Book Review: Why Stuff Matters

Why Stuff Matters, by Jen Waldo, is a story of grief, avarice, ageing, and the suspicious resentments that define those whose lives have amounted to little more than material possessions. Set in a run down mall in small town Texas, USA, its cast of characters would garner sympathy if they weren’t so ornery and grasping. Into this mix is thrown the protagonist, Jessica, who has inherited the mall from her mother and moved in to escape the pain of the life she had built and then lost. Her moral compass has been displaced by anger and heartache.

Jessica sleeps in the cavernous third floor of the mall. Unlike her elderly tenants she has few possessions. When the story opens a tornado is building that passes through the town leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. Hard won belongings stand no chance against such a capricious force of nature.

Amongst the dead is an octogenarian named Pard Kemp who had rented a booth in Jessica’s mall. Pard left no family and had never specified what was to become of his stock in the event of his death. The remaining tenants waste no time in dividing his stuff amongst themselves. They vie with each other in an attempt to ensure that if anyone gets more than the others it should be them.

It falls to Jessica to arbitrate, despite knowing that whatever decisions she makes will be regarded as unfair. When guns are found in Pard’s booth she puts them in her safe, giving the tenants two weeks to agree how they should be removed as she refuses to allow unlicensed firearms to remain on her property. Another tenant, Roxy, asks to borrow one as her ex-husband is in town and she claims she is in danger. Within days Roxy has shot the man dead.

What follows is a series of events leading inexorably towards a reckoning. A body must be disposed of, the police distracted from the scent of wrongdoing. Into this mix arrives Lizzie, the twelve year old daughter of Jessica’s husband from his first marriage. Without agreement Lizzie is foisted on Jessica for the summer. The girl quickly finds herself a place within the politics of the mall, a young novelty fawned over by the elderly tenants eager to profit from her presence. Lizzie and Roxy each trigger further situations against which Jessica quietly rages.

The plot is in many ways farcical yet it is presented with an adroitness that enables the author to portray issues of loneliness, ageing and the value of humanity over things. Each of the cast of characters has reason to rail against much that life has demanded of them. Their greed, foolishness and sense of righteous entitlement were still frustrating to read.

The writing flows and the plot is well paced leading to a satisfactory denouement, possibly the only uplifting part of the tale. I suspect other readers may find humour in many of the scenes depicted. With more people living into old age the growing elderly population will be as mixed in morality as any other demographic. It is interesting to see them cast here as rogues, using their ailments to gain advantage.

A well constructed, thought-provoking read but, for me, too relatable not to be dispiriting.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Arcadia Books.

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Book Review: The Murderer In Ruins

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The Murderer In Ruins, by Cay Rademacher (translated by Peter Millar), is a fictionalised account of a series of murders that were perpetrated in Hamburg during the freezing winter of 1946/47.

Following the devastation wreaked by the Second World War large swathes of the city were reduced to rubble. Utilities and infrastructure were on the brink of collapse and the cold, hungry residents struggled to survive on subsistence rations. Within this bleak landscape a murderer is at large who strangles and strips his victims, leaving their naked bodies in the ruins of the bombed out city. Nobody knows who these people are or why they were selected. The frozen corpses yield few clues.

Frank Stave, is the police officer assigned to investigate the murders. He is required to work with two assistants: Lothar Maschke from the vice squad, who volunteered to join the team; and James MacDonald, a lieutenant in the British army, who was seconded by the Allied Administration as liaison officer. With memories of their active roles in the recent conflict still so raw it is difficult for Frank to know who he can trust to investigate these current crimes within the fair remit of the law.

The prose is precise and, in many ways, as cold as the landscape in which the story is set, yet the humanity behind Frank’s thorough investigations burns through. This is a man struggling with personal tragedy in a city where every survivor harbours torrid memories. The vivid portrayal of the horror that comes after the devastation of war is uncompromising.

Frank is offered every assistance by his superiors but the challenging conditions and few clues leave him little to work with. What he does uncover is a hidden war crime, a national secret, and a moral dilemma. Sides must be chosen where the nebulous concepts of right and wrong have become blurred.

Brought to life within these pages are ordinary Germans. I couldn’t help but consider the parallels between the reasons why Hitler came to power and current attitudes in this country towards those who the media portrays as a threat to the comforts of the British people. If only we could resist the urge to follow self-indulgent leaders and learn from history.

The denouement tidies up the many threads unraveled by this tale. The thaw in the weather feels as much of a relief to the reader as the conclusion of Frank’s varied investigations.

A fine work of crime fiction that is unusual in its detailed, historic setting and Germanic tones. Well worth reading for the telling of the tale, and provides plenty on which to reflect.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Arcadia Books.

Sharing books with random strangers

I am passionate about books. Like most book bloggers I review books because I want to talk about them, write about them, and to encourage others to read. When I discover a good book I want to shout about it from the rooftops. As my neighbours may complain if I indulged in such behaviour I shout about it via social media instead.

Thanks to Twitter, last year I came across a book sharing initiative called Books Underground which operates in London (there is a similar group in New York called Books on the Subway). So many wonderful, bookish events happen in our capital city and I felt a little rueful that such enterprises rarely make it out as far as my little corner of the world.

I decided that there was no point in harbouring such feelings. Instead, I determined to try to do something about this lack so set up Books As You Go.

I approached a number of publishers and was delighted by the support that Arcadia BooksHeadline Publishing and Transworld gave me. Thanks to them I have been able to share some fabulous titles over the course of the six months that we have been up and running.

I say we. Books As You Go is still mainly me. I have persuaded family members to help out if they happen to be travelling by train anyway but most shares are actioned by me alone. Perhaps if we are given more books to share then we shall grow.

So, what does a share entail?

Every couple of weeks I load up my trusty canvas tote bag with a stack of books and catch a train from my local station. I leave the train at each stop and place a couple of books on a table in the waiting rooms. My regular drops occur at Chippenham, Bath Spa and Bristol Temple Meads but books have also been left at Swindon and Reading. Where I share depends on the number of books I have to give away and how much time I have to do so.

Each book is adorned with a sticker

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and contains a slip of paper explaining what the book share is about.

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I know that the books are picked up because I check as I pass back through on my way home! It is gratifying when the people who pick up the books tweet or message via Facebook to let me know that a book has been found.

At Christmas I wanted to do something special so I gathered together a number of my own books that I had multiple copies of and shared these alongside the books that publishers had kindly provided. This seemed a much better use of a book than having it sit unread on my shelves.

I see this book share initiative as a random act of benevolence. To me books are precious and I want to share the joy that they can bring. Most of the time I have no idea who picks the books up but I like to think that the unexpected find has made their day just that little bit better.

I state on the slip of paper inside each book that I would like whoever finds it to return the book when they have read it for someone else to find. I look forward to the day when I am passing through a station and see one of our books left by a reader for another traveller to enjoy.

 

Book Review: Confessions

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Confessions, by Jaume Cabré, is massive in size, scope and literary merit. Given its reach it is hard to classify: a love story, a treatise on evil, the story of a life. Translated from the original Catalan by Mara Faye Letham, the tale has a depth that demands the reader’s full attention. Compelling as the interwoven strands of the story are, it deserves regular pauses for contemplation and for the quality of the writing to be savoured.

The book introduces us to Adrià Ardèvol, a gifted and precocious only son of distant and cold parents. His father, a collector of valuable objects and secrets, pushes his son to study languages. Adrià enjoys this challenge but resents that his father rarely acknowledges his impressive progress. His mother is determined that he should become a virtuoso violinist, all but killing his enjoyment of the instrument with her passion for his success. His violin lessons do, however, facilitate a meeting with another music student, Bernat Plensa, who becomes a lifelong friend.

The book is written as a memoir. At sixty years of age Adrià is succumbing to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. With Bernat’s help he wishes to publish the story of his life, a story that has been driven by dark secrets, history and his unusual, lonely childhood. In many ways his life has been extraordinary, influenced as it was by the inquisition, Auschwitz and his own academic studies and career. As with any life though, his choices have more often been driven by regular experiences: love, friendship, guilt and chance.

There were so many aspects of this book that I enjoyed. As Adrià recalled events he jumped from his own past to that of objects which affected his life, such as the valuable violin that his father had acquired through one of his many nefarious deals. In moving between time periods it is shown that evil has always existed. Ideals are justified by strong leaders who hold power and can force others to act as they desire through promises of glory and through fear. Individual acts of distressing cruelty are as likely to be prompted by personal lust, greed or jealousy as by a shared belief in a cause.

At times the changes of voice in the tale can be disconcerting. I was unsure if this was to highlight the effects of the Alzheimer’s or to illustrate the hazy concept of truth in recollection. Each time an individual recounts a story from their past the emphasis or detail is liable to change. It was unclear at times how much of Adrià’s story came from his books, his thoughts or how he lived his life. All were his experiences.

The valuable violin was a constant throughout the tale. I empathised with Adrià’s actions when, as a young boy, he wished to give it to Bernat. The lonely boy valued their friendship over an instrument which, at that time, was simply another object in his father’s collection, a collection that was given more care and attention than the child. It was interesting that Adrià, like his father, subsequently took pleasure in acquiring historical objects, suffering problems when these were granted undue importance in his life.

Another strand of the story looked at how value is ascribed. Any item is only worth as much as someone is willing to pay. That artwork or artefacts fetch such staggering sums is as much to do with the satisfaction a buyer feels in owning such a piece as in the attributes of the object. Throughout history lives have been barbarically sacrificed to satisfy the wealthy and powerful’s desire for ownership of place, person or thing.

Having enjoyed the complex journey I wondered how the author could complete such a tale. I was not disappointed. The denouement was unexpected but satisfying, rounding off Bernat’s story as much as Adrià’s. The ending fitted perfectly with everything that had gone before.

This is not a book to be picked up lightly but the investment in reading is undoubtedly worthwhile. As a study of humanity, what is valued, and how individuals see themselves and their history it is enlightening. Beautifully written, challenging and perceptive, its narrative will continue to resonate long after the last page is turned.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Arcadia Books.

 

 

Gig Review: Tore Renberg in Bath

One of the books that I have recently had the pleasure of reviewing is Francis Plug: How To Be A Public Author. In this helpful guide, Francis Plug advises authors on how best to behave at the increasingly popular literary events. No longer can writers hide at home behind their desks. They are now expected to promote their books by giving talks, readings and signing their works in bookshops and at festivals around the world.

I had never before been to an author event. One may reasonably think that, having read of the escapades of Francis Plug, I would be inclined to keep it that way. However, last night I had the opportunity to meet Tore Renberg, author of another book that I have recently reviewed and enjoyed, See You Tomorrow. He was due to appear at a book shop in the city of Bath, a mere fifteen or so miles from the rural idyll where I live. I decided that I would eschew my more typical avoidance of crowds and attend.

The event was held at Topping & Company Booksellers of Bath, which is a fabulous independent book shop close to the heart of this beautiful city. As one would expect of such a venue, it is chock full of books, meaning that the audience could never be overly large. Arriving early, I gratefully accepted a glass of wine and seated myself on a fold up chair close to the table where the author would stand. Again I was breaking habits which would normally have drawn me to hide in a back row. I wanted to observe this writer whose work I admired up close. Already I was thinking of the question that I wished to ask, wondering if I would have the courage to do so.

After a brief introduction from the proprietor, Tore Renberg started his talk. Despite being a native of Norway, his English is excellent. He told us about his background, how he had wanted to be a writer since he was a teenager. He explained how ‘See You Tomorrow’ started as a twenty page idea, evolving into a six hundred page, character driven thriller over a number of years. He spoke eloquently and passionately about his influences and his work before reading from the book being discussed.

Hearing him read was fascinating. The voices that he gave his characters differed from the voices that I had given them. I gained perspective on the lives that he had created.

After the reading the audience had a chance to ask questions. One of the aspects of the book that intrigued me was the supposed humour which had eluded me. I enjoyed the book and would recommend it for its insights, believable characters and compelling plot. Where others saw the dark humour that the author intended though, I had seen pathos. When I asked him about this I realised that it was I who was out of kilter with the general view. Each reader comes to a book bearing their personal experiences and prejudices. It would seem that, in this case, my concept of humour is atypical.

Hoping that I had not upset or offended (I know that creative types can be sensitive to criticism) I queued to have my copy of the book signed. Having managed to quell my anxieties sufficiently to attend and take part in this event, I reverted to type and became tongue tied. I hope that he took on board that I enjoyed his book even if I did not find it funny.

As well as the author, his publicist attended the event meaning that I had the opportunity to introduce myself to a lovely lady who I have only previously conversed with via social media. Naturally she was busy so I did not linger. Clutching my personally inscribed book I made my way home, thinking about how pleasurable the evening had been. Literature can bring together such disparate yet interesting people.

‘See You Tomorrow’ is available now with the paperback version being published tomorrow. Tore Renberg will be appearing in Waterstones, Piccadilly at 6.30pm this Friday.

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Book Review: See You Tomorrow

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See You Tomorrow, by Tore Renberg, is a disturbing tale of people making a mess of their lives. Three groups of disparate characters living in a small town in Norway find their lives overlapping during an intense three days. The reader is taken inside each of their heads, an often uncomfortable place to be. There is little common sense in any of their behaviours, yet the actions depicted are depressingly believable.

All of the characters have back stories that have left them damaged. Their lives are filled with personal isolation, broken families and a seeming inability to take control with any sort of sagacity. I found it hard to empathise with many of the predicaments described, the choices made being hard to comprehend as so lacking in foresight.

The loving father who had run up debts was desperate and perhaps didn’t understand exactly what he was getting himself into. The teenagers were exploring boundaries, sexual awakenings and new relationships so could be forgiven many of their actions due to age and inexperience. This group garnered more of my sympathy, even if the consequences they created proved to be the most devastating.

It was the group of small time crooks who frustrated me the most, and whose depiction gained the author my admiration. I had not considered that such people would think in the way described in this book, that they would commend each others execrable thoughts and actions, be so shallow in their aspirations; yet to choose to live such lives they would have to think differently. Their casual racism and sexism grated, but it was their mutual admiration for the highlights of their sordid lifestyle that I found hard to stomach.

See You Tomorrow is undoubtedly well written. The twists and turns of the plot were unpredictable and I was eager to find out what happened to each of the characters as the results of their actions played out. I like to read diversely and felt I learned something from this book about the workings of the underbelly of society. It is disturbing to think that such people may exist, not evil but smugly satisfied with their limited and damaging way of life.

The denouement left me feeling that little had been learned by the protagonists. I felt defeated by this, that society could be so disappointing. Whilst certainly not a feel good book, it is perhaps a powerful argument for supporting those in need, of not turning away. This is a story that challenged me with its pathos and anger. I will be mulling it over for some time to come.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Arcadia Books.

 

 

Book Review: Escape

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Escape, by Dominique Manotti, is a short novel that manages to pack in as much action and character development as a work of twice the length. It tells the tale of a small time criminal who escapes from prison in the company of a political freedom fighter. The sparse language and fast moving plot require attention, although the book is not a difficult read, and I found myself having to put it down from time to time to digest what had just happened. As in life, the narration of the tale is not always clear cut, memory being as much influenced by audience and current circumstance as on what happened in the past. The reader is left to ponder which, if any, version of the ‘escape’ is actually true.

The book is a translation of the French novel, L’Evasion, but this never detracts from the flow or pace. The detail of the politics can be hard to follow at times for those who are unfamiliar with Italy and France in the 1970’s and 80’s, but the camaraderie and self righteousness felt by those fighting for a cause can be universally recognised.

I found few of the characters likeable, but could empathise with their reasoning and aspirations in light of events described. As the layers of the freedom fighter’s character were revealed, his love life and relationships with those he met in prison, his subsequent, apparently contradictory, actions became more believable. It was interesting to consider him through the eyes of those who had known him at different points in his life.

The ease with which the small time crook had his book published seemed a little unreal, but as this was pivotal to the plot I can understand why the author did not wish to waste too many words on the process. Throughout the book few words are wasted, it is tightly written and riveting.

I particularly liked the way the author developed the character of this young man, a fabulous example of smoke and mirrors. In learning quickly from his publisher and effectively reinventing himself through his writing, he could have been in any one of the versions of the ‘escape’ described. Was he weak, naive, a quick learner or a clever actor?

The denouement was not a surprise, it is hard to see how else the book could have ended and it was certainly well written. We are told in the Afterword that the author herself turned from political activism to writing novels ‘par désespoir’. Perhaps, just as those in her story wondered at how much truth there was in fiction, we could be asking that question of her.

My copy of this book was provided, gratis, by the publisher, Arcadia Books.

Book Review: Carnal Acts

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Carnal Acts, by Sam Alexander, is a tightly written crime thriller that explores the brutal underworld of criminal gangs. Set in a small town in Northern England it offers up a plethora of prejudices for consideration. Racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and class are all thrown into the mix as the many characters are introduced and developed. None of this detracts from the key plot, an ongoing series of murders that appear to be linked to a brothel owned by an Albanian mafia.

I am not always a fan of crime fiction, but Carnal Acts was not written in the formulaic style that so many of this genre follow, and which I can find irritating. The key, female detective did not have an unwise affair; the reader is not subjected to copious superlatives on her sexy good looks; she did not require an heroic rescue by her male counterpart. Instead the various officers, male and female, were given very human skills and flaws that rendered their actions and mistakes believable. There was a large cast, and I sometimes found it hard to keep up with who was who, but each added depth to the unfolding tale.

The workings of the gangs were described in terrifying detail. In comparing the human trafficking with the slave trade that gave the local aristocrats their wealth, the reader is forced to confront the notion that these criminal overlords are so very different to supposedly respected members of society. The grim conditions under which both the forced and voluntary immigrants lived and worked, alongside the way they were treated by both their Albanian masters and the local population, brought home to me how little has changed, how much society is still willing to look away. It was both thought provoking and disturbing.

Although these facets and complexities added greatly to my regard for and enjoyment of the book, at its heart Carnal Acts remains a fast moving, compelling work of easy to read crime fiction. I stayed up late to finish it because I had to know what happened next, and I was not disappointed. The ending was unexpected; not too neat or nice, but fist in the air satisfying.

Sam Alexander is a pseudonym for a highly regarded crime novelist. Whoever he or she may be, they can be justifiably proud of this work. It goes above and beyond the more typical offerings of the genre without diminishing in any way the entertainment that readers seek. It is a rare book that can explore so many dark themes in such an accessible and compelling style.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Arcadia Books.