Robyn Reviews: The Night Circus

Many years after first reading it, ‘The Night Circus’ remains my favourite book of all time. It’s a gorgeous feat of imagination, packed with evocative imagery and characters you have to love. Like the circus itself, this is less a book than an experience – it eschews traditional narrative structure, instead weaving a tapestry that engulfs the senses and lingers long beyond the final page.

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

The story spans the late 1800s and early 1900s. Across the world, a mysterious circus keeps arriving – preceded by no announcements, and only open at night. Named ‘Les Cirque des Reves’ – the circus of dreams – it’s a circus like no other: a feast for the senses, an amalgamation of experiences which border on the fantastical, and all in black and white and shades of grey. But behind the scenes, the circus is not merely a circus: it is a battlefield. Two young magicians, Marco and Celia, have been pitted against each other as part of a rivalry spanning centuries. However, as their rivalry turns to love, the fate of the entire circus is put in jeopardy. Will the circus remain the circus of dreams, or will it unravel into the circus of nightmares?

Celia is a brilliant character. Aged five, she’s sent to her father – the famous magician Prospero the Enchanter – with her mother’s suicide note pinned to her coat. Prospero has no interest in a daughter – but Celia has inherited her father’s magic, and he sees an opportunity. Prospero grooms Celia to be the next player in a battle he has waged with a rival for centuries. As a result, Celia has a very different childhood to most, and becomes a very different woman. She’s quietly intelligent, using words sparingly but with an unerring ability to pick the right ones. She’s always composed – beautifully put together and fully in control of her emotions – and survives only by keeping complete control. Her entire life’s purpose is the game – the circus – and thus she’s always innovating, seeking out new ways to be the best. Secretly, Celia loves to entertain and show off – but she maintains decorum, only stepping beyond her bounds in a limited way she hopes she can get away with. Anyone who has ever felt trapped will relate to Celia and her story.

Marco, on the other hand, is plucked out of an orphanage to be Celia’s opponent. He’s naturally reserved – an introvert, happy to spend his time surrounded by books and accounts. The life he has is better than any life he could have expected, so he’s content to do as he’s told – until it starts to get in the way of his heart. Celia is a firecracker wrapped in layers of decorum; Marco is more a gentle fire on a winter’s night, but even a small fire can become ablaze with the right kindling. Their chemistry is electric – every scene they are together is charged and poignant, and even apart their connection shines through every page. ‘The Night Circus’ is many things, but at it’s heart it’s a love story.

The writing is the highlight of the novel. Erin’s prose is rich and evocative, conjuring up incredible imagery that hits every sense. The reader doesn’t simply read about the circus – they’re transported to it, traveling between the tents and spying on the characters through gaps in the canvas. The scenes are painted with exquisite attention to detail, and the characters are crafted in the same way – each feels fully fleshed-out and real. This is the sort of book that makes the reader believe in magic.

“Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl. And is not the dragon the hero of his own story?”

‘The Night Circus’ isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone, and the main reason for that is the narrative structure. Rather than tell a story in any conventional way, it jumps across time and space, crafting the tale far more slowly. It requires patience for the payoff, trusting that all will make sense in the end. Interspersed throughout the narrative are scenes which simply invite the reader to experience the circus – descriptions of tents, interludes of other experiences the circus has to offer. The reader is made as much a part of the story as any other character. The way the tale is told makes the plot almost unimportant. Those who like action and drama will find little to enjoy here – but for those who want to be swept away into a world that’s almost like a dream, there’s no better example.

Overall, ‘The Night Circus’ is a gorgeous example of literary fantasy, blurring the lines of poetry and prose to produce something so beautiful it’s hard to believe it’s only made up of words. Recommended for fans of beautiful writing, timeless romance, and anyone who dreams for a little more magic in the world.

“You think, as you walk away from Les Cirque des Reves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus. You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.”

My review of Erin’s other book, The Starless Sea, can be found here. Jackie’s review of The Night Circus can be found here.

Published by Vintage
Hardback: September 15th 2011
Paperback: May 24th 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Starless Sea

“I think the best stories feel like they’re still going, somewhere, out in story space.”

The Starless Sea is a triumph of imagination and wordcraft. It’s ethereal and fantastical and mysterious and breathtakingly bizarre yet beautiful in a way I’ve never known any author but Erin Morgenstern to manage. There is absolutely no way to review this book and do it justice. I went in blind, and I think going in not knowing what to expect is the best way to read this book. It’s an immersive experience and different to any other book I have ever read – in the best way. If you enjoyed Morgenstern’s first book, The Night Circus, you should love this book.

As with The Night Circus, what makes the novel is the writing. Morgenstern writes in a lyrical, almost whimsical fashion and manages to create improbable yet incredibly vivid stories you want to be real. In most books, long passages of description are dull and pull you out of the story – in Morgenstern’s books, they make the story. I understand that it isn’t a writing style that suits everyone, but for those who’ve always longed for something more, for a world bigger than it is, for the improbable and supernatural and a little sprinkle of magic – this is the book for you. Morgenstern writes for the dreamers. The Night Circus was like a dream. The Starless Sea is like a cross between a dream and the world’s most immersive video game, with hidden references to every notable work of literature published in the last few hundred years.

The novel centers around Zachary Ezra Rawlins – full name emphasised – an Emerging Media Studies student and the sweetest, most delightful human being of all time. He’s an avid reader and video gamer and beyond all, a dreamer. He believes in the possibility of More. Zachary is the sort of character anyone would want to be friends with, and it’s a pleasure to spend time with him on his journey. His friendship with Kat is truly heartwarming and would bring a smile to anyone’s face.

“A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun”

The other characters are each delightful in their own way – the wonderful Kat, mysterious Dorian, enigmatic Mirabel, sweet Eleanor, intriguing Allegra – but, my fellow readers, I will leave them for you to discover. You only get to discover this book for the first time once, and I don’t want to do anything to minimise that experience for you.

The only tiny, tiny quibble I have with this book is its ending. I don’t love it quite as much as I love The Night Circus because the ending wasn’t quite as satisfying to me. That being said, it’s still an excellent ending – it just didn’t ring the note that I wanted.

Enjoy your first journey to The Starless Sea. Someday I hope to see you on the shore.

 

Published by Harvill Secker / Vintage
Hardback: 9th November 2019
Paperback: 6th August 2020

Book Review: Ordinary People

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I first came across Ordinary People at a book festival event where the author was one of the speakers on a panel. Here I learned that the story is centred in South London, near Crystal Palace, and is about two couples with children as they experience relationship crises. This didn’t sound like a book for me. Then it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction alongside several other novels I have recently read and enjoyed. I decided to set aside my preconceptions and give it a go.

It is a book in two halves. I quickly became absorbed in the lives of the lead couple, Melissa and Michael. The role of the second couple, Damian and Stephanie, is significant to the plot but plays a more supporting role. The writing brought to mind a contemporary Jane Austin and I was duly impressed. It is an engrossing story offering understated insights into the ordinary issues and frustrations of family life. These are presented unvarnished but with a degree of sympathy. There is an added dash of humour to soften any darkness explored.

We are introduced to M&M (as a friend refers to them) at a party to celebrate Obama’s election. This is hosted by two brothers who used to live in North London but moved south as they

“were conscious of their privilege and wanted to be seen as having survived it spiritually”

Their guest list featured

“all the important, successful and beautiful people they knew […] less eminent guests were chosen on a sliding scale according to rank, connections, looks and personality”

Melissa and Michael are also moving – from their small flat to a house south of the river. They want a garden for their children to play in. Financial constraints lead to compromises so their new abode is far from ideal. The area suffers regular knife crime. The house is old and Melissa soon begins to sense malevolence.

Before this becomes a key issue there are growing problems in the M&M relationship. Melissa feels that her essence is being suffocated by the demands of motherhood and takes out her frustrations on Michael. He in turn is saddened that his beautiful and vital young partner has turned into this disdainful and inattentive shrew who is no longer interested in him sexually, an important aspect of their affinity in his view.

Melissa misses the professional working environment – although we later learn she is harbouring rose tinted memories – and rails against the mundane requirements of the daily care of small children. She feels guilt at her boredom and at how easily she falls into the competitive conversations typical amongst groups of mothers at the places she goes to escape the confines of her home. When Michael returns from work each evening he is berated for not doing more to ease Melissa’s burden. Pointing out that he has to work to support them fuels her anger.

All this is portrayed in: bus journeys, visits to a park and soft play emporiums, meetings between friends. These friends include Damian and Stephanie who we are introduced to at their home in Dorking. Unlike Melissa, Stephanie adores motherhood and would be content were it not for her husband’s perceived obdurateness. Damian resents that they moved out of London – he misses the buzz of the city. His father died recently and this has affected him more than he realises. Added to this he harbours hidden feelings for Melissa.

There is an amusing scene when Stephanie’s parents attend one of their “monthly in-lawed roasts”. Stephanie’s father offers passive aggressive advice, making clear that Damian is not good enough for his princess. Although Stephanie defends him, Damian silently agrees.

“had he really fallen in love at all? Was it just that she had made him feel adequate and dynamic, that she was focused and forthright in her plans for her life when he was not”

At around halfway through the book I realised that the perceptive, amusing and dynamic pace had slowed and my interest was waning. When the pace picked up again the tone felt more soap opera than penetrative. There are arguments and foolish reactions. The couples splinter and reconcile. It is smoothly written but lacking the verve of the earlier portrayal.

A group holiday adds interest before the focus returns to London and Melissa’s growing fears centred on her house – the effect she is convinced it is having on her daughter. Michael is struggling to reconcile the woman Melissa has become with the woman he fell in love with.

The denouement is neatly achieved but I finished the book feeling underwhelmed. The initial potential – that elegant capturing of the nuances of modern coupledom, of parenting in the 21st century – was not sustained.

Throughout the story there are references to music that I could not appreciate as I knew few of the artists and do not listen to those whose names I recognised. I am guessing that this will appeal more to readers whose age better fits the protagonists (late thirties). The author has created a playlist for those interested.

Near the end of the narrative Michael Jackson dies. This bookending with celebration and then grief over well known people of colour fits with one of the themes explored – the differences in lived experience of the dark and light skinned British from the professional classes.

Any Cop?: I’m not going to condemn what is a well constructed and generally satisfactory read. The first half exceeded my expectations and made me glad to have picked up the book. The second half denied it the status of modern classic.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Linescapes

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“We describe the world in rational terms, aware of geology and geomorphology […] whereas our ancestors saw a landscape filled with agency, one that was animate.”

The land on which we reside is forever being reshaped by the varying needs of its flora and fauna, including man. Pathways form where creatures habitually traverse their domains, their existence in any space resulting in some species flourishing, others being threatened. When changes are made to the land a rebalancing is required. Elements may be lost but, given time and sufficient neglect, nature regenerates.

The ancient tracks formed by man have been developed, expanded and altered dramatically as our ability to travel in new ways has increasingly isolated us from our fellow creatures. The linear features we use to form connections or to separate the land we now work so intensively have resulted in increasing fragmentation. Many traditional species have, as a result, been unable to survive. In Linescapes, Hugh Warwick examines the history and impact of the various lines man has created which shape our countryside. He explores hedges, ditches and dykes, walls, ancient paths and green lanes, canals, railways, roads, pylons and pipelines. He muses on potential steps that could be taken to mitigate the damage caused when these lines denude and shrink the habitats of creatures requiring more space than they are granted.

“They are so much more than their function as barriers or carriageways. To change our perspective – towards an empathetic look at the landscape – is to become aware of the impact they have”

The author emphasises the value to all of a healthy and diverse natural world, even when managed for man’s benefit. He warns against trying to measure this value in monetary terms, arguing for its intrinsic worth. In his research there is recognition that what now appears beautifully peaceful was often once a heavily worked landscape. The old may be lost and what comes after unexpected.

The author clearly favours certain features. Hedges protect his beloved hedgehogs. Dry stone walls offer sanctuary to many plants and creatures. He has little love for canals which he describes as ‘a concrete ditch of stagnant water’. He writes fondly of green lanes and the benefits these bring.

“There is a ‘green-lane effect’, whereby the inside faces of the hedges that bound the lane tend to be warmer, more sheltered and more attractive to wildlife than the outside faces, creating a microclimate tunnel within which wildlife, should the surrounding fields be forgiving, can flourish.”

“finding over 2000 individual species in an 85-metre stretch is not unreasonable”

Although he argues for protection of nature he also wishes to protect his favoured man-made features.

“The biggest threat these lanes face is neglect – left alone for long enough they will become absorbed into the fabric of the land. The next biggest threat they face is being discovered.”

For each chapter he explores the history before going on site to talk to experts in their fields. Where he held preconceptions to the contrary he invariably comes away more sympathetic. The concrete barriers that prevent vehicles crashing through the central reservations on motorways may be the cause of fatal impacts when large mammals become trapped, but motorway verges are home to a wide diversity of life-forms, left alone as they are to flourish. Railway land enjoys similar biodiversity despite the need for regular interventions for tree maintenance. The argument for building HS2 with adjacent cycle lanes, walkways and linear reserves is a rare suggestion that this infrastructure project could deliver something positive despite its exorbitant cost in money and impact.

The writing is eager and enthusiastic. Interesting facts are shared and points made. Nevertheless I wondered at the focus which seemed to wander. I remain unclear what exactly the author wishes to accomplish.

Any Cop?: A country walk is often circular, the point being the pleasure of the journey rather than to achieve a destination. Likewise this book is a pleasing amble through features that most will encounter but may not always appreciate. With my interest in nature I learned little new but was provided with a congenial reading experience.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Behave

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Longlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Prize, Behave sets out to explain, from a rational and scientific perspective, why people behave as they do. As the author notes, it’s complicated. The reader must first learn about the neurobiology of how components of behaviour interact – the role of neurons, hormones, genes, evolution, culture, and ecological influences. There are many controlled studies to consider, the results of which offer better understanding but with limitations. The terms used are explained in some detail. Areas of the brain play different roles that must be understood before their impact on behaviour can be rationalised.

As an example of the writing style, from Neuroscience 101:

“some of the most interesting findings that help explain individual differences in the behaviours that concern us in this book relate to amounts of neurotransmitter made and released, and the amounts and functioning of the receptors, reuptake pumps, and degradative enzymes.”

Chapters explain the separate areas of the brain and how they function, reminding the reader that this is simplified as it is a continuum. It is then pointed out that all can change due to experience. Brain structure can adapt over time.

At close to 800 pages, around half of which is fairly technical, this is not a book that can be rushed. The main text regularly refers to notes at the back where the studies cited are detailed. There are also three appendices and an index. Footnotes elaborate on certain deductions reached by the author. It is dense but fascinating.

Examples of behaviours are given throughout, such as how a person reacts when they encounter another who is in pain. The distress this causes may render some incapable, unable to do more than deal with their own resulting suffering. Others will immediately rush to help. Individual reactions depend on brain function. How one judges another’s actions and needs, how they deserve to be treated, also varies depending on how ‘other’ they are judged to be.

Many of the studies detailed involve a variety of primates, some captive and others observed in more natural settings. The former allows changes in areas of the brain to be monitored, such as when processing rewards (the mesolimbic/mesocortical dopamine system). The results are familiar.

“What was an unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won’t be enough tomorrow.”

Other studies of the brain’s reactions are more uncomfortable to consider, particularly when a subject observes those of a different race. The exploration of us/them is important and returned to frequently. At its most basic it is an innate desire to reproduce, to pass on copies of genes. The reader is reminded that subjects can learn and modify behaviour.

The topic is complicated as everything is linked to everything else, including the environment in which one exists. The difference between collective and individual cultures is explained along with the impulse markers of those who migrate. Psychology and anthropology have an effect but in drawing neurobiological conclusions there are limitations due to the size and makeup of historic sample data. Many recent human studies have been carried out on university students but did not balance for gender or race. In concluding the first half of the book the author states

“Instead of causes, biology is repeatedly about propensities, proclivities, interactions, modulations, contingencies, if/then clauses, context dependencies, exacerbation or diminution of pre-existing tendencies.”

The second half of the book, while still veering into technical explanations at times, is less demanding to read. The key points from the first half include what has been learned about the function of the amygdale and the frontal cortex – natural vs learned. The author notes of people

“we are just like other animals but totally different”

Moral decision making is explored along with the introduction of spirituality, the effects of proximity on moral intuitionism, entrenched bias, the impact of social groups and perceived beauty. It is clear that primates have us/them minds and that kinship matters. People act the way they do because of how their brain is structured, but brains can learn and change. Empathy is affected by attitudes to others, and if they are perceived to be to blame for their situation.

“our moral intuitions are neither primordial nor reflexively primitive. They are the end product of learning; they are cognitive conclusions to which we have been exposed so often that they have become automatic […] In the West we nearly all have strong moral intuitions about the wrongness of slavery, child labor, or animal cruelty. But that didn’t used to be the case. Their wrongness has become an implicit moral intuition, a gut instinct concerning moral truth, only because of the fierce moral reasoning (and activism) of those who came before us, when the average person’s moral intuitions were unrecognisably different.”

Aroused empathy, or tunnel vision compassion, such as raising money for cancer research after a loved one dies of the disease, is shown to do more harm than good in the broader measure of such things. Help is more likely to be offered based on emotion rather than rational decision making.

The Rwandan Genocide killed more people than the Nazi Holocaust yet garners less attention. Irrational behaviour, including such violence, often relies on dehumanising. The brain confuses reality with metaphor, supporting symbols over people. Contact can decrease willingness to inflict or passively accept other’s suffering. Justice is shown to be difficult to achieve. Even when dealing with individual transgressors in the West

“every judge should learn that judicial decisions are sensitive to how long it’s been since they ate”

Wealth and stability are shown to affect behaviour, although these may not lead to improved acceptance. After basic needs have been met, satisfaction depends not on what one has but on how this compares.

“When humans invented socioeconomic status, they invented a way to subordinate like nothing that hierarchical primates had ever seen before.”

The book concludes on a hopeful note pointing out how much has changed over time. Hateful behaviours still exist but many of these are viewed through a cultural lens. War may bring out the worst in participants but it has been shown that individuals struggle when ordered to kill. Studies prove that cooperation is more beneficial for all than aggression, and that greater equality improves economic growth and stability (if only our current leaders could understand this). Whatever our neurobiological makeup, change in behaviour is possible.

As a personal footnote, I cannot help but feel discomfort at the animals held in captivity and used in the many studies referred to within these pages. I ponder the benefits achieved at the cost of their suffering. The increase in understanding that they provide may be of interest but will people, as a result, change how they behave?

Any Cop?: This is a challenging but ultimately rewarding book to read. The topic is fascinating and explored in detail. The biases of the author are clear but do not detract from what may be learned. It will likely appeal most to those with a pre-existing interest in the science.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Blue Dog

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

Louis de Bernieres’ short novel, Red Dog, was loosely based on the true story of a Kelpie cattle dog that travelled around Western Australia’s Pilbara region in the 1970s. The book was adapted for film and proved popular in the legendary canine’s home country. Although little can be confirmed about Red’s origins, a prequel was commissioned and this film released in 2016. It covers the imagined early days of the Pilbara Wanderer, known during this time as Blue. Louis de Bernieres was approached by the filmmakers about novelising the story. Although initially hostile to the idea, the author changed his mind when he read the script. He writes of Blue Dog:

“Novelists are routinely appalled and dismayed by what scriptwriters and film directors do to their stories. I have therefore been completely shameless about diverging from the script, excellent though it is, because revenge is sweet.”

The story opens with an eleven year old boy, Mick, being flown to the bushland area of Pilbara where he is to live with his paternal grandfather following the death of his father. Mick’s mother has suffered a breakdown and is being cared for back in Sydney where the boy was raised. Mick is eager to explore his new surroundings after his Granpa installs him in his father’s old room. The farm is staffed by a mix of natives and incomers, all men.

The practicalities of living in such a remote region result in Mick being granted freedom to roam and lessons in fixing anything that is damaged or that breaks. Whilst he enjoys adult supervision his activities involve helping out and learning independence. He rebuilds a motorbike which he is then permitted to ride. He learns to recognise and respect the wide variety of local wildlife.

In the wake of a cyclone Mick rescues a puppy from a flooded creek. He calls it Blue and it soon settles with the farm residents. Blue joins Mick on his many games and adventures. The dog is unimpressed when a woman is engaged as Mick’s tutor and keeps the boy inside for lessons.

Boy and dog mature with both discovering an interest in the opposite sex. Granpa meanwhile has worries of his own – rumours of a buyout for the farm and potential health issues.

The story is aimed at twelve year olds and this age group will likely regard the liberty Mick is granted appealing. It is somewhat Boy’s Own in aspect, although Granpa enjoys his rum and occasionally forgets himself in conversations with Mick. This adds to the humour; there is no inappropriate content. Emotions are acknowledged lightly as are the aboriginal culture and its loss at the hands of white settlers.

The denouement asks more of Mick than any of his challenges living in the bush. Blue’s reaction places the tale as the prequel it was intended to be.

As one would expect from an author of this stature, the writing is fluent and engaging. It certainly appealed to this adult reader. There are regular illustrations that add to the sense of place. I was also delighted by the little blue dogs on each top right hand page which move playfully when the book is flicked through at speed.

Any Cop?: A story of a boy more than his dog but one that charms without descending into schmaltz. It is good sometimes to read of the positives in human nature.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Illogic of Kassel

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

The Illogic of Kassel presents something of a literary conundrum. It offers what appear to be perceptive insights, nuggets of wisdom, wrapped around a tale that does not always engage. It is mocking, opaque in places, appearing clever but perhaps for clever’s sake.

The protagonist, a Spanish writer who enjoys morning euphoria and then suffers evening depression, is invited to take part in a prodigious, avant-garde artistic endeavour, Documenta, in the German town of Kassel. Despite his antipathy towards the live installation he will be required to be a part of, the writer agrees as he wishes to solve what he describes as the mystery of contemporary art – to ‘seek the aesthetic instant’.

The writer is influenced by all he reads and observes – his life experiences. He plays out scenarios in his imagination which then inform how he acts. Reading this story felt, at times, like playing a game where the rules kept changing, where the premise and coherence shifted as the plot progressed.

On arriving in Kassel the writer finds himself repeatedly drawn to certain exhibits. He is particularly taken by a vast space, first empty and then leading into darkness, pulled along by a current of air. He opines,

“I had proved that solitude was impossible, because it was inhabited by ghosts.”

Whilst this may appear to be profound, a result of his careful deliberations, it is exactly what the artistic space represents.

In walking around Kassel the writer realises that his evening depression has lifted. He is affected by the exhibits he visits and ponders if art appreciation is purely a state of mind. In an attempt to be cultured, are intelligent people looking for inspiration in what is ridiculous? Does the avant-garde exist when, if acknowledged as art, anything can be accepted?

(I ask myself if I, as a reader of this book, am seeking to be impressed because I believe I should appreciate the skill of an acclaimed author.)

The writer is passed between organisers of Documenta and their assistants. Although enjoying their company he does not always understand what they say or mean. He forms ideas of them and is then discomfited when they do not act as he expects.

“how frightening people are who suddenly show a side of themselves we’d never imagined”

The installation of which he is to be a part involves him sitting at a table in a remote Chinese restaurant becoming a Writer in Residence. To cope with the unknown aspects of this, particularly the attention he may receive, he invents a persona for himself and considers how this alter ego would react to observers.

“we are so many million people in the world, and yet communication – real communication – is absolutely impossible between any two of us.”

The writer comments that the contemporary art of Documenta is created without the contamination of the laws of the market. I found this disingenuous, akin to an author claiming not to care whether or not their book sold well.

The story is witty with much play between experimental arts of all kinds but still I am left feeling underwhelmed. This is much the same as when I view modern art, particularly live installations.

Any Cop?: If designed to provide a debatable literary experience the book succeeds. Whether it is one worth seeking – I am not entirely convinced.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Spoon’s Carpets

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“It’s tough to write drunk, you know; this Spoons book is a testament to that.”

Spoon’s Carpets, by Kit Caless, is beautifully presented, neatly sized, and full of subversive nonsense that is somehow glorious. Having read it cover to cover, dipped into it every time someone I know mentions visiting a Wetherspoons to see if the establishment warrants a mention, and flicked through the pages of photographs in wonderment that pictures of pub flooring can be so alluring, I am still unsure whether to categorise the narrative that accompanies each carpet included as fiction or non fiction. This work is destined to become an essential reference for Spoon’s aficionados. Really, you want this book.

The author partook of a nationwide pub crawl to see for himself his favourite carpets in situ. Drinkers up and down the country had been sending him pictures after their boozy nights out. I guess some may consider this an improvement on other types of pictures sometimes sent. Several of the regular Spoon’s carpet photographers (yes, these people exist) are rewarded for their efforts by having their feet included. One such drinker is quoted as saying:

“essentially everything is fantastical if you stare at it long enough”

I ponder the level of inebriation required in order to fully appreciate the floor art depicted.

Spoon’s regulars are described as high quality storytellers, which perhaps explains the factoids and local knowledge shared from each location. Other nuggets I mulled whilst absorbing the glory that is a Spoon’s carpet were: How can a town have more than one twin? Does The Regal, Cambridge need a new vacuum cleaner? How many pairs of shoes does the author own? As is pointed out, the carpets pose more questions than they answer.

Statistics are also provided for the reader’s edification, from famous regulars (a statistic?) to improbable quantities of items consumed. For no particular reason, my favourite was: “Number of men who are an island: 0”

And I guess that there is no particular reason for buying a book about pub carpets except that it is a surprisingly satisfying little item to peruse. As well as being educated in how a Spoon’s carpet is designed and manufactured, readers may use this as a travel guide. As tourist attractions go there are tempting possibilities, including the curry and beer. The appreciation of art has always been subjective, supposed experts regarded as a bit snobby. Appreciation of Spoon’s carpets, and the varied settings in which they lie, could buck this trend.

My only complaint is that my local Spoons is not included in the selection. I need to know why it did not make the cut. I shall go buy a beverage and check out what they have to offer beneath my feet. Perhaps I will even take a picture.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Square Peg.

Book Review: Slaughterhouse 5

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Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut, is a story about memory, time travel and the futility of war. The author was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was fire bombed by the allied forces in 1945 killing 135,000 people and devastating the city. This experience is pivotal to the story. As its narrator he opines that, like Lot’s wife, we are not supposed to look back lest we be lost. His protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, has come unstuck in time, travelling backwards and forwards through his life. What is recollection, memory, thought, if not a type of time travel?

‘We went to the New York World’s Fair, saw what the past had been like, […] saw what the future would be like, […]. And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.’

Billy Pilgrim considers time to be like space. In his view death is simply another moment, a feature on the path of a life. People will continue to exist if remembered.

‘We will all live forever no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be.’

The tale told is a collection of memories, a non linear life story. In many ways Billy would be considered ordinary: a son, husband, father, successful optometrist. In other ways he was extraordinary: prisoner of war, plane crash survivor, time traveller, alien abductee.

When he starts to share some of his more bizarre memories his daughter remonstrates with him, fearing that he is losing his mind. He asks, what is normal? Bookstores are filled with books about sex and murder; the news is of sport and death; people pay to look at pictures of others, like themselves but with no clothes on; they get excited about the price of things that do not exist called stocks and bonds. These things are accepted yet when someone tries to talk of what is not understood it is not believed, it is assumed that it cannot have happened.

At one point in the book Billy is watching a war film backwards.

‘American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off […]. Over France a few German fighter planes […] sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. […] a German city was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. […] everything and everybody as good as new. […] factories were operating night and day dismantling the cylinders […] so they would never hurt anybody ever again.’

War is accepted yet it kills and destroys.

The observations on attitudes are razor sharp. The story resounds with wit and wisdom as it challenges normality. Billy may have conflated fact and fiction at times but who is to judge what is real in anyone else’s life?

I loved this book. I fear that my review cannot do justice to the impact of the writing. I want to quote so much; better that you just go and read it for yourself.

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