Book Reviews: 3 August
MO SAID SHE WAS QUIRKY by James Kelman (Penguin, £14.99)
Doctors used to say that sickly children 'failed to thrive'. In this downbeat novel on life in a hostile London, James Kelman gives us Helen, a lone parent with a sixyear- old daughter, on the run as much from herself as from her life in Glasgow.
The prodigal daughter, of a family long splintered by a distant mother, bullying father and an absent brother, it is clear that, if she returned north, there would be no fatted calf, and a raft of problems to face. This, though, is not an option, as in London, too she is trapped by circumstance.
Helen's interior monologue belies the pretty face she presents to the world in her job as a croupier and she is clearly paddling madly beneath the surface just to keep going on a daily basis. Her failure to thrive takes place in a world where 'mistakes are money' and, in just over 200 pages, she quietly unravels. Self-hatred, 'anxiety in the stomach' and a constant hum of imagining the worst-case scenario underscore Helen's existence. She is partnered by Mo, a young Asian of indeterminate employment, who has followed Helen from Scotland and given her the epithet 'quirky'.
The scene in which they make love would be a worthy contender for the Literary Review Bad Sex Awards. Kelman's selective punctuation is an irritant distracting from the flow of the narrative and an unrelenting negativity, the infamous Glasgow gallows humour being largely absent, makes the whole thing pretty heavy going.
ALL TEACHERS WISE AND WONDERFUL by Andy Seed (Headline, £14.99)
UP BEAT AND DOWN DALE by Mike Pannett (Hodder & Stoughton, £13.99)
Andy Seed was a finalist in the People's Author competition on the Alan Titchmarsh show – an event that helped secure him a publishing contract. The result is a trilogy about life as a primaryschool teacher in the Yorkshire Dales – the educational equivalent of James Herriot's encounters with creatures great and small. The shade of James Herriot hangs heavily over the ruminations of Seed – whose pupils, hedged about by modern notions of health and safety, league tables and school inspectors – are considerably less trouble than the animals were when Herriot was practising.
And less fun, too, though in this volume (part two of the trilogy) the classroom is enlivened by the presence of Sheena, a large girl with no notable enthusiasm for reading, but who's obviously on course to be a stinging restaurant critic. 'Your spam fritters taste like puke,' she tells her teacher. Later Seed finds her writing: 'I ate this shcool' in biro on a wooden bench – for her, a one-off exercise in literary creativity.
All Teachers Wise And Wonderful is arranged in chapters dealing with individual children, interspersed with Seed's life outside the classroom (pregnant wife, child, friends, neighbours). It's a gentle, undemanding read, a good companion piece for another writer similarly inspired by the Dales to recount aspects of his life there. Mike Pannett ('The James Herriot of policing...'), who went from the Metropolitan Police's murder squad to rural beat officer covering 600 square miles of North Yorkshire. Here, Pannett investigates a series of remote farmhouse burglaries, loose dogs and abandoned children. Obviously it's only a matter of time before he's called in to deal with Sheena, too.
A GOOD AMERICAN by Alex George (Fig Tree, £12.99)
New Orleans, 1904: Frederick and Jette Meisenheimer arrive in America, bewildered and homeless. They have fled their native Germany after Jette fell pregnant – much to the horror of her mother – boarding the first available ship. It's a tantalising introduction to Alex George's debut novel, A Good American.
Not speaking English, they must rely on the kindness of strangers and soon find themselves in the small community of Beatrice, Missouri – America's heartland. It's here that they settle and start the serious business of becoming 'good Americans'.
The novel's main themes are quickly established: love, music, food and... family. For this is an inter-generational epic, narrated almost a century later by Frederick and Jette's grandson, James. He is content to take a back seat and let the family saga do the talking. And what a saga it is. The family is touched by every major incident of 20th history: world wars, Prohibition, the Great Depression, racism and the assassination of JFK. There are senseless tragedies and poignant acts of selflessness as the family puts down roots. It is the ultimate immigrant experience.
George is an engaging storyteller. But the novel is not without problems: namely, the number of deaths. Characters are introduced and then despatched after just a few pages. Those more beloved are killed off without fanfare. It becomes almost Wodehousian – appropriately, the comic author is a favourite of our fictional narrator. Other literary influences are obvious too: the character Rankin Fitch is pinched from John Grisham and Jette closely resembles Gabriel Garcia Márquez's matriarch Úrsula in One Hundred Years Of Solitude. Even the last line of Fitzgerald's Gatsby is borrowed (and adapted).
'We cannot exist without our histories, they are what define us' – James tell us. But, ultimately, he is the only member of the Meisenheimer family looking back at the past. The rest simply rush headlong into the future.
ALIX AND NICKY by Virginia Rounding (The Robson Press, £20)
The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent annihilation of the Romanov dynasty was a landmark event for the world and one that reverberates today. However, while Nicholas II and Alexandrina are usually analysed in terms of their responsibility for the events that led to Russia's war-time disasters, Rounding focuses on their personal relationship. Their love and devotion to one another was passionate and this is successfully evoked through copious quotation from the intimate letters between the two and a selection of photographs. Perhaps just in the wrong place, at the wrong time; Rounding shows why their fate is still regarded in much of Russia as a profound tragedy.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
An a air to remember?
Stephanie Cross encounters the sexual fantasies of a teenage boy and discovers several shades of Gray
ANCIENT LIGHT by John Banville (Viking Adult, £16.99)
Booker Prize winner John Banville is, without doubt, a beautiful writer. In this novel he also proves himself to be a rather racy one, since Ancient Light concerns, in large part, the short-lived affair between a 15-year-old boy and his best friend's mother.
Admittedly, Mrs Gray isn't quite the woman of lusty young Alex's dreams – for a start, she's a bit too real: 'Instead of the shades of pink and peach that I would have expected – Rubens has a lot to answer for – her body displayed, disconcertingly, a range of muted tints from magnesium white to silver and tin'. However, Alex soon overcomes his reserve and Mrs Gray – 35 and frustrated by the small Irish town in which she has found herself – seems entirely without inhibitions.
Around 50 years later and, by now, a faded star of the stage, Alex finds himself recalling this doomed romance, intensely aware that 'memory is a great and subtle dissembler'. It's rich material, if familiar, but, unfortunately, Ancient Light also involves a present-day plotline that sees Alex (utterly unbelievably) cast as a film star.
The end result is an elusive, oddly dissatisfying novel that even Banville's exquisite prose can't quite redeem.
TIDES OF WAR by Stella Tillyard (Vintage Books, £7.99)
Tillyard's novelistic debut presents a compelling new account of the Regency period against a backdrop of the Peninsula War. Free-spirited Harriet Raven remains in London while husband James is fighting in Spain. The political turbulence is reflected in the changing lives of the characters. Tillyard's achievement is in this original portrayal of the Regency era and its relevance to our own time.
WILD HARES & HUMMINGBIRDS by Stephen Moss (Vintage Books, £8.99)
This charmingly produced book describes a year in the life of a community in the Somerset Levels. Water is the theme here as well as the wildlife (sparrows, snowdrops, roe deer, buzzards). Moss has had a distinguished career at the BBC Natural History unit and has worked on Springwatch, so readers are in the hands of an expert.
CHANEL: AN INTIMATE LIFE by Lisa Chaney (Penguin, £9.90)
Lisa Chancery has delivered a balanced, insightful and faithful account of the extraordinary life of an extraordinary woman. Chaney draws upon the beauty and harshness of the surroundings Chanel grew up in, which lead her to be the exceptionally chic woman whose name is still, today, synonymous with fashion.
SUNSHINE ON SCOTLAND STREET by Alexander McCall Smith (Polygon, £16.99)
A new instalment of the funny, bracing and cheerful series; where we meet a host of wonderfully zany characters and their stories, detailed through McCall Smith's witty, luminous prose.
Edwina Langley plugs in her ear-buds to hear some great stories brought to life
THE LONG EARTH Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, read by Michael Fenton Stevens (Cornerstone Publishing, £18.99)
The first novel in a projected series, writers Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter explore the idea of parallel earths, empty of humans. People on this planet, or 'steppers', relocate to other dimensions via a poorly made 'stepper box', powered by potatogenerated electricity. The novel follows Joshua as he enters these faunal Edens to experience multiple worlds of community and crimelessness.
THE TRUTH: A NOVEL Michael Palin, read by Alex Jennings (Orion Audio, £18.99)
The life of disillusioned journalist Keith Mabbut takes a sudden unexpected turn when he is offered the job of a lifetime – an advance to write an autobiography on notorious humanitarian, Hamish Melville. Travelling to the northeast of India, in search of 'the truth', Mabbut struggles to uncover who the real Melville is and whether his stalwart admiration is truly warranted. Read by actor and three-time Laurence Olivier Award winner, Alex Jennings.
EVEN THE DOGS Jon McGregor, read by Dean Williamson (Whole Story Audiobooks, £16.53)
'We' open the book describing what 'we' see as the body of Robert is discovered by police. 'We' revisit Robert's former life – happy times of new beginnings and fatherhood, prior to a dejected spiral into alcoholism, homelessness and drug abuse. As the novel draws to a close, will the mystery of 'we', the narrators, finally be uncovered?
THE CHAPERONE Laura Moriarty, read by Elizabeth McGovern (Penguin Digital Audiobook, £12.99)
Cora Carlisle travels to New York City to chaperone Louise Brooks, a vivacious teenager with her sights set on Broadway. A traditionalist, the tight-corseted Cora seems entirely ill-suited to the tempting diversions offered by the jazzed-up swinging Metropolis of 1922. But Cora is no stranger to the city and has returned with a mission of her own – to uncover the life-altering truth behind her past. Read by Elizabeth McGovern, better known as the Countess of Grantham, in Downton Abbey.
Related tags:Mo Said She Was Quirky  All Teachers Wise And Wonderful  Up Beat And Down Dale  A Good American  Alix And Nicky  Ancient Light  Tides of War  Wild Hares & Hummingbirds  Chanel: An Intimate Life  Sunshine On Scotland Street  The Long Earth  The Truth:A Novel  Even Dogs  The Chaperone  Books  Book Reviews  The Lady
Daily tip from the lady archive
“A GRACEFUL walk is a great asset, for sometimes it can create an illusion of beauty where little exists.”The Lady. Pleasant Exercises for Grace. 2nd April 1931