Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Matt Haig: How To Stop Time

Matt Haig
How To Stop Time (4*)

I enjoyed this book immensely. It interleaves several stories connected across the centuries. Tom, the protagonist, was born in 1581, but has a condition called anageria, which means he ages so slowly that today he only seems forty-one. A few others have the same condition, and a secret organisation protects them from the dangers they face if discovered. It is a great plot with lots of historical name-dropping.

Matt Haig is a very good writer, but in just a small number of places it feels as if he has not revised the text to the same high standard as elsewhere. He also makes an enormous historical howler. Early in the book, Tom consults the Victorian physician Dr. Jonathan Hutchinson, one of the first to identify the rapid-ageing condition progeria. Hutchinson (like many other characters in the book) did exist in reality. I know about him because I once visited the museum he founded in his home town of Selby, Yorkshire (sadly, the museum closed in the nineteen-seventies). In the book, Haig's secret organisation bumps Hutchinson off in 1891, but in reality he lived until 1913. If in doubt look on genealogical resources which clearly place him at Haslemere, Surrey, in the 1911 census, and index his will in 1913. Did Haig have to rush the book to a deadline?

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Laurie Lee: Red Sky at Sunrise

Red Sky at Sunrise (1992) is a trilogy of Laurie Lee's memoirs: Cider With Rosie (1959), As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969) and A Moment of War (1991). (5*)

Lee is a master of metaphor and simile, which come so thick and fast on every page, so astonishing in their aptness and originality, it is difficult to select any one example above others. 

Cider With Rosie is a lyric recollection of his Cotswold childhood in Slad, near Stroud, Gloucestershire during the nineteen-teens and -twenties.  As I Walked Out ... tells of leaving home to work in London, and then travelling around Spain in the nineteen thirties. A Moment of War is an account of his experiences on returning to Spain to fight in the Civil War, a period he was lucky to survive. Cider With Rosie is poetic and impressionistic, the other two books have a much stronger narrative.

Friday, 27 October 2017

R. D. Blackmore: Lorna Doone

R. D. Blackmore: Lorna Doone
R. D. Blackmore
Lorna Doone (4*)

On holiday in Exmoor this summer, we walked along the idyllic Oare valley where Lorna Doone is set, and looked inside the ancient atmospheric church. It's a book I had heard of many times, but never read, so I downloaded the Kindle edition for free. It tells a long, complicated, many charactered story at the time of the English religious troubles of the sixteen-seventies and sixteen-eighties (although it was written almost two centuries later, published in 1869). Despite occasional difficulties with archaic language and the Exmoor dialect, and some irritation with the portrayal of most of the women as passive, ineffectual or just plain stupid, the action pulls you along through passages that evoke the rich Exmoor landscape, weather, plants and animals. Take time out to immerse yourself in seventeenth century rural Devon in this long and absorbing read.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Ray Gosling: Sum Total and Personal Copy

Ray Gosling: Sum Total and Personal Copy
Ray Gosling
Sum Total (3* to 5*)
Personal Copy: a Memoir of the Sixties (3* to 5*)

Ray Gosling was a writer and broadcaster who made television and radio programmes about ordinary people. These autobiographies, ‘Sum Total’ written when he was 21, and ‘Personal Copy’ when he was 40, are of varied consistency (some parts of them are 5*), but are at their best fascinating memoirs of the fifties and sixties. They document how, despite going to grammar school and university, which he left fairly quickly, he rejected any idea of a middle-class professional career and organized and campaigned for working-class causes. He conveys a strong sense of how the times they were a-changin’. His evocative eulogy to the now lost St. Ann's community of Nottingham is extraordinary.

I've now written a blog post about him.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Steve Humphries, Joanna Mack and Robert Perks: A Century of Childhood

Steve Humphries, Joanna Mack and Robert Perks: A Century of Childhood
Steve Humphries, Joanna Mack and Robert Perks
A Century of Childhood (3*)

Based on a 1988 Channel 4 television series, this is a fascinating look at the changing nature of childhood over the last hundred years from when, basically, we had no childhood because we had to work as soon as we were able, to the child-centred world of today. Contains wonderful photographs and first-hand accounts. I wondered whether to give it four stars, but the material is probably better on TV than in a book.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Kenneth Clark: Civilisation

Kenneth Clark: Civilisation
Kenneth Clark
Civilisation: A Personal View (3*)


I feel inadequate in considering this worth only three stars, but I’ve struggled for over a month and cannot say I’ve enjoyed it. Civilisation the book is the word-for-word script of the 1969 television series of the same name. It was considered a towering achievement in its day, and I would agree with that, but reading today I find Clark too taken up with his own knowledge and cleverness, too certain in his opinions. Unlike Bronowski in his series (reviewed August 2015), Clark lacks humility. Perhaps the old programmes are more palatable. I have actually owned the book since 1978, and have struggled with it in the past. No doubt I’ll keep it, but I doubt I’ll try to read it again. 

Sunday, 30 April 2017

H. G. Wells: The World of William Clissold

H. G. Wells: The World of William Clissold
H. G. Wells
The World of William Clissold (3*)

If H G Wells could have written a blog, it might have been something like The World of William Clissold. It takes the form of a six-book novel, purportedly the story of how William Clissold and his brother Dickon became rich men of influence connected to just about every influential figure from the early twentieth century. However, by far the majority of the novel consists of didactic diversions into a world view, a “Wellsian philosophy”, which encompasses everything from politics to sociology, economics to education, sexuality to psychoanalysis, all pointing towards the development of a new world order, a corporate “open conspiracy” which gives rise to a self-organising, free-market “World Republic” independent of inward-looking national interests. It showcases the progressive ideas of its time, some of which would still be regarded as progressive today. It requires real perseverance to follow it all the way through. 

Friday, 31 March 2017

Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Milan Kundera
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (2*)

I feel a failure with this novel. It is said to be a brilliant modern classic which we should all read to reassess our own lives and attitudes. I gave up half way through. It is supposed to be deeply philosophical, challenging Nietzsche's idea that the universe and its events have already occurred and will recur ad infinitum, instead contending that we have only one life which occurs once and never again. I've no problem with philosphical books, but this is bollocks. I found the characters robotic and degenerate. If I had any interest in them at all, it was to dislike them intensely.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Anne Brontë: Agnes Grey

Anne Brontë: Agnes Grey
Anne Brontë:
Agnes Grey (3*)

A couple of recent articles about the 'other' Brontë sister led me to look at this novel for the first time. Anne Brontë's 'governess' story may not have the raw power of Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre but it draws attention to issues of class, the oppression and abuse of women, vanity and callousness as it pulls you along to a happy ending. A good read, free from Kindle.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Saroo Brierley: A Long Way Home

Saroo Brierley: A Long Way Home
Saroo Brierley
A Long Way Home (also titled 'Lion') (4*)

A remarkable true story, recently retold in the film 'Lion', about the search for his birth family by a man from India who years earlier had been adopted by Tasmanian foster parents after becoming hopelessly lost on the Indian railways at the age of five. The book tells the fuller and more accurate version of the incredible story. The writing is fairly artless, but I thoroughly enjoyed this uplifting tale.

Barbara Pym: Quartet in Autumn

Barbara Pym: Quartet in Autumn
Barbara Pym
Quartet in Autumn (4*)

This initially seemed a dull book about four elderly people who work in the same office, all approaching retirement. I picked it up during the process of sorting out books to take to the charity shop, began reading, and was hooked by the author's gentle humour. The author was a favourite of Philip Larkin. This was one of her last novels. It was published in 1977 and made the Booker shortlist.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Nicholas Crane: The Making of the British Landscape

Nicholas Crane: The Making of the British Landscape
Nicholas Crane
The Making of the British Landscape (2*)

I was so much looking forward to reading this book by the popular television geographer, but I am sorry to say I did not get on very well with it at all. The author makes reference to an enormous number of locations, frequently comparing different parts of the country, yet much of the time he uses archaic or local place names that leave you wondering where they actually are. It might help if there were maps, but there are none, not even of Doggerland, the region now submerged under the North Sea which had so great an influence on the making of what we now know as Britain. On top of this, the prose is difficult to read, some would say turgid, largely in the past passive voice with long lists. The book could have been lyrical and popular or thorough and academic, but in falling in between it is neither. He is no W. G. Hoskins.