Archive | July, 2014

Van has finished reading…One Day by David Nicholls

25 Jul

I confess I’m at a bit of a loss. I think it’s fair to say this book isn’t going to change the world, although it seems to provoke something of a polar response from people. There’s clearly a lot of love for it and a fair few who shake their heads in disbelief too. I’d guess it’s a question of how far you can suspend the disbelief – for me the two main characters had a certain off-the-pegness about them that very nearly got in the way. In fact I didn’t experience the ‘emotional intensity’ that appears to feature so heavily for the lovers of this novel, and that off-the-pegness may be the reason why.
Em and Dex, Dex and Em. They’re really irritating, especially in the early chapters. In spite of them I’m glad I persevered with them. It is easy to get lost in their story and the premise is a good one – god knows I would have ditched it for sure if I’d had to wade through weeks and weeks of their lives. Skipping from year to year ensures a pace that leaves you waiting for what their situation will look like next year. One thing David Nichols has got spot on is how his characters settle for what comes their way; that line between existing and surviving – how what we strive for, and when and if we strive for it, changes through the years.
It’s not a book I love but I certainly didn’t hate it and at times it is genuinely funny. Give it a try and see which pole you gravitate towards.


Van has finished reading…Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty

15 Jul

There is darkness in Catherine McKenna’s life. Catherine is battling depression. Unmarried, fearing the harm she may inflict on her child, Catherine travels home for her catholic father’s funeral. How can she explain to her estranged mother what she can’t comprehend herself? It’s through music that Catherine tries to make sense of herself and her surroundings, in music that she seeks a sense of faith. Each mirrors the other – her compositions laced with latinate high-church reference, and her view of religion immersed in the language of composition.

It’s a book of halves. The first part is latest in the timeline, and yet reflecting on the distance of her origins, her introduction to and immersion in music; the second part steps back in time to the point of estrangement, moving forward through the birth of her child, the breakdown of her relationship and a level of recuperation in composing. It seems a strange approach to take at first, until that mirroring is brought to a perfect cadence in the closing scene: the broadcast of Catherine’s finished work, Vernicle, in which we see the story we’ve just read mirrored perfectly.

I always feel it’s a testament to the artistry of writing –as with the artistry of music – when one can appreciate a piece of writing not just for its intrinsic interest or the emotional response it conjures, but for its composition too. There’s not an ounce of fat on this story. It feels composed, rather than written, lifting the prose above a mere line of words on a page. Much as Catherine hears with the bones in her head, we feel with our eyes as we read. Sublime.

Read beyond the Headline

10 Jul

It’s the JK thing. Before you ask, yes it is even a thing. JK Rowling is a magnetic pole. Mention JK and all the iron filings find their place in the strict rows according to their polarity before they’ve even read the headline. Joanne Harris, speaking at a Parliamentary Committee, said something. A journalist reported that Joanne Harris had said something. Between what Joanne Harris said (I don’t know, I wasn’t there to hear it for myself, though this is what Joanne Harris says on her own site, and the headline that was reported ( there seems to be a lot of iron filings. It’s a testament to the power of words that journalists and writers work with the same tools, and yet so often seem at odds with the result. Much as a writer is on shaky ground to claim off-the-cuffness as an excuse for a wayward remark the same is surely true for a journalist. On either side then one finds oneself searching for the intention. In this case I’m inclined to side with Joanne Harris, whose intention appeared to be to point out how unhelpful it was that the media portray JK’s success as relevant to writers in general. How ironic, and perhaps cynical, that the headline arising from this is a suggestion of snippy jealousy on Harris’s part.
Cue a minor storm on Twitter (minor for the watching world). JK Rowling fans line up to bash Joanne Harris. Joanne Harris defends her standpoint, repeatedly insisting she has been misquoted and trying to deflect the furore back towards the actual point. The tune-out point for me was when Katie Hopkins (was it the Apprentice?) lambasted Joanne Harris directly, picking up the ‘little story about wizards’ tagline as though it were Harris’s own opinion, pronouncing that JK ‘taught a generation to read’, noting JK as a ‘brilliant single mum’ and most ironically of all then refusing Joanne Harris’s invitation to read her twitter feed to find out what she actually said. Had Katie Hopkins and many others read beyond the headline they might have realised that there was no slight to defend.
And here, for me, is the true sadness of the whole thing. JK’s story is well-known. It’s known now to the point where people imagine Jennifer Aniston frowning over a dog-eared notebook with a very fetching tartan scarf keeping her warm as she crosses out a line here, dots an ‘i’ there. It’s been sanitised because of all that money, all that success. Do people see a person? Do people see a writer? Do they see how hard it actually was or do they see a celebrity? There’s nothing wrong with figureheads. Figureheads are good. People being inspired by inspiring people is good. JK is successful. Joanne Harris is successful. Single-mumness or marriedness has what to do with it? The fact is that both of these successful writers struggled early on to make a name for themselves in a very tough market. That’s almost universally true. Unless independent wealth exists, debut and mid-list writers (tend to keep it to themselves and not) come to the table with stories of early mornings and late nights and stolen moments between jobs when their book was written. And if Katie Hopkins had read beyond the headline she’d recognise the wider context, and see the very point of it all: that JK Rowling’s life was really hard before she achieved such stellar success because what writers do is not valued enough; that ensuring debut and mid-list writers are paid appropriately will ensure British literature continues to flourish; that downloading free (pirated) books is not ‘sticking it to the man’ but robbing the struggling single-mum-would-be-JK-superstar-writer.

And it’s true of all the arts. I don’t know what the answer is but I do know that a fan can make a difference. When you find your next JK, be they writer, poet, singer, actor or painter, be a part of their success by supporting them. Tell your friends about them. Buy your friends a copy, don’t make them one.
And for Pete’s sake read beyond the headline so you can recognise an ally when you see one.

Van has finished reading…A Coat of Varnish by C. P. Snow

10 Jul

Van has finished reading…The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut

4 Jul

The Good Doctor is not a likeable man. That’s hardly surprising since we see him through the skewed perception of Dr Frank, who dislikes him. It’s a clever stroke to give us his perspective though because we find ourselves agreeing with Dr Frank. The Good Doctor doesn’t seem so good. In fact he seems meddlesome, worthy and at times highly manipulative. And here’s where Damon Galgut draws a fine blade. It’s Frank’s perception – and actually there doesn’t seem to be much that Frank does like, including himself – that allows us such a cynical view of what seems to be one man’s ideological standpoint and desire to make a difference.
There is no doubt that the Good Doctor is an effective catalyst. Dropped in amongst the disaffected workers in their nowhere hospital, things start to happen. There is a breath of life, a moment of animation, the whiff of possibility. Yet Frank’s dissent feels natural to us, so natural that his own attempts at manipulation seem wholly logical as a defence against The Good Doctor’s onslaught. It is a battle of wills that we are presented with, and it’s interesting to consider how very upbeat a book it would have been had we lived in Dr Laurence’s shoes instead (though I doubt so many readers would have stuck with such relentless – and blind – optimism).
When the politics of a place have been written so large on the consciousness of the world it’s hard to step back and take a cold view. I’ve never lived there and my awareness of the situation is, l suspect like so many others’, black and white. There’s a lot in this book that serves to confirm that point of view, but there are a good few shades between as well. What’s certainly apparent is that no single good intention is ever going to change so many ingrained points of view.
But is that a good enough reason not to try?