Ironweed – William Kennedy

Francis Phelan, ex-ballplayer, part-time gravedigger full-time drunk, has hit bottom.  Years ago he left Albany in a hurry after killing a scab during a trolley workers’ strike; he ran away after accidentally – and fatally – dropping his infant son.  Now, in 1938, Francis is back in town, roaming the old familiar streets with his hobo pal Helen, trying to make peace with the ghosts of the past and the present.

Having never heard of this melancholy tale before, it now seems like a bit of a travesty on my part to have gone so long without doing so.  Although it’s the third book in the Albany Cycle, it can be read as a stand alone (as I read it), and will probably be followed by a wish to read the rest.

A (pleasing) mention of the infamous H.G. Wells radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds sets the time of the novel in late 1938,  a few years before America would enter the soon to start World War II.  A time when opportunity would present itself in an unprecedented scale, the irony of which will not be lost on the reader.

Likeable Francis, a drifter returning home, is the central focus of a story that encapsulates, poverty, the failure of the American dream, guilt and the consequences of his actions.  Francis undergoes an unlayering of personality – almost archaeologically so – throughout the book,  as circumstance teases out his recollected memories of both his high and low points. Continue reading “Ironweed – William Kennedy”

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Music to Write By #6 – This is England

How YouTube comes up with its recommendations based on what you are listening to, I cannot fathom but this week after plenty of upbeat music, I was suddenly plunged back in time to 1980’s England with this wonderfully moving piece from Ludovico Einaudi.  Then surfaced memories of first watching this film – with all its impact – and the accompanying series, including a second three series binge watch with Tom over a weekend.

I was once in a queue, three people back from the lady on the right of the gang, loaded with alcohol and one packet of plain rice, I am glad she didn’t turn round and wonder at what my night was going to be like.  Anyway, if anybody is wanting to watch some powerful drama with great characters, this is truly a film (and series) to make you laugh and hit with you some challenging story lines.

On the writing front, this week has involved doing a lot of varying things including thinking of actually trying to focus on one thing at a time, which is hard to do with a lot of books that need reviewing and more being sent every day it seems.  I, of course remain grateful but what with all the other future plans, I need to start clearing the backlog whilst pursuing my own goals.  To that end I am currently fighting the urge to binge watch The is England again…

Perhaps I will just play this music and pity myself for so much good fortune.

Faceless Killers – Henning Mankell

One frozen January morning at 5am, Inspector Wallander responds to what he believes is a routine call out. When he reaches the isolated farmhouse he discovers a bloodbath.

An old man has been tortured and beaten to death, his wife lies barely alive beside his shattered body, both victims of a violence beyond reason. The woman supplies Wallander with his only clue: the perpetrators may have been foreign. When this is leaked to the press, it unleashes a tide of racism.

Wallander’s life is a shambles. His wife has left him, his daughter refuses to speak to him, and even his ageing father barely tolerates him. He works tirelessly, eats badly, and drinks his nights away. But now Wallander must forget his troubles and throw himself into a battle against time and against mounting racial hatred.

It’s been a long while since I’ve read a crime novel and as there have been a significant number coming out of Scandinavia in recent years, in both books and on TV. Being, always behind the times, my first foray into the subgenre arrives fashionably late like a clue that traditionally cracks the case.

Faceless Killers is the first novel in the Wallander series and as you would expect the landscape, plot and the titular character’s personal life are all a bit bleak.  There are plenty of descriptions of the weather which will please the Brits, a grim murder scene to be analysed and a familiar feel to protagonist Kurt Wallander.  Family struggles, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and being a lover of classical music are by now all common themes in the detective world.

There are lots of meetings in this book, which I liked, as it felt properly police procedural, rather than being a case of swanning off every five minutes to badger a suspect because nobody likes paperwork.  Most compelling is the patient layering of lots of different pressures coming from many angles,it helps keep distract from the main focus of the investigation but brings up some interesting questions about life in Sweden and the complexities of its politics..

Continue reading “Faceless Killers – Henning Mankell”

Wandering in a Fantasy World

On a rainy Sunday a few weeks ago, our car climbed into the hills above Lake Taal, the fog allowing for brief glimpses of the now familiar – but no less picturesque – view.  No journey is complete without a bit of drama and this comes with a drive over a narrow section of road that is being repaired, and has an almost sheer drop on one side, that was one thing to thank the fog for, obscuring the stomach lurching drops that would be visable on better days.  The reason for our trip is to visit what was once promised as ‘the Disneyland of The Philippines’, but the owners ran into financial problems and so it is now a mere shell of theme park.

Greeted by the sight of turrets over the treeline, it all started to look as familiar as it did out of place.  As the car turned we were greeted with a vista of what resembles one of those German castles that looks like it’s come straight from a fairytale.  It was an impressive introduction as an approach to the car park.  I didn’t get a photo of that but I don’t think it would have done it justice had I done so.

A few years ago I did a post on abandoned theme parks and that melancholy feel, real or as in this case, possibly just imagined by myself.  It does get the imagination going and reminded me of Helen Cresswell’s The Watcher’s: A Mystery at Alton towers which is a tightly plotted adventure and well worth getting your hands on for a bit of escapism.

Continue reading “Wandering in a Fantasy World”

Fire in the Blood – Irène Némirovsky

Set in the rural French town in Burgundy that would also form the backdrop to the bestselling Suite Française, Fire in the Blood is the story of Silvio, his cousin’s wife Hélène, her second husband Françoise, and of the truths, deaths, marriages, children, houses and mills that bind them with love and hatred, deception and betrayal.

This novel is an absolute rural treat from one of my favourite 20th century authors, tragically lost to us at Auschwitz.  The story is a wonderful showing of her talent for unflinchingly portraying the passions and flaws of her characters. Her brutally honest observances of the human nature (in all of her books) make for some wonderfully memorable protagonists, and although this book was unfinished at the time of her death, it still retains its power to captivate the reader.

The story opens with an intimate family setting, a real country way of life, very family orientated and in this instance in touch with nature, its beauty and the integral part it plays in their community. The opening’s vibrant scene setting is both rich in detail and in building characterisation and is a great foundation for the forthcoming drama.  None of which I will comment on as at 152 pages, I run the risk of spoiling too much of the plot.

The layering of intricacies in this small close-knit town and the beautifully drawn characters is slowly teased out over the course of the story, allowing us to change allegiance to people as we understand them in greater depth. It’s a claustrophobic, rule laden arena, made all the more obvious by Silvio, who has travelled the globe, lived a varied life, and cares little for the social nuances he has returned to.

In nature, there is a moment of perfection when every hope is realised, when the luscious fruits finally fall, a crowning moment towards the end of summer.  But it quickly passes and the autumn rains begin.  It’s the same for people.

Continue reading “Fire in the Blood – Irène Némirovsky”

The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

In the summer of 1956, Stevens, the ageing butler of Darlington Hall, embarks on a leisurely holiday that will take him deep into the English countryside and into his past.

A contemporary classic, The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro’s beautiful and haunting evocation of life between the wars in a Great English House.

For some reason I never got around to reviewing this book the first time but I loved it and reading these words again, it was just as enjoyable with all its understated, unreliable reminiscences. It’s about time Eowyn Ivey had some company (after four years) of being the only other author beginning with ‘I’ that I have thus far reviewed.

The blurb doesn’t really seem to give much away to the inquisitive peruser but it in fact describes the plot succinctly enough.  The reader is treated to a story of past times, and a present that is quickly changing in many aspects.  Class erosion, and the forebodings at the possible onset of a(nother) world war are both integral to protagonist Stevens’ life, and are explored with the personal.  Namely the degrees of relationship we allow ourselves with people we spend the most time with.

Stevens himself is an extremely engaging narrator, a measured voice of self-reflection. He is a man of introspection with an analytical mind, whilst being a totally unreliable narrator, contradicting his remembrances and; one gets the impression, avoiding the thoughts too troubling to confront.  A lot is left unsaid or, at best left ambiguous which just adds to the study of his character.

There is such a wonderful evocation of Englishness here, and of the national character, both the good and the bad.  The book works as a meditation on the identity of the personal, and of where the English fit in on a continental and world scale.  With the class structure slowly corroding, the changing of political thought and the reader’s hindsight into the future events of World War II, make this all the more poignant.  Stevens’ vulnerabilities are a neat mirroring of his country’s.

Continue reading “The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro”

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.

Picking this up at the airport was always going to be a risk. as bestsellers always seem to be these days when it to comes to quality.  As expected it was an easy book to get into and a quick read, I enjoyed it to begin with, reading 132 pages in one sitting. Further on there were a few problems that niggled me and ultimately the book became distinctly average.

The first part of the book is superior to the rest by a country mile (or indeed a mile of any sort).  The depiction of Afghanistan and the life as seen through Amir’s eyes was interesting and his relationship with Hassan was one worth investing in .  Seeing the distinctions of class and race, as well as the influence of religion and the day-to-day life rituals of Afghans was something new and refreshing to read about.

I didn’t like Amir at all, he does nothing to endear himself to the reader but I appreciated that, it gives the writing more impact when I did feel sympathy for him.  His relationships with friends and family are decently done, enough to keep me caring about the characters throughout but never overly so.

There is some good prose – again mainly in the first part – and for a time I was totally engaged with the novel and the characters, sadly that ended with the first part of the book and it became more imprecise in its focus before descending into generic bestseller fare.  That is not to say that there wasn’t anything good to speak of in the latter ha;f, I found the nod to a lack of integration or acceptance of older immigrants, into new countries and cultures to be a good topic to approach.  Similarly the intolerance of Islam and the hypocritical way some have of applying religion, which stretches to all religions is a timely topic to write about. Continue reading “The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini”