a farce and indeed it is; and it should be read as one. Outrageous characters with appalling attitudes, self-serving decisions with names to match. Boyne, I think, had a ball writing this one and after his pummelling via social media by internet trolls and hate-loving twitter-ites over his last YA book, My Brother’s Name is Jessica (2019) – he could’ve avoided a lot of angst had he called it My Sister’s Name was Jason –  he had a lot to say and scream at, and a lot to get off his chest.  

The plot involves a famous British couple, George Cleverly, a Michael Parkinson-like BBC TV talk-show host; his popular novelist wife, Beverly Cleverly, who since her first success now employs ‘ghosts’ to pen her novels; their three Children, Nelson, an anxious nelly who can’t make up his mind who he is but likes to wear uniforms; Elizabeth, a social-media acolyte whose narcissism is only second to that of the youngest, Achilles, who scams older men via his charm and good looks while waiting to get laid by any pretty girl who sees him. It’s a family to loath but you also hope it will suddenly see the errors of its ways and move to the Outer Hebrides, or at least to somewhere without an Internet connection. 

This book is a lot of fun and is nothing like anything Boyne has written before. I hope he’s freed himself from his victimhood, taken a deep breath, and, since he’s blessed with booming sales, he will eventually, once all the PR appearances, chat-shows, and media interviews are over, settle down and chill out and let his novelistic talent that created, The Absolutist (2011), The History of Loneliness (2014), and (his masterpiece) The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017), surge again. THAT I’m looking forward to very much. 

The Echo Chamber is a great quick read to make you laugh out loud, groan a few times, and blow away a few lockdown cobwebs.  

Tring, a small town NW of London, in Herefordshire, holds an annual Book Festival; you can watch John Boyne being interviewed by fellow writer, Clare Pooley, at the 2021 event and talking about The Echo Chamber here

You can purchase the book in various formats here

The Lonely Man by Chris Power

British writer Chris Power

I was intrigued by a review of Chris Power’s A Lonely Man by Zoë Apostolides in the May 5 edition of The Financial Times for two reasons: the reviewer dubbed it ‘a literary thriller’ and used the word ‘postmodern’. I downloaded it immediately.

postmodernism: a late-20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of “art”.

Oxford Dictionary

Literary theorists, usually critics, search for patterns in the literary output of the recent past. In simple terms what they found was a tendency ‘away’ from the well-plotted naturalistic narrative to a freer, less neat product. One of the postmodern techniques is incorporating the world of the writer into the world of the written; for example auto-fiction. Other examples of literary postmodernism are parody, unreliable narrators, and the abandonment of a single theme.

Although I’m not a great believer in genres, I am interested in how writers write, what the literary industry will allow, its latest trends, and how best to tell a story, but always with the reader in mind. Postmodernism, I think, lets the reader slip from the top position of the writer’s responsibilities; to be replaced by the writer.

Robert Prowe (anagram of Power), with his wife Karijn, live in Berlin. He is a writer trying to write a novel but it isn’t going well. He meets Patrick, who appears to be a rather dishevelled drunk, in a bookshop and then on a few other occasions until they form a friendship, of sorts. Patrick is a writer too and also struggling, but as a ghostwriter for a Russian oligarch, Sergei Vanyashin, who “pissed of Putin and had to get out of Russia” and so wants to write his memoir to clear his name, but, it seems, at Putin’s expense. Robert finds Patrick’s story of his meeting with Vanyashin not only fascinating but also inspiring. The meeting is described in novelistic detail until you, the reader, realise that what you have just read is not narrated by Power’s third-person narrator of A Lonely Man, but narrated by Robert and is his first attempt at novelising Patrick’s story. Robert’s dilemma is what can a writer use? Is Robert thieving or creating? The ‘thriller’ element is the threat felt by Patrick from Putin’s henchmen is transferred to Robert, but this only works if you, the reader, finds this transference plausible. This reader didn’t.

The other postmodern element is the incredibly un-neat ending: the henchmen certainly make their threatening presence felt, but then just walk away. This blunt ending feels less postmodern and more like a literary waterfall full of the expectation of a sequel.

I always enjoy writers writing about writing, and here the writing is assured and competent, but this ‘literary thriller’ did not, for this reader, live up to the hype.

You can watch an interview with Chris Power here.

And here you can buy the book in various formats.

The Merry-Go-Round by W. Somerset Maugham

William Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965) British playwright, novelist, and short-story writer; one of the most popular and highest paid writers of his day.

W. S. Maugham’s first literary success was his first novel, Lisa of Lambeth (1897); his greatest work is Of Human Bondage (1915); by then he had 10 novels published and 10 plays produced, and at one time had 4 plays running simultaneously on London’s West End; 40 films have been made of his writings – Of Human Bondage has been filmed three times, The Razor’s Edge twice, and The Painted Veil twice, the latter, a very faithful adaptation, in 2006 starring Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Diana Rigg.

He had an affair and a child with Syrie Wellcome, an interior decorator, whom he later married in 1917. Their daughter, Elizabeth, eventually married a Baron. However, he had other female and male lovers until he met, an American, Gerald Haxton in the Red Cross at the outbreak of WWI. They were mostly together until Haxton’s death in 1944. His later partner was Alan Searle until Maugham’s death in 1965.

I tried to persuade myself that I was three-quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer—whereas really it was the other way around. – WSM

-oOo-

The Merry-Go-Round (1904) is his fifth novel.

The axis of a merry-go-round is usually covered in mirrors; all the better for us going round and round to see ourselves going round and round. In Maugham’s The Merry-Go-Round the axis is Miss Ley and doing what every freshly polished mirror does.

Miss Ley accidentally witnesses a romantic assignation by a married friend:

“None was more indifferent to convention than herself, and the marriage tie especially excited her ridicule, but she despised entirely those who disregarded the by-laws of society, yet lacked courage to suffer the results of their boldness: to seek the good opinion of the world, and yet secretly to act counter to its idea of decorum, was a very contemptible hypocrisy.”

The themes of The Merry-Go-Round are those that obsessed Maugham throughout his writing career: social and marriage hypocrisy, the class divide, conscience vs sense, love vs reason, and the tyranny of money.

The wealthy spinster, Miss Ley, a bastion of realistic good sense, observes those around her as they confuse themselves with what they want to do and what they feel they must do; they hurt themselves and each other and rarely do good; they go up and down and round and round. Dominating her social landscape are three couples: Basil Kent, law clerk, righteous and duty-bound, and the beautiful but lowly barmaid, Jenny Bush; Grace Castillyon, bored wife, and Reggie Bassett, young, lazy, handsome, but frivolous; and Bella Langton, sympathetic, plain, but devoted, and Herbert Field, young, poetic, sensitive, but consumptive.

As you can see from the above quote, the language is dense with every word used to its maximum effect. As with Hardy, James, and Dickens I read the first few chapters, stop, go back and start again: I need to rehearse the understanding, get ‘into’ the language, before the full meaning of the text is revealed. But when you do the rewards are powerful; even the melodrama, by our contemporary standards, is rendered real and moving.

We live in a very different world to those who lived 120 years ago. The rules of our social behaviour are also different and far less rigid. Maugham’s language not only relates the story but creates the world within which his story can effectively be told.

You can download the ebook for free here. Project Gutenberg allows free ebook downloads from works out of copyright. Most of Maugham’s works are available for free on this site.

The paper version is available here.

And here is a BBC interview with Maugham at his villa on the French Riviera in 1965.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz, British novelist and screenwriter

There is a constant with contemporary crime writing: you don’t get to know the victim until after they’re dead. There is a focus on the mystery, the who-did-it, the victim is not so important, except in relation to why. Consequently, popular crime fiction has, usually, left me cold. Of course, as sheer entertainment, it fills the bill, but I don’t really care who did it; that’s not the point, I’ve been told: it’s the working it out, of having it worked out for you, that provides the satisfaction.

What attracted me to pick up Magpie Murders (2016) from my sister’s bookshelf, in the beautiful Barossa Valley, while waiting for international travel to re-start so I could go home, was the promise that this was something different; not just a who-done-it.

This is a book about a book. A book editor, Susan Ryeland, is to read the latest manuscript of her author client, Alan Conway; a man she doesn’t like very much but she likes his work (because it’s successful and makes her company a lot of money that secures her job) and is looking forward to reading Conway’s latest, Atticus Pünt mystery #9, Magpie Murders. We meet Susan in the first-person prologue as she sits in her house in Crouch End London preparing herself to read and telling us that, she didn’t know it then, Magpie Murders was going to change her life.

But Magpie Murders really did change everything for me. I no longer live at Crouch End. I no longer have my job. I’ve managed to lose a great many friends. That evening, as I reached out and turned the first page of the typescript, I had no idea of the journey I was about to begin and, quite frankly, I wish I’d never allowed myself to get pulled on board. It was all down to that bastard, Alan Conway.

Then we turn the page and get to Alan Conway’s typescript itself – the book that this book is about – satisfactorily in a different font, a typescript font, Courtier, always used for screen and tele plays. However, to cement the pretense we first read About the Author, Alan Conway, and his many achievements; then a list of his other Atticus Pünd titles; then a page of glowing quotes from writers, newspapers, and magazines ending with a capitalised announcement:

SOON TO BE A MAJOR BBC1 TELEVISION SERIES (and it probably will be)

We, now, like Susan, are about to read Alan Conway’s new book, Magpie Murders.

And yes, the first victim has already been dispatched.

23 July 1955. There was going to be a funeral. Two gravediggers, old Jeff Weaver and his son, Adam, had been out at first light and everything was ready. (Gravediggers! So classic, Shakespearean even. Detail has always been the novelists’ trick to make you believe their fiction, and a day and date is the most believable detail of all.)

Conway’s Magpie Murders is set in a small English village, Saxby-on-Avon, and, as expected, small village life is far from quiet, or straight-forward; all reminiscent of Horowitz’s other vastly popular invention, Midsomer Murders. Then there’s another murder, a decapitation no less, and then another death with Atticus Pünd fishing around for clues and revealing all the undercurrents of resentment, jealousy, lies, and treachery that seem to make up British village existence.

This is all faithful to the genre in the great tradition of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. But if you flick through the pages-to-come you will see a change in font and a return to Susan’s first person narrative in Crouch End in 2016:

Annoying isn’t it? She says. I dared not read or flick further as I wanted to let Horowitz do his work on me, and read the book as he intended it to be read, but I was re-assured that, yes, this was probably going to be a very different crime novel. I was intrigued because what we discover is that Alan Conway’s Magpie Murders is … (no spoilers here).

(I was reminded of Ian McEwan who also likes to play around with the reader, as in his novel Sweet Tooth (2012) where the fact that you’re reading it tells you how it ends.)

Whatever it was that I was expecting from Horowitz, the different fonts, and information from the front and back covers, my sister’s comments, doesn’t happen. Something else happens. The book, Conway’s Magpie Murders, and the dilemma that faces Susan Ryland, when she, and you, get to page 219 of Conway’s Magpie Murders, takes Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, off in a completely different direction … or does it?

For crime buffs, this is a real and unexpected treat, although the unexpected bit turns out to be another who-done-it: two for the price of one!

Horowitz also has his tongue firmly in his cheek – and for this reason alone I j u s t might read another book of his. (Look at that smile on his face!) Susan arranges a meeting over a cup of tea with the local policeman. He gives her 15 minutes of his time but he spends almost 12 minutes of this time telling her about the reality of murder:

All the murderers I’ve met have been thick as shit. Not clever people. Not posh or upper class. Thick as shit. And you know how we catch them? We don’t ask them clever questions and work out that they don’t have an alibi, that they weren’t actually where they were meant to be. We catch them on CCTV. Half the time they leave their DNA all over the crime scene. Or they confess. Maybe one day you should publish the truth although I’m telling you, nobody would want to read it … if you want my advice, you’ll go back to London and forget it. Thanks for the tea.

If you read who-done-its, read this one, if you haven’t already.

Here, at the end of my blog I usually supply links to interesting videos of, or about, the writer and/or their book, to compliment what I have written. But not this time. Too much information would give away the surprises.

However, I will tell you where you can buy it. Here.

Released this year is another Susan Ryeland mystery: Moonflower Murders (Magpie Murders 2). He loves alliteration.

Rough Music by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall and plays the cello, modern and baroque.

I first read this book decades ago and then in 2016 I discovered Patrick Gale again with Notes from an Exhibition (2007) and have remained a fan.

Rough Music (2000), like several of Gale’s novels, has a double narrative, same characters, same location, different times.

Julian a small boy, son of simple parents John and Frances, is taken on an idyllic beachside holiday in Cornwall with those parents, John and Francis. The widower, Bill, a writer, and child, Skip, of John’s sister arrive from America and cause passions and the status quo to collide.

Decades later, Julian is a grown man, a successful bookshop owner, and he returns to Cornwall for a holiday with his now ageing parents; his mother with early onset dementia, to the same beach and even, possibly, to the same house. The catalyst of drama and entertainment is that he has been having an affaire with his brother-in-law, Sandy, which began on the evening of Sandy’s buck’s party and has continued through Sandy’s years of happy marriage and the birth of his two sons to Julian’s sister, Poppy, and right up to the action of the story. No one, not Poppy or his parents, know about this. While on this holiday he meets Roly, an artist and drop-out, and he can see a possible exit from this family deception if only he can orchestrate it in time.

Some of the names of these characters change between narratives so don’t be put off by this. All will be revealed.

Each story is told in alternating chapters rendering the climax of both in close proximity to each other. A double whammy for the reader.

Gale is at his best with family relationships and spends time painting them in all their complex layers of expectation, disappointment, and flowering moments of joy. He is a wise writer, or perhaps just acutely observant.

Family life:

The only real difference was children. He had never appreciated until now how much emotional clamour, interference almost, the presence of children set up, saving a relationship from listening to itself.

How children can get in the way:

‘Ma.’ ‘What?’ ‘Leave the door open this time.’ The open door was sobering, like having a dressing-gowned child bearing mutely indignant witness from the room’s corner.

Ageing:

It was as though the only acceptable way to face old age was in a spirit of glassy contemplation and composure, to become a fund of quaint old stories (so long as one did not repeat them too often), a calm old lap on which babies might be placed and an undemanding extra presence at a dining table.

Self awareness:

Perhaps John had been right and her surliness was simply muffled sorrow.

…flirting was a kind of knife sharpening for marriage.

And humour:

Tell me what you’re thinking. Trust me. I’m a novelist.

Sometimes while reading one can feel a ‘little jump’: when you read something that can chip ever so slightly at your suspension of disbelief but for the sake of the story, and your own enjoyment, you accept it, go with it. I think we readers do this a lot. It’s only after you put the book down, days or weeks later or when you’re telling someone about the book, that you may realise that, yes, that something doesn’t quite gel, some plot point or character trait doesn’t quite fit with what has been set up for us to accept. Don’t let this colour your view of the work or the writer adversely. It is caused, I believe, by us readers assuming that the universe of the book is exactly the universe of the reader; but this may not be the case. Of course, some books are written in a universe completely alien to the reader, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings for example, but most books we assume are written in our own universe. As readers we will give ourselves far more enjoyment and commitment if we let the story be what it is and not what we might want it to be, even down to the small details of the narrative and characters.

If you know and like Gale’s work you have probably read this, if not then this, along with A Perfectly Good Man (2012), two of his best, are a good way to begin your Gale adventure.

I continue my quest to read and write about all of Gale’s work and having surmised that it is only during the winter that he writes, in the spring and summer he is far too busy (festivals, garden, cello, cooking …) these seasons give me time to catch up. He is so prolific: two books every three years on average. His last Take Nothing With You came out in 2018; I’m expecting a new one next year. No pressure Patrick!

You can buy the book in various formats here.

 

 

Milkman by Anna Burns

Anna Burns pic
British writer from Northern Ireland, Anna Burns.

The very first line begins,

The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to by breast …

and it made me feel I was in safe hands; a safe writer’s hands. She could’ve used the simple word, somebody, but the capital letters and the Mc told me where she was and also her attitude to this person, it could’ve been one of many people from the place she comes from. Guns are rife. Even if you hadn’t read the Booker Prize announcement or the publicity it generated, or the back of the book itself and discovered Anna Burns is from Northern Ireland and always writes about the Troubles you could work it out: the use of Mc tells you it’s either Scotland or Ireland but the prevalence of guns tells you it’s probably Northern Ireland given it’s history which any reader must remember.

When one uses an article in front of a noun it gives information about that noun; “a success” means something different from “the success”: the former means success in general, the success of anything; the latter means  a particular success, the one we’re talking about. If there is no article the meaning is different again; it means the quality of success, success-ness. Anna Burns omits the article of the noun, brother-in-law; as in …

there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law,

… which suggests there is such a thing as brother-in-law-ness. The insinuation is that she has a lot of experience with brother-in-law-ness since this one is just the first one. It’s like a job – all plumbers are the same type, just like all brother-in-laws. And she doesn’t like them.

No one is named, but they have names. She calls her mother ma,  her name is ma; ma calls her middle daughter, she calls him maybe-boyfriend, and him, third brother-in-law, and her brothers, thingy, thingy, and thingy; she calls him, milkman. Not the milkman, just milkman; no article, so no name but with a name, milkman. Even though he has nothing to do with milk, not even its distribution, he has milkman-ness: he knows where everybody lives, especially daughters, and what they have for breakfast. Ah, but this is not to be confused with real milkman. This is a man of a rare kind.

The stream of consciousness can be daunting: each page is densely packed with words; direct speech, brief though it is, is imbedded in the paragraph, there is little page-space. It gives the impression of dense weight.

Yes, there is a narrative in the traditional sense. Let’s call this the plot. But the plot is sparse. The narrative is really inside her head; this young innocent girl trying to live a life in a war zone, but a war that isn’t an official war, but therefore it’s much more dangerous, because even the language is full of weapons, bullets, and grenades.

As regards this psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification, of what was allowed and not allowed, matters didn’t stop at ‘their names’ and at ‘our names’, at ‘us’ and ‘them’, at ‘our community’ and ‘their community’, at ‘over the road’, ‘over the water’ and ‘over the border’. Other issues had similar directives attaching as well. There were neutral television programmes which could hail from ‘over the water’ or from ‘over the border’ yet be watched by everyone ‘this side of the road’ as well as ‘that side of the road’ without causing disloyalty in either community. Then there were programmes that could be watched without treason by one side whilst hated and detested ‘across the road’ on the other side. There were television licence inspectors, census collectors, civilians working in non-civilian environments and public servants, all tolerated in one community whilst shot to death if putting a toe into the other community. There was food and drink. The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’. Placenames. What school you went to. What prayers you said. What hymns you sang. How you pronounced your ‘haitch’ or ‘aitch’. Where you went to work. And of course there were bus-stops.

The narrative inside her head, which the above quote gives you a taste of, is relentless – as thoughts are – and in the midst of all this danger – 80% of the book is this danger –  there is the simple plot: a much older man, milkman, is stalking her, and even if she doesn’t reply and just stands there letting him talk, even with her arms folded, not engaging with him, wishing he would go away, she doesn’t like him – she likes maybe-boyfriend – but he won’t go away – and when he does go away it’s as secretly and silently as he arrived – but he’s there long enough for them to be seen together. That is enough for chins to wag and tongues to spit. They were seen together so she, daughter, must be having an affair with milkman, and it must be true because Mrs Someone and Mrs Thingymabob said.  Even ma doesn’t believe her. What’s a girl to do?

Did I enjoy this novel? To start with, yes; but as it progressed it felt repetitive and over-written. The Man-Booker judges have, in recent years, favoured the experimental voice to the detriment, I believe, of story-telling and therefore of their readership. Although a stream-of-consciousness novel, James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late won in 1994 the past four years have seen more experimental novels taking the prize. New writing doesn’t necessarily mean better writing.

Here is a very short video of Anna Burns after winning the Man-Booker and talking briefly about the writing of her novel. She seems overwhelmed by the media attention, which given its intensity is understandable. I apologise for the god-awful and too loud backing music.

You can buy the kindle version here.