Monday, 24 June 2013

Long live the King, by Fay Weldon

This is the second volume of Ms Weldon’s ‘Love and Inheritance’ trilogy, following ‘Habits of the House’ (see review below) and once again, the reader is in for a treat as they follow the fortunes of the aristocratic Dilberne family, recently rejuvenated financially by the arranged marriage between son and heir to the Earldom, Arthur, and Minnie, a very rich but ‘low-born’ young Chicago heiress.
The old queen has recently died and all of London is agog at the arrangements for the impending coronation of Edward VII, formerly Bertie, Prince of Wales, the gambler and profligate now a Monarch determined to prove to his nation and government that he can rule with wisdom, power and dignity:  his ministers and courtiers are eager to assist him in that regard, but the pomp and ceremony demanded by him are making big dents in the public purse and any objections are met with the assertion that the Empire ‘expects a good show’, so a good show must be arranged.
Isabel, Countess of Dilberne expects to make a good show of her family and is gratified to know that she and her rich daughter-in-law Minnie will walk behind Queen Alexandra in the Abbey procession – her social standing can rise no higher – until by a series of misadventures, three extra seat invitations to the Abbey are lost, first sent by her to the Earl’s feuding, hateful younger brother Edwin, a parson in Somerset, then irretrievable when the rectory is burnt to the ground  a couple of days later.  Even worse, she and her husband are expected to take into the family fold the only survivor of the conflagration, Adela, 15 year old daughter of Edwin, an act of charity too hard for the Earl who flatly refuses to have contact with anyone connected with Edwin.  Fortunately or not, Adela disappears and is thought to have committed suicide, causing her reluctant relatives to heave sighs of pity and relief:  they no longer feel an obligation through blood – no matter how odious – to be responsible for her:  they can devote their considerable energies to Coronation etiquette, costumes and who is permitted by rank to wear more inches of ermine than others – and who will be sitting where, and next to whom, because the vexed question of the missing invitations has still not been answered.
Ms Weldon enjoys herself thoroughly – as does the reader -  guiding her characters through the perilous waters of English society high and low and there is no more shrewd observer of the double standards that prevailed at the beginning of the twentieth century (as illustrated so ably in ‘Habits of the House’), and no writer who could intersperse her fictional characters with the real-life luminaries of the time more successfully. 
Ms Weldon writes in elegant prose of the great new ideas of the thinkers and literary titans of the day:  George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Arthur Balfour, Ford Madox Ford, and that lone, formidable female Beatrice Webb, champion of women’s rights, creating such sparkling dialogue between them and their enormously wealthy society patrons that the reader is utterly convinced that Ms Weldon was actually present whilst great plans were hatched.
This is a vastly entertaining trilogy:  I was sorry to come to the end of both books and as before, am looking forward to reading the next episode – and sad that it will be the last.  Ms Weldon doesn’t always hit the jackpot with me, but with this charming series, all the bells are ringing!  Highly recommended.

Habits of the House, by Fay Weldon     reviewed March, 2013
Fay Weldon needs no introduction:  not only is she a literary household name, but she also gained fame in the British advertising world before she started her writing career for coining the unforgettable phrase on Billboards:  ‘Go to Work on an Egg.’  What a woman!
‘Habits of the House’, we are told, is the first book of a trilogy – which is a good thing, for this is a most charming story, with characters that any reader would love to meet again;  the only problem being that Ms Weldon’s novel bears a great resemblance to the ubiquitous ‘Downton Abbey’, and unkind critics could say that she was perhaps trying to ride that most successful  bandwagon:  after all, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery but that said, Ms Weldon still manages, in spite of many similarities, to produce a different slant on manners and mores – and the hypocrisies -  of life upstairs and downstairs at the turn of the 19th century.
The Earl of Dilberne has reached a financial crisis:  because of various unwise investments, not to mention trying to keep up with the gambling habits of the Prince of Wales, he has run through his own fortune as well as the enormous dowry his wife, Lady Isobel, brought into their marriage:  the time has come for drastic action.  There is nothing else for it but to marry off Viscount Arthur, their playboy son to someone with a LOT of money.  And at the close of the season, there are not many young heiresses to choose from – except Minnie O’Brien, recently arrived from America with her distressingly vulgar mother, openly shopping for A Title. 
Arthur keeps a mistress, whom, he learns in due course  (to his horror), used to service his father.  He is amenable to marrying to save the family bacon (his tailor bill is ENORMOUS – one wishes that they would stop sending so many reminders for payment!), but he still requires, in fact expects, that his blushing bride will be a virgin.  His contempt and disdain are absolute when he discovers that Minnie has A Past, and an unsavoury one at that.  The fact that he keeps a woman for his pleasure is not, to him, in any way a double standard:  that is what gentlemen do.  Ladies are not afforded the same freedom.
Add to the mix the private lives of the people who look after and service the needs of the upper crust:  Grace the ladies maid, Reginald the footman,  Mr and Mrs Neville, the butler and cook;  they all know a lot more about their employers than one could ever dream, and Eric Baum, the Earl’s lawyer, a Jew, laments to himself as he swears revenge – after too many slights – ‘the Israelites may be God’s children, but God is an Englishman.’
Well said, Ms Weldon:  bring on Book Two!


Sunday, 16 June 2013

A Delicate Truth, by John le Carré
Mr Le Carré, long the undisputed King of the Spy novel, has changed literary direction considerably since the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, instead aiming his expository arrows closer to home, his last novel ‘Our Kind of Traitor’
being a perfect example (see review below).  In ‘A Delicate Truth’, the Blair New Labour government and its unpopular alliance with its American counterparts are mercilessly exposed in their relentless use of any method to achieve victory – and profits -  in the War on Terror.
WILDLIFE is the code name for a combined U.S./British Special Forces counter-terrorist operation to capture a notorious jihadist arms buyer at a secret location on Gibraltar.  There is also a mysterious private right-wing arms and security company involved:  ‘War’s gone corporate, Paul!’
Fergus Quinn, a Junior minister of the Crown fuelled more by ambition than good sense recruits a diplomatic ‘low-flyer’ (codenamed Paul) to be his token Man on the Spot, his Eyes and Ears as the top-secret (even from his own government!)  mission is carried out and – the ‘low-flyer’ expects – the wit to abort the operation if the situation warrants it.  Ah, in a perfect world …..!
Things go wrong.  After the collapse of radio and computer contact Paul is literally left in the dark on a Gibraltar hillside until his rescue and hurried evacuation back to England by a young woman constantly exhorting him that the operation was ‘a triumph, right?  No casualties.  We did a great job.  All of us.  You, too.  Right?’
And maybe that was true, because the low-flyer ends up with a knighthood and a very cushy diplomatic post to the Caribbean. 
Enter Toby Bell, aspiring Foreign Office employee and soon-to-be Private Secretary (read minder) to Junior minister Quinn just prior to the Gibraltar fiasco.  Toby has been recommended by his long-time friend and mentor Giles Oakley;  this is a plum job which could lead to even higher things and Toby is delighted by his good fortune, for his origins are humble, his educational distinction and linguistic qualifications gained through intelligence, hard work and scholarships and disguising ‘the brand marks of the English tongue’ – his Dorset burr – in favour of the ‘Middle English affected by those determined not to have their social origins defined for them.’
Yes, Toby has ambition but he also has morals: ‘ he wishes to make a difference, to take part in his country’s discovery of its true identity in a post-imperial, post Cold-War world’;  he is an ethical, decent man, and whilst he is not naïve, he is far from prepared for the corruption he is forced to confront, or its extent.  And this is the fulcrum upon which Mr Le Carré’s fine story turns:  will Toby fold under the pressure of bribes or threats, physical and otherwise, or will he follow the maxim ‘evil triumphs when good men do nothing,’ and act on it?
Yet again, Mr Le Carré has constructed with trademark elegance and style a novel of honourable men -  21st century anachronisms, their integrity derided and courage discounted -  but not content ‘to do nothing’.  And again, Mr Le Carré demonstrates effortlessly why he leads and others follow:  he still blows lesser writers right out of the water.  Highly recommended.

Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carré   reviewed November, 2010
Dima is a Russian gangster, and proud of it.  He is also an expert money-launderer for the Russian Mafia and has amassed huge wealth for them, and for himself – but a new young ‘Prince’ is coming to the fore in the Mafia Hierarchy, and the Prince doesn’t like Dima;  Dima is too ‘Old-School’, he dwells too much on the old Vor code of Honour amongst thieves (and murderers) and after one last, biggest laundering operation – the opening of a new ‘respectable’ bank in the City of London – Dima and his family will be eliminated, as were several of his dear friends and colleagues already:  it’s time, thinks Dima, to defect with all his secrets and sell them to his preferred country of asylum, Great Britain.  Yet again John Le Carré has crafted an impeccable story of secret service diplomacy, political corruption and life-and-death back-room dealings;  his characters are superb,  almost Dickensian in range and description and utterly, utterly believable.  Mr. Le Carré has the best eye and ear for accents and body language in the business, and his wit, interspersed even at times of great suspense in this beautifully plotted story, is delicious.  This is the master at his best:  highly recommended.


Monday, 10 June 2013

Cop to Corpse, by Peter Lovesey
Well, just about the only thing I am going to object to with Mr Lovesey’s book is its title.  Because it sounds like one of those airport or railway station cheapies, dedicated crime readers (and there are so many of us!) might give it the big miss, not realising what a cleverly crafted, beautifully plotted novel it is – unless they have come across Mr Lovesey before.  He has a prolific body of work and a stellar reputation among crime writers, and now that I have finally caught up with him (thanks to a glowing review in a local magazine), it is a real pleasure to meet his main protagonist, Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond of the Bath Police force.
Peter is a diamond of the rough variety;  overweight, unfit, and an arch-cynic – there is very little that surprises him anymore about the punters he deals with;  he has seen it all, and experienced more than anyone should, including the murder of his beloved wife – but the scum of society hasn’t stopped him from being a superb investigator and an inspiring team leader.  And he needs these skills now more than ever, because someone has started to murder policemen.
When the story opens, the third police constable has just been shot, turning ‘from hero to zero, cop to corpse’ and within a very short time the ancient Roman city of Bath is in an uproar;  a serial killer must surely be on the loose and no policeman is safe – especially when a note is found in the belongings of the latest victim saying ‘You’re next.’
Oh, the plot thickens nicely, especially when available evidence starts to point to the killings being an inside job:  someone murdering one of their own.  When this theory is posited by Diamond to his team he earns the ire of everyone;  such a suggestion is utterly unthinkable, and he’d better come up with something else or he’d be operating solo in future – and that is what Diamond does, not least to disprove his own disquieting suspicions.
There are great, believable characters in this story;  Mr Lovesey knows his beloved Bath well, and evokes its historic, beautiful buildings,  atmosphere and people with much skill and affection.  He is so credible in his portrayals, not only of the good guys but of the baddies as well, that his story has a gritty streetwise reality not always found in in your ordinary everyday detective yarn;  in fact he elevates the genre to a much higher level, thanks to his great writing skills and the ability to keep all his readers guessing.
So, whodunnit?  I didn’t know until the very end!   Highly recommended.

The Tooth Tattoo, by Peter Lovesey
Here’s a first:  me reviewing two books back to back by the same author.  Well, after reading ‘Cop to Corpse’, I had to go on to Mr Lovesey’s latest effort, and I’m thrilled to say that in my humble opinion, it is even better.  What a superbly entertaining writer he is, and what a clever plot:  two young Japanese women have been killed, their bodies dumped in water, one in a Vienna canal and one in a river in Bath, Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond’s stamping ground.
On the face of things there appears to be no connection between the two deaths except for their ethnicity;  then it transpires that both girls were classical music buffs (one with a tooth tattoo, enormously fashionable in Japan, of a quaver) and were dedicated fans of a particular Chamber music quartet, the Staccati – who happened to be giving concerts in the same cities, at the same time that the girls were killed.
A flimsy coincidence?  As Diamond pursues with his team the scant evidence available to him it becomes increasingly obvious that the Staccati, newly re-formed after the disappearance of their violist four years before has a relevance to the murders which cannot be satisfactorily explained by its members:  their stories, whilst plausible, are not watertight and it falls to the team to keep digging until the truth emerges.
And it does.  As before, I had no idea whodunnit, and once again I was delighted by Mr Lovesey’s strong characters and busy plotting.  As my dear old Granny would say:  ‘He knows his onions!’  And as an added bonus, he writes most beautifully about music;  its composition, the musicians who make it, and the instruments on which they play.  It is obvious that Mr Lovesey is a true music lover:  for plot purposes he would have had to conduct exhaustive musical research, but his great love for the classics must have made writing about the mechanics of music a breeze, and has certainly been a true pleasure to read.  Mr Lovesey is a star!  Highly recommended.         


Sunday, 2 June 2013

Girlchild, by Tupelo Hassman

The Calle de las Flores:  a failed housing development now turned into a trailer park just north of Reno, Nevada – The Biggest Little City in the World! – and a  typical resting place for the human flotsam unable to raise the money (and  hope) to live anywhere else.
There are few flowers on the Calle:  its denizens are not remotely interested in trying to improve their surroundings, much less their lot, because their expectations are tiny:  they’ve fetched up here so on the Calle they will stay, taking whatever garbage is dished out to them – but trying, just the same, to avoid as much of it as possible.
Five year old Rory Dawn Hendrix lives on the Calle with her Mama Jo, the bartender with a soft heart and a hard thirst, already the mother of four sons who all left her as soon as they could.  She and Rory came to the Calle at the invitation of her mother, Shirley Rose, who makes a little money babysitting for those lucky enough to have work;  she will watch Rory while Jo makes a new start after her California divorce – life will be good again;  three generations of strong females can look after each other, surely – even though Shirley Rose became pregnant at the age of 15, and at the same age Jo faithfully followed suit.
Rory is a good, obedient child, academically clever and unpopular with her classmates for that reason  - and for the fact that her mama is a bartender, but she chugs along without complaint because she has the loving security of her Grandma during the day, mitigating the mercurial, alcoholic temperament of her mother at night (not to mention Mama’s ‘visitors’). 
Sadly, this relative normality is temporary;  for Grandma, so reliable and caring, has feet of clay:  she is a slave to the pokies, and when she gets on a roll and a binge everything, including collecting Rory from school, is forgotten, causing a huge rift with Jo who swears never to contact Shirley Rose again.
And this is where this brilliant story becomes most disturbing:  Jo’s choice of a sitter for her little daughter is Carol, the daughter of a neighbour Rory calls the Hardware Man because that’s where he works – at Ace Hardware.  He is also a child abuser and he jumps at the chance for his daughter  to ‘watch’ Rory; for at thirteen, Carol is getting a little stale.
I defy anyone to read this part of the book without recoiling in horror.  The story is narrated by Rory Dawn, and Ms Hassman has given her a painfully authentic and observant voice:  her experiences are related with poignant honesty, but despite the bleakness and despair of her young existence she can still regard life with some humour;  she can still sort out the good people from the bad, especially by relying heavily on a dog-eared copy from the school library of ‘The Girl Scouts’ Handbook’.  It is her bible;  her font of all knowledge;  her refuge from horror and squalor and disappointment:  it is her lifesaver.
The novel covers a period of ten years, and it is unclear at the end if Rory’s fate will replicate her mother’s and grandma’s, but she is such a winning, positive character that readers could not imagine her failing at life as did her loved ones, strong in so many ways but weak when it mattered most.
Ms Hassman’s debut novel is a showstopper, full of life as we would rather not know it, but a tribute too, to the resilience and optimism of a very singular heroine.  I shudder to think how much of this fine story might be autobiographical – regardless, despite its wrenching, dreadful themes, I feel fortunate to have been introduced to a great new voice in American fiction.  Highly recommended.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout.

Ms Strout’s eponymous protagonist is an exceptional woman.  She has been a high school mathematics teacher in the small town of Crosby, Maine for many years and has a wonderful empathy for her students, helping many of them with advice that in several cases is crucial:  she makes a positive difference to many  lives, including those she chooses as her friends – and there are few, for Olive Kitteridge does not suffer fools gladly.
Sadly, she regards her own husband and son as wanting:  her frustration with their meek compliance with her whims, their longing for her approval and more importantly, a peaceful, loving atmosphere, turns her into a bully, ashamed of her actions but unable to stop her tyranny.
Ms Strout tells Olive’s story in a series of beautifully constructed short stories;  each one features her either as a major influence on the main character in the chapter or as a remote adjunct, a mere mention, as in the story devoted to the talented pianist at the local restaurant who drinks to disguise her perpetual stage fright, and has more than her share of secrets and regrets.
In another chapter Olive attends the funeral of one of her former pupils, happily married to his high school sweetheart until his untimely death from cancer but once again, secrets are revealed at the wake:  the wife’s cousin had a fling with the dear departed, mentioning it to the grieving widow after a few drinks too many – ‘because I thought you knew!’  Needless to say, the poor widow knew nothing until that moment and it falls to Olive to try to salvage the situation, saving with her innate, intuitive diplomacy the  widow’s self-respect - and the cousin's hide!
Which begs the question:  why is she unable to apply these essential, enviable gifts to her personal life, which as she gets older polarise her more from her loved ones?

Ms Strout provides the answers effortlessly in this wonderful little book, which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008.  She has just released another novel ‘The Burgess Boys’ to glowing reviews, and as I hadn’t read anything of hers before, I thought I would make Olive’s acquaintance before going on to meet the Burgess brothers.  And how glad I am that I did, for ‘Olive Kitteridge’ is an unforgettable character:  outstanding, outrageous, a person of lion-hearted courage and lily-livered cowardice;  an Everywoman who has had to endure great grief and pain, but is still able to transcend her sorrow to make sense of her existence.  Olive is simply superb, and I hope you decide to meet her soon.