Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Under the Paw by Tom Cox

Occasionally I permit myself to read a cat book. Last year I read A Street Cat Named Bob - a wonderful true story about how a man's life is turned round by his relationship with a very special cat. The book tugged the heartstrings so much that every so often I check out Bob's Facebook page to make sure that he and his owner, James Bowen, are still OK.
    Under the Paw is far more relaxed reading, recounting Tom Cox's life as what he calls a 'cat man' - from his childhood relationships with Felix, Monty and Daisy to his later household of six cats, with its inherent dramas, mishaps and moments of slap-stick.
    I enjoyed this book for two main reasons. The first is because I  empathised with Tom's odd little cat man habits, like going for a walk and stopping to talk to the cats he came across. I also understand the emptiness he felt when he was at a stage in his life when he couldn't practically keep a cat. We've all been there. It's not pretty.
    The second reason is because the book is very funny. Tom, a rock critic, is clearly an experienced journalist and uses humour to capture that tenuous relationship cat owners have with their pets.
    Interspersed with the story of living with cats are 'Random Selections from the Cat Dictionary'. It was nice at last to have the right words for so many things I have a close personal experience with. Such as: Gribbly bits (the bits of jellied cat meat that escape from the bowl and weld themselves to hardwood floors and kick boards); Sucking the nettle (to lick one's lips with distaste in the aftermath of an unpleasant or demeaning experience); Purple mist (the special kind of unforgiving cat anger reserved for an owner who has experimented by attaching a lead to its collar); or Argle (the noise that accompanies the eradication  - or attempted eradication - of an ear mite).
   The section on 'How to Feed Six Sodding Cats: Instructions for Housesitters' was particularly funny and seemed to capture the key characteristics of all six cats and how they interact. Clearly the 'Troubled Sensitive Artistic Black Cat' is the elder statesman of the household and it is this cat, known as The Bear, who Tom has to work hardest to gain trust and affection. Tom's attempts to understand what motivates The Bear and his sudden need to disappear for weeks at a time adds all the drama of fairly intense sort of novel.
   If you are left wondering about the long term effects of such an involved relationship with one's pets, there are Tom's follow-up books to peruse as well: 'Talk to the Paw' and 'The Good, the Bad and the Furry'. Living with six cats certainly isn't for everyone (I tend towards having just the one at a time) but if someone has to do it I am glad it is Tom Cox, as he writes a cat book that is hugely entertaining.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Opposite of Falling by Jennie Rooney

In Jennie Rooney's novel, The Opposite of Falling, flight is a motif that connects three characters. Ursula Bridgewater has, in her early twenties, been jilted by her fiancé, a man with no substance according to Ursula's brother. Her reaction is to travel. It is the 1860s and Thomas Cook is beginning to take tour parties abroad.
    Ursula begins quietly with a trip to Wales and is encouraged by the friends she makes to travel again. Restless and unfulfilled when she is at home, travel becomes something to exercise her brain - if only she could stop writing those letters to her ex-fiance, now happily married and a father of two.
     Ten years later, Ursula is excited at the idea of another Thomas Cook expedition, this time to the United States, but who should she take with her? Having helped her maid, Mavis, into private enterprise, Ursula decides a sensible replacement would be the ideal travel companion.
    Sally Walker has been teaching at the convent which took her in on the death of her mother, but has blotted her copybook with Sister Thomas. She jumps at the chance to work for Ursula, who is kindly and treats her like an intelligent person. Sally is a hopeless shrinking violet, though, for although she has thoughts and desires, she is quite unable to express them.
    On the other side of the Atlantic Toby O'Hara grows up with the memory of his daring mother flying  a bat-inspired contraption built by his father - a toy-maker and would-be aviator - a flight that ended in her death. While flying machines are put aside by his dad, Toby as a teenager is drawn to ballooning and other air-born possibilities.
    The three characters meet in Niagara, to a background score of rushing water and it is here that they all discover how to take flight in a more metaphorical sense. This may make the novel seem overly contrived, and in a sense it is all about how its characters find what they really want in life and develop the courage to reach for it.
    Fortunately the narration of The Opposite of Falling is quirky and charming in an E M Forster kind of way that is very engaging. Rooney uses a detached style of writing about her characters that is slightly old-fashioned, rather than the stream of consciousness, present tense story-telling prevalent in many modern novels. (I enjoy this too as it gives a very immediate feel to a story.)
    You have to be really good at your craft to make a traditional style like this work and Rooney never puts a foot wrong. This is a small book, but very polished and poised. I liked it a lot.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell

I'd read before of the drought that had Britain in its grip during the summer of 1976 (Anne Berry's The Water Children), but hadn't realised water was so short that the government brought in The Drought Act with fines for water theft and which had Londoners collecting water from a standpipe. This heatwave makes a superb backdrop for tense human activity, and in O'Farrell's novel this is the moment when the Riordan family's past catches up with them.
    Recently retired bank manager, Robert Riordan walks out the door of his London house and doesn't return, telling Gretta, his wife of thirty years, he is going to buy a newspaper. A time of crisis like this is a time for a family to pull together, but Gretta's three children each have difficulties of their own.
    Michael Francis has problems with his marriage - he had a fling with a fellow teacher and his wife has taken up studies at the Open University, shorn off her hair and scarcely talks to him. When he gets home exhausted from a day at the chalk-face, he finds he often has to take over child-minding and meal preparation, while his wife is studying in the attic or about to rush out the door to meet her fellow classmates.
    His sister, Monica, has never wanted children, which caused her previous marriage to end, so you think having a ready-made family with an older husband and his two daughters would be ideal. The trouble is the girls hate her and want their dad to be with their mother again. When the cat gets run over and Monica has to have it put down, the animosity intensifies. But returning to her childhood home to help Gretta, while getting her away from a hostile situation, brings back a lot of baggage Monica has being ignoring for years.
    Much of this baggage has to do with her first husband and her younger sister. Aoife was a late baby and a difficult child. At school she suffered from an extreme case of dyslexia, and was labelled stupid. Leaving home as soon as she could, Aoife has landed in New York where she is an unpaid photographer's assistant and has a draft dodging boyfriend named Gabe. She is unable to tell either her boss or Gabe about her problem with reading and this is all about to blow up in her face when Michael Francis phones and tells her to return home.
   The three children gather around Gretta, but it takes some time for anyone to have the wherewithal to enact a plan. Gretta has her own demons - her superstitions and her old-fashioned Catholic ideas about how her children should live, leading to numerous disagreements, to say nothing of the issues gnawing at each them regarding their personal lives. And then there's the heat.
    Eventually it is what happened in their father's past life that will lead them back to Ireland, the scene of numerous family holidays and a secret that Gretta has been harbouring since her marriage.
    O'Farrell is a wonderful storyteller. Each of her characters, in spite of obvious flaws, wins over our sympathy - Monica has taken a brave step to decide not to have children at a time when motherhood was considered the norm for married women. Michael Francis is clearly a good person, or tries to be, often at the expense of his own happiness. And you can only have pity for Aoife, clearly a talented woman bearing the stigma of illiteracy at a time when dyslexia was not understood.
    Many readers will recognise the family dynamics, sibling spats and allegiances, the misundestandings and distorted memories, because O'Farrell does this sort of thing so well. She also sensitively portrays the period - when women were still establishing their rights, still learning to 'have it all', when traditional marriages and roles still held sway over people's ambitions. This material could have been leaden and preachy but in O'Farrell's deft hands it is just part of a terrific story with a nicely turned ending. Magic! 

Thursday, 7 November 2013

A Pale Horse by Charles Todd

A Pale Horse starts promisingly enough with a body found by a bunch of Yorkshire schoolboys, propped up in the atmospheric setting of a ruined abbey, wrapped in a cloak and wearing a gas mask. As you might remember with the Inspector Rutledge series, we are in the years following the First World War, so gas masks were familiar items and reminders of a terrible human carnage.
    The dead man takes a while to be identified, but near the body is a book about alchemy, full of incantations in Latin, a peculiar book to be sure, but inscribed on the flyleaf is the name of the boys' school master, Albert Crowell. Crowell was a conscientious objector during the war, and also a rival with Madsen, the local policeman,  for the affections of Mrs Crowell. She has become disfigured by a scar, the result of a drunk's stumbling onto her path. This gives Madsen a potential victim, for no one has seen the drunk for several weeks, and wouldn't it be nice so stitch Crowell up for the murder.
    Meanwhile, Rutledge has been asked to find out what has happened to the oddly named Gaylord Partridge, missing for several months from his home in Uffington, Berkshire. Nestled beneath the hill bearing the ancient giant figure of a white horse, Partridge's house is one of a cluster built originally for lepers, although no such people have ever lived here. Instead they seem to be occupied by lepers of another sort, the kind of people needing to lie low. For instance, Mrs Cathcart is terrified of her ex-husband; Quincey, a remittance man, had promised never to return to England; Mr Allen has consumption and wants somewhere quiet to die.
    After foiling Madsen's attempt at sending Crowell down for murder, Rutledge makes a connection between Partridge and a Gerald Parkinson, who abandoned his home and daughters after the death of his wife. A scientist investigating potentially lethal gases to be used in warfare, he was on the watch list of Martin Deloran the War Office. Deloran doesn't want the police digging up facts about the dodgier activities the War Office may have had a hand in, causing some awkward moments for Rutledge's unpleasant boss, Chief Superintendent Bowles.
    Rutledge must look into Partridge's past and the reasons for his wife's death and the lingering hatred harboured by his remaining family. His investigations will dredge up the horrors of gas attacks during the war, and of course, lurking in Rutledge's mind is the voice of Hamish McLeod, the fellow officer Rutledge had shot for disobeying an order - the ghost that continues to haunt him.
    This is the tenth Inspector Rutledge novel, and it would be nice to see Rutledge moving on from his terrible wartime experiences. Still it is only 1920, but perhaps his acquaintance with Meredith Channing, who has impressive powers of insight, offers some hope.
     In many ways this is a book of two halves. The first half concerns the Yorkshire discovery and the Crowells, which is all quite interesting. Rutledge does a clever job of proving Albert Crowell's innocence. But once he's ensconced in Berkshire there seems a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the cottagers under the white horse, and Partridge's family members nearby and his old stately home. This all got a bit monotonous sadly, and was disappointing after reading some excellent books in this series. Let's hope it's just a temporary blip, and further titles live up to the promise of the earlier books.