Kingdom Come by J.G. Ballard, dystopia meets reality. 

In these strange times it’s difficult to know what is dystopian fiction and what was merely prescient. Ballard is a masterful writer of worlds that almost seem true and yet couldn’t really happen, or maybe they could?

‘Kingdom Come’ is a story of a middle aged man, Richard Pearson, at a rudderless point in his life going to follow up the mysterious death of his father, shot in a shopping mall in a satellite town on the outskirts of London. It appears his father was the victim of a mental patient but Pearson begins to question this as he fails to get answers from the shopping mall managers, the police or his solicitor who all seem keen for him to go back to London. Intrigued by his father’s collection of books on the Third Reich and the activities of the sports clubs, dressed in England shirts who victimise the homes and businesses of immigrant families. It starts to go very dark as shopping and fascism seem to be two faces of the consumerist coin and life in the shopping mall becomes a military siege.

Interestingly, reading reviews about this book when it came out it was criticised as being based on ideas rather than characters. Though in the present time, that feels like less of a criticism. 

‘Violence is the true poetry of governments’; ‘Think of the future as a cable TV programme going on for ever.’

Ballard shows how fascism takes hold, through identifying with a group, finding a uniform, in this case St. George’s shirts, and finding an enemy, someone to blame for the problems whilst putting hope for the future in an endless viewing of TV adds and buying things for reassurance of one’s own value. Consumerism is the only religion.

Possibly the most chilling fact in the book is that the narrator, Pearson, is an advertising man, a spin doctor, constantly reworking the narrative, at times into a whirling distortion of truth and ‘alternative facts’. When the novel was written in 2006 spin doctors were criticised for distorting the truth, Ballard suggests they actually create their own reality. 

This is not a great novel or the finest dystopian read but it is strikingly timely. It is a view of what might happen if spin doctors tell the story, does it matter who writes history?

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell

fullsizeoutput_565 ‘Odd and the Frost Giants’ may be a seasonal treat for a child, or just because you like beautiful books. It is a new edition of a book produced for World Book Day in the UK. Gaiman and Riddell’s latest collaboration is as impressive as ‘The Sleeper and the Spindle’ (a retelling of Sleeping Beauty by Snow White).

‘Odd and the Frost Giants’  sees Gaiman in his familiar territory of Norse mythology. The story centres around Odd who lives in a Viking village with his parents. Tragedy befalls Odd, and he is forced to forge his path away from the Viking village in a never ending winter. As with all Neil Gaiman stories, this book has disguised gods and an unlikely hero using his wits to beat a physically powerful and magical foe. It is a well-crafted story of hope and bravery and showcases Gaiman’s skill at reimagining folk tales. What makes this story beautiful are Chris Riddell’s illustrations. Riddell has a remarkable, expressive ability to create beautiful, emotive characters. His pictures alone were the reason I bought this edition. It is a gorgeous edition to admire on a winter’s evening, snuggled by a fire and free to dream of frost giants. fullsizeoutput_567

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell: Magic’s answer to Middlemarch?

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Sometimes, you encounter a book and know a copy will sit on your shelves until the end of your days. For me, ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell’ is one such book. Susanna Clarke has created an immersive alternative Regency world where the forces of magic play alongside the fortunes of the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon and Lord Byron. In reading it, I felt myself beginning to believe that England had a Raven King who had ruled the North as the magical history of England is explained through footnotes and legends as the story of the two English magicians unfolds.

As the story begins English magic is in decline (this is the age of the Enlightenment) and is studied in a purely theoretical form. The difficulty with studying magic is that the vast majority of magical books are in the keeping of one man in Yorkshire, Mr Norell. The magicians of York apply to him for assistance, and he responds with the first demonstration of magic in York’s medieval Minster. Mr Norell soon moves to London as the first practical magician in hundreds of years and his trickery means he is the only person allowed to practice magic. However, a street magician, dismissed by the crotchety Norell as an amateur makes a prophecy about the arrival of a second magician as foretold by the Raven King. The Raven King, John Uskglass, is the man credited with bringing magic to England from the faery realm. He reigned in the North of England for three hundred years, weaving magic through the kingdom. Norell’s fears about this prophecy are realised when Jonathan Strange appears, wanting to be his student. Strange has all the flair and flourish of a Romantic poet while Norell remains a fusty old man, following magical procedures to the letter, wearing his old-fashioned powdered wig and criticising Strange, most of all for his curiosity about the magic of John Uskglass. Unbeknown to Strange, Norell has his reasons for hiding fairy enchantments, and these unfold with the story.

It is a long book, and it did take me some time to read. Like a novel from the Victorian period, it does not rush at telling the story, taking its time to build Regency London around the reader. I felt it was a book to savour rather than devour, though, when I got to the end, I could quite happily have turned back to the beginning and read it again. Neil Gaiman describes it as the best work of English fantasy for seventy years. I agree that it feels like a very English book. It draws on so many themes that were present at the time, war, the Gothic, nature and Romanticism, and weaves them through the story so that if I opened an anthology of Byron’s poetry and found a poem about the madness of Jonathan Strange, I would not be surprised.

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

I read this book because I was informed it was inspired by Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’. Though Rhys may have been an influence on the author, there are no obvious links with her Bronte inspired narrative, but there are clear links with Rhys’ post modern style as this strange story blends different narrative voices and settings, unfolding a story of madness and magic.

The Silver family move into a large house near the cliffs of Dover, a house inherited through the maternal line. The family begin a guesthouse business but this is soon disrupted by the death of The mother, Lily Silver, while overseas. She leaves her twins, Miranda and Eliot, and her gentle French husband, Luc, in deep shock and struggling to come to terms with her absence. Miranda starts to suffer from an eating disorder, pica, where she eats things that are not food, especially chalk. Miranda’s bond with the house is different to her brother’s as she feels it like a living presence and the generations of women who have lived there in generations past.

This is a tale that has Gothic roots but a contemporary narrative structure. The four narrative voices weave an incomplete story, mixing themes of magic, sexuality, attraction, racial identity and mental illness. This does make it difficult to follow, certainly at first, and the story remains incomplete as different narrators draw different conclusions. I have to admit I spent most of the time I was reading it confused. As I was on a train I felt compelled to continue reading anyway and I did enjoy the book, though it’s difficult to explain why!

The prose is beautifully written and perfectly evokes both Dover and Cambridge. Minor characters are delicately drawn; Luc, struggling to write a cookbook for delicate eaters as he attempts to feed his daughter who fades before his eyes. Overall, it is the quality of the writing that holds this strange book together. After reading, the unfinished stories are frustrating, then that is not uncommon in postmodern stories. It would be a good book to study or just to book club so these narrative holes could be explored with others.

September’s book club choice. Shylock is my name by Howard Jacobson

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Though I’m posting this in October, it was the September choice of my book club. It is a book that split the readers between those who liked it and half who had no kind words to say! It is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

Personally, I enjoyed reading the story, though if it had not been a book club book, I might have given up well before it engaged my attention. It is Jacobson’s reimagining of the Merchant of Venice. Though it achieves this through the character of Shylock speaking for himself to the contemporary word. Shylock meets a wealthy Jewish man in a graveyard in an area of Cheshire located just outside Manchester, part of the gaudy golden triangle, where T.V. celebrities and footballers party hard. The man, Simon Strulovitch, is an art collector who invites Shylock into his home.  Strulovitch is not an observant Jew; he does not attend synagogue or observe Sabbath. However, he retains strong views about the identity of his daughter’s boyfriends who he firmly believes should be Jewish. It is through Strulovitch’s struggles with his daughter that his dialogue with Shylock unfolds in a story that cleverly mirrors the Merchant of Venice. (However, if a reader is not familiar with the original play, it is advisable to at least read a synopsis to understand what it is mirroring.) As they speak of Strulovitch’s problems with his daughter, the two men explore the nature of what it means to be a Jew. Strulovitch’s daughter, Beatrice, becomes involved with Plurabelle, a reality television star and a modern day reinterpretation of Portia. Her friend Danton (Antonio) wants an artwork owned by Strulovitch and they draw Beatrice into a sequence of events that cleverly mirror the original play. These events are really a subtext to the whole novel where Jacobson explores the inner life of one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters. Through their dialogue, Shylock and Strulovitch explore the nature of patriarchy, vengance, mercy, the duty of Jewishness and the weight of history being a Jew brings culturally and religiously (and whether these things can be separated). It is in these areas the novel is stimulating and revealing.

Jacobson assumes that the reader is familiar with Shakespeare’s Shylock and I suspect that it would be less attractive to those who are not. It certainly aims at intellectual discourse rather than narrative entertainment. One of the book club criticisms was that Jacobson did not challenge the patriarchal actions of Strulovitch towards his daughter, his apparent ownership of her in places. It is not an easy read and probably a book I will pass on rather than revisit. I did find the font difficult to read and the paper quality poor – sorry Vintage!

 

Cogheart by Peter Bunzl (not just for children).

This is a great adventure story set in a steam punk version of Victorian England where clockwork robots work as servants, airships rule the skies and villainous villains do dastardly deeds to feisty children. 

Bunzl has achieved, in this story, a superb children’s adventure. It aimed at junior children, around 9-11, but has lots to enjoy for older readers and parents. The story begins with the crash of an airship, piloted by John Hartman crashing as it is pursued into the night. John sends his clockwork fox, Malkin, with a message to his daughter,  Lily. The airship crashes, John is presumed dead and Malkin flees into an unfamiliar darkness with hybrid half clockwork humans and their mechanical dogs giving chase. As he is a clockwork fox, Malkin rushes to find a safe place to hide before he winds down or before he is shot by those who give chase. Lily is unhappily residing at boarding school when she hears of her father’s disappearance. She is already an outcast for throwing the occasional punch and generally not conforming, so she receives little sympathy and is taken away by her governess, who is not all she seems. Back at home, Lily’s governess begins to asset strip the family mansion whilst searching for a perpetual motion machine John Hartman is rumoured to have perfected. Lily wants to run away but has no friends to run too, except her ailing godfather who lives in London. But is he all he seems?

Are you gripped yet?

The story is formulaic and holds few surprises for an older reader. The characters are simply drawn good or evil, with little complexity in between. The narrative is fast paced and everything about the story is plot driven. It has a cinematic quality and is certainly set for a big screen adaptation.What makes it worth reading is the brilliant creation of an alternate history and the inventive clockwork characters, such as Mrs. Rust the cook with interchangeable hands as culinary tools. I defy anyone to read the story and not wish they had a clockwork pet fox at the end.  

High Rise by J.G. Ballard:Why have I never read this before?


If the job of an opening line is to grab the reader’s attention, Ballard’s novel does not disappoint.

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

Now, I am a big dog lover but I confess I was intrigued enough to continue. The book the retraces the previous three months and how an urbane professional such as Dr. Laing ends up roasting an Alsatian on his balcony. 
High Rise is a dystopian narrative of how swiftly social niceties fall apart in a new architectural tower block inhabited by the professional classes. The story starts with Dr. Laing, recently divorced, living in a single flat part way up the high rise. Laing plays squash, attends drinks parties and works as a lecturer at a medical school. He generally enjoys a life of languid isolation, though pressured to engage socially by his sister who also lives in the tower block. Things begin to change for Laing when Royal, the building’s architect and inhabitant of the penthouse, declines a squash engagement, and a rich jewellers wife begins to disagree with some of the families who live on the lower levels. Minor disagreements are exacerbated as the building begins to experience power fluctuations and occasional blackouts. Then, two deaths occur, an Afghan hound is drowned in a swimming pool and the rich jeweller plummets to his death from the roof.
Ballard guides the reader through the narrative by focusing on a few key characters, Royal the architect, Wilder, a filmmaker who lives with his wife and two children on the second floor and Laing. The women in these men’s lives begin at the peripheries of the story and gradually move to the centre as civilised lives move to tribal packs and then disintegrate into primal survival. Ballard questions the nature of humanity, of the values of class and society in the same way H.G Wells shows human degeneration in The Time Machine. The curious part of High Rise is that, in essence, all the people who live in the tower block are ‘haves’, no one is actually poor, but some are poorer that others. Ballard questions how we live together, what binds people to certain patterns of behaviour and how we identify our ‘tribe’. Though written in the 1970s it remains as pertinent today, almost half a century later, as it holds up a mirror to the idea of a civilised society.
I will definitely read more Ballard soon. The only book I’d read by him previously was Empire of the Sun so I believed he wrote historical fiction. Any recommendations on what Ballard book to read next would be welcomed!

The Goshawk by T.H. White, a once and future classic?

After reading ‘H is for hawk’ by Helen MacDonald I felt compelled to read T.H. White’s ‘The Goshawk’ as he is the reference point for much of MacDonald’s narrative. My greatest familiarity with White’s work is through his Arthurian stories, ‘The Once and Future King’, the first of which, ‘The Sword in the Stone’ was made into a cartoon by Disney. His influence as a writer in the post war era is through the adaptation of these stories into the musical  ‘Camelot’, a favourite of JFK and a subsequent nickname for the period of his Presidency. Though perhaps not so popular today, White’s stories were my introduction to the world of Arthur and I loved the passages where the young Arthur is transformed into different animals, including a hawk. The shape of these passages can be seen in White’s real life in ‘The Goshawk’.

Leaving his post as a school master, White goes to live in a cottage, returning to a simpler life, and reading old hand books about falconry. He becomes obsessed with the idea of training a hawk, linking himself with the feral state of a wild bird. The book opens with a description of the goshawk when it is delivered to White’s house and it soon becomes clear he is mesmerised with the idea of wildness, rather like someone who is in love with the idea of being a lover.

He was born to fly, sloping sideways, free among the verdure of that Teutonic upland, to murder with his fierce feet and to consume with that curved Persian beak, who now hopped up and down in the clothes basket with a kind of imperious precocity.

White records his efforts to train his goshawk, Gos, in a day book. Unbeknown to him, the handbook he is following has been superseded  by more effective methods, but White clings to the connection training the hawk offers him to a medieval past.

Old things lost their grip and dropped away; not always because they were bad things, but sometimes because the new things were more bad, and stronger.

White adores his hawk but fails to train him. His book reveals his petulance when things go wrong, his joy when Gos flys to his fist and the struggle for self control that is taking place in the man through his relationship with the hawk. It is a story of his adoration of the hawk, his comedic errors in training Gos and his struggle for self mastery. Ultimately recognising that through the eyes of animals we see ourselves and the world differently, cue an idea for a book about the future King Arthur.

White is a wonderful writer and I believe his story of attempting to train a Goshawk in 1930s England will be read for years to come.

Alice by Christina Henry. Wonderland goes dark!

This YA novel is unlike any other version of Wonderland. Alice is an inmate in an asylum with no memories of how she got there, just dreams of a sinister rabbit and a tea party. She speaks through a hole in the wall to a grey eyed fellow inmate, a murderer called Hatcher, who hears the voice of the Jabberwocky calling from deep beneath the asylum. One night the asylum catches fire, Alice escapes with Hatcher into the Old City and, as Alice looks back at her prison she sees a monstrous shadow in the sky and wonders if there is more to her dreams than madness.

The Old City contains the names of some of Lewis Carroll’s characters but they bear no resemblance to the original story. Here, the Walrus and the Carpenter are vicious gangland bosses fighting turf wars. Alice must disguise herself as a boy and follow Hatcher into this violent world if she is to understand her past. 

This is an enjoyable story, if a little predictable at times. It involves quite a lot of violence, sometimes sexual. Alice sees herself as someone to free the enslaved girls and does want to liberate the Old City from its oppressive masters. It is not really a dystopian version of Wonderland, other than the names, it does not revisit Carroll’s creations in any detail. It is an imaginative and entertaining read in its own right and worth falling down the rabbit hole for a few hours entertainment.

August book club:Man at the Helm

This is the first, strongly autobiographical novel by the author of ‘Love, Nina.’ It’s a darkly comic novel about a newly divorced 31 year old mother, her three children and their Labrador thrown into life in a quiet Leicestershire village. Alone, rejected by her husband and the villagers, the children’s mother turns to drink, prescription medication and playwriting.  The two daughters decide that the reason for their mother’s decline is because in their family there is no longer a man at the helm. It becomes imperative that they find one and they make a list of the possible suitors in the village and write letters as though from there mother inviting them on a pretext of needing their help. The girls hope that this ‘help’ will lead to sex and possibly marriage, thus returning a man to the helm, making their family socially acceptable and saving the children from becoming wards of court.

Comedy, in novels, is always a matter of taste. This one was not to mine, though I understand why it is described as a winner by the Guardian newspaper. The children’s family falls apart as their father has an affair with another man and they leave a life of affluence, with a nanny and maid of all work, to live in a substantive house in a village, with a paddock and ponies. As this story is told from the point of view of the children, there is little reflection on how the villagers feel about affluent outsiders, instead, the locals are reduced to short comic turns. Mainly as the wives of husbands with whom their mother has had a brief affair. The comedy is dark. Their mother is ‘temporarily unsuited’ to housework and the girls attempt to take on the washing and ironing, with mildly disastrous results. Though this is funny, it is also tragic. The children are not fed, the youngest boy develops a stammer, the girls are sent to London on the train to illegally procure pills for their mother and there is no one to support them. Stibbe moves across these events with a lightness of touch though I felt at times it was too light, for example, when her mother has an abortion. For this to be really comic, it needed to just reveal enough of the darkness, to know this is not all a jolly jape but real things happening to real people. The only time Stibbe comes close to this is around an accident that befalls the dog but perhaps that is just a very British sentiment!

I suspect this book will be a hit as it is an easy read for a summer evening. Ultimately, things do come together for the family in a strange way and they find a measure of happiness in life without a man at the helm. For me, it would be a 3/5, but I know others in my book club will find it hilarious.