It is an intriguing feature of the writing of Joanne Harris (author of ‘Chocolat’) that she deliberately soothes and entices the reader’s senses with her evocative descriptions of tastes and smells. And yet, her innovative use of a bottle of wine as a narrator, perhaps extending the notion of ‘character’ beloved by gourmets, conferred a tongue-in-cheek, surreal quality to this novel, at times. Certainly the device raised my eyebrows initially, but the masterly story-telling by Harris ensured that this quirky element didn’t detract from a wonderfully atmospheric tale.
The story centres on Jay Mackintosh, one-time acclaimed author, beset by writer’s block and the expectation of a second success, mired in a meaningless relationship. In a spontaneous, but desperate attempt to break free, Jay buys a property in Lansquenet, and drops out of sight.
In a clever weaving of alternate story-lines, Jay reflects on his childhood and the influence of his journey from ‘Pog Hill’, amid the new chapter of his life unfurling in France. The six ‘specials’ (bottles of homemade wine laid down by his childhood mentor, Joe) are a tangible link with the past for Jay and seem to unlock a spiritual/magical connection, enabling the the reappearance of the ethereal Joe and his earthy counsel.
Meanwhile, in Lansquenet, Jay is drawn to his neighbour (Marise), who is stuck in her own domestic nightmare. Are the echoes of their respective personal histories fated, or can they yet rescue each other? This is a warm and thought-provoking novel, which invites the reader to evaluate ‘what matters’ in life, but also draws on the metaphor of maturing wine. “Men are like wine – some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age”. (Pope John XXIII).
Classic satirical take on the futility of war and the chasm between the accompanying rhetoric and the reality of conflict. Wonderfully witty and thought-provoking, Heller serves up one of the top 100 novels of modern literature, a ‘must read’ book, which has the quality to remain significant over time, if not to be viewed as quite profound.
A very thought-provoking, though short book, JLS invites the reader to contemplate the potential tyranny of collective,taken-for-granted understanding and the value of mavericks, as a necessary challenge to the prevailing order. Bach poses a question for all of us about the price of conforming, weighed against being true to oneself. A book which can be read and enjoyed on several levels.
Agatha Christie’s 45th novel is delightfully quaint, but bears the hallmarks of an accomplished writer. Reading from the author’s stable of whodunnits is to luxuriate in a different world and an idyllic time (albeit people are ‘bumped off’ with unerring regularity). Indeed it is akin to the cozy feeling that accompanies a small treat, like a bar of chocolate, a sumptuous indulgence to be favoured.
Witty, insightful, poignant and thought-provoking, for men of a certain age Marcus Berkmann’s book provides a useful compass with which to navigate those twilight years, with humour rather than resignation, grace rather than grumpiness. Should be compulsory reading for all men with the potential to age predictably.
This was a random choice on my part, with which to fill the waiting times that accompany jury service. But, if I say so myself, an excellent choice, brimming with likable, if somewhat flawed characters, set in a wonderfully familiar 1960s onwards. Not since ‘Fever Pitch’ and the well thumbed pages describing West Ham’ s FA Cup triumph over Hornby’ s beloved Arsenal have I felt so warmly nostalgic and thankful to have been there.
This book follows the journey of fictional rising TV star Sophie Straw, but it is the clever background use of programmes such as ‘Till death us do part’ and ‘Steptoe and son’, which gave the novel depth and for this reader an added affinity with the central ‘cast’. The clothes, activities, people and cultural norms all seemed so gloriously yesteryear, sympathetically described by the author and diligently reflecting the seemingly dated expectations of the time. This is no retrospective critique, but rather a wonderful observation of the period with its sometimes bizarre conventions, seen through the eyes of a young northern woman drawn to London in search of a better future. I thoroughly enjoyed the storyline and commend Nick Hornby for his deft handling of the relationships weaving together a very compelling read.
The word ‘superb’ is not one I bandy about lightly, but it seems eminently appropriate for “The Book Thief” by Marcus Zusak. Not only is it inventive in the use of Death as a narrator, which adds a peculiar perspective to the story and confers so much more than a simple device, but the plot and characters are truly compelling. Just when I might have thought the rich seam of World War II had been overworked, comes this beautifully crafted book, which teases at loose threads of this global human tragedy and gradually unpicks the experience of a unique individual, her foster parents and the street and town in which they lived. That the street and characters are German and shaped by the familiar trajectory of the conflict is intriguing. That human frailties and blessed courage know no national boundaries, yet flourish at the individual level, is fascinating. The gloriously flawed heroine, Liesel, is a child, but nonetheless challenges stereotypes and her arbitrary circumstances, not saintly, but indomitable, funny yet deep. Meanwhile, the disparate array of relationships between Liesel and her parents, neighbours, asylum-seeker and benefactor sow the seeds of sadness, frustration, admiration and despair in equal measure. The impact of man’s folly is clearly shown in war and is perhaps felt most keenly by the poor and yet the author also casts a hopeful light on the resilience of the human spirit and without sentimentality the possibility of greater things. A wonderfully poignant read to ponder.
We all have talents, this seems self-evident, but in a world apparently possessed by a clamouring for celebrity culture and the reward of extrovert behaviour, there is a risk that we trade charisma for depth and push ‘quiet’ souls to the margins. This book makes a compelling case for re-evaluating the contribution of the introverted and examines why the range of human personalities exists, what are the implications for those who fall to the introverted end of that continuum and for those successful in overcoming such a potential disadvantage, how did they do it? Naturally there is an obvious attraction in this book for introverts everywhere (though western culture appears to offer the greatest challenge) and there is a warming validation in Susan Cain’s explanation that it’s OK to be ‘quiet’. The cerebral-leaning are not to be pitied, the ‘geeky’, the ‘shy’ are capable of making profound contributions in work and social life and this book offers some real insight for those seeking to understand how best to relate. The book also offers strategies for the introvert not wanting to be held hostage to their natural self. I found it gratifying to find that introverts don’t need to move to China to be appreciated, but awareness of approaches that might oil the wheels of relationships were thought-provoking. This book reaffirms that ‘it takes all sorts’, but my favourite quote appears in the conclusion, “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting.For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk”. Thank goodness for that!
The underlying premise of this book is quite intriguing in that it appears to question the morality behind the ‘warehousing’ of our elders in Care Homes. Moreover, the delegation of caring responsibilities for some of our more vulnerable people to the vagaries of commercial enterprise seems destined to deliver only a diminished quality of life. Cue Martha Andersson, a septuagenarian heroine unwilling to allow the status quo to go unchallenged and the potential for conflict, drama and humour is set. Like a latter-day Spartacus, Martha contrives to lead her friends and fellow malcontents on a spree of uninhabited rule-breaking and new experiences, in an effort to enrich their lives.The series of adventures struck me as reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, or rather how they might behave in retirement. Still, there is something endearing in the rebels rejection of stereotypes and their general railing against the dying of the light. Indeed, there is something delicious about the group’s refusal to comply with social etiquette and the frequently patronizing expectations of the older fraternity. Friendship, romance, bonding and unashamed thrill-seeking drive the ‘gang’ into an escalating spiral of misdemeanors, outwitting those in authority and proving the adage that people can only be ‘governed’ by consent.
On the whole an easy, entertaining read without being overtly funny or exciting. Nonetheless, the concept is a good one and just as some of us aspire to be the elder in the purple hat, some of us may now have a sneaking desire to join the ranks of the aged rebels and definitely not go quietly, but rather wring some quality from life well into our dotage.
This latest book by Kazuo Ishiguro has the feel of another experimental departure. There is no doubt the author is a gifted writer and yet in this sojourn into the genre of fantasy and legend, his mastery of language underpins another compelling novel. It has not always been the case (I disliked ‘The Unconsoled’ quite strongly), but in this book there seems to be a return to the sure-footed exploration of relationships and character development that resonated so memorably through “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go”.
In “The Buried Giant”, set in post-Roman, post Authurian Britain, we follow the journey of elderly native couple, Axl and Beatrice, as they walk towards their son’s village, some days away. Enter saxon warrior (Wiston) and later, aged nephew of King Arthur (Sir Gwawain), who befirend the couple on their travels, protect them through a series of diverting challenges and provide a welcome change of pace. Throughout the literal journey, Ishiguro also exposes gradually the challenges of a lifetime together, which have been overcome by the couple and the consequent strength of their relationship, weathered by such adversity. In that sense it is a very touching story of mature love and the complexity of of the human bond. No longer fueled by youthful passion perhaps, nonetheless, the poignant intimacy between Axl and Beatrice and their dogged loyalty to each other is inspiring and described with great empathy and skill.
Arguably, a philosophical theme of the book surrounds the role of memory as the mortar, which binds together the foundations of our shared experience and upon which our one-to-one and broader collective relationships are constructed. Moreover, the partial interpretation of memories can prove both a blessing and a curse, which potentially subvert our respective futures.
However, in a more prosaic reading, the inclusion of exciting swordplay, some wayward monks and a dragon, against a backdrop of ancient Britain and the plot woven by the author is simply an exceptionally crafted tale with a beauty in the writing, which will continue to live long in the memory.