Saturday, 27 April 2013

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

This is the first novel by Suzanne Joinson, an award-winning non-fiction writer, and I do hope it will not be her last. A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar chronicles the voyages of discovery for two characters. First of all there's Evangeline who has tagged along with her missionary sister, Lizzie, and her forceful missionary friend, Millicent, on their foray into Turkestan, a region nestling between Mongolia, Tibet and Russia. It is 1923 and the locals have endured a history of invasions both military and religious, and don't take kindly to the women's arrival .
    Millicent believes her Christian message will conquer all obstacles, while dreamboat Lizzie will do anything she says it seems, so long as she can have a bit of time off to take pictures with her expensive Leika. Meanwhile Eva wants to write a travel book about cycling. Having been brought up always on the move, she is happy to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere of her mother's home in England.
    When Eva and Millicent stop to help a young girl give birth, their safety in Kashgar is immediately compromised and the three women are placed under house arrest.
    Alternating chapter by chapter with Eva's story is that of present day Freida, another character who can't keep still. She gets back from an assignment in the Middle East to find a man, Tayeb, camping outside her apartment door. There's also a letter to say she has inherited the personal effects of a relative she didn't know. The estate includes a Chinese model of an opium den and torture scene under glass, some intriguing documents and an owl.
    While Eva crosses deserts, mountains and seas to get home again, Frieda's journey is into the past. Who is this mystery relative, Irene Guy, and how do you look after an owl? As it turns out, Tayeb, a Yemeni overstayer, can help with the owl, but she'll have to track down her hippie mother, who left home when Frieda was seven, to find out about Irene.
     Joinson builds her characters carefully with depth and understanding in such a way that you yearn for what's best for them. Eva's journey becomes, not surprisingly, one of self-discovery - she seems to have led a sheltered life and learns not only how to take care of a baby, but to come to terms with a new culture and relationships between the sexes. Frieda learns to stop and take a good look at her past, particularly her childhood and the legacy of having hippie parents. She also sees in a new light her current unsatisfactory relationship with married bike shop owner Nathaniel.
    Both Frieda and Eva end up in difficult places from which, like Tayeb, they must extricate themselves. This gives the novel plenty of drama - Eva faces physical danger, Frieda has emotional damage to deal with, while Tayeb, with neither home nor job, faces extradition. The novel is beautifully paced too, so that it tempts you on, with the shifts in narrator, and you stay reading into the night just to see what is around the corner for each of the characters. This makes the book, for me, the best kind of page-turner. I hope we'll see more from Suzanne Joinson.

Monday, 22 April 2013

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

A new series of murder mysteries set in Paris seems too good to be true. I remember fondly curling up with my parents' Maigret books, enthralled not only in the human drama that unfolded but at the glimpse of French life that Simenon described. Especially French cafes. Could Tripe a la mode de Caen be quite the delicacy it was cracked up to be, or was it made all the more delicious because of the large calvados Maigret drank as an aperitif?
    Fred Vargas' detective, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, also spends a bit of time in Parisian cafes, and meals are implied, but he seems to be more interested in people watching and turning over thoughts about a case, or about his lost love, his petite cherie. He's not what you might expect in a man of his rank. He's slight and scruffy, with the look of a peasant, and disappears for long periods of time from his office, leaving his detectives to carry on, mystified as to his whereabouts.
    These are not high-tech investigations either. I'm not sure Adamsberg even carries a cell-phone. He doodles while he interviews witnesses and while he does talk to pathologists and even a handwriting expert, SOCO teams don't get the attention they do in many police procedurals. Ah, how refreshing!
   In The Chalk Circle Man, Paris is talking about the curious chalk circles that appear overnight around its streets, each circle containing some article of urban flotsam, varying from a watch strap to a dead cat. Adamsberg, who has a a kind of sixth sense for detecting cruelty, anticipates something sinister behind it all and before long a body turns up in the next circle - a harmless middle-aged woman with her throat cut. It is up to Adamsberg's team, including clever but depressed Inspector Danglard, to figure out who is drawing the circles, and whether or not it is the same person responsible for the murder.
     Helping with the case is Mathilde, an attractive marine biologist, who follows people she takes an interest in. Adamsberg helps her to find a blind man to whom she wants to rent a flat, and in return she tells Adamsberg about the chalk circle man.  This might sound slightly ridiculous, but somehow the whimsical style of writing manages to make it all work. As time passes there are more circles and then more bodies. Is the chalk circle man a crazed psycho-killer, or is there another motive behind the killings? 
    Vargas' novel is filled with dialogue which gives it the lively, philosophizing tone that you might expect in a conversation over a delightful Paris lunch and several glasses of wine. The characters are quirky or intelligent or both, and all have plenty to say, slowly revealing their personalities. In this respect, The Chalk Circle Man reminds me a little of the books of Alexander McCall Smith, but with more bodies. The story meanders from character to character, and from circle to circle, and just as I was thinking that it was more about the journey, which is hugely entertaining, than the destination, Vargas manages to throw in a wonderful surprise ending. Fantastique!


Wednesday, 17 April 2013

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

It is always a treat to come back to a familiar author like Penelope Lively. I read How It All Began almost non-stop, which may seem surprising because it isn't full of gripping action or other page-turning devices, but for some reason I couldn't put it down.
    The novel's storyline hinges on how one incident, in this case the mugging of an elderly lady called Charlotte, has a domino effect on the lives of several other people.
    Charlotte is left with a broken hip, which means her daughter, Rose, has to take time off work to care for her. Rose's employer is Henry, a retired historian, and while she is away, Henry must ask his niece, Marion, to accompany him to Manchester where he is to deliver a speech. Not being the efficient Rose, and being quite busy with her interior design business, Marion neglects to bring Henry's notes, so he has to cobble together a speech on the train. At the lunch beforehand, Marion meets an important business contact, but Henry's speech makes him appear a doddering fool. His subsequent humiliation fires his efforts to restore his credibility in some surprising ways.
    Because she's in Manchester, Marion leaves a text to her feckless lover, Jeremy, which unfortunately is intercepted by his wife. And because Charlotte is laid up, she is unable to teach her weekly English class to new migrants. She suggests she could teach someone at Rose's house, if that's convenient, and the course director suggests Anton, an event that profoundly disturbs Rose.
    Into the quietly predictable lives of these characters there is suddenly a fair amount of turmoil. For some, there will be radical changes before the end of the book. For others things will settle back to how they were, but not before altering the characters' lives in ways they would never expect.
    Charlotte, quietly trying to fill her day so that she can be distracted from pain, has time to think. A retired English teacher she has her memories: her wonderful marriage to Tom, motherhood and her career, and most importantly books. There is some nice stuff about what reading means to her and the importance of stories. Stories are the key to unlocking the part of the brain that teaches Anton to read.  
    Anton's discovery of reading and literature creates some interesting dialogue with Charlotte. Even Rose, whose conversation with her husband doesn't go much beyond 'pass the salt',  discovers things with fresh eyes and opens up.
    The overall theme of 'no man is an island' runs through the book, but while some characters meet new people who change their lives, it is striking how often they are unable to talk to those nearest to them. How It All Began is a shortish novel, but none the less it is definitely one to get you thinking.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

Every so often you come across a book that grabs you from the first sentence and all day, wherever you are or whatever you're doing you're thinking about when you can snatch a few minutes to read some more. It was like this for me with Benjamin Wood's debut novel, The Bellwether Revivals.
    Which is interesting when you consider that this is one of those books that begins with its ending, an event that looks bad - at least one dead body, and another person being given oxygen by paramedics, while Oscar, our young protagonist says: 'It's over now.' It's a grim scene, but mercifully short, and a couple of pages later we're at the beginning, being gradually led into Oscar's world, his work at Cedarbrook, where he's a carer for the elderly and infirm, and his passion for the town he has adopted as his own - Cambridge.
    He's walking home one night, when he is drawn by organ music into a service at King's College Chapel. Further along his pew is a beautiful girl whom he chats to afterwards. Before long he is immersed into the world of Iris Bellwether and her brother Eden, the talented organist.
    Iris is a med student, her brother studying music and both come from a well-to-do background in contrast to Oscar's working class roots. If you think Iris is lining him up as her 'bit of rough', though, that really isn't the case either, because Oscar is a reader. He borrows books, one at a time, from Dr Paulsen, his favourite patient at Cederbrook. When he meets Iris and Eden he's studying Descartes.
   The Bellwethers turn out to be a little dysfunctional. The father is hard on Iris and spoils Eden; the mother is remote and self-absorbed. Eden has that dangerous mix of genius and madness - he dabbles in a kind of musical hypnotism, which he believes can be used to cure people and likes to experiment - no wonder he's pleased to invite Oscar to a little party. And no wonder Iris comes to depend on Oscar - he's sensible, caring and self-reliant.
    Meanwhile Dr Paulsen receives a letter from the love of his life, the renown psychologist, Herbert Crest. Paulsen has every one of Crest's books and Oscar becomes engrossed in one which concerns a personality disorder that seems very like Eden's. Soon Iris and Oscar are hatching a plan to do help Eden before he does something really dangerous. Can Crest be convinced to help them?
    We know the story of the Bellwethers is headed for disaster, but somehow the book is no less fascinating for it. Perhaps this is because the characterisation  is so good - Eden's ebullient German friend, Marcus, and the easy-going American, Yin, are superb foils for the uptight Bellwethers. Their witty interactions remind you that most people are, in fact, generally normal. The story of a young man making his way in an alien environment, in this case a world of the privileged and dazzlingly clever, is a classic story that we never seem to tire of. Benjamin Wood however manages to make his version original. A finalist in the last Costa Awards, I bet I am not the only one to be including The Bellwether Revivals in my list of best books for the year.

Friday, 5 April 2013

A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks' latest novel, A Possible Life, reads like a series of longish stories linked by a number of themes. He evokes a great range of places and periods, and the people who inhabit them, in such a way that brings them all dramatically to life. You get so immersed in one story, only to be plunged effortlessly into the next person's world - that is truly terrific fiction writing.
     I loved reading about Geoffrey Talbot, who isn't quite smart enough for the Diplomatic Service, but with his talent on the cricket pitch, becomes a promising school master teaching French at a prep school. Then World War 2 comes along, and he finds himself doing some 'hush-hush' work in France before being captured and shipped off to a  concentration camp. The effect of this on his life is dramatic and shown with immense sensitivity.
    Then it's Victorian London and seven-year-old Billy is sent off to the workhouse because his family can't afford to feed him. But Billy is tough - he has to be - and it is in the workhouse that he meets Alice. Billy has an entrepreneurial talent and when he gets out into the world again he becomes a self-made man, eventually deciding to marry. Who else but Alice? In the background, however is Alice's sister.
    The third story is set in Italy some time in the future. Elena is the daughter of a boat-builder. She's clever and so enthralled by the natural world around her she has no time for friends, until her father brings home an orphan boy, Bruno, to live with them. They are chalk and cheese - she's analytical and precise; he's sensitive and creative. They become inseparable, but when Elena's father dies Bruno must leave to make a life for himself. Elena's work in the subject of neuroscience, particularly human consciousness, is a potential key to the connections running through the book.
    Jeanne is a servant in rural France around the time of Napoleon. She's not very bright which frustrates the family she works for, even learning to read a little is quite beyond her. Slowly the story of her early life comes out - the orphanage, the struggle to make ends meet and the monk who attempts to befriend her.
   The final story is about Jack, a 1970s rock musician who's had some success and is thinking about his next band, when he meets Anya. She's an intense young singer-songwriter with an amazing talent and destined for stardom. They are drawn to each other and Jack puts his own work on hold to help Anya get started.
    Faulks manages to suit his style of writing to each of the stories so that they each have a distinctive voice, fleshing them out with the details that make them interesting. But there's a lot more going on than that. There are some profound ideas here - missed opportunities, the lingering effects of trauma, love and separation, memory, the price you pay for giftedness - deftly woven through the stories which are also linked by other connections and coincidences.
    I came away feeling that there is much happening beneath the surface and that this is the kind of book to read again and dip into another layer.