Review: Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene

greene heart matterFor the last couple of weeks I’ve been casting around for something to read, making two or three false starts (on books which were so unimpressive I gave up on them), and finally deciding that it’s about time I revisited the works of Graham Greene.  I was partly inspired by the relaunch in Amazon Kindle format of the Vintage Classics editions of Greene’s novels, most of which are priced around £4.00, which to me seems pretty good value for such fine books which have quite a few years to go before they are out of copyright.

I think I read almost all of Greene’s novels and travel writings way back in the 1970s and 80s, which is so long ago that I could probably write a one-sentence synopsis of each book but no more.  While I remember Greene as a very cerebral writer whose novels make profound statements about the purpose of human existence, perhaps his greatest legacy is in the cinema, where so many of his books inspired films such as Brighton Rock, The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, A Gun for Sale, The Honorary Consul and others too.   Quite a powerful list of credits for someone who wrote complex novels in which literary quality is a major feature.

And so to The Heart of the Matter, a novel I chose because the name of the central character Henry Scobie stays in my mind but without the detail which would enable me to say anything about him.  I think I chose well because the book reminded me within the first few pages of what it feels like to have your mind absorbed in a great book.

Henry Scobie lives in a British colony in West Africa where he is the deputy commissioner with responsibility for the police.  Greene later identified the colony as Sierra Leone, and there is little in this 1948 novel to commend it as a travel destination with its poverty, corruption and general squalor.  Scobie lives with his wife Louise and together they take part in the social life of the colony with its rigid class structure in which everyone knows everybody else’s business.  Louise is a devoted Catholic but is also deeply disappointed with her life in the colony, where her husband has failed to gain promotion, leaving her languishing as a social also-ran among the colony wives.

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Review: The Asylum – Johan Theorin

The Asylum - Jacob TheorinLast year I enjoyed reading Johan Theorin’s book, The Quarry , the third book in a  quartet of novels based on the island of Öland in the Baltic Sea.  While possibly falling into the hugely popular “Scandi-crime” genre, The Quarry had elements which set it apart, not least by its interweaving of a thoroughly modern story of a family in crisis with a deeper story emerging from the island’s folk-lore traditions.

When in March of last year The Asylum appeared I marked it down as one to read but have only got round to it this month. Had I known how good it was I would have read it much earlier and it has made me want to go back to the first two of Theorin’s novels and download them to the Kindle for future consumption.

The Asylum could be categorised as a psychological thriller, but it is much more than that, with it’s exploration of a very troubled psyche indeed.  The main character, Jan, a young man in his twenties, arrives in a Swedish town to work in The Dell, a nursery attached to a secure hospital, St Patricia’s, where the young children of inmates are cared for during the day, returning in the evening to their foster homes.  Two or three of the children who are awaiting foster home placements spend their nights in the Dell, requiring the five staff to work night-shifts on a rota.

Occasionally the children are taken on supervised visits to their incarcerated parent.  The Dells’s staff have to escort the children through an underground passage to a lift which takes them up to the hospital where a security guard takes over and the staff member returns to the nursery, going back to pick up the children up an hour later.

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Four Quartets – T S Eliot

Four Quartets first editionI don’t read much poetry, but thanks for BBC Radio 4 I get small doses of poetry which make me wish I had the time to explore more poets and their work.  Every week Poetry Please with Roger McGough provides it’s listeners with 30 minutes of readers requests and occasional features on individual poets (Shirley Henderson’s reading of Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market was a recent delight).

Back in January we were treated to a reading by Jeremy Irons of T S Eliots Four Quartets, a set of poems which contain so many immortal lines it would be hard to know where to stop quoting them.  In an English February for example, Eliot-s words capture the rain-soaked cold which seems never-ending despite the occasional glimpses of sunshine:

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat

Eliot had the ability to paint a canvas of imagery in just a few words:

Ash on and old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.

(you can almost see the scene, an elderly man in an a shabby, old arm-chair with dead-roses in a vase on a table next to him).

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Review: Tales from the Underworld – Hans Fallada

Hans Fallada - Tales from the UnderworldIn recent years their has been a resurgence of interest in the mid-20th century German writer Hans Fallada. His novel Alone in Berlin was an unexpected success when Penguin published a new translation in 2010.  Around the same time Melville House published the novel Little Man What Now and then Penguin followed with A Small Circus in 2012.  Now we have a new collection of short stories in Tales from the Underworld (discounted to £6.99 in paperback at most online bookshops but still £11.99 on Kindle and other ebook formats!).

Fallada is known for his stories about ordinary people in pre-WW2 Germany.  He deals with “the little people” and their concerns about jobs, money and housing.  In a typical Fallade story we conventional marriages and a way of life long gone where the woman works in the fields or busies herself around the house while the husband goes off to a dull job in a shop or office and returns to become a little tyrant in his own home.

The book opens with The Wedding Ring, a story set in a rural, peasant society where a group of women are digging potatoes in a field, supervised by an indolent male foreman.  A newly-married woman, Martha Utesch gets home at night to find that she has lost her wedding ring during the day’s labours. The foreman of the work gang has of course seen the ring and pocketed it, with no intention returning it to its owner.  Within a few pages we see the foreman’s attempt to make some money for himself resulting in horrific consequences.  This is a classic short story, compact, vividly told, with a powerful yet ironic conclusion.  It could have been written by any of the 19th century masters of the short story and its setting in 1920s Germany only goes to show that outside the cities, rural Europe was much the same wherever you were living.

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Review: Last Friends – Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam - Last FriendsJane Gardam is one of Britain’s more distinguished novelists (Order of the British Empire, Fellow of the Royal Society for Literature, two Whitbread Awards etc).

Last Friends is the final volume in her trilogy based around the story of Sir Edward Feathers (“Old Filth” – Failed in London, Try Hong Kong), a successful lawyer and later a judge who spent much of his career as a property and construction lawyer in the Far East.  In 2010 I wrote about the second book in the trilogy, The Man in The Wooden Hat and am now delighted to be writing about the final volume, Last Friends which homes in on the life of Sir Edwards staunchest rival Terry Veneering.

As the book opens we find that Old Filth and Terry Veneering are recently passed away.  Ending their lives in a quiet Dorset village, only Dulcie, the widow of an old Hong Kong judge survives to remember the great men.  Dulcie, herself ancient and frail,  is about to go up to London with her daughter to attend Terry’s memorial service, a difficult challenge for her and one which is going to lead her on one more final adventure of her own.

The story moves back and forth through the years as it tells the story of Terry Venerring, brought up in a down-at-heel industrial town on the cold and windy North-east coast of England.  His mother had a flourishing domestic coal business which she had developed herself, going round the streets of back to back terraced houses with an old wagon hitched to a cart-horse,

Three days a week she clopped round the town on the cart through all the back streets, shouting “COAL” in a resounding voice.  The lungs of a diva.  “Coal today”, she shouted, and from the better houses of the iron-masters in Kirkleatham Street the maids ran out in white cap and apron, twittering like starlings.  “Three bags now, Florrie,” and watched her heave herself down off the dray, turn her back, claw down one sack after another with black gloves stiff as wood.  She adored her work.

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Review: The German Lottery – Miha Mazzini

9780956735935CB Editions can always be relied upon to produce quirky and interesting books and Miha Mazzini’s novel, The German Lottery is no exception.

It is 1950s Slovenia and Toni, a young postman, walks his daily round through a small town, chatting to neighbours along the way and doing his best to obey the Code of Practice, a booklet which he has learned by heart and seeks to obey religiously.

An innocent abroad, Toni was orphaned as a child and has found security in the routines of his work, taking delight in sorting the mail, following the rules precisely and keeping himself to himself. He lives in a hostel for single people; a grim existence with a shared bedroom and a bathroom up at the end of the corridor.

One day, while delivering a registered letter, he finds the recipient, a young woman called Zora, struggling with a heavily laden washing line.  The wet clothes are about to fall onto the muddy ground and Toni has to abandon his mail-bag for a few minutes and help Zora secure the heavy washing line.  Is Zora deliberately grappling with the line close to Toni so that he smells her scent and glances down at drops of sweat running down her cleavage?  For a young man like Toni, the experience is overwhelming.

She finally managed to slip the line on the hook and rescue the washing.
We were facing each other, completely soaked.
‘Thank you!’
I nodded. ‘Comrade, a postman is always ready to help.’
‘That’s nice to hear.
I straightened my uniform and put the bag over my shoulder.
‘Do you come round in the evenings too?’

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Review: Watching War Films With My Dad – Al Murray

Al Murray Watching War Films With My DadAl Murray is better known as a comedian whose alter ego, The Pub Landlord is frequently seen on television and in stadia and concert halls around the country.  The Pub Landlord is xenophobic, right-wing, ribald and bombastic but audiences should not assume that Al Murray is anything like his comic creation in real-life.  With his Oxford M.A. in modern history and his occasional television appearances as himself, Al Murray comes across as a cultured and thoughtful person who almost seems caged by the success of The Pub Landlord (but no doubt a very lucrative imprisonment!).  What he really thinks of his audiences I can’t imagine, for many of them go to his shows precisely because they agree, at least in part, with the views of Al’s comic alter ego.

With his new book Watching War Films With My Dad, (October 2013), the real Al Murray fascinates with a series of essays, travelogues and biographical pieces largely based around the theme of the Second World War.  I was expecting to find this book amusing, but was taken aback by the sheer depth of knowledge Al Murray has on modern history and the extent to which he produces new thinking on some well-trodden historical events (his section on the battle for Arnhem Bridge, subject of the film A Bridge Too Far is particularly good).  I was very impressed and will probably go over many of the passages again, particularly when I next visit Normandy, the scene of the D-Day landings.

Not that the whole book is serious in intent – far from it.  While Al’s theme is loosely based around the topic of war films, the book often digresses in to random essays which he wrote often while on the road, in moments snatched while waiting in hotel rooms to go off to a performance.  I particularly enjoyed his chapter on making Airfix kits, a boyhood hobby which I shared with Al, spending many happy hours painting and assembling plastic model aeroplanes (the secret was to paint most of the pieces first but few people had the patience to do this, preferring to stick all the bits together then mess it all up with botched paint job).

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Amazon’s list of 100 books to read in a lifetime

Amazon’s editors have chosen 100 books you’ve really got to read. and followed it up on GoodReads where you can add your own and vote all the choices up and down.  There are some strange choices in it and I wonder if Amazon haven’t allowed marketing matters to have a great deal of influence in their choices – for one thing, the books seem to have to be currently available  in print and Kindle, and there is a surprising shortage of books in the public domain from sites like Project Gutenberg (Don Quixote for example).  That’s what you expect from a book-seller I suppose. On the whole I prefer Peter Boxall’s collection of 1001 books.

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Review: Jawbone Lake – Ray Robinson

jawbone lake

Jawbone Lake is set in Derbyshire, the home of the English Peak District, a place of rugged scenery, small towns and villages and a feeling of remoteness from the large cities which surround it.  You could summarise it by saying that it’s about a young man discovering that his deceased father was not what everyone had thought him to be.  But along the way we have a fine thriller, a psychological study of a young woman who is reluctantly involved in the plot and brilliant word pictures of life at the blunt end of “poverty Britain”.

Joe Arms is called back from his wealthy life in London by his mother when his father’s Land Rover crashes into the ice of a frozen lake.  His father (“CJ”) is missing, presumed dead, but the police are bewildered as to the circumstances of the accident.  Was another car involved?  Did anyone see the accident?

The story moves to Rabbit, a young woman who works in an ice-cream factory and who was standing by the side of the lake when the accident happened.  Rabbit has enough on her plate following the cot-death of her baby son and she runs from the scene, having seen another car at the scene and a man with a “dark shape silhouetted in his hand”.

The story moves between Joe and Rabbit throughout the book.  Joe as searches for the truth about his father during visits to Spain and Hastings on the Sussex coast (where CJ began his career).  Rabbit on the other hand goes to work as normal, but soon realises that someone is looking for her with a view to making sure that there is no chance that she will tell the police of what she saw on the fateful night.

Rabbit is a fascinating character and we learn about her yearning for her lost baby, her monotonous life in the factory and her life with her Auntie Cass and friends Kate and Frankie.   The book is as much about Rabbit as it is about Joe, but the two stories are skilfully inter-twined making for a varied read.

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Review: In The Light of the Morning – Tim Pears

light of the morning

Whenever a new novel by Tim Pears appears I always get hold of it as soon as I can.  Ever since his 1993 novel, In the Place of Fallen Leaves I have never failed to be impressed by the quality of his writing and the inventiveness of his story lines.  I have only reviewed a couple of his books on this site, the last one being Landed, but if I had the time I would revisit In a Land of Plenty and A Revolution of the Sun and add to the many glowing reviews of these fine novels.

In In The Light of the Morning Tim Pears has turned his mind to the Second World War, and in particular the battles in the Balkans where the Nazi invasion of former-Yugoslavia was sternly resisted by bands of Partisans.  I have tried to give a flavour of the book in this article without spoiling it for anyone who eventually reads it.

The book opens in the early summer, 1944 with three British soldiers flying over Slovenia about to be dropped by parachute into a forest; their task to bring aid and assistance to the many Yugoslavian Partisans who are defending the eastern part of their country against the invading Germans.  Lieutenant Tom Friedman is our focus – a young academic, convinced of the vital nature of his task, but already missing his book-lined rooms and the quiet life of Oxford.

Tom is accompanied by a belligerent Major, Jack Farwell who has taken an instant dislike to Tom, “I’m sure you don’t like me any more than I like you. . . you’re not a man’s man . . . you don’t say enough, that must be what it is”.  Their other companion is a far more amenable radio operator, Corporal Sid Dixon, a  farm-worker from Devon who has become a master of the airwaves.

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