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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

The Context Of Renaissance Art

Renaissance Art: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) - Geraldine A. Johnson

Geraldine Johnson's no-nonsense approach to Renaissance art contrasts the very different contexts in which Renaissance paintings, sculpture and crafted objects can be viewed. On the one hand she examines attitudes at the time: the very specific demands of the patrons who commissioned these works, and the uses to which the works were put, whether devotional, political, familial or domestic. On the other hand she considers the reverence with which the same objects are regarded nowadays by gallery-goers gazing through a post-Romantic lens in which the artist is seen as a creative genius in conflict with the world, giving expression to his troubled personality through his art

 

The scope of the book is limited by the parameters of the series in which it belongs. Nevertheless, Johnson does an excellent job, focusing on a series of individual artworks and outlining how they embody the economic, religious and political forces  of the time. Clear, precise and informed.

Arrogance And Innocence

Greatest Hits - Laura Barnett

Two decades after Cass Wheeler, a hugely successful British singer-songwriter, retired abruptly from the music business, she is preparing to break her silence and release simultaneously an album of new material alongside an album of her greatest hits. The narrative of Laura Barnett's novel is structured around a day that Cass spends listening to each of the chosen tracks for her Greatest Hits album and remembering the events that inspired them.

 

Cass's reminiscences stretch right back to the early days of her career and Barnett does a very good job of evoking the heady sense of freedom of the nineteen seventies as the structures of post-war Britain, breached by the cultural explosion of the sixties, begin to crumble away, revealing a world where anything seems possible.

 

Unfortunately for Cass, the promises that a life of music seemed to offer turn out to be hollow: marital breakdown, the incompatibility of motherhood and the music business, and the mental illness of her daughter all conspire to turn her dream of unfettered creativity into a nightmare of recrimination.

 

It's an immensely readable novel. For me, however, the weak link is the lyrics with which each new section begins. Significant claims are made for them as the kind of songs that might speak to a generation but I wasn't entirely convinced. But this is no more than a quibble, amply compensated by the strongly drawn personality of Cass  -  flawed, damaged but always struggling towards redemption - and by the portrait of an era, already almost forgotten, full of arrogance, enthusiasm and a naïve kind of innocence.

A Compelling Study Of Child Abuse

The Wonder - Emma Donoghue

Set at the beginning of the twentieth century in Ireland, The Wonder is the story of Lib Wright, an English nurse who, having learned her trade in the Crimea under Florence Nightingale, takes up a position in rural Ireland watching over eleven year old Anna O'Donnell, a girl who has supposedly been existing without food for several months and is now being talked of as a saint by the local community.

 

Lib is entirely sceptical of such claims and scathing in her judgement of the Irish and their religion. Determined to unveil a hoax she watches the girl like a hawk but gradually comes to understand that, whether or not Anna was secretly eating before her arrival, she is certainly not doing so now. As a consequence, Lib finds herself presiding over the slow starvation of a child, an atrocity in which the girl's family and her entire community are complicit.

 

Exchanging her scorn for pity, Lib tries desperately to change the girl's mind-set and persuade her to choose life instead of death. But Anna remains resolute and Lib struggles to understand what lies at the root of such implacable religiosity?

 

I wasn't always convinced by Emma Donoghue's portrait of the local Irish Catholic community which sometimes felt one-sided, even allowing for its portrayal through the lens of Lib's self-important Anglophile gaze. Moreover, the end, when it came, felt a little hurried.

 

A detailed chronicle of a young girl's self-inflicted starvation, The Wonder is not an easy book to read. More than once I had to set it aside for a day or two as I struggled with the emotions it evoked. Nevertheless, this is a compelling study of child-abuse so embedded within a community as to be invisible to victim and perpetrator alike.

Made For The Market

Behind Her Eyes: A Novel - Sarah Pinborough

If you were looking for a definition of a high-concept book, then look no further. Behind Her Eyes is as high-concept as it gets. A clever, plot-driven woman-in-jeopardy thriller with a paranormal twist, written in an easy-to-read confessional style and aimed directly at the thirty-something female reader, it hooks you into the story from the very first page.

 

For me, however, the lack of depth to the characters was the book's fatal flaw, particularly the villainous Adele who leads Louise, the victim, by the nose. In place of characterisation we get a great deal of coy pre-figuring of the if-only-she-knew-what-I had-in-store-for-her variety which quickly started to get on my nerves. But then, as a sixty something male, I'm not the target readership.

 

The ending took a little longer to arrive than I wanted. When it did come I thought it was going to be just as I had expected and at first that was exactly how it seemed Then came the final very neat and entirely unpredicted twist. I have to take my hat off to the author: it's a very well crafted ending but not an emotionally satisfying one. This is one of those books that ends with a shudder rather than a sigh of relief. I didn't enjoy that.

 

It's very much made for the market: a dash of Gone Girl, a splash of Before I Go To Sleep, a hint of Girl On A Train and then a little bit of mumbo-jumbo thrown in for good luck. But it's extremely well done. Not profound or meaningful just ingenious and entertaining.

Made For The Market

Behind Her Eyes: A Novel - Sarah Pinborough

If you were looking for a definition of a high-concept book, then look no further. Behind Her Eyes is as high-concept as it gets. A clever, plot-driven woman-in-jeopardy thriller with a paranormal twist, written in an easy-to-read confessional style and aimed directly at the thirty-something female reader, it hooks you into the story from the very first page.

 

For me, however, the lack of depth to the characters was the book's fatal flaw, particularly the villainous Adele who leads Louise, the victim, by the nose. In place of characterisation we get a great deal of coy pre-figuring of the if-only-she-knew-what-I had-in-store-for-her variety which quickly started to get on my nerves. But then, as a sixty something male, I'm not the target readership.

 

The ending took a little longer to arrive than I wanted. When it did come I thought it was going to be just as I had expected and at first that was exactly how it seemed Then came the final very neat and entirely unpredicted twist. I have to take my hat off to the author: It's a very well crafted ending but not an emotionally satisfying one. This is one of those books that ends with a shudder rather than a sigh of relief. I didn't enjoy that.

 

It's very much made for the market: a dash of Gone Girl, a splash of Before I Go To Sleep, a hint of Girl On A Train and then a little bit of mumbo-jumbo thrown in for good luck. But it's extremely well done. Not profound or meaningful just ingenious and entertaining.

Telling Winners From Losers

Conscience of the King - Alfred Duggan

The first of a trio of Anglo-Saxon novels, The Conscience of the King focuses on the beginnings of the kingdom of Wessex, as told by its founder, Cerdic, a renegade Romano-Celt who betrays his own culture and seeks his fortune with the Saxon invaders. A completely selfish and unscrupulous individual, the progress of his carefully laid plans and the constant self-justification with which he explains his treachery is, nonetheless, quite compelling.

 

Equally fascinating is Duggan's portrait of the disintegrating Romano-Celtic society- in particular, the abandoned and haunted cities gradually falling prey to the elements:

 

 

"What made Calleva such a queer place to wander in in was that it had been abandoned while it was still a concern. The streets were overgrown, and most of the roof-beams had been stolen by people who were too lazy to cut timber even in that thick Forest, but many house-walls were intact. In sheltered corners you could trace frescoes on the plaster, and mosaic floors glimmered through a layer of mud."

 

At the end of the tale, his new kingdom established, Cerdic looks back with regret at the change he has helped usher in and, in an observation that has resonance in post-Brexit Britain, he sums up the absurdity of the Romano-British belief that their society could function as an independent unit, paying fewer taxes to Rome and organizing its own affairs:

 

"We light-heartedly broke with the Emperor, thinking that all the honestiores of Britain would then become little Emperors on their own. Too late. we discovered that Rome really gave us something in return for the gold that left the province."

 

A layered view of a period of enormous historical change, The Conscience of the King reminds us that in the long term it's not always easy to tell the winners from the losers.

The Futility Of Empire

The Little Emperors - Alfred Duggan

 

The Little Emperors is set in Britain at the beginning of the fifth century and  tells the story of Felix, governor of Britannia Prima, an industrious but culturally blinkered civil servant, convinced that by screwing ever greater taxes out of the local people, he is extending the benefits of civilisation.

 

Though temperamentally loyal to Rome, Felix is caught up in a series of political machinations that end in the proclamation of the usurper Constantine III as emperor of Britain. Unfortunately for Felix, he is married to the daughter of one of Constantine's rivals and he ends up fleeing into the countryside. During the hardships of this journey he begins to understand how negative the effect of empire has been upon the people of the island he has governed so inflexibly.  .

 

This is a novel about the futility of empire. Duggan's stepfather was Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, the epitome of imperial complacency; but Duggan saw his family fortune swept away in the Great Depression, served in the Second World War and then watched the British Empire disintegrate in its aftermath. It was an experience that clearly left its mark.

 

Essentially a political novel, The Little Emperors is a study in transformation: the metamorphosis that takes place in Britain as the grip of Rome begins to loosen is mirrored by the humiliation of Felix. Both the country and the man emerge smaller in stature but more human. 

 

It is very good to see The Little Emperors, along with Duggan's other novels, rescued by Bello, an imprint founded in 201 by Pan Macmillan in order to bring lost classics back to life. Duggan is an excellent historical novelist who has a great deal to say to the contemporary reader. It would have been a tragedy if his voice had disappeared entirely in the great flood of out-of-print books.

Cunning And Naivety In The Sistine Chapel

Conclave - Robert Harris

On the face of it a lot of elderly clerics trying to decide who should become their next leader does not seem like promising material for a thriller. But from the first page this novel about the election of a new pope is utterly gripping. What Harris does so cleverly is exploit the conflict between the cardinals' purported humility and their covert, or sometimes overt, ambition, the gap between their spirituality and their worldliness, their naivety and their cunning.

 

In essence this is a political thriller, despite is religious setting. Taking place against a backdrop of terrorism, corruption and the resonance of the sexual abuse scandals of the last decade, and driven by the contrasting characters of the key players, the papal conclave quickly resolves itself into a battle between two different visions of the Catholic church – liberal or conservative as one by one champions emerge from the pack and one by one their past mistakes rise up to haunt them.

 

Hugely enjoyable, full of twists and turns but ultimately all about the personalities, this is one of my favourite books of 2016. I simply could not put it down.

If Only I'd Known

Eileen: A Novel - Ottessa Moshfegh

A deeply unpleasant story about a young woman in America in the nineteen sixties working in a young offenders institute. Her mother is dead. Her father is an alcoholic ex-policeman. Her home life is one of unmitigated squalor. Filled with disgust for her own body, she hates her life and everyone in it. Her only pleasures are consuming laxatives and stalking one of the guards at the prison where she works.

 

When a new, glamorous woman comes to work at the prison, Eileen becomes infatuated and for the first time, she has a friend. The intensity of that friendship culminates in a senseless act of violence.

 

Repetitive, misogynistic (Can a female writer be misogynistic? On the evidence of this novel I'd say, yes) full of clumsy foreshadowing  of the 'if only I'd known' type, the novel's structure consists simply of a long, slow build up to a sudden hurried climax.

 

This novel made the Booker Prize short list which depresses but doesn't surprise me. I want the time back that I wasted on it.

The Impossibility Of Neutrality

The Gustav Sonata: A Novel - Rose Tremain

The Gustav Sonata is the story of a friendship between the mild-mannered and self-effacing Gustav Perle and the highly talented but volatile Anton Zweibel. It begins in Switzerland in the nineteen thirties with the courtship and marriage of Gustav's parents, the looming threat of invasion by Nazi Germany, and the dilemma of Anton's father, the deputy police chief of the small town of Matzlinger who is ordered to deport Jewish refugees but cannot bring himself to do so.

 

Gustav's father's decision will ultimately precipitate the collapse of his marriage, a catastrophe from which Gustav's mother will never truly recover and the blame for which she will unreasonably project onto her son.

 

Unloved at home, Gustav finds solace with the family of his school friend, Anton, whose comfortable bourgeois life offers so many more possibilities than his mother's constricted world. Ironically, the Zweibels are Jewish and in Gustav's mother's eyes, they are the very people who have caused her so much trouble.

 

Despite Gustav's mothers hostility, Gustav and Anton remain friends. When they grow up Gustav becomes the owner of a hotel and Anton, a precociously talented pianist as a child, becomes a dis-satisfied music teacher. Then, late in life, an opportunity for Anton to find success as a performer beckons and he leaves Matzlinger in search of fame It is a decision that provokes a crisis in both their lives.

 

At a micro-level the focus of this novel is on the particular, the tiny details that acquire significance over the course of a life. At a macro-level it is concerned with the choices that confront both individuals and institutions, and the consequences that attend those choices  That's all interesting fictional territory without a doubt, but the plot meanders too much for my money and the narrative seems to lack any real centre. I have enjoyed many of Rose Tremaine's novels but this one did not hit the spot for me. The Gustav Sonata: A Novel - Rose Tremain  

The End Of Empire

At the Ruin of the World - John Henry Clay

The final years of the Western Roman Empire are a fascinating period: a world that has lasted for centuries suddenly begins to crumble as the landscape shifts in a kind of cultural earthquake.  Out of a few biographical fragments sifted from the disintegrating record, John Henry Clay has built a compelling narrative full of complex, multi-faceted characters struggling to hold their place as all the assumptions on which they have come to depend are swept away.

 

It is the story of Ecdicius, son of Avitus, one of the last Western emperors, his  sister, Attica and his friend, Arvandus, minister at the court of the Gothic king Theodoric. In an ingenious piece of storytelling Clay winds the narratives of these characters together against a backdrop of murderous generals, imperial pretenders and barbarian kings, all of whom hover greedily over the decaying body of the empire.

 

This is proper historical fiction, not the fetishistic battle-porn into which novels set in the world of Ancient Roman can sometimes descend. The focus is on the characters, not the hardware, and, in particular, the interaction between individuals and the great sweep of history.  As with all the best historical fiction, the fact that we know it is going to end badly for characters whose hopes and dreams we have come to share, only makes the tale all the more poignant.

 

Rich in historical detail, populated by flawed but recognisably human characters, At The Ruin Of The World is an immensely enjoyable novel.

 

The Theatre Of Endurance

Reblogged from The City Of Invention:
Under A Pole Star - Stef Penney

Set in the early days of polar exploration, Under A Pole Star is the story of Flora, the  a celebrated female explorer and of Jacob de Beyn, an American geologist with whom she has a relationship. Like The Tenderness Of Wolves, this novel is a celebration of frozen wilderness and of solitude.

 

It is also a detailed depiction of the difficulties encountered by women, however determined resourceful and brave, in making their way against the fiercely competitive masculine culture of early and mid twentieth century exploration.

 

As compelling as Penney's evocation of the natural world is her exploration of the territory of passion, a landscape at first less familiar to Flora than the frozen north which has presided over her childhood.

 

The love affair between Flora and Jacob ignites when their rival expeditions are thrown together. Thereafter, all its twists and turns, celebrations and misunderstandings are as carefully and bravely examined as the ice-bound coastline the explorers have set out to map.

 

This is a novel about survival – physical survival and the survival of passion. Out of the hostile arctic landscape Penney creates a theatre of endurance and against this backdrop her characters play out an intense and murderous drama of ambition, love and loss.

The Theatre Of Endurance

Under A Pole Star - Stef Penney

Set in the early days of polar exploration, Under A Pole Star is the story of Flora, the  a celebrated female explorer and of Jacob de Beyn, an American geologist with whom she has a relationship. Like The Tenderness Of Wolves, this novel is a celebration of frozen wilderness and of solitude.

 

It is also a detailed depiction of the difficulties encountered by women, however determined resourceful and brave, in making their way against the fiercely competitive masculine culture of early and mid twentieth century exploration.

 

As compelling as Penney's evocation of the natural world is her exploration of the territory of passion, a landscape at first less familiar to Flora than the frozen north which has presided over her childhood.

 

The love affair between Flora and Jacob ignites when their rival expeditions are thrown together. Thereafter, all its twists and turns, celebrations and misunderstandings are as carefully and bravely examined as the ice-bound coastline the explorers have set out to map.

 

This is a novel about survival – physical survival and the survival of passion. Out of the hostile arctic landscape Penney creates a theatre of endurance and against this backdrop her characters play out an intense and murderous drama of ambition, love and loss.

Unheard Voices, Unseen Lives

A Place Called Winter - Patrick Gale

Set initially in London at the beginning of the twentieth century, A Place Called Winter is the story of Harry Cane, a conventional married man, quite unaware of his true nature until a chance encounter with an actor makes him aware that he is homosexual.

 

When Harry's affair is discovered, he is disgraced. Forced to leave his wife and family, he sets off to make a new life in Canada where he falls prey to an entrepreneur called Troels Munck, a predatory, controlling individual who comes to dominate Harry's life to such an extent that their relationship culminates in dreadful violence.

 

Harry ends up in an asylum from which he is eventually rescued by a progressive doctor who has set up a pioneering therapeutic community. Here he is befriended by a bisexual Cree Indian, an individual who thinks of himself as having two souls but who is tortured by guilt acquired during a Christian education.

 

A Place Called Winter is at its best when describing the furtive intimacy between men at a time when homosexuality was considered a monstrous perversion, and also when depicting the stark grandeur of the Canadian prairie. I was less taken with the chapters set in the therapeutic community. Characters were less clearly drawn and the life of the community only sketchily evoked. It felt almost like another novel in embryo.

 

Nonetheless, this is a vivid and compelling depiction of an individual who finds himself at odds with the world in which he has grown up and an important testimony to the lives of characters whose stories conventional society has often preferred to ignore.

Harry Potter With Flair

Knights of the Borrowed Dark - Dave Rudden

A thirteen year old boy discovers he has special powers and is recruited into a hidden order of knights who protect the world from chaotic forces. A routine fantasy premise certainly, but there is nothing routine about the panache with which Dave Rudden writes. His prose sparkles with arresting images, his characters leap off the page, and his plot twists and turns like a technicolour eel.

 

He is, in short, a first class storyteller. You can positively feel his enjoyment in creating and layering the narrative, playing with the reader’s expectations, then pulling the rug from under them, and that enjoyment is infectious. As a result, reading Knights Of The Borrowed Dark is enormous fun. It’s like Harry Potter with flair.

Sleep-Walking In Bangladesh

The Bones of Grace: A Novel - Tahmima Anam

Just before she is due to set off for a dig in Pakistan, Zubaida, a Bangladeshi woman studying palaeontology in America, falls in love with a young American man she meets by chance at a concert. They spend almost every minute of those last few days together; then Zubaida sets off for Pakistan and gradually her life begins to unravel.

 

When the dig is closed down by the army she goes home to Bangladesh, to the parents who adopted her when she was a baby. In a vulnerable state she sleep-walks into the marriage her family have always planned for her. Unhappy and confused, she becomes obsessed with trying to trace her birth mother, a quest that sees her ill-fated marriage collapse as she struggles to re-make her identity.

 

There is some exquisite observational writing here that often forced me to slow down and take note. However, the effect of this is offset by the tone which is declamatory and sometimes feels over-blown, and by the looseness of the structure: there are so many different plot-strands that, at times, it feels like two or three novels bundled together.

 

Nevertheless, The Bones Of Grace is an intriguing novel, not least because it offers a glimpse into a world and an experience that is hugely under-represented. It’s the kind of novel that Reading Groups would enjoy. There is so much to talk about.