Sunday, 31 January 2016

There has never been a better time to read The Danish Girl....

There has never been a better time to read The Danish Girl....

Reading David Ebershoff's novel on the Tube, as Lili Elbe's face looms large over the platform on posters for the film adaptation, I realised just how contemporary her story is. Ebershoff's novel is more than a piece of historical fiction this is literature shining a spotlight on an issue that is capturing the zeitgeist.

Einar Wegener was one of the fist people to undergo gender reassignment surgery back in the 1930s when a Doctor in Dresden agreed to transform Einar into Lile, the woman he recognised inside. The procedure was extremely experimental at the time and ahead of the curve in both social and political terms and yet faced with courage and dignity by both Einar and his wife Greta.

The novel negotiates its way through the years in Copenhagen, with the couple both devoted to their painting, through to their time in Paris as Greta's work becomes commercially successful. As the years pass, the boundaries between Einar and Lile blur as muse becomes creator of her own destiny, "It was almost as if there were two brains, a walnut halved: his and hers"

Whilst The Danish Girl is Lili's story the novel, in many ways, is equally Greta's. Ebershoff uses Greta to push the story on and to put some of the challenges the couple face into context. That said, Greta's role is largely open for interpretation moving as she does from supportive wife to artist in need of a muse.

Copenhagen plays a key role in the story due, at least within artistic circles, for its liberal and avant-garde values. The Wegener's 'Widow House' is a perfectly permissive home for Einar's metamorphosis into Lile.

This is a beautiful and heartfelt novel. Ebershoff's skill lies in the way he weaves a fictional narrative around a real life course of events. Though characters and settings are created for the novel these only serve to tell the real truth of the story.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

#amreading The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

The Loney leaves a lasting memory long after you've read the final page. The story takes place in one of the most unsettling of settings I've ever read where the forces of raw nature collide with with the power of fervent religious conviction. 

The novel is told in flash back to the 1970s and one family's visit to a house near a shrine with healing powers on a forgotten part of the North West coast. Morecambe Bay's mysteriously shifting sands, rising tides and half-starved sea gulls circling the mackerel grey skies are the ever present back drop to this unlikely pilgrimage which Hurley writes about with carefully penned prose, “that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time with Mummer, Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss and Father Wilfred, the parish priest”.

Hurley's characters are deeply unnerving, the profoundly religious mother, 'Mummer', brings to mind the masked performers in ancient Mummers plays. Also, the boys dad, 'Farther', who is at once present yet more distant that the paternalistic priests who loom heavy.  

Fans of gothic fiction will instinctively recognise the motifs that run through the novel but that it not to say that The Loney is a straight genre piece. For me the Gothic lies less in the haunted house setting than in the ominous cast of characters who inhabit this perfectly disturbing literary landscape. Though brilliantly threatening the novel could have built more on the cameo roles of The Loney's outsider inhabitants.

For a debut novel this is quite a feat but a surprise perhaps, given the hefty religious content, that it won the Costa First Novel Award 2015. The judging panel describing the book as "as close to the perfect first novel as you can get". For me, The Loney just misses the mark but Hurley is without doubt a talent to watch. 

Sunday, 17 January 2016

#amrereading 'The Beach' by Alex Garland

20 years ago Alex Garland's novel The Beach was published and almost immediately hailed a 'cult classic'. I was a student at the time and, having just acclimatised to the exploits that marked year one studying away from home, like many I was captivated by the idea of back-packing in the Far East. This was before the concept of the 'Gap year' had been established. Back-packing was simply that, travelling with a couple of friends, with very little planning and even less money.   

The Beach was the must read novel of the Summer, capturing as it does the myth around the back packing experience. This was recreational reading, binge book consuming and was completely different to the Dickens, Austin and Forster I was reading for University. My copy of the paper back was well thumbed, the cover stained with cheap sun cream and the pages crinkly from the sweat and humidity of travelling on a budget about the size of a night out today.

Like the map Richard discovers which reveals the location of the secret beach there was something covetable about this novel. Yes we were all reading it but only I really understood what it was all about, right? Needless to say the novel stayed with me. I wasn't for sharing. You'll have to buy your own.

Flash forward 20 years and The Beach has just received the Radio 4 Book at Bedtime treatment. The novel is still fresh and contemporary in a pre-social media kind of way. What Richard would be doing now? 

Its hard to imagine the audience who actually listens to this abridged story (10 neat 15 minute episodes) when its broadcast but I'm sure the iPlayer audience is considerably larger. Follow the link below to episode one. 

Sunday, 10 January 2016

#amreading 'The Mystery of the Green Ghost'

#amreading The Mystery of the Green Ghost

Between 1964 and 1987 The Three Investigators series of young adult detective stories ran over 43 editions. The early titles, this one is number 4, were amazingly titled Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators in... each book featuring a prologue by the great director who also pops up in the stories.

The Mystery of the Green Ghost was first published in 1968 and is attributed to Robert Arthur, the creator of the series. The story sees the eponymous trio of Jupiter Jones, Peter Crenshaw and Bob Andrews investigate supernatural goings on in an old house close to their make-shift HQ in Rocky Beach, California.

The tale is classic haunted house meets the mystic East via Hollywood and is packed full of brilliant period detail including their chauffeur driven Rolls Royce (Which Jupiter won in a competition), Los Angeles’s ‘busy, modern international airport’ and the abundant good manners throughout; “Naturally, I called your parents first”. The descriptions of San Francisco’s Chinatown are exotic and alluring from the ‘Oriental servants’ to ‘Manchu Nobels’ that exist in this curious enclave a Million miles from sixties Hollywood.

Despite the period setting the 3 investigators themselves and their secret HQ within Jupiter’s family scrap yard are pretty fresh. The series has actually been recently rebooted in the US as T3i The Three Investigators but, chances are, it won’t live up to this charming slice of sixties US Boys Own style story telling.    

The icing on the cake with this story is the Alfred Hitchcock connection. The boys are close friends with Mr Hitchcock who relies on their case studies as source material for his films - how cool is that!!!  

Saturday, 9 January 2016

#amreading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever by Marie Kondo

So, its time to start some early spring cleaning and time to revisit Marie Kondo's little tidying bible that I reviewed a few months back.

Have you ever marvelled at the simplicity and order of a Shinto shrine or admired the calmness of a Muji store? Then this book is for you. Marie Kondo has developed a system of tidying that she now promotes as the ‘KonMari’ method which, she claims, can have life enhancing implications when perfected.

In short, the KonMari method goes something like this. Gather together all of your possessions (yes even the stuff hidden under the bed) and sort into themes such as clothes, books, keepsakes etc. Now carefully sort these piles into categories e.g. jumpers and shirts, fiction and non-fiction, so that you can assess exactly what you have been storing/hoarding. Now for the fun part. Consciously sift through each category and keep ONLY the items that “spark joy”. Chuck everything else.

Without over simplifying, the truth in the KonMari method is two-fold. Firstly, you can only tidy and organise your life once you are surrounded exclusively by things you love and cherish. Secondly, with everything in its place tidying becomes a routine habit rather than a weekly chore. This blend of being in orderly control of the things you love is essentially where the KonMari method claims to enhance your life.
Clearly there is only one way to test Marie Kondo’s theory but in the meantime this is a great read and a way to immerse yourself in one of Japan’s great contemporary thought leaders. You might even end up with tidy shelves.       

Friday, 8 January 2016

A fictional week: Room by Emma Donoghue reviewed

I’ve been meaning to read Room by Emma Donoghue ever since it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize back in 2010. With the film adaptation being released in cinemas this Spring I’ve finally got round to picking up a copy thanks to my ever reliable local library.

First off, this is a book told from the perspective of Jack, a 5 year old boy, which is an obstacle to overcome and will likely put off a heap of readers. The thing is that once you understand that Jack has only ever lived with his mum within ‘Room’ and that he has learnt that anything outside of Room is fake, just like TV, he gets a whole lot more interesting.

Jack was born in Room, the pair are entirely confined to a garden shed type structure following his mum’s abduction as a 19 year old girl.  This is harrowing stuff made all the more real when seen through Jack’s eyes. I can see why Emma Donoghue chose this narrative device and it does work for the most part.

The plot focuses initially on Jack and his Mum’s plans, and final attempt, to escape from Room and from their captor Old Nick. The second half of the book concerns their rehabilitation into life in TV (as Jack refers to live outside Room) and the media storm that follows their story.

For me the book is at its best in the early chapters with Mum raising Jack and dealing with everyday life in the most incredible circumstances.

The actual escape is tense but resolves almost too easily presumably to move the story on to the rehabilitation part which I found less interesting. There is something Alice in Wonderland like about Jack engaging with the real world and his new family but I would have settled for a 75/25 split in terms of Room vs the rabbit hole of escape.

The other theme that kept coming to my mind was Peter Pan both in terms of the idea of home and Neverland and with Jack himself who in some ways is the child who you imagine could never fully grow up and forget the illusion of the World he held onto so tightly in Room.

A good read and will be interesting to see how this is adapted for the big screen. Here's a taster....

Sunday, 3 January 2016

#amreading The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

"If you do bad things for reasons you've been told are good, does it make you a bad person?"

Truth is I don't always get along with Margaret Atwood's brand of 'speculative' fiction, see my review of Maddaddam to see why. That said, The Heart Goes Last with its premise of a loving couple escaping the economically ravaged North East of America by way of an experimental model community is different from the off.

In short this is Atwood at her most zany, expect sexual fantasies, organ harvesting, sex-bots and Elvis impersonators all convincingly served up with a domestic tale of a couple just trying to get on in life.

Consilience is a 1950s inspired model town that Stan and Charmaine apply to enter to escape a life of subsistence survival. Consilience promises white picket fences, Doris Day on the wireless and fresh laundered sheets but, of course, there is a catch. The couple only live in the house on alternate months and spend the rest of their time in the Positron Prison. Their lives are essentially shared with another couple, their alternates, whom they shouldn't in theory meet.

This set up is convincingly delivered by Atwood who captures the Truman Show style vibe perfectly but its when the sinister activity beneath the surface starts to bubble up that the novel really switches up a gear. As tensions build questions are asked and the couple need to ask themselves how much they are prepared to pay for the contentment and amenity of home life.

Consilience/Positron is a believable near future community; heavy surveillance, monitoring and a price to pay for all life's comforts. Equally, Stan and Charmaine are an assuredly contemporary couple aware of their flaws but in love nonetheless. This may be Atwood-light but its a great read.