Category Archives: Book reviews

Death Nell of Dickens

I well remember my introduction to the famous (or infamous) death-scene of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/429024.The_Old_Curiosity_Shop

which was also my first introduction to the idea that one could ridicule the work of a famous and respected author and get away with it.  Aside from one teacher who disliked Betjeman (and apologised for it) my schoolteachers had approached texts as holy writ.  They were the Given: it was our job to understand Them and to convey that understanding in such a way that it could be marked and graded.  Scepticism, let alone ridicule, played no part in that process.

Enter Geoff Syer.  Geoff was a lecturer at Isleworth College, an unashamed communist who wore a symbolic red tie: he was also a profound literary sceptic.  So when we were discussing pathos in literature it was inevitable that Little Nell should arise from her grave like a shadow-puppet to be killed yet again:

She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird — a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed — was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child-mistress was mute and motionless for ever. Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.1 (Chapter LXXI, p.524)

Victorians were as devastated by this scene as people more recently at the death of Princess Diana.  They wept openly in the streets.  But there were no Reichenbach Falls for Nell: Dickens was as implacable as death itself and refused to bring her back.

However, amongst the mourning there were even then dissenting voices.  Oscar Wilde remarked: “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without dissolving into tears . . . of laughter.”  And that, I would guess, sums up the reactions of most modern readers.  Though attempts have been made to explain Nell as symbolic of the victims of capitalism:

http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/boev1.html

I don’t think that’s the way Dickens worked.  His characters were visualised with an intensity rivalled only by Dostoevsky’s – and though he was deeply concerned with poverty and child mortality (the novel follows on from the death of his sister-in-law) such abstraction is not in his nature.  Dickens dealt with concrete realities.

I have to say the above article expresses everything I dislike about post-modernism; inventing complex terms for something already ‘out there’ which could be expressed much more simply.  That said, much has been written in the feminist era about Dickens’ women and how they tend to divide into the garrulous and the child-like; the figure of fun and the ‘angel in the house’.  Give me garrulous and comic any day: besides, I wouldn’t have been married to Dickens for any money.  Twelve children, a lifetime of unfaithfulness and ne’er a mention in any of his books.  No, ta…

I can’t remember why I started on this topic at all.  But there you go: I never could get the hang of Wednesdays…

Kirk out

 

 

 

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If I Told You That, I’d Have to Kill Myself…

Val McDermid has taken the somewhat unusual step of adding a surprise ending to the surprise ending of her latest novel.  But more of that in a moment: I started the week by listening to the latest radio adaptation of ‘Rebus’.  Fleshmarket Close is a novel I know fairly well, and so far (this was just episode 1) it is excellently done.  Except for one thing: they have made Siobhan Clarke Scottish!  This is just plain wrong.  As anyone knows who has read the books, one of the main features of Clarke is her Englishness, the fact that she has to struggle to be accepted not only as a woman in CID but as a Sassenach in Scotland.  So that spoilt it somewhat for me as all the way through I was shouting ‘Siobhan is English!’ at the radio.

Annoying.

However that was more than compensated for by discovering Val McDermid’s latest in the library.  ‘Insidious Intent’ which I believe is a quotation from T S Eliot (yes, google confirms that as I thought it’s from  Prufrock:

http://www.shmoop.com/love-song-alfred-prufrock/stanza-1-summary.html)

is the latest in the Carol Jordan series.  I know I blogged about the TV adaptations (Wire in the Blood) a while back, complaining that you wouldn’t know Carol Jordan was the main character in the books as Tony Hill (her friend and sidekick) completely takes over; in fact you could be forgiven for thinking it was the Robson Green show:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2013/10/10/women-on-the-verge-of-a-tv-series/

McDermid’s is a world largely run by women and in Insidious Intent she has upped her game to a new level of quantum entanglement (hang on, that’s a thing isn’t it?  Let’s ask the oracle.  If you have two quanta with a common origin and you measure one they will both be in the same state.  Thanks, oracle.  Not sure how that helps us here, but still…) anyway, in this latest novel we catch up once again with Jordan and Hill, now sharing a converted barn (though not in the biblical sense) while Jordan gets over the trauma of seeing her brother and sister-in-law murdered and goes cold turkey on the alcoholism which nearly ruined her career.

Tony Hill is something of a redeemed character – product of a cold and abusive mother and an absent father, he has reinvented himself, partly through police work and partly through his relationship with Carol Jordan.  This relationship is tested to its limits and beyond as REmit, the new murder unit headed up by Jordan, handles its first case: the case of The Wedding Killer.  A serial murderer picks women up at weddings and later kills them; clever and forensically aware, he outwits the police until the very end.

And here’s the thing.  This is a new novel; released just this summer and with an ending that is bound to stun all but the most Sherlockian of readers.  I certainly didn’t see it coming: I sat there saying ‘Oh, my God!’ for about five minutes and it was fully ten before I could bring myself to say anything else.  But eventually I turned the page to see a note from the author asking readers not to give away the ending.  Quite right, too – there’s far too much of this sort of thing; not only in blogs, reviews and on social media but often from the publishers themselves.  It’s like film trailers which show you everything, or TV programmes that finish with what’s going to happen in the next episode.  I don’t want to know!!!  I’ll watch it next week, thank you very much – and I’ll thank you not to spoil it.

Enough.  So nothing will induce me to give away the ending to ‘Insidious Intent’ because if I told you that, I’d have to kill myself.

Kirk out

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A Week is a Long Time in Crime

As regular readers will know, I am a fan of certain types of crime fiction, starting with Ian Rankin and working downwards: and in crime stories, just as in epic narratives, there are universals.  As every epic starts with an encounter, every crime story needs a location.  Plot is hugely important, as is character – but location arguably outranks* both; in fact setting can be a character in its own right.  Who could imagine Rebus outside of Edinburgh?  I feel I know Rebus’s city almost as well as he does; I can picture the seedy alleyways and run-down estates: I’ve climbed Arthur’s Seat, been inside the Castle and visited Warriston Cemetery.  Similarly the Isle of Lewis comes through loud and clear in Peter May’s ‘Lewis Trilogy’.  Islands are good locations for crime as they are finite, bounded by the sea; places where people cannot easily come or go.  They are dramatic and often dangerous.  But a city can be dramatic and dangerous in a different way: and none more so than London.

So it was with deep joy that I pounced upon ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’, the latest – and, I assume, the last – in the Nicci French ‘Frieda Klein’ series, in which London is a character as brooding and ever-present as Rankin’s Edinburgh.

Freida, a psychotherapist who lives near the river, is the protagonist of these stories.  But though she lives alone she is hardly ever left to her own devices; apart from her clients she has a succession of friends who both support her and bring their own problems for her to solve.  They are her virtual family, her real family being both unloving and absent.

There is a single villain at the back of all the events in the series; a villain who grooms, abuses, murders and who, for the last few books, has been assumed by the authorities to be dead.  And not without reason, since they buried his body: Frieda, however, believes the body they buried was that of his estranged twin brother; and that Dean Reeve is alive, stalking her and killing anyone who gets in her way.

The series spans a week, starting with ‘Blue Monday’.  I am deep into this latest volume, and if past form is anything to go by, will probably finish it at the weekend.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Here’s the series:

https://www.goodreads.com/series/67491-frieda-klein

Here are the Peter May books:

http://www.ur-web.net/PeterMayMain/lewispage.html

and here’s an article on Rankin’s Edinburgh:

https://www.ianrankin.net/rankins-edinburgh/

Kirk out

*or out-Rankins?

 

 

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What’s the Time, Mr Proust?

When I read Proust for the first time many years ago, after six volumes of incredibly lengthy sentences discussing ‘lost time’, the last two words of the work were so short that they hit me like a bullet between the eyes.  In time: these words seemed to sum up the entire work.  And having read it I don’t think we spend enough – er, time – thinking about time.

Time is a fascinating thing.  I don’t pretend to understand Einstein’s idea that there is no such thing as simultaneity: for one thing it’d make nonsense of songs such as ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/By_the_Time_I_Get_to_Phoenix

The thing is, with ideas like Einstein’s I can get them on an abstract level, but I can’t translate it into my own experience.  What does it mean to say that by the time I get to Phoenix she won’t be rising; that the two events happen separately and are unconnected?  I can’t get my head around it.

Another phenomenon which I’m sure has a scientific explanation, is the way ideas fly away when you look directly at them.  For example.  I had many thoughts this morning of a stimulating (if not simultaneous) and inventive nature, but as soon as I came into the library with a fresh sheet of paper ready to work with them, they all flew away.  I think this is like Alice’s experience in the wool shop (if it was a wool shop) where the shelves seem crowded but as soon as she looks directly at one it’s empty, though all around they are as crowded as ever.

It was the wool shop:

The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things — but the oddest part of it all was that, whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite, empty, though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.

This is surely familiar to anyone creative: you have a million ideas all crowding into your mind but as soon as you sit down with pen and paper and try to summon them up, they become terminally shy.  So it was with me this morning: I had several bright ideas and almost wrote them down; however they seemed to suggest that this would be premature, and that they needed to stew a little further, so I left them where they were.  And now that I’m in front of the computer, where are they?  Hiding, that’s where, and refusing to come out.  No doubt they will come out at the most inconvenient moment, say, three in the morning.

*sigh*

Another phenomenon I’ve observed (and I’m really not sure science has caught up with this one) is this.  You may be wrestling with any number of ailments or neuroses; and then you go away on holiday.  It’s as though this fact – the fact of your going away – takes the ailments by surprise; and for once you are able to shake them off and arrive at your holiday destination free and light-hearted.  This continues for a day or two; however, sooner or later the neuroses will wake up.  She’s gone! they say to each other, rousing themselves and packing their bags; then they set off, shading their eyes against the sun to see where you are.  You can spot them, black figures charging up the hill in ones and twos – but if you are on the watch you can pick them off one by one: or at least identify and store them to deal with at a later date.

Kirk out

 

 

 

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The Wall of Loneliness: Radcliffe Hall, ISIS and The Handmaid’s Tale

I’ve been thinking a lot about societies lately; how they can restrict us and how hard it is to do without them.  A society is like an impossible partner: you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them.  And two recent dramas which explore this theme are surprisingly similar, though one deals with ISIS in Syria and the other with a fundamentalist Christian dystopia in America.

These are so similar that at times ‘The State’ seems like a fantasy and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ like the reality: both are repressive totalitarian regimes in which women have to cover themselves when they go out or risk brutal punishments.  Beatings and executions are common, though in Gilead they go for hanging rather than beheading; and both feature stonings and chopping off hands, though Gilead being wealthier does at least anaesthatise its victims first.  In both societies women are reduced to chattels, kept only to serve or to procreate.

The difference is that, astonishing as it seems, the women in Syria have actually gone there voluntarily.  The series features two groups, one of men and one of women, and follows their diverse experiences as the men are trained in fierce combat and the women kept indoors to cook and clean.  As in Saudi Arabia they are not allowed out without a male guardian and have to obtain permission before doing anything beyond their normal duties.  It’s all the more chilling for being real; yet ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ is not less chilling for being fiction, because it’s plausible.  You can imagine a combination of circumstances in which it could happen.

Which brings me to Radcliffe Hall’s famous novel on lesbianism, ‘The Well of Loneliness.’  This is equally gripping especially if like me you remember a time when gays and lesbians had to hide for fear of internment or worse (it wasn’t all that long since Oscar Wilde had walked the treadmill at Reading Gaol.)  It was written in 1928 and immediately banned because it contained the line ‘and that night they were not divided,’ making it clear that the two women had shared a bed.  They manage to make a life together in France but in the end their isolation from home, family and society at large makes their situation intolerable, and the ending is heartbreaking.

Kirk out

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It’s Insecure Wednesday Again

And once again the first Wednesday has crept upon me, unawares – and the question we are asked to ponder this month is: which writing rule do you wish you’d never read?  I didn’t have to think too long about this, because I’ve always thought that Hemingway’s stricture of ‘paring everything to the bone’ was unhelpful and wrong-headed.  Hemingway made a virtue out of minimalism; he stripped away everything he considered to be unnecessary and crowed loud and long about paring to the bone.  But at first, while I instinctively disliked the idea, I couldn’t find arguments against it.  I mean, you don’t want excess vocab, do you?  Flowery descriptions, overstatement, repetition; none of these are good habits for an author, are they?

Many people respect Hemingway as one of the twentieth century’s great writers; but I’m afraid I think he’s overrated.  This is not just because I dislike a lot of what he stood for, such as the macho values he found while living in Spain, expressed in the bullfight (I went to a corrida once and it made me feel ill*) it’s because of this particular stricture.  If you pare things right down to the bone you end up with a skeleton, not a fully-fledged novel.  You want flesh on those bones; you want veins and arteries, skin and hair and nails.  You want features and mannerisms: you want a body.

In the end it’s not so much that I wish I’d never read his advice; it’s more that I wish I’d never acted on it – because for years I was suspicious of anything approaching verbiage in my own work.  I ended up slashing many a valuable phrase because Hemingway’s strictures had got into my mind.  Paring to the bone can be a useful editing tool, but not an end in itself.

So that’s it for today.  Happy writing, fellow Insecure people!

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/

Kirk out

*only so that I could say I knew what I was talking about

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Honey I Spent the Voucher

Yesterday I went ahead and spent the Waterstones voucher (no apostrophe is intended, for the apostrophe has gone) which Daniel got me for Christmas.  With it I bought both light and life, which I will explain in a moment.  But first the apostrophe.

I’m sure I’ve blogged about this before *, but the saga of the Waterstones apostrophe reminds me of a pub in Northampton which went from sensible to silly and then just plain absurd.  I have mixed feelings about apostrophes: when they are used I like them to be used correctly, but they are in general so poorly understood that I think we should abolish them altogether.  However, this pub in Northampton started out as a perfectly respectable establishment called the King William IV.  It then being the eighties, it reincarnated as a silly fun-pub catering for yuppies and styled itself King Billy’s.  But over the ensuing months bits of the name dropped off, leaving the name as King Billy’ (losing the ‘s’ but keeping the apostrophe) and then as King Billy with half an apostrophe, something wordpress is unable to reproduce.  So that the failure of punctuation mapped the downfall of this once respectable pub.

Here it is, apparently now closed but due to reopen; if the brewery can be believed (and who could doubt the word of a brewery?)

http://www.northamptonchron.co.uk/news/owners-hope-to-have-closed-northampton-pub-reopen-as-soon-as-possible-1-7232033

So with this voucher, as I said, I bought a light.  It’s a very useful light as it clips onto the pages of the book you are reading enabling you to read in bed without needing to get up and turn the light off afterwards.  And I also elected to buy a book of short stories.  I prefer novels but the problem with a good novel is I devour it in a matter of days (I’m already on my second reading of the Rebus I got for Christmas) whereas short stories last me a lot longer.  They also have the merit of introducing me to authors I may never have read.  There is much to say about this particular volume of short stories, but I’ll save it for another post, except to comment that the introduction laments the lack of outlets for writers of the form – a view with which I concur utterly.

So as I come to the end of this post I notice another year has begun.  I wish you all – what do I wish you all?  Everything you wish yourselves, unless what you wish is like this (go to minute 32):

Kirk out

*I did – it’s here:

https://wordpress.com/post/lizardyoga.wordpress.com/4501

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