MARY MACKIE – Frogspawn and Floor Polish

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Bought 05 Jun 2009 – Sensible Bookshop, Hay on Wye

I enjoyed these gentle stories of life in a National Trust property; I hadn’t realised she was the author of Cobwebs And Cream Teas and Dry Rot And Daffodils and will be adding these to my wish lists now.  The humour is gentle and affectionate rather than barbed or silly, the stories are fascinating and worthwhile and the voice is nice and friendly without being patronising or twee.  A good cosy read.

MICHAEL HALL – Francis Brett Young

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Lent by Ali

An excellent biography of the writer who is fast becoming a favourite of mine, though I have only read a few of his books so far.  The research that has gone into this book is phenomenal and gives an old-fashioned close reading of an author’s life through the characters portraying parts of that life in his books.  While sometimes this can feel forced, in this book there is a good case for all of the parallels drawn, and they have been done meticulously; yet the book is never boring and in fact I’d have maybe liked a little more detail in places.  Hall does not draw a veil over the slightly more unsavoury aspects of Young’s views (especially those on Jewish people), and does not make apologies for Young as a "man of his time"; this makes me respect the other opinions on Young stated in the book further, as it would be easy for such an expert and obvious enthusiast of the oeuvre to become hagiographical.  

A good collection of photos, a very well done chronology, and a list of characters and bibliography complete this good, scholarly work.

One lovely point: I have I believe met Mr Hall and he and his name seemed familiar.  When I looked at the acknowledgements, I see a thank you to Christine Penney and the staff of the University of Birmingham Special Collections.  Looking at the publication date, it would be logical for the research to have been done in the early 1990s – and I worked in Spec. Coll. 1992-1993!

Thanks for the loan Ali – I will look out for a copy for myself and I’m feeling better prepared for our FBY day in October now!

ALAN CLARK – Diaries: In Power 1983-1992 (DNF)

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Bought 05 Jun 2009 – Sensible Bookshop, Hay on Wye

I bought this (luckily for just £1) as part of my reading around politics and history in the latter part of the 20th century.  I knew he was a bit of a "one" but thought this would be amusing.  Actually he comes across as VILE, and the unedited entries are bitty and hard to follow, and would only yield up a portrait of the period with more patience than I had.

Registering on BookCrossing.

MALCOLM BRADBURY – Eating People Is Wrong

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Acquired via BookCrossing 30 May 2009 – from Julie & Barry’s boxes for BookCrossing

I picked this one out of the boxes as I have enjoyed reading The History Man a couple of times.  This was a great read – hilarious goings-on in the English Dept of a provincial University.  It probably helps if you’ve *been* in an English dept but the general academic atmosphere makes it a funny read on many levels.  Treece is an excellent 1950s anti-hero and the goings on at parties etc makes for wince-worthy and unputdownable reading. The atmosphere changed a bit towards the end but still a good read.  Interesting afterword by the author but he doesn’t answer the question – is the truly dreadful Willoughby a portrait of David Lodge, his friend and rival in real life, or is it an amalgam of a few people?!

RACHEL CUSK – The Bradshaw Variations

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LibraryThing Early Reviewer scheme 10 Aug 2009

The story of a year in the life of an extended family, focussing on Thomas and Tonie, who have recently swapped roles at home, and Howard and Claudia, older businessman brother of Thomas and his lapsed artist wife.  The bickering older Bradshaws are skilfully portrayed, younger brother Leo and his alcoholic wife are sketched in, mainly to give amusing lines to their children, and leads on Tonie’s family and the life of the piano teacher are not really followed up.

The style and tone are very detached and I didn’t really form an emotional attachment to any of the characters – most seemed to have a morality based on selfishness and not enough attractive characteristics to balance this.  The author didn’t really seem to "care" about any of her characters either, apart from as symbols to show a) how there are different ways to cope with trying to control the world; b) that there is no answer to the dilemma of whether women should stay within the home or go out to work (both sides are shown struggling and punished) and c) that acting selfishly (even the dog with its hedonism) will bring punishment and destruction.  So a moral tale but without the attractive/engaging characters that would make the morals hit home more effectively.

The joint climax of the story seems contrived and in one case obvious (why put animals in books just as symbols – an eternal criticism of mine!).  Some of the characters get lost, the central conceit of Thomas’ world view as a set of musical metaphors gets diluted and tails off, there is no real resolution, but I don’t suppose there is meant to be, as the book’s narrative is bounded by the year rather than the action.

It all felt a bit like an exercise in writing about different kinds of characters and their relationships, and fell a bit flat.  There were some perceptive portrayals, eg Alexa and Olga, and some interesting exploration on how Thomas finds it harder to listen to his favourite male pianists once he starts learning the piano himself, but the book ultimately doesn’t have *enough*, either in the form of a plot or of enjoyable and minute description of family relationships and interior monologues.

I think this is going for the Weldon or Moggach reader.  Cusk has published a good few books (I read another years ago which had the same detached feeling) but I don’t think this is likely to be her commercial breakthrough.

JOHN GALSWORTHY – The Dark Flower

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Acquired via BookCrossing 30 May 2009 – bags from Julie & Barry

A Galsworthy separate from the Forsyte Saga but with similar themes and of course style. We meet Mark Lennan at three stages of his life and loves: first as a young man in love with his professor’s wife; then in mid-years in a romantic attachment with a married woman (echoes of the Forsyte Saga here although it ends in melodrama which was maybe a bit silly); and then as a mid-40s married man with his head turned by a much younger woman. Atmospheric and evocative, patterned (he flees to Italy after each episode) but not too much so, and although a little dispiriting, a lovely piece of writing. As the introduction says, it’s a shame that Galsworthy is not more appreciated these days, as his acqaintance Conrad is.

IAIN BANKS – The Steep Approach to Garbadale

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Acquired via BookCrossing 30 May 2009 – bags from Julie & Barry

my review:
I enjoyed this easy-to-read novel about a family busines in – perhaps – its death throes. It was a little more slight than I’d expected; I did enjoy the enrichening effect of the dialect sections narrated by Tango, who served as a chorus, commenting on the main action. Although parts were "male" and how I imagined Banks would write (the suicide etc being a case in point), some of the writing and themes seemed curiously feminine – or perhaps this kind of family novel is more usually written by women. Like Matth3w, I didn’t appreciate the political lecture sudee3nly inserted into Alban’s dialogue at one stage; also the concentration on bands, ipods and the Tsunami seemed inserted in order to ground the book in popular culture rather than for a literary purpose.

A good example of BookCrossing encouraging me to read a book I wouldn’t naturally have picked up, and a good holiday read.

Matthew’s review (he read it first and I didn’t read his review before reading the book/writing mine!):
This book is a perfect example of the lucid and erudite prose typical of Iain Banks non-sf output. Whilst the story might seem slight it is nevertheless gripping and the characters of the main protagonist and his family are very well drawn and easy to identify with even if they are a little "Dynasty"-ish in their portrayal.

My only two (minor) concerns are the rather blunt politicizing of the main character which Banks rather too obviously uses as a mouthpiece for his own political views. Also the denoument, although not entirely laid out for all to see in the book is nevertheless not too hard to guess and rather lessened the impact of the end of the book for me.

Other than that I found the rest of the book as amusing and engrossing as any other in the Bank’s oeuvre.

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