Archive | May, 2017

Van has finished reading… Madness Is Better Than Defeat by Ned Beauman

15 May

I sat down to explain the story to Mrs Van. So there’s this guy… no, wait let me start with the temple, or… okay, so there’s this American magnate, and he… or, there’s a Hollywood film producer… no, no, go back to the guy – did I mention he’s in the CIA… maybe I should start with the octopus wrestling.

Ned Beauman’s Madness Is Better Than Defeat is… well let’s go with this: it’s intricate, it’s funny, it’s sprawling in a very controlled sort of way, it’s inventive, it’s thoroughly gripping and it’s completely unbelievable, except that it’s also very clever. Simply explaining the premise of the story might be enough to raise the potential pothole in the plot:

In 1938 two rival expeditions set off for a lost Mayan temple in the jungle of Honduras, one intending to shoot a screw ball comedy on location there, the other to disassemble the temple and ship it back to New York.

A seemingly endless stalemate ensues, and twenty years later a rogue CIA agent embarks on a mission to exploit it as a geopolitical pawn – unaware that the temple is the locus of grander conspiracies than anyone could have imagined.

Why didn’t they just leave? Ah, but Ned Beauman, like Harvey, has overcome not only time and space but any objections too.

There’s quite a cast involved in this epic so the characterisation is necessarily on point, even down to the small appearances (I particularly liked Atwater’s wife for that mix of humour, desperation and vitriol). But really this book is all about the journey – the narrator, Zonulet’s journey mostly, but by association everyone connected with the temple too. And once you’ve read it that also means you. I suppose at some level we all want to feel like we’re the protagonist in our own lives and whenever a writer comes to put down their ‘is he mad or not’ story (as we all eventually do – mine was short and quite bad) the success or failure therein is in realising that it’s a moot point. It’s simply a question of perspective. In Madness Is Better Than Defeat, Ned Beauman does a first class job of weighting both sides of that coin.

Structurally I suspect the book itself conforms – if such a word can be permitted in regard to such a book – to ‘the rule’, or ‘the diagram’ as well (so there’s a level of meta going on beyond the layering of Vansaska’s opinions about the narrator’s literary ability) so that as a reader we find that we too have fallen under the temple’s power, and come those telling last lines we’re left not with madness but a kind of infuriated satisfaction.

 

I enjoyed Madness Is Better Than Defeat a lot. The humour, the pace and the mystery of it all kept me turning page after page. It’s a story to get lost in, to give yourself up to and simply enjoy the journey. If you’re in a book group it’s one to put on your future reading list, as I suspect it will prove to be one of those books that generates a lot of discussion.

 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat is published by Sceptre on 24th August 2017 ISBN: 9781473613584

You can find Ned on Twitter @NedBeauman or on his website nedbeauman.co.uk.

My thanks in particular to Veronique Norton at Sceptre for allowing me to review this book.

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Van has finished reading… The Trouble With Goats And Sheep by Joanna Cannon

4 May

The summer of 1976 has thrown a long shadow over a generation. To look back at the figures now might be enough to make those who weren’t there wonder what all the fuss was about. We’ve had hotter days since and we’ve had a drier summer too. But numbers don’t really tell the whole story. It’s the things that live in the memory. Fruit squash ice cubes and calamine lotion, sun burn and the exquisite joy of a really big bit of skin coming off when you’re peeling. The way the heat seemed to swell in your ears. River beds cracked and gaping, once-green parks turned to stubbly brown fields of dust. My father embarrassing us all by walking down to the standpipe in his brogues and his underpants… It’s no wonder so many stories have borrowed this scenery. When it is evoked well it lives in the body’s memory as much as the mind’s eye.

And of course it always ends with rain.

 

In Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats And Sheep we see that long hot summer largely through the eyes of ten-year-old Grace and her slightly younger friend, Tilly. The school holidays have just begun and what else is there to do but unravel the great mystery of the Avenue where she lives: Where has Margaret Creasy gone?

Grace and Tilly’s voices are spot on, and seeing the world through Grace’s eyes affords us the full benefit of all the laughs Tilly can provide. As characters they’re perfect, though don’t imagine that means they are bland. Grace wears her faults on her sleeve and I could feel myself nodding in recognition at my younger self on more than one occasion. She is very funny too, and in a very childlike way. It’s Grace’s charm that carries you into the story proper where the adult world proves to be a good deal less embracing. A number of the adult characters share the narrative duties and it’s in these chapters that we learn about the small secrets the Avenue harbours, and of the big secret that appears to bind them all together.

Above everything else it feels to me to be a book about redemption, how we hanker for it and how stifling it can be when we feel it is out of reach. So much of what happens turns on the smallest of moments, of choices made or avoided, and there’s barely a single character in the book who could be said to be wholly good, or wholly bad.

But isn’t that exactly the trouble with goats and sheep?

 

The writing reminds me of Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry. There’s that same, seemingly very English sense of wry humour, and in the expertly rendered voice of Grace I’m reminded of Claire King’s The Night Rainbow. Like both of these books I can also say that my heart was just a little bit broken along the way. For all the laughs there will be moments when you hang your head and look inside yourself and think about a choice you once made.

I know I’m a little late to the party on this one but I’d urge you to join the flock and pick up a copy of Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats And Sheep. It’s a very enjoyable and fulfilling read.

 

The Trouble With Goats And Sheep was published by Borough Press on 22nd October 2015 ISBN: 9780008132163

You can find Joanna Cannon on Twitter @JoannaCannon or at her website joannacannon.com