Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Capital, by John Lanchester

This book is being serialised on the BBC, and it starts tonight. I reviewed it here a few months ago - I really enjoyed it. It tells you a lot about the vagaries of high finance, as you'd expect with Lanchester being a financial journalist - but over and above that, I found it an absorbing tale of the people living in a London street, and how that street had changed.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Paris, after the attacks

The day after the attacks in Paris, earlier this week, Imogen Robertson, writer of historical novels including The Paris Winter, posted this picture on Facebook. It's by Gwen John, and it shows a corner of the room where she lived in Paris. I was immediately struck, because as it happened, I'd used it the week before in a writing class I run; it was only after I read other people's comments that I realised Imogen had actually posted it as a quiet response: the calmness and beauty of the image contrasting with the horror of what had happened.

I'm not a poet. But very occasionally, I feel that only a poem - even if it's a bad one - will serve to express the thoughts and feelings associated with a particular event. So here is what I wrote.

Light slants in
Through a tall window.
A muslin curtain partially obscures
The streets of Paris.
On a table, a posy of flowers:
Their petals dry now
And falling. A sweet, lingering scent
Of lost dreams. Of lost life.

She who placed these flowers
And loved this room
Will not return.
Her dark thoughtful eyes are
Closed for ever. Light and life
By an assassin's pointless gun.

Another petal falls.

© Sue Purkiss

Monday, 16 November 2015

Lament for lost bookshops

The nearest city to us is Bristol, and the part of it I usually go to is the area round the Triangle - up above the city, but not quite as high as Clifton Village. The university is nearby, and the Wills Building and the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery are lovely landmarks. Park Street, which rises steeply up the hill from the centre, has lots of independent shops and cafes, including the Bristol Guild, which has the most higgledy-piggledy layout of any shop I can think of, so that you climb a few steps or turn a corner and discover a bit of it you've never seen before, full of wonders.
Park Street, with the Wills Building at the top

The other attraction of this area has always been its bookshop/s. When I first moved to Bristol, some thirty five years ago, at the top of Park Street was George's. It too was housed in a delightfully all-over-the-place building; it too was full of wonders. It was founded by William George at the age of 17 in 1847 in Bath Street, moving to Park Street a few years later. In 1929 it was bought by Blackwell's, but retained the name of George's till the late 80s, when it became Blackwell's. It must have been a few years after this that a cafe was installed downstairs. Perfect.

Not long after this, a big department store a few hundred yards away closed, and rumours flew around as to who had bought it. We soon found out. It was Border's, a new book store chain from America. At first people were suspicious. Wasn't this a bit brash and over-the-top, a department store full of books?

Well, no. It turned out that it was actually rather splendid. It was spacious, it had everything you might be looking for, it had comfortable chairs and sofas, and nobody minded if you spent hours there browsing. And of course there was a cafe for sustenance. It became an ideal meeting place - it didn't matter if the other person was late, because there was so much to occupy you. The children's department was fantastic.

It reigned supreme for several years. But then Border's in Britain was hit by whatever it was hit by, and all the stores were closed down, including ours. It was a sad day for book lovers in Bristol.

But worse was to come. Blackwell's, presumably hit by the downturn in trade since the advent of Border's was apparently unable to take advantage of its rival's demise, because just as Border's closed, Blackwell's sold off the greater part of 89 Park Street to Jamie Oliver, and squashed itself into a tiny (relatively) space on the ground floor. It still had a reasonable choice of fiction, and of books for older children, but every other department was woefully curtailed. So,I imagine, people went there less and less, because they knew that the chances of finding what they wanted were pretty low, compared to if they shopped online.

And now the inevitable has happened. Last week I went to Bristol and headed for Blackwell's - and it's gone. After all those years of bookshoppery at the top of Park Street, now, in what must be the most bookish area of Bristol, there's nothing. Even the university doesn't have a permanent bookshop. I stood in front of that blank window, and I felt very sad.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Foxcraft: The Taken - by Inbali Iserles

Inbali Iserles
I first met Inbali Iserles some years ago, when she and I both had books out with Walker Books. I'm not sure which mine was: probably The Willow Man. Hers was called The Tygrine Cat, and it was amazing. It was an animal fantasy, about, well, cats. Inbali posited that there is a line of aristocratic cats descended from ancient Egyptian ones, and the book followed the fortunes of the young heir. It was a beautifully written book, and notable for the way Inbali immersed herself completely in the world of cats; she described the way they move, think, behave, in such closely observed detail that it was difficult to believe she hadn't actually been one at some stage. It's a very long time since as a child I read Paul Gallico's books about cats, Thomasina and Jennie; but I think The Tygrine Cat had a similar feel to it.

Now she's chosen to enter the world of foxes. It's an interesting choice of species. Of course, foxes have been a staple ingredient of fables and fairy tales for probably as long as the stories been told: and they aren't usually the heroes. The persona attached to them is frequently that of the sly trickster: cf the tale of the three little pigs, or the cunning charmer in The Gruffalo. And in real life, vilified as hen killers, they have traditionally been hunted. Recently, they've moved into the cities where their behaviour seems to be changing; no longer the shy creatures of the countryside, they have become, it seems, more bold and more visible, lured by the easy pickings in dustbins and parks.

Inbali, however, tells her story from inside the heads of foxes. Her point-of-view character is Isla, a fox cub living in the Great Snarl (London?) initially with her parents, brother and grandmother. Isla's story begins when she loses them all, and finds herself alone and vulnerable - at the mercy not only of the furless (us) with their fearsome manglers (cars), but of a mysterious and terrifying group of other foxes who seem to be intent on hunting her down. Her only ally is a fox called Siffrin, who begins to initiate her into the mysteries of 'foxcraft'. He's charismatic and powerful - but is he what he seems? Is he really on her side?

Like The Tygrine Cat, this is beautifully written, with richly realised characters and an epic feel to it. Clearly, it's the opener to a series. I'm very much looking forward to the next one.

Friday, 6 November 2015

The Dust That Falls From Dreams - by Louis de Bernieres

For a start, isn't that a lovely title? Very evocative, a little bit of alliteration, a nice rhythm - just the job.

Louis de Bernieres is best known for Captain Corelli's Mandolin, a story about Crete in the 1939-45 war. It was a love story: one which, if I remember rightly, eschewed an easy happy ending. There was a film of it too. He has also written a trilogy set in South America, the first book of which is called The War of Don Emanuel's Nether Parts. This, again as I remember it - it's quite some time since I read it - has more than a whiff of magical realism about it, and also some pretty graphic cruelty and violence. Then there was his collection of short stories set in an English village, called - both the village and the book - Notwithstanding. They are about as different as could be from the South American trilogy: they are a series of related stories about some of the people who live in the village: gentle, affectionate, ironic, perceptive, quiet - I loved them.

His latest book, The Dust That Falls From Dreams, has some of those qualities and covers some of the same territory, in that it's set in an England of the recent-ish past (the First World War), and it follows the fortunes of three families who, at the beginning of the book, are neighbours. The McCoshes, with three daughters, live in the middle. On one side is the Pendennis family, 'recently arrived from Baltimore', with three sons, and on the other are the Pitts, with two sons and a French mother.

The first chapter is set in the year that Victoria has died. The book then fast-forwards twelve years, which, of course, brings us perilously close to the First World War - which will change the lives of all the characters for ever, as it must have done those of most people.

It covers familiar territory: the horrors of trench warfare, the rigours of nursing the wounded, the influenza epidemic which polished off more people than the war itself, the impact of the horrors the survivors have experienced or witnessed. But - I read somewhere that de Bernieres has said that what he wanted to do was to write a family saga: and that's what he's done. Each character has his or her own story, and there are some delightful eccentrics as well as some who exhibit very true-to-life complexity and unpredictability. Despite the often tough subject material, the book has a lightness of touch and a charm which make it just delightful to read - it put me in mind of Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles, and it's equally as readable.

I love it that de Bernieres is prepared to try out all these different genres and play with them enthusiastically, like a puppy with a toy. What next, I wonder?

Sunday, 1 November 2015

The Last Kingdom: continued.

NB - Don't read this first if you haven't yet watched the second episode, and are intending to!

Hm - didn't enjoy this episode as much. For one thing, in terms of plot, not that much happened; Uhtred found out that the word had been put about that it was he who'd killed Ragnar, and not the banished man who was after revenge. Eventually, after being chased a few times by people who wanted to kill him, he got the message that the only way was Wessex, so he went south. There he found that the priest who had been his tutor was at Alfred's court - and wouldn't you just know it, but only the other day he'd been saying to Alfred that what they needed in the fight against Guthrum was a spy who could pass as either a Dane or a Saxon - someone like this lad he used to know called Uhtred, for instance. And here he was! Alfred, despite apparently being able to read minds, wasn't certain he could trust him - so he sent him to Reading to do a bit of spying. Uhtred came back, having cunningly sussed out the ONLY place between Winchester and Reading suitable for a battle. Alfred took his advice, but just to be on the safe side, had Breda and Uhtred hung up in cages in case they turned out to be traitors. Breda did not look best pleased, and having seen what she could think of to do with a sharp twig, I think if I'd been Uhtred I'd be more worried about her than about Alfred. Or Ubba, or Guthrum, or his wicked uncle.

As I thought, Alfred is made out to be a weedy looking character who is rather suspiciously intelligent. Certainly not classic hero material. The justification for this (apart from the need to leave the hero stuff to Uhtred) is, at least in part, I imagine, the reference which I think is in Asser's Life of Alfred to some mysterious malady from which he suffered.

The Uffington White Horse. This is where the battle took place.

The episode ended  with the Danes and the Saxons lined up ready to begin the Battle of Ashdown. Alfred's older brother, Aethelred, is still the king at this stage. In the contemporary records, it says that Aethelred delayed getting the battle started because he was busy praying - but in this version, it's the king who's raring to go, and Alfred who, so far, is nowhere to be seen.

He was a clever and cultured man and a great strategist, But I hope they don't forget he was a great fighter too.