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Mr. D. James "nonsuch" (london, uk)

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Homer And Langley
Homer And Langley
by E. L. Doctorow
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Down and out in New York, 29 Nov. 2013
This review is from: Homer And Langley (Paperback)
Doctorow, E L. Homer & Langley

I have come from reading several genre novels to what I love best - a literary novel, the kind of book you don't rush through, but relish each word. Here Homer the blind narrator takes a break from his piano to recall times when playing for silent movies he would be assisted by sixteen-year-old Mary: 'She was a brave but wounded thing, legally an orphan. We were in loco parentis, and always would be. She had her own room on the top floor next to Siobhan's and I would think of her sleeping there, chaste and beautiful, and wonder if the Catholics were not right in deifying virginity and if Mary's parents had not been wise in conferring on her frail beauty the protective name of the mother of their God.'

This passage takes on greater poignancy when years later Homer hears of her fate as a missionary in Africa. By that time he has fallen for Jacqueline, a French reporter who saves him from being run over in New York. Unlike his elder brother Langley, an embittered and paranoid survivor from gas attacks in the Great War, Homer pretty much accepts the world of crime and corruption he finds around him at the time of the Depression. Both damaged bachelors live in a decaying house off Fifth Avenue, within sight of Central Park. While Homer writes and plays the piano, Langley fills the house with junk and embarks on the project of compiling the ultimate newspaper. To which end he buys all the daily papers and collates reports of murder, rape, robbery and scandal.

As is his wont Doctorow bases his fiction on historical fact. Homer and Langley Collyer were a fabled pair of New York recluses whose crumbling mansion housed piles of junk, a dismantled car in the living room and rats in the woodwork, and whose visitors included policemen, prostitutes and hoodlums. Doctorow even extends their lives into the Hippy period, where the pair meet Flower Child approval. Although deprived of mains services, winter is welcomed as a bastion against teenage vandalism, the young stone-throwers then being confined indoors. The book ends sadly with Homer writing on a newly scavenged braille typewriter `with only the touch of my brother's hand to know that I am not alone.' But this downbeat note is perfectly pitched and the novel's heroes earn our respect and even admiration for defying the safe and relatively secure world of civilized society.

Yesterday Road
Yesterday Road
Price: £2.24

5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful Losers, 21 Nov. 2013
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This review is from: Yesterday Road (Kindle Edition)
Brennan, Kevin. Yesterday Road

The road from California to Vermont takes many twists for Jack and Joe, two mentally insecure travellers. Jack has lost his memory and Joe his mother. They meet on a train when Joe, a huge man with an infantile mind, wanders away from his guardians to sit next to Jack, a geriatric seeking to orient himself to the real world by finding Linda, who might well be his daughter. Names mean a lot to Jack, who clings on to clues that might lead to Linda, a girl living somewhere in the East. But the first girl he meets on the road turns out to be not Linda, but Melissa, who offers him a ride to San Francisco, where his daughter he thinks lives. She asks his name, but he's not sure, finally settling on Jack. Luck favours him in Reno, when he finds himself carrying a wad of money after police interrupt a drug deal.

The package forms a pillow for Jack's many nights on the road with Joe. Only gradually does he come to realise that this stack of hundred dollar bills with the smiling face on them can be useful to settle accounts - to feed himself and the ever-hungry Joe, a cretin but bright enough to remind his senior partner not to forget his soft package. These two going nowhere innocents encounter plenty more trouble: the worst being the loss of their rescuer, waitress Ida Peveley when she leaves them in her car to make a phone call, only to find them gone on her return. A carjacker kidnaps both at gunpoint and drives them `East,' which is exactly where Jack believes he will find Linda.

The reader of this extremely funny and exhilarating story of innocence abroad will need a map to trace the route of these beautiful losers seeking something called home, a country of the mind, seemingly attainable but forever just out of reach.

Price: £1.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Trouble at the Manor, 18 Nov. 2013
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This review is from: HOUSE OF SILENCE (Kindle Edition)
Gillard, Linda. House of Silence

Marek, the tall, dark and handsome hero, alias Tyler the gardener, at one point says to the heroine Gwen, `It all adds up. I just don't believe it.' This was my feeling about the whole novel. The plot machinations are cleverly worked out, but the reader is asked to accept a great deal. The novel begins impressively with easy jocular exchanges between Gwen and her partner, the elusive small-part actor Alfie. The dialogue is sharp, cynical and colloquial, but this all changes when we switch to third person narrative. I found this device awkward and distracting, savouring too much of expansive footnotes. I prefer to find out for myself, to let the story unfold slowly through a consciousness. However, in the end, as it must with a Romantic thriller, `it all adds up.'

Romance is in the air from the start, but Gillard never lays it on with a trowel. We learn that Gwen hates Christmas because her mother died on that day from a drug overdose. Moreover, she shudders when recalling her dysfunctional and her now mercifully dead relatives. So, now, an orphan seeking a new happy family, she manages to persuade a reluctant Alfie to invite her to spend Christmas with his family at Creake Hall.

Of course the rambling Gothic mansion forebodes trouble, although Tyler the taciturn gardener with his `unfathomable dark eyes' fascinates her. Gwen is welcomed into this friendly family, but Alfie remains aloof. The reader is introduced to Alfie's four sisters, all well drawn, although the dialogues between hosts and guest border on information overload, as does the profuse detail of food and furnishing in this cold, gloomy manor house. That some `dark secret' lies behind the outgoing sisters' hospitality soon becomes apparent. So Gwen visits the deserted windmill nearby, where Marek lives and broods in silence. She feels there's something not quite right about Alfie: is he really the adopted son of the reclusive and senile Rae, alias Rachael Holbrook, and author of best-selling children's novels featuring Tom Dickon Harry?

Gwen's self-imposed task is to penetrate this House of Silence, to discover what lies behind Alfie's acting façade, and about friendly little Hattie, the youngest sister whose splendid quilt is made from scraps of old letters, hinting at the collusion of this happy family in deception and possible murder. Beware, the plot takes a lot of unravelling, and the reader will need to keep a notebook handy to trace who's really who and why.

For those who enjoy thriller-melodrama with a Romantic flavour this book has a lot to offer, but as in many plot-driven novels there are times when credibility is sorely tested. On the other hand, the reader may well admire Gillard's valiant juggling act as the plot twists and turns, one version of what happened being replaced by another. Abortion, suicide, murder - and all concealed by lies - what more do you want? Well, a happy ending of course. Fine, but which of the two heroes will get the girl? Better go to Creake Hall and find out!
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Price: £4.35

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Old Story, 15 Nov. 2013
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This review is from: Holiday (Kindle Edition)
Stanley Middleton, Holiday

`Fifty years hence, someone will pull me out of his head. I am not displeased.' Thus Stanley Middleton in a poem recalling names from his past. Author of over 40 novels, joint winner of the Booker Prize in 1975, Middleton refused an honour from the Wilson government, and published Holiday to refute Auberon Waugh's dictum that flashbacks were the death of any good novel. In fact flashback is an inherent part of the structure of Holiday, whose hero, Edwin Fisher during a period of marital breakdown tells of his childhood, school life, courtship and his disastrous marriage to Meg, a woman who is his very antithesis.

The novel begins in an East Coast seaside resort, where schoolmaster Fisher has gone to escape from constant domestic squabbles with his bellicose wife. While he drifts from beach to bar, from church to his digs, with their lace curtains and view of rooftops and television aerials, he meets a range of tramps, holidaying families, sunbathing girls - and ultimately chances upon his father-in-law, David Vernon. The one thing that Edwin and Meg have in common is an imposing and embarrassing father. But while Edwin's father is safely dead, Meg's is only too alive. Vernon has clearly arrived at the resort as a peacemaker, a friendly but interfering solicitor, who after puffing and blowing sits down `raising the tails of his coat,' saying, `I was sorry to hear about your business,' meaning the marital break-up.

David is difficult to shake off and the many interviews between solicitor and teacher are both funny and painful, each seeking to outfox the other. Meg `appears' only in Edwin's recalled `scenes,' where again victory of principle is striven for but never achieved. Between these scenes of conflict, however, Edwin engages socially and to an extent sexually with a gallery of plebeian types, fun-loving drinkers and songsters, which serves to distract him and to broaden the human dimension of this fairly trite story about marital strife.

Middleton makes capital from the contrast in speech between the sincere ordinary folk, whose banalities are frequently excruciatingly funny, and the often pompous educated antagonists. One of David's monologues concludes: `I didn't fancy swigging with the plutocracy. So I settle on the first little workman's pub I see. And whom do I meet there? My lapsed son-in-law, Edwin Arthur Fisher, Master of Arts, Master of Education.' Which reminds Edwin of the time when he'd courted Meg, and been invited to play chess, only to find that the game was an opportunity for the soon-to-be father-in-law to triumph. `That a grown man, stolid as a farmer, could so drive himself to win an unimportant contest, had amused and then frightened Fisher.'

As Philip Davis says in his obituary of `this minor old-fashioned novelist' who died in July 2009, Middleton's stories of `struggling marriages, or recovery from trouble or loss are tales of survival and deserve their own.'

Monsieur Monde Vanishes (New York Review Books Classics)
Monsieur Monde Vanishes (New York Review Books Classics)
by Georges Simenon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.06

4.0 out of 5 stars Man Alone, 8 Nov. 2013
Georges Simenon, Monsieur Monde Vanishes

Norbert Monde walks out on his bourgeois existence, leaving behind his second wife, his career and what the average person would call common sense and takes a train to Marseilles. His motives are not clear to the reader or himself; he simply knows he has to do it. He picks up a prostitute, moves on to Nice and by chance meets up with his first wife, now an opium addict. Chance is in control and that's what he seems to have been missing in his 40+ years. He helps her because she is at the end of her tether, not because he has rediscovered love or anything silly like that. He seems drawn to the life of the streets, the shabby parts of cities, unrespectable people. He has no plan and no ambition; he is an obsessive mental traveller, seemingly making up for the unadventurous, unthinking life he has led. When his money is stolen by a chambermaid, he shows no anger, no surprise. The usual motives of the routine thriller or police procedural narrative are missing.

The writing is simple and factual, without any lingering on the marvels of nature or human beings. The third person narrative underlines the impersonal nature of the central character, a man who is seeking something, a truth about himself and the nature of existence. Monde needs to be detached and meticulous in his examination of people and his own feelings. He must not get involved, must constantly, as far as possible, remain on the alert. He is not and doesn't wish to be seen as `sympathetic,' yet strangely he is. He is essentially like us all - a man alone. He has hardly a Romantic bone in his body. Here he is at what in another novel would be called `a crisis of consciousness: `He was close to a truth, a discovery, he had begun to dive down again, then something brought him back to the surface.'

This book will not appeal to those who need action and answers. In spite of the movement through three cities and several poor hotels there is a kind of sameness about the environment - smoky, noisy, bustling, restless, but with the haunting stillness one gets from being in the mind of the detached hero,

Junky: The Definitive Text of 'Junk' (Penguin Modern Classics)
Junky: The Definitive Text of 'Junk' (Penguin Modern Classics)
by William S Burroughs
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lowlife Treasure, 7 Nov. 2013
William Burroughs, Junky

This compelling autobiography of the leading Beat writer is for me reminder that gold often lies among the trash in the centre of the city dump. Years ago I sampled Burroughs' The Naked Lunch, but gave up in despair at its incongruities, its sudden passages of brilliance being insufficient to compensate for what often seemed mind-wandering drivel. I thought I'd never touch Burroughs again. Junky, however is something else; its sad-eyed, intelligent and honest writing strikes a melancholy chord. I might even try him again.

Like much American autobiography Junky captures the reader from the start with its tough no nonsense, stick to the facts approach to story-telling. Open the book at any page and you find passages like this: `I was in a cheap cantina off Dolores Street, Mexico City. I had been drinking for about two weeks. I was sitting in a booth with three Mexicans drinking tequila. The Mexicans were fairly well-dressed. One of them spoke English. A middle-aged, heavy-set Mexican with a sad, sweet sang songs and played the guitar.' It's difficult not to want to know more. Burroughs sets the scene, then focusses on one character, a well-dressed musician in a dive bar. What will happen? This deadpan, Hemingway style never becomes monotonous. The reader believes in the writer's integrity and trusts him to tell it like it was.

Of course, the writing is not as artless as it seems. As in Hemingway, in a story such as `The Killers' the quietness conceals an underlying threat, a suggestion of desperation and violence. This is Mexico, dammit, and our narrator is a wily and possibly dangerous psychopath.
The surprising thing about this notorious drug-fiend and burnt out literary genius is that he came from a highly respectable middle-class background, attended `one of the Big Three universities' and later `saw a way of life, a vocabulary, references, a whole symbol system, as the sociologists say.' Hence this prose in a paragraph from Burroughs' Prologue is, compared to the rest of the narrative, sophisticated, well-muscled, just as sharp and cynical, but more inclined to elaboration, yet ending colloquially, `But these people were jerks ... and I cooled off on the setup.'

I could guarantee that once you pick up this book, the Penguin edition of which bears the warning or invitation `Keep out of Children's Reach,' you will not easily put it down.

Speaking of Love
Speaking of Love
by Angela Young
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars Hard to Bear, 5 Nov. 2013
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This review is from: Speaking of Love (Hardcover)
Angela Young, Speaking of Love

I have to admit that in spite of its seductive opening Angela Young's debut novel at times tested my patience. It has a well-rehearsed theme, announced in its title, its epigraph, in the blurb and in its many references to that thing called love, but for me this frequently cloyed. Yes, despite dealing with schizophrenia, mental breakdown and psychic fragility this is definitely Romantic fiction. It has a strong feel-good factor, obviously intends to spread happiness around, but is too simplistic to make a strong impact - on me, at least.

Love is a good thing and needs to be expressed. That is the message that is repeated throughout, but all three tellers whose lives dominate the book fail to articulate this, hence their suffering - and how! They are constantly caught sobbing, holding back tears or with tears streaming down faces, and yet I was totally unmoved by their predicaments. Would they have been any happier if they'd expressed their feelings?

However, I persevered to the end so the book must have had some positive qualities. One of these is in the author's use of different points of view - the story centres around Iris, the mother of Vivie, who is misallied to her husband Charles, a man of logic who frequently makes her feel as if he `had dropped an emotional sandbag on her head.' We never get Charles's version of his wife, an alcoholic who can't hold a job down, hisses frequently and has missed out on the only man who might have rescued her - the shy and retiring Matthew who never told his love until it was too late. The short chapters told in first or third person give the reader relief, as do the long stories told by the clumsy ECT victim, the mentally ill mother, Iris, whose fairy tales dominate the book.

The novel is overloaded with symbols: the colour red and the laburnum tree being the most intrusive. The laburnum always invokes the family's childhood past; it was grafted by the war veteran Dick for Iris and its endurance comforts her in her malady.

From amongst all these lost and floating people (some like Iris's potential lover Kit just fade from sight) there emerges the wise Dad, who knows all about the dangers of repression, and speaks on his author's behalf, instructs young Matthew about the best routes to travel (big symbol) and manages to extract from his son those three magic words, `I love you.'

This Boy's Life: A Memoir
This Boy's Life: A Memoir
by Tobias Wolff
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A Hell of a Guy!, 20 Oct. 2013
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Not finished it yet - I'm saving it. So far the narrator and his mother are equally cowed by dominant father-husband, who comes over as a psychopathic bully and egotist. In a melodrama he'd come to a sticky end, but this is more or less non-fiction, so I'm hooked to find out if said male chauvinist comes a cropper in the end.

Finished it and ready for the re-read:

Wolff, Tobias. This Boy's Life.

After watching a truck plunge over a cliff, Tobias Wolff begins the story of his boyhood: `It was 1955 and we were driving from Florida to Utah, to get away from a man my mother was afraid of and to get rich on uranium.' The memoir is replete with such unfulfilled promises of happiness and riches, for this boy's life is far from happy and successful. In fact, although `people in Utah were getting up poor in the morning and going to bed rich at night,' sleeping rough, going to poor schools, and suffering a thousand humiliations is to be the lot of Toby, self-christened Jack, after Jack London.

Jack's major problem, however, is being terrorised by the psychopath Dwight, the `man my mother was afraid of.' Already a scoundrel, given to theft, window-breaking and taking pot-shots at people in the street, Jack is obviously in need of paternal discipline. This is provided - and how! - by his mother's latest suitor, Dwight, a divorcee with three children. Dwight emerges as a humourless control freak.
Living with Dwight and family in Chinook, a town without a school is `A Whole New Deal.' The first instalment of this is Dwight's confiscation of Jack's Winchester rifle; the next is finding him a paper round, and the most arduous having him shuck horse chestnuts every night, the promised remuneration from papers and nuts ending up in his guardian's pocket. The Winchester too now, in effect, belongs to Dwight, a boaster who can't shoot for toffee.

Eventually, by fair means and foul, Jack manages to escape from the dreary school at Concrete by winning a scholarship to Hill, a private school, into which he is initiated by being measured for a wardrobe of uniforms. It begins to look like an upbeat ending for the scapegrace hero, but being Jack it isn't to be. Conformity and a settled life are not for him.
What I liked about Jack's story is the calm unemotional tone maintained as he and his mother constantly move from one disaster to another, from Florida to Utah to Seattle, ending up in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. My only cavil is with the ending, in my opinion just a couple of pages too long. I'd have preferred it to end with the reunion of mother and son in Washington DC, when she takes him `to a piano bar full of men in Nehru jackets where she let me drink myself under the table. She wanted me to know that I'd lasted longer than she ever thought I would.' All Jack needs in life is his mother's approval. As for her, `she was in a mood to celebrate, having just landed a good job in a church across the street from the White House. "I've got a better view than Kennedy," she told me.'

A Scattering
A Scattering
by Christopher Reid
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Blithe Spirit, 12 Oct. 2013
This review is from: A Scattering (Paperback)
Christopher Reid, A Scattering

Christopher Reid's poetic tribute to the memory of his wife Lucinda Gane has many fine lyrical and narrative qualities. In snatches Reid moves from Crete to London to an Italian market, bringing to life the past that is always present in his mind. He speaks to the departed Lucinda, reminiscing with her, interrogating her, at the same time reflecting on the brain tumour that finally triumphed over her spirit in a North London hospice. The tone throughout is calm and questioning, free alike from Dylan Thomas raging or Tennysonian melancholia. This slim volume that won the Costa Book of the Year Award in 2009 is a moving portrait of a brave and spirited woman.

The title alone indicates the fragmentary nature of Reid's memories, the ordinariness of the tokens left behind. In a section named `The Bathroom of the Vanities' he glances at Lucinda's leftover perfume and make-up bottles. ' The bathroom scales, too, /stand abandoned. No one now will be consulting/ the age-fogged dial for its little fibs and trembles of error/ with precisely that peering downward frown.'

Reid never shrinks from the less seductive aspects of living with a woman suffering from cancer. He touches on her baldness (which he comes to love) and the onset of her dementia, accepting that 'no imp or devil/but a mere tumour squatted on her brain/ Without personality/ or ill humour.'

The book is an amalgam of compressed biography, novel and memoir. The portrait that emerges is of a woman of wit and intelligence being recalled from the shades to console a widower seeking, as in the Italian market thronging with bargain-hunting women,' the strong, health-giving, world-immersed/ feminine element his life has lacked for too long.'

Alone in Berlin (Penguin Modern Classics)
Alone in Berlin (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Geoff Wilkes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A Worthy Read, 5 Oct. 2013
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This is the story about Otto Quangel, a heroic but silent dissenter from Nazi oppression in the Berlin of the 1940s. The novel is based on documents, many of which are reproduced at the end of the volume. They make a chilling read, reminding us of the brutal regime that infiltrated into every German consciousness at the time. Fear of speaking, terror of betrayal and the sheer horror that awaits the non-conformist seeps from every page.

Hans Fallada 's novel, published after his death in 1947, is a cry from the heart, a book that the author needed to write to try to regain his sanity after Germany's defeat. It is based on the real story of Otto and Elise Hampel who, after the capitulation of France, scattered anti-Nazi literature in prominent places around Berlin. They were betrayed, tried and executed in January 1943. Alone in Berlin is a tribute to the courage of many ordinary Germans who were obliged to stifle their dissent or pay the ultimate price as well as to the determination of a novelist recovering from alcohol and drug-addiction who forced himself to make a work of literature from the nightmare that was his life.

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