Beastings by Benjamin Myers

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Ben Myers sees the countryside, really sees it; he is able to describe things in his writing most of us may notice but don’t really take in.   You get the impression that the core of his novel must originate from intimate knowledge and communion with nature and a love of an outdoorsy way of life.  Although, like with his last novel Pig Iron, Myers writes about the surroundings as though it were another character in his story, lending comfort, shelter, hardship, pain and salvation, a provider of a sort-of religious experience in a green cathedral, Beastings is in essence a chase novel reminiscent of Geoffrey Household with characters remaining nameless and most of the action taking place in the open.  Unlike Rogue Male, this is a story of a vulnerable, innocent and mute girl pitted against the knowledge, strength and cunning of the priest and poacher, her pursuers, as well as a myriad of obstacles placed in her way by the elements and punishing terrain of the Lakeland fells, woodland and mountain environment she must traverse to escape her oppressive past.  Her only company is the baby she has stolen.

If you are familiar with Myers’ work you will know to expect some grim moments, all of which are necessary to make a point and move the plot forward. But there is measure and equity in his writing; each gruesome description is balanced by beautiful observations of cloud formations or bird song.  There is plenty of ecclesiastical language aswell and an underlying commentary on the destructive capabilities of organised religion when left unchecked – but this is not done in any sort of preachy way.  In fact, no word is wasted in Myers’ writing, every sentence propels the action forward, raising the reader’s heart rate in time with the girl’s as she stumbles towards her final fate.

Extraordinary, visceral, heart-breaking and visually stunning, this is another belter from Myers.  You’re missing out if you don’t read it.

 

 

Big thanks and apologies to Blue Moose Books for taking so long.

Other Ben Myers stuff:

Q&A

Pig Iron

 

 

 

Haweswater – Sarah Hall

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Set in 1936, Haweswater is part furiously passionate and obsessive love story, part tale of an attempt to save a way of life overtaken by industrial development.   Beautifully melancholic and emotionally stirring, this homage to landscape, established country ways, family lives and a community soon to be submerged and destroyed, is an evocative read.  Hall’s spare writing style, with its continuous tinge of sadness, mirrors the rough landscape of Westmorland and the doomed fate of the sacrificial village of Mardale awaiting it’s watery demise to create a reservoir for the ever-growing sprawl of urban Greater Manchester.   This is a exquisitely crafted work with undertones of a disaster waiting to happen and will not fail to surprise or delight; you will probably cry.  Superb.

 

 

 

 

Let’s give this another go…

imagesWow!  It’s been nearly two years since I wrote anything on here. Amazingly it still gets visitors.  Until about 4 months ago I still received the odd review copy.

My blogging sabbatical coincided with me going back to work after a long career break.  It has been tough to balance my work and home life and find time for the various clubs and hobbies my family and I have.  More recently though, and probably because I am a bit fed up at work, I’ve felt a nagging desire to get back to my virtual safe haven.  I’ve got this feeling that If I don’t start writing soon I may turn into the sort of miserable character you find in Modern Toss work cartoons.

I’ve never been good at writing, but I always loved chatting about books and reading.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, I guess, depending on how you look at it!) I’m not going to have the luxury of time to write the long-winded, spoiler-filled essays I used to.  So I’m going to attempt to write my book thoughts in 10 sentences or less – wish me luck!  First post tomorrow.

 

Nevil Shute – 2 books, neither brilliant.

I have to be slightly careful what I write here, because I know Nevil Shute has an incredibly protective following.  I can sort of understand why.  He has an interesting background, an engineer turned novelist, he emigrated to Australia in 1950 and wrote many of his popular books about his new home.  He wrote lots of books in the latter part of his life and several have been adapted into films.  I’ve read two of his books this year, both re-reads.  Both slightly disappointing if I’m honest, hopefully I’ll be able to explain why they were a bit of a let down.

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I wasn’t even  a teenager when Tenko was on the TV.  I was absolutely captivated by this story of women in a prison camp in Malaysia during the second world war.  They were women who had never needed to worry about their own safety and security before the war and now they grouped together for their own survival.  While I was a student I spent a summer travelling in Malaysia and began to appreciate the environment these women had to live in.

 A Town Like Alice tells a similar story.  Jean Paget in living in Malaysia when World War Two breaks out.  When the Japanese invade Singapore and Malaysia a group of women including Jean and a gaggle of children are separated from other prisoners and made to march across the peninsular in search of a camp to take them.  It is a relentless, hot walk with many falling foul to illness and fatigue.  They never do find a camp, but during their search Jean makes friends with an Australian POW, Joe Harman, who drives trucks for the Japanese and steals chickens for the women and children.  This has dire consequences.   After the war Jean comes into an inheritance and returns to Malaysia to help the villagers who sheltered the women.  She finds out Joe’s fate was different to what she assumed and goes to Alice Springs to experience the town he told her about during the war.  The film adaptation starring Virginia Mckenna and Peter Finch ends at this point.  Perfect.  It tells a story of a man and women who find each other in a time of turmoil.

The problem is, the book doesn’t end there.  It goes on and on telling Jean’s story in Australia as she uses her inheritance to bring life to a backwater town in an attempt to make it into another Alice Springs.  The only part of this section that interested me was the vastness of the outback cattle farms and how such a thing is managed.

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On the Beach has an interesting theme and one which occupied the thoughts of many during the 50s and beyond. Before the book starts, the world has suffered a nuclear war.  Australia took no part in it, but radiation is slowly drifting south.  Australians know they have about six months until the deadly air reaches them.  The population elsewhere on the planet has been wiped out.  An American nuclear submarine found its way to Melbourne, it’s captain Dwight Towers being one of the last remaining US naval officers on the planet.  He meets Moira through the Australian liaison officer and his wife.  Once it is established there is no hope for the human race, the characters fill their remaining time living life as though nothing is wrong.

This is my main issue with On the Beach.  It has such a grand theme – the characters know the end is coming, they have a finite amount of time left, yet they concern themselves with banalities like choosing an electric mower or planning a vegetable patch.  There is a five page description of a car race.  It just felt so underwhelming.  There’s no panic, there is a lot of fustiness and stiff upper lip.  The old-fashioned language is charming, if a little irritatingly repetitive.   I suppose I felt that Shute had an ideal opportunity to discuss concepts about human mortality and the futility of all activity when we know our lives will ultimately come to an end.  It was a very polite, middle class take on the end of the world and just didn’t feel quite right to me.  I discussed this with a few friends who had also read it, they all loved the book and felt I was being a bit harsh.  They were heartbroken by the ending, which is incredibly poignant and sad as are other moments in the book, but the delivery left me a bit cold.

My overall feeling having now read these two books is that Shute was a writer with great ideas, but an unsophisticated and clunky writing style.  A great editor may have done wonders with his texts, but we’ll never know.

The Go-Between – LP Hartley

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The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Last year I read a book called The White Goddess: An Encounter.  A memoir by Simon Gough, nephew of Robert Graves, about his experiences in Majorca in his late teens.  When I started reading The Go-Between, it felt very familiar.  There are many similarities between the books, including inexperience and youth, broken trust and the loss of innocence during the heat of summer.

Leo Colston is in his 60s sometime in the 1950s.  He finds a box of things in his attic.  The bits and pieces in the box bring forth a memory of a summer spent at the house of an upper class school friend in Norfolk.  The memories crash over him like waves as he tries to purge himself of this sad episode of his youth.  Leo is an outsider at his school, overlooked by most until his black magic tricks coincidentally come good and increase his popularity overnight.  He suddenly has confidence in himself and confidence in his mystic qualities.  Although it means leaving his mother for most of the summer, Leo accepts an invitation to spend time at his school friend’s house during the holidays.  Leo is wholly unprepared for his visit to Brandham Hall in the summer of 1900.  There is a heat wave and he only has heavy winter clothing with him, he comes from a different class, he is not used to spending time with so many people and he obviously stands out.

At Brandham Leo meets his friend’s older sister Marian who is expected to marry Viscount Winlove, the local aristocrat recently home from the Boer war, but disfigured after a horrific war wound.  Both are kind to Leo and Marian understands his embarrassment, recognising his discomfort in his inappropriate clothes.  She takes him to Norwich to shop for new ones.  He instantly feels like he fits in wearing his new outfits, he is no longer the outsider.  He idolises Marian, just like Simon idolises Margot in The White Goddess.  When his friend falls ill and can’t play out, Leo explores the area.  He becomes friendly with local farmer Ted Burgess who he once saw swimming in the local river.  Ted entrusts Leo with notes to give to Marian telling him they are about business.  He becomes their messenger.  They call him their postman.  Subconsciously, Leo knows the notes are not about business, but he continues to deliver the letters because he trusts Marian.  He is at the cusp of puberty, his exploration of the local countryside mirrors his need to explore his feelings about growing up.  He likes Ted, but knows he is in a different class to Marian, he is fascinated by his masculinity and confidence and as a boy without a father Ted becomes a source of information.  He comes to admire Ted to such an extent that when the Brandham guests play cricket against the villagers, Leo is torn between wanting the house guests to win and wanting Ted to score the winning runs for his team.

The Go-Between is a beautifully written work of secrecy, deception, underhandedness and the typical British stiff upper lip.  It is richly descriptive and vivid.  Hartley evokes the heat and colours of the countryside until you feel you are walking with Leo through the dells of Brandham sweating in the summer heat.  Leo is a snob, but he is also a boy who knows no better and is looking for answers from those older and wiser than him.  They let him down during his summer in Norfolk; he puts his trust in them and they deceive him.  It is an episode that effects the course of his life.  I felt for Leo as he languished in that limbo between child and adult; too young to fully comprehend what is going on but old enough to know something is up.  There are some lovely passages and wonderful lines that say so much more than the few words that make them.  I loved The Go-Between for its depth and the layers of meaning, for Leo’s innocence and Marian and Ted’s lack of innocence and the brazenness of their relationship.  This would be a fabulous novel for a holiday and perfect to read in the sultry heat of summer.

Where have I been?!

Oh dear.  It has been exactly a month since my last proper blog post (can you tell I was educated at a Catholic school? That sounds very like a confessional!).

The last review I wrote was of Clay by Melissa Harrison.  That same evening I went to an event at a local library and met Melissa.  She read a passage from her book and then spoke to lots of readers, including me.  It was lovely to meet her, chat about her influences and her memories of Guildford, which was her haunt as a teenager (actually her words were “I used to come here for nights out and to snog boys” brilliant!).  She also brought a lovely box of things, which were instantly recognisable as TC’s bits and bobs he keeps under his bed.  She read my review while on the train to the event and we talked about skills and knowledge handed down through generations.  She told me a sad story about a horrible break-up that drove her to Dartmoor to be alone to get over it.  While she was there she remembered things from her childhood – trees, birds and plants and this knowledge memory acted as a form of therapy.  She said her next challenge is to teach herself to identify trees in winter.  To a lot of readers our conversation may seem dull, boring and a bit geeky, but we also had a sideline chat about Mixmag magazine (I used to read it – she used to write for it), which shows neither of us is as square as our map/trees/birds chat might suggest!

Anyway, none of that explains where I’ve been for four weeks.  I haven’t been anywhere – just here.  I’ve had a lot on my mind – not necessarily a lot on my plate, but certainly lots to think about and take up my head-space and it’s distracted me from writing.  One thing distracting me at the moment is applying for jobs.  I haven’t applied for a lot, but those I have been interested in, I’ve spent a long time thinking about and preparing my application.  My time out of the job market has helped me forget how time consuming it can be.

Although I’ve not been updating the blog, I have been reading.  I’ve read a couple of interesting books over the last month, but I haven’t read anything that’s really got my heart racing and kept me up late at night wanting to find out what happens, which may also be why I haven’t written much.

I feel like I’m back on track now and want to get some reviews up on the blog over the coming weeks, so watch this space and thanks for being patient!

on being addicted to books

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