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The French Lieutenant's Woman :
The French Lieutenant's Woman :
by John Fowles
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars A 20th century perspective on the 19th century novel, 4 Mar. 2015
The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The story is thin - a young man recently engaged to be married having travelled widely becomes infatuated with a young woman below his station with a reputation - Sarah, the French Lieutenant’s Woman - and enticed into a brief relationship with her.

When I was introduced to this book by a creative writing tutor many years ago, I was at the same time studying Post-modernism. I came to the conclusion that this was a post-modern novel. Why? Well first it’s in the style of a much older novel, i.e., it’s written as if it’s in the 18th or 19th century, but from the perspective of the 20th century, and with the benefit of hindsight. (I don’t know if this would be regarded as a simulacrum - my impression is that a simulacrum is a poor copy of the original, and I would not say that about this book at all.) On the very first page, the author speaks directly to the reader - a style that had long gone in the 60s. And in addition, the author stops the story to address the reader on the nature of writing in Chapter 13. (He even says ‘I live in the age of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barthes’- men who have contributed their ideas on post-modernism.) In the author’s ironic tone, it could be described as being in the style of Jane Austen, but irony too is a feature of post modernism. The book was actually published in 1969, and another clue to its ‘post-modernism’ is that it touches on 20th century matters, i.e. sex - which certainly would not have darkened the door of earlier century’s books.

In this, my second reading of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I have read much more carefully. I was not looking for a story, because I remember the story more or less, but reading the text. As a writer, one is often adjured to ‘show, not tell’, but I sometimes quite enjoy being told the story, or more particularly about the personality of the character I am reading about.

When I read the book for the first time, I cannot remember feeling the same degree of admiration as I do now. Perhaps, on first reading, I was too concerned with plot, and my lack of empathy with Sarah as a character, coloured my feelings. In addition to that, I was irritated with John Fowles for intruding in the story, and even inserting himself as a character in the novel - a touch of Alfred Hitchcock, here, perhaps - and some of the other readers of the book from my reading circle have been equally under-whelmed. Now on second reading, what I see is an author at various times discussing with us readers, his story, and occasionally stepping away from the story to give us a history lesson. (His research is remarkable, and he creates a real sense of the period.) Despite this, even when he involves himself in the story, when he returns to it, he gets under the skin of his characters and takes the reader with him. In his descriptions of how they feel, he reminds me of George Eliot, who is so good at such descriptions but perhaps that’s deliberate, for the reasons above.

Perhaps this is a ‘writer’s book’ and that’s why I enjoyed it. I'd probably give it 4.5 stars.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared
by Jonas Jonasson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars A view of the 20th century, strictly tongue in cheek, 8 Feb. 2015
It seems very appropriate that I should have finished reading this book in the week in which the man who absconded from his nursing home to go to France, died at the age of 90, as I suppose it’s possible to regard the book as a celebration of old age.

The plot is encapsulated by the title, which says it all. You could say that apart from that, there is almost no plot. It is structured so that there is a tale in the present, and a tale in the past - one could almost say, a shaggy dog story - and, as far as the past is concerned, it is a picaresque novel, in which the hero, Allan Karlsson, journeys through the book encountering people and places, who will not necessarily continue with him on his journey.

For the purpose of giving a history of the 20th century, with the author’s tongue in cheek slant, it is necessary for the protagonist to have reached 100 years old. As he doesn’t die at the end of the book, for all we know, he could have lived for a further 100 years.

Not long after starting this book, a couple of thoughts sprang into my head. Firstly that it reminded me of Forrest Gump - and I see from reviews that I am not the only person to make that comparison - in that Allan’s journey through the 20th century allows him to meet many major personalities of that period. In fact, Allan has had a major impact on the history of the world, probably in every decade.

Initially, it also reminded me of the writing of Roald Dahl. In particular, when Allan and his accomplice, Julius, and others, casually cause the death of the first and second of the criminal gang who are pursuing them - Bolt & Bucket - it reminded me of the two wicked aunts in James and the Giant Peach, when they were flattened by said peach. There is a cartoon like element to the squashing by an elephant of one of these baddies, something akin to Tom & Jerry, so that you know, if you haven’t realised it by then, that you are not to take this book too seriously. However, there is a problem with this way of writing, in that if the characters have no real depth, then it’s difficult to care what happens to them.

Jonas Jonasson’s take was to suggest in a humorous way that almost everyone can be bribed; that Allan’s success with politicians was based purely on the fact that he had the ability to blow up an enemy country, and that they were all as crooked as each other. However, the happy little band that made up the group who accompanied Allan through the beginning of his second century were endearing, each with some memorable idiosyncrasies, and seemed to require only companionship and a couple of drinks to make them happy.

Some parts of it, certainly made me laugh out loud, but my feeling was that although I enjoyed the book as I was proceeding through it, the joke was rather extended. Like others we have read recently, perhaps it could have been shortened without necessarily losing anything. Because the problem with this type of anecdotal book is that there is no dramatic high - no climax that we are aiming for, and from my point of view, it seemed that we were ambling through the same territory for a long time. I have to admit that by the time I encountered some of the characters for the second time, I had forgotten their role first time around. However, perhaps I shouldn’t feel too guilty about that because even the author seemed to have forgotten what he said at the beginning by the time he got to the end. (See page 9, para 2 and pages 382 - 383.)

History is not my subject, but I think someone well versed on 20th century history would be full of admiration for the author’s knowledge and research into that period, even though his historic characters may have been adjusted or moulded to suit the book.

On balance, I would say I enjoyed the journey, and would give it four stars.

University Games Pointless The Board Game
University Games Pointless The Board Game
Offered by a1 Toys
Price: £18.27

4.0 out of 5 stars but I believe they liked it. They were very pleased that it arrived ..., 9 Jan. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
It was bought as a present, but I believe they liked it. They were very pleased that it arrived before Christmas.

Wise Children
Wise Children
by Angela Carter
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

4.0 out of 5 stars Magical unrealism, 29 Dec. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Wise Children (Paperback)
Wise Children is a riotous story which describes the lives of the Chances - Nora and Dora and their adopted Grandma - and the Hazards, an acting dynasty with an illegitimate connection to the Chance twins. The story is written in the first person, by Dora, who is remarkably erudite for someone who is not exactly top drawer, but that's probably due to her association with `Irish', an American writer, who has introduced her to literary classics - in alphabetical order.

The book documents a history of the theatre over the last century, and is full of anecdotes about the lives and loves of the protagonists, and the naughty and apparently incestuous goings on. There are many appealing characters, but Dora who tells us the truth about all these people is particularly appealing and inspires much empathy.

It is almost impossible to follow the plot, if there is one, but the prose is so rich - each sentence crammed with information, each paragraph, a history, so that in the end, it doesn't matter.

Just as you think it is all becoming sameish, there is a climax, in which unimaginable events take place in a cascade of magical realism - or unrealism. Nostalgic, sad and happy, the book is brim full of life and colour.

Outdoor Gate And Door Closer
Outdoor Gate And Door Closer
Offered by Cable Guy Direct
Price: £15.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 28 Dec. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Exactly what was wanted.

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike)
The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike)
by Robert Galbraith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

3.0 out of 5 stars Strike and Robin - a good team, 12 Oct. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This was Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)’s first book about Cormoran Strike, an impoverished private detective. Strike, who has lost a leg in action in the army, takes on a new case on the same day he has a new temporary secretary, Robin, who has just become engaged. She is efficient, and he is a whole lot more organised than at first seems likely. With her help he delves into the mystery of why a young and well-known model fell to her death from a luxury flat.

My general impression was that it was very readable, and on the whole, a page turner. I was interested to know what was going to happen and I particularly liked the relationship between Strike and Robin and felt empathy for them.

However, on the downside, I felt irritated by the constant swearing in the minds or mouths of most of the main characters. I also found that there were too many characters for me, and some of them I’d forgotten by the time I met up with them again.

When Strike and Robin weren’t both in the scene, something was lost, and I was bored at the scene when Strike meets up with Duffield, the model’s fiancé, in a club; it seemed to go on too long and I couldn’t remember at the end whether or not Strike discovered anything important. It just seemed to be there as padding, or perhaps to give us a glimpse of the glamorous side of that sort of world.

Towards the end, I came upon the denouement by Strike. This was supposed to be a suspenseful event, but it was so long-winded it lost its impetus. Seeing that Strike was revealing all to the killer, who knew most of it already, it doesn’t make sense that they would both sit there through it. It reminded me of the ending of a Poirrot, which is a bit old-fashioned these days. It would probably have been better if Strike had revealed all to Robin, and then had the killer come in for a couple of pages of suspense.

So on the whole, I enjoyed it, but there could have been some pruning and cutting and I would have given it a higher rating, had it been more streamlined. So I'd say 3.5 stars.

Life After Life
Life After Life
by Kate Atkinson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Deja vu, 12 Oct. 2014
This review is from: Life After Life (Paperback)
The first Kate Atkinson book that I read was Behind the Scenes ..., and the first time I read it, I hopped backwards and forwards, trying to make sense of it. A few years later, I read it a second time, and decided just to press onwards, and it worked much better for me that way. So I approached Life after Life in the same spirit, and I really enjoyed it.

Kate Atkinson's writing style is so relaxed - and occasionally self-mocking - that it's impossible not to be swept along, and in that respect it's a page turner. Possibly Life and Life could be regarded as a post-modern novel; at my book circle, it was described as magic realism. Whichever - I found it a very good read.

Some people seem to find it complicated, but to me it was a simple and logical tale. Ursula, as it says on the book cover blurb, `lives her life again and again' in the hope of getting it right. As far as I could see, she didn't know initially that she would have another chance, but as time - and life - went on, she became more aware, and therefore able to resolve things in the next life that had failed last time around.

Looking at it from a different point of view, Ursula mentioned head-aches several times and also visited a psychiatrist. It could be that the whole book was the history of her own delusions. But let's assume that's not the case, and she really has the gift of changing hers and other people's lives.

Ursula dies many times, once at birth, and subsequently later. Other people whom she loves also die, and in some of her lives, she is able to reverse that. She also tries to change history, by shooting Hitler - but as we know, she didn't succeed in doing that. (The author, in an interview, implied that Ursula might keep trying until she had succeeded in that quest.) Some of Ursula's lives were very dark - a terrible marriage and a terrible war experience in the London blitz. Ursula in one of her lives, also spends the war in Germany, but I was uncomfortable with that - she didn't feel right in that situation to me.

Each narrative of Ursula's many lives brings in some repetition of the past life, in a sort of deja vu experience, but also variations. Even the attempt on Hitler's life varies with the cakes that Ursula and Hitler are eating and the weather changing from rain to snow.

I appreciate that this is a rather simplistic account of a book that presents ideas that are really complex, and probably warrant more than just this.

I liked Ursula's character, and I like to think that in a final try, she would finally get all the pieces right, and have a happier time.

I am still debating about the number of stars, and think the book probably warrants 4.5

Sweet Tooth
Sweet Tooth
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

3.0 out of 5 stars A writer writing about writing?, 8 Oct. 2014
This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Paperback)
Sweet Tooth is complicated, complex and sometimes difficult to take in. Part of the problem is the secret service operation, and I had to read some chapters twice to understand it. Once or twice, being particularly tired, I would need to read them again to remember what the book was about.

A Cambridge graduate, Serena, is recruited to join M15 and given a quest to approach a writer, ostensibly on behalf of an arts organisation, in order to give him support - a grant a similar - to enable his writing to be disseminated widely. He is required to be a person who would support middle of the road ideas and ideals for that reason his journalistic writing should be examined before providing a grant for a new novel. The idea is modelled on left-wing organisations who have had similar operations.

Serena - who writes in the first person - has already had affairs with other men, including a mentor who died of cancer, and having been bowled over by the writing, falls for the writer.

What I found interesting about the book, in the end, was that Ian McEwan seemed to be teasing the reader by saying this is what writing is all about.

There’s a selection of short stories, which the writer, Tom, creates and which protagonist, Serena, reads. These have nothing to do with the plot, and you, the reader, are obliged to read them too. I have to say that I felt rather irritated with these stories which for me, added nothing to the plot and were immediately forgotten. There is a mathematical problem to solve, too, and although like Tom, I couldn’t believe in the mathematical answer, I found it interesting. (Mathematicians who have studied ‘probabilities’ will recognise it.) Tom goes on to create a story around this particular maths problem, and on page 214 - 15, McEwan uses this to illustrate how writers create their stories or plots.

There is a twist at the end, which I am about to reveal, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know.

There is also the fact that he has chosen to write as a woman, and the question as to whether or not this works. He counters that by choosing in his twist at the end to make Tom the writer of the book, he having tried to imagine what Serena would be thinking. Interesting idea, maybe - or a bit of a cop out. Actually, I can’t help feeling that this twist is almost as bad as the ‘It was all a dream…’ which is frowned upon these days.

On the whole - a bit too clever by half.

I would probably give it 3.5 if I could.

Remarkable Creatures
Remarkable Creatures
by Tracy Chevalier
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

3.0 out of 5 stars Constrained by the facts, 1 Oct. 2014
This review is from: Remarkable Creatures (Paperback)
Remarkable Creatures is an interesting book about real life fossil collector, Mary Anning and her relationship with Elizabeth Philpott, two women from different social classes who are brought together by their interest in fossils, but who find themselves interested in the same man.

As always, it is carefully constructed by Tracy Chevalier, who always seems to construct or sculpt her books like a work of art. However, I couldn’t say I loved it, because I found it lacking a certain warmth; it didn’t seem to have much passion, and Tracey Chevalier may have been constrained by the facts, in this and in the rather thin plot. It might almost have been better as a non-fiction book.

I would probably give it 3.5 stars if I could.

The Blackwater Lightship
The Blackwater Lightship
by Colm Toibin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

3.0 out of 5 stars Not much fun to read, 12 Aug. 2014
Sometimes I ask myself what constitutes a good book. In analysing a book, I look at some of the things that are traditionally frowned upon at creative writing courses, for example, too many adverbs, and often quoted over and over again, as with the adage, show don't tell. Certainly, this book falls down on the latter. As with Brooklyn, Colm Toibin does `tell' a story in a rather old-fashioned way, though I wouldn't necessarily hold that against him.

The author has chosen to show how three women of the same family have to - to a certain extent - end a feud of many years, to support their mutual relation dying of AIDs. So there is a lot of emphasis on this latter story, as well as the relationships between the women.

However, to me a book is artificial; it is a given that a story will be told in a way that makes it readable, and so to describe everything that is happening minute by minute, as is done in the latter few chapters of this book does not make for an interesting narrative. Toibin is obviously trying to get a message to us about the nature of AIDs, about the nature of death through AIDs, but just as in The Jamrach Menagerie (which I reviewed last year) to me, his description of this becomes self-indulgent, and far from moving, becomes tedious. Less is more, as they say.

On another tack, there is an unlikely conversation between the unlikeable Helen and, I think, Brian, where each talks at length, without any interruption from the other.

There is also the problem of inconsistency in Helen's relationship with her mother and grandmother, but at one time Mum is the villain with Grandma being a refuge; then she changes and becomes a baddie. I had difficulty knowing who I was to like or dislike.

Actually, I didn't really like or feel much warmth towards any of these people, and in the end, my judgement had to be based on the `good read gut feeling' - and the decision - no, it wasn't.

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