Sunday, 27 March 2011

A Kestrel For A Knave (Barry Hines)

--The blurb--
"Billy Casper is a boy with nowhere to go and nothing to say; part of the limbo generation of school leavers too old for lessons and too young to know anything about the outside world. He hates and is hated. His family and friends are mean and tough and they're sure he's going to end up in big trouble. But Billy knows two things about his own world. He'll never work down the mines and he does know about animals. His only companion is his kestrel hawk, trained from the nest, and, like himself, trained but not tamed, with the will to destroy or to be destroyed."

--The review--
When the film Billy Elliot hit British cinemas at the turn of the last century, for many the story of a little Northern lad with a tough background who was only trying to go against the grain and be true to himself proved to have a lasting impact. However, Lee Hall's screenplay was not the first to revolve a hit story around this topic: those a couple of generations older will have been reminded of the hero of Barry Hines' A Kestrel  For A Knave, Billy Casper, who was later immortalised by David Bradley in the film of the novel (entitled Kes) in 1969. Other details of these two works are also shared, including the background of "the pit" and the array of unsympathetic adults who as a literary device serve to make the protagonist's plight even more powerful.

Initially the structure of A Kestrel For A Knave seems a little bewildering: there are no chapters, and the strong Northern England dialect can be tricky to adjust to. It is a point of interest that in the author's note, which was written many years after the novel's publication, Hines states that he would not have written the novel in this dialect (perhaps to make it more accessible to readers; in the making of the film, he says, actors added in the dialect automatically). However, I do not believe that writing the novel's dialogue in Standard English would have improved it; to the contrary, it helps hugely in building up the sense of atmosphere and location, and the interspersion of this dialect with the Standard English descriptions makes for satisfying variation.

A further contrast is found when comparing the brutality of the dialogue and the situations Billy finds himself in with the soaring beauty of Hines' descriptions of the surrounding countryside and of the time Billy spends with the kestrel that he has hand-reared. This combination, when built up over the pages, is in the end explosive and makes the conclusion and dream sequence even more poignant. While it all could have so easily become a schmaltzy or unworkable novel, what we have instead is potent, moving, articulate, gritty, and simultaneously complex and accessible, providing within itself lessons and entertainment for adult and child readers alike.

Other works by Barry Hines
The Blinder (1969)
First Signs (1972)
The Gamekeeper (1979)
Unfinished Business (1983)
Two Men From Derby/Shooting Stars (1993)
The Heart Of It (1995)
Elvis Over England (1998)
The Price of Coal (2005) 
This Artistic Life (2009)

Monday, 21 March 2011

Le Spleen de Paris (Charles Baudelaire)

--The blurb--
"Set in a modern, urban Paris, the prose pieces in Paris Spleen constitute a further exploration of the terrain Baudelaire had covered in his verse masterpiece, "The Flowers of Evil": the city and its squalor and inequalities, the pressures of time and mortality, and the liberation provided by the sensual delights of intoxication, art and women."

--The review--
Marketed as a series of prose poems - a format which I ordinarily adore - I was looking forward to my first taste of one of France's most famous authors. Split into several relatively short sections, it has readability on its side not only in these terms but also in terms of the fact that funnily enough these "prose poems" did not seem to be especially poetic by the standards of modern day prose poems; to me they just seemed like pieces of very good yet accessible descriptive writing, which in itself was not unenjoyable.

Reading this in the original was a difficult experience due to the at times strange sentence constructions that pervaded it; however, in translations this may have been eradicated. This was exacerbated by the fact that several of the prose poems just weren't that memorable, seeming to repeat the same themes over and over again, particularly stating the theme - still common in France today - that the French, even the upper class ones with the greatest security of money and home, feel duty bound to sympathise with the poor for fear that they could too end up in their position (even when this is not in the least bit likely). 

The two segments worth reading, however, are the haunting "The Eyes of the Poor", which most effectively describes the plight of the impoverished, and "The Rope", which is a frankly terrifying tale which has a hint of the Henry James about it. These perhaps most fully exemplify the literary meaning of 'spleen' as used in this collection's title, meaning 'an unexplained melancholy or disgust'. Learning that Edgar Allan Poe was one of Baudelaire's influences comes as no surprise, particularly after reading "The Rope", and it perhaps also fulfils the criterion of there being something for everyone contained within Paris Spleen, as the work spans horror-type stories and morality tales as well as debauchery and beautiful descriptions; in this respect it is not dissimilar to Boccaccio's Decameron - although, of course, in a much shorter and more distilled form.

While the different segments do at times seem to merge together, this work is certainly not without its richness and merit, even though it seems to be much maligned by UK readers (with only one review of the book existing on Amazon UK). However, I certainly found it for the most part to be a more analytical experience, rather than the continuous rushes and gushes of emotion described by American reviewers online. Nevertheless, I would not abandon hope in the works of Baudelaire, and I look forward to investigating even more of them.

 Other works by Charles Baudelaire (selected)
The Flowers of Evil (1857)
Artificial Paradises (1860)

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Ritz London Book of Afternoon Tea (Helen Simpson)

--The blurb--
"An irresistible collection of traditional teatime recipes and charming stories from the world famous Ritz Hotel."

--The review--
You may have noticed by now that I am becoming a tad obsessed with tea, given my reading of this and Stuart Payne's missive within a very short space of time. I also noticed this occurring when somebody at work was asking me about tea, for me to say "Oh, I don't know very much about it really" only to rattle off quite a few quite specific pieces of information, including about my own favourite type of tea (Lapsang Souchong) and how to prepare the tea.

So books like this are really for entertainment just as much as for knowledge, although by the end of this one the reader is rightly confounded by the apparent lack of link to the Ritz (in spite of its title). Apart from the book possibly being sold there, and the hotel being mentioned from time to time in the book's earlier sections, the book really is just about tea and cakes and the history thereof in general rather than it being anything to do with the place in particular. Still, it's not as if it matters terribly in the end, as it still makes for a satisfying and informative read as well as being lightly entertaining. The humour, tone, typeface and illustrations are all so genteel that I did in fact wonder if this was a modern reprint of a book from a bygone age; however, it was written in the mid-2000s. Whether it is intended to be satirical or serious is therefore something that comes into play but does not really matter all that much when all is said and done - much like the book's premise itself.

Slim and concise, it is packed with information, humour, cake recipes, history and anecdote, as well as quotations from various luminaries on the subject of tea and tea-drinking. It is all highly British with its sense of "this is how you pour the tea" and "oh, but that will never do", and all without seeming too preachy. We marvel and drool with awe at the recipes and descriptions that are included and immediately make up our minds to spruce up our own afternoon teas; in reading the history of this British institution, too, we feel proud to be imbibing a little history in our cups and feel inclined to go beyond the humble tea bag. It is, in short, aspirational and delicate while continuing to be cuttingly witty in unexpected places. In addition, its well-written, precise and slightly coy style helps in transporting us to days gone by.

A faultless and unpatronising book which not only educates, informs and entertains but also introduces us to the work of Helen Simpson - which, it seems to me, would be well worth seeking out.

Other works by Helen Simpson
Four Bare Legs In A Bed (1991)
Dear George, and other stories (1996)
Hey Yeah Right Get A Life (2001)
Getting A Life (2002)
Constitutional (2005)
In The Driver's Seat (2007)
In-Flight Entertainment (2010)

Whispers in the Graveyard (Theresa Breslin)

--The blurb--
"Solomon is full of anger - with the teachers and his father, who mother who has left him and with himself. He cannot bear to be at home or at school. His refuge is one corner of the kirkyard, where nothing lives but a rowan tree. When workmen cut this tree down, a terrible force comes to life."

--The review--
Upon reading through Theresa Breslin's impressive Carnegie Medal-winning bibliography, I wonder to myself if I have in fact been living under a literary rock since the dawn of my life, for here is a woman who has been active in children's fiction since I was barely out of nappies and who has continued to be amazingly prolific since, putting out a book every two years as an absolute minimum and even in some cases putting out more than one book per year. And yet in spite of this track record, and despite teaching in a school that caters for children aged 2 to 18, I had not even heard of her before 2011. While remaining dumbfounded as to how this could be, I simultaneously had an excellent introduction to her work in the form of Whispers In The Graveyard.

I was the sort of child who was a fan of the Goosebumps and Point Horror series of books and made a habit of watching Strange But True Encounters on the television, so this would have been then, and still is, right up my alley. With a surly young child narrator, Roald Dahl's old tactic of setting the adults against the child so that as the reader you want the child to win out, and a creepy graveyard as the setting, Breslin has plenty of strong ingredients for a good story, which serve as a hook to draw the reader in right from the start. Solomon's miserable home life leads naturally into the kindness and support that he receives from the at times unorthodox Ms Talmur, and Breslin also helps to build up the background of the story and Solomon's personality by directing him there whenever times get tough. Various desolate and creepy descriptions are used to make the graveyard scary (but not too scary) and fascinating in equal measure, and not too much is given away about where the story will go; you could even argue that by the end of it we still aren't 100% aware of what has gone on, which is perhaps taking things to new heights for the book's target audience (the protagonist, after all, is only ten or eleven years old, and we can more or less assume that the average reader of this book will not be much older).

Perhaps the only weakness in the book is of the five-year-old character, Amy Miller. She seems to be used by the author merely as a catalyst for the rest of the storyline, with little thought to characterisation: she is an insipid character whose level of dialogue is inappropriate for a five-year-old child, and while this may have been done in keeping with the adult and sinister nature of the rest of the book (in addition to the spookiness of the story, we have the subplot of Solomon's father's alcoholism, and the fact that even Ms Talmur can sometimes seem a little sinister), the fact that this character is unrealistic and jars with the rest of the book still remains.

Whispers In The Graveyard is still nevertheless hugely readable and delivers a satisfying and inspiring conclusion without us feeling that all of the horrifying buildup has gone to waste. An excellent introduction to Breslin's work that should leave readers - whether adult or child - wanting more of the same.

Other works by Theresa Breslin
Simon's Challenge (1988)
Different Directions (1989)
Time to Reap (1991)
Bullies At School (1993)
Kezzie (1993)
A Homecoming for Kezzie (1995)
Alien Force (1995) 
Missing (1995)
Death or Glory Boys (1996)
Across The Roman Wall (1997) 
Blair, The Winner! (1997) 
Name Games (1997)
Bodyparts (1998)
Blair Makes A Splash (1999)
Starship Rescue (1999)
The Dream Master (series: 1999-2004)
Duncan of Carrick (2000) 
New School Blues (2002)
Remembrance (2002)
Saskia's Journey (2004)
Prisoner in Alcatraz (2004)
Divided City (2005)
The Medici Seal (2006)
The Nostradamus Prophecy (2008)
Prisoner of Inquisition (2010)

Monday, 14 March 2011

And Another Thing (Eoin Colfer)

--The blurb--
"An Englishman's continuing search through space and time for a decent cup of tea . . . 
Arthur Dent's accidental association with that wholly remarkable book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, has not been entirely without incident. Arthur has traveled the length, breadth, and depth of known, and unknown, space. He has stumbled forward and backward through time. He has been blown up, reassembled, cruelly imprisoned, horribly released, and colorfully insulted more than is strictly necessary. And of course Arthur Dent has comprehensively failed to grasp the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Arthur has finally made it home to Earth, but that does not mean he has escaped his fate. Arthur's chances of getting his hands on a decent cuppa have evaporated rapidly, along with all the world's oceans. For no sooner has he touched down on the planet Earth than he finds out that it is about to be blown up . . . again."

--The review--
When it comes to novel sequels, whether authorised or unauthorised by the original author's estate, we as readers always feel our hackles raised in suspicion. Pamela Cox's sequels to Enid Blyton's school stories and Gilbert Adair's follow-ups to the Peter Pan series leave me cold just thinking about them, whereas Alexandra Ripley's sequel to Gone With The Wind was, to my mind, a success. But where does Eoin Colfer's attempt to follow in the footsteps of the late great Douglas Adams fall?

When writing a sequel of a series originally started by another person, two types of fidelity are important: fidelity to characters and fidelity to style. Happily, Colfer is loyal on both of these counts while simultaneously putting his own stamp on the enterprise, having characters do things that we would expect of them as the plot is taken in new and hilarious directions. Equally, he adheres faithfully to Adams' near-inimitable sharp wit and non-sequitur humour, carrying the torch with ease for Adams fans everywhere. His prose not only caused me to laugh out loud on several occasions, but also made me forget that it was not Adams himself taking us through the final instalment. Imitating a writer's style to such an impressive degree is a laudable feat that shouldn't be ignored, and was perhaps helped along by Colfer's own humility and awe (of which more is detailed in the book's notes).

In being faithful to the standard set by Adams prior to this, Colfer also pays the respect that is due to the series by carrying through Adams' wishes for a sixth instalment to be written in a style that he would have approved of. While other reviewers have found the story to be "well-written but weak", I did not see any obviously glaring holes - but then again I am not an obsessive fan of the original series, merely enjoying them from time to time rather than scrutinising every available detail.

All in all, a satisfying, valedictory, respectful and downright hilarious conclusion to a much-revered and beloved series.

A selection of other works by Eoin Colfer
The Wish List (2000)
Artemis Fowl series (2001-present)
The Supernaturalist series (2004-present)
Half Moon Investigations (2006)
Airman (2008)
Plugged (2011)

One Day (David Nicholls)

 --The blurb--
"15th July 1988. Emma and Dexter meet for the first time on the night of their graduation. Tomorrow they must go their separate ways. So where will they be on this one day next year? And the year after that? And every year that follows? Twenty years, two people, ONE DAY."

--The review--
Upon his 2003 debut, Starter For Ten, I remember feeling a little unsure about David Nicholls' writing. I seem to recall that it was the main character, and his dialogue, that did not sit well with me; it all seemed just a little too self-consciously pretentious. However, six years on from this, One Day (Nicholls' third novel) is storming the book columns of all the national papers and was recently named by radio presenter Richard Bacon on the show "My Life in Books" as being one of his precious five choices. But does it live up to the hype?

To my mind it certainly does - even taking account of the fact that my sister and I are fast readers normally, we zoomed through the one copy we had in about half a week, both enjoying it immensely to the point of being near-unable to put it down, and barely avoiding a little tear on the way as well. For One Day, with its delightfully imperfect and very human characters and deft depiction of all life's joys and messes, is as poignant as it is funny, and Richard Bacon described it very accurately upon saying that when reading One Day "you have never cared so much about two people who do not exist".

I am not, however, a fan of "product placement" in books, and unfortunately One Day has it in spades - although my sister's point that this may have helped to culturally define the periods in which the book was set (1980s, 1990s and 2000s) is not completely unfounded. This one negative is also vastly compensated for by the rest of the novel's positive points: it is compelling, accessible, and flows very naturally, contrary to the stiltedness of some aspects of Starter For Ten. It also delivers an enormous twist that strikes us painfully accurately as to the occasional randomness and unfairness of life and how our lives can be altered beyond doubt by the presence of one human being.

One Day therefore firmly establishes David Nicholls on the scene as a writer who is as integral to the contemporary fabric of literature as Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood; with his way of worming his way into the hearts of his readers and his increasingly natural flow of dialogue and plot, he is a master of the popular read that not only entertains us but also affects us profoundly, with us even having realised this before the book is put down.

Other works by David Nicholls
Starter For Ten (2003)
The Understudy (2005)

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down (Stuart Payne)

--The blurb--
"Put a cup of tea in your hand, and what else can you do but sit down? This wonderful new book is a celebration of that most British of life's cornerstones: taking a break, putting your feet up and having a breather. There is, however, a third element that any perfect sit down requires and it is this: biscuits. As Nicey so rightly points out, a cup of tea without a biscuit is a missed opportunity. Finding the right biscuit for the right occasion is as much an art as it is a science, and it is a task that Nicey has selflessly worked on for most of his tea drinking life. From dunking to the Digestive, the Iced Gem to the Garibaldi, everything you'll ever need to know about biscuits is in this book, and quite a lot more besides. Is the Jaffa Cake a cake or a biscuit? And have Wagon Wheels really got smaller since your childhood, or have you just got bigger? [...]Nicey and Wifey's Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down does exactly what it says on the biscuit tin. So go on. Take a weight off, put the kettle on, and enjoy."

--The review--
Ever since e-publishing and the web in general took off in any serious way, there have been worried whispers among teachers, librarians and other book-lovers regarding the future of the beloved book. However, with popular web editions increasingly coming off the web and into people's hands in the form of physical copies (you only have to look to Belle du Jour and Petite Anglaise for examples of this), for now at least it appears that we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down, by Stuart Payne, is one such book. Initially conceived as a website to catalogue information on currently available biscuits and to mourn the passing of biscuits from days gone by, and for people to get into deep conversations on this subject, it has now come off the web and appeared before us in real book form. Sales of this have probably enabled the author (and his co-contributor, referenced in the book only as Wifey) to sit back, relax, and enjoy their new-found wonga, as the website itself has not been active now since 2008. While it remains available now for consultation, this may not be the case forever, and so it does seem to be distinctly advantageous to have a real book at our fingertips as an encyclopaedia for all biscuity matters.

While that description may seem slightly overblown, the deceptively slim-looking book truly has encyclopaedic qualities. It contains everything you could ever want to know about biscuits old and new from around the world (and, to be honest, in some cases, more than you ever wanted to know - in some places it becomes wildly detailed), as well as giving information about tea, the history of tea, the best way to drink it, and what to drink it with. Cake is also given a passing mention somewhere towards the back. All of this is laid out very methodically and articulately, making it a handy reference tool.

But, further to this - even if it is slightly politically incorrect to judge a book by its cover - it is certainly not boring, as perhaps one would expect from (you guessed it) the fun-loving cover design. Stuart Payne's piercing wit shines through at every turn, making the reader's quest to find out more about biscuits as entertaining as it could possibly be. Accessible and intelligent without being patronising, and with a good dose of humour along the way, this is a one-of-a-kind, detailed book which will find a place on any bookshelf in the land - even in houses that don't normally have bookshelves.

The Icarus Girl (Helen Oyeyemi)

--The blurb--
"Jessamy Harrison is eight years old. Sensitive, whimsical, possessed of an extraordinary and powerful imagination, she spends hours writing haikus, reading Shakespeare, or simply hiding in the dark warmth of the airing cupboard. As the half-and-half child of an English father and a Nigerian mother, Jess just can't shake the feeling of being alone wherever she goes, and the other kids in her class are wary of her tendency to succumb to terrified fits of screaming. When she is taken to her mother's family compound in Nigeria for the first time, she meets her uncles and aunts and cousins - and her formidable old grandfather. Then one day, in the deserted Boys' Quarters, she encounters Titiola, a ragged little girl her own age. It seems that at last Jess has found another outsider who will understand her. TillyTilly knows secrets both big and small, and some she won't reveal. But as Tilly shows Jess just how easy it is to hurt those around her, Jess begins to realise that she doesn't know who TillyTilly is at all."

--The review--
Reading a truly excellent novel often causes the reader to draw breath sharply. What causes the breath to be sharper still, however, is when we find that the author is, frankly, insanely young. Martin Amis was only twenty-three or twenty-four when his first novel, The Rachel Papers, won the Somerset Maugham Award. Zadie Smith was twenty-five when White Teeth, partly written while she was still a Cambridge undergraduate, was published. The author of The Icarus Girl, Helen Oyeyemi, is among this list of prodigious young debutants without doubt, for this novel, her first, was written while she was still studying for her A Levels. Two more have been written and published since.

So how does Oyeyemi's debut stack up? It is difficult to know how to categorise it: is it a ghost story? Is it surrealist? Is it horror? Is it something else? Or is it all of these things? From this alone it is evident that it is an ambitious project, culminating in a heady mix of the occult and the more realistic challenges of trying to live harmoniously as a descendant of multiple cultures. We are able to completely believe in the layers of tension that the author builds up, the emotional blackmail and outrageous incidents wrought by TillyTilly, the innocence of Jessamy and the bewilderment of her friends, family, classmates and teachers as the two worlds that Jessamy seems to inhabit collide at various inappropriate moments of her life.

Oyeyemi still has some skills to refine in her writing - as, I suspect, all of us do - but this is particularly obvious in her construction of the precocious Jessamy, whose genius makes it difficult for us to be convinced by the fact that she is only eight years old: constantly writing haikus and reading Shakespeare does not fit in authentically with the portrayal of a child of this age. While I appreciate that the author probably wished to emphasise the girl's naïveté and innocence by reflecting the plot through a child under ten, I suspect that this would have been just as effective if the character had been eleven or twelve years old, while at the same time allowing us to be more greatly persuaded by Jessamy's precocity. This is counterbalanced, however, by how the other children treat Jessamy, which is far more realistic and gives us a window onto how far she must be suffering from the undercurrent of all of the changes in her life.

Many incidents in the story go by unexplained, and this is highly suitable for the nature of the tale at hand; we do not even know at the end of the story if Jessamy is still with us or if she has been taken away by TillyTilly into a whole other realm. The air of mystery and terror built up by the author leaves us spooked, and brings a whole new frisson into the field of British literature. It appears that the literary magazine Granta was right in 2003 to earmark Helen Oyeyemi as one to watch.
Other works by Helen Oyeyemi
Juniper's Whitening/Victimese (2005; drama)
The Opposite House (2007)
White is for Witching (2009)
Mr Fox (due out 2011)