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The City Of Invention

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

A Study Of British Identity

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven - Chris Cleave

 

Set in the early years of WW2, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is the story of Mary, the daughter of an MP, who rushes back from Finishing School when war is declared to volunteer and is assigned a rather unglamorous job as a primary school teacher, and of Alastair, a picture restorer at the Tate, who enlists in the army and is posted to Malta. Unashamedly a love story, this is also a study of British identity, or at least of a particular strata of it, and of how it responded to the cataclysm that engulfed the middle of the twentieth century.

 

These are people who were brought up to behave well and find themselves trying to cope with a world that is behaving unbelievably badly. They are used to treading lightly through a world of privilege and comfort but now that world is quite literally collapsing all around them.

 

It was queer the way things crept: the night, and these feelings. One was brought up to scorn the tendency to despair. But it seemed that the darkness knew this, and found a way to reach one nevertheless. It was patient and subtle, gauging the heart’s output of light. Her confusion grew, the heart lucent and the mind lucifugous.

 

Cleave writes beautifully, his sentences becoming more crystalline and lambent as his characters fall further and further into darkness. But this always an optimistic novel, one in which the possibility of redemption never vanishes entirely. Cleave’s trick is to make of the war itself a metaphor for  the transformational processes of love.

 

What is remarkable is the feeling of authenticity that he generates, the particularity of his descriptions, the physical and emotional minutiae. At the beginning of this book I rather took against the characters with their chirpy banter and their irritating enthusiasm for the conflict. By the end I was totally caught up in their stories, hoping against hope that they would manage re-make their lives amid the ruins of London.  To date, this is by far and away my favourite novel of 2016.

 

Between Victimhood And Complicity

The Widow - Fiona Barton

The premise of The Widow is both ambitious and brave. It's an attempt to get inside the mind of the the wife of a man suspected of abducting and murdering a two year old girl.

 

Narrated from the point of view of the wife in question, now a widow, the detective investigating the girl's disappearance, and a journalist covering the case, the narrative proceeds like a dance of seven veils, gradually revealing more and more of the truth about the fate of the girl and in doing so laying bare the internal workings of the husband/wife relationship.

 

If you're looking for dramatic plot twists you won't find them here. The focus is instead on the characters who are boldly and largely successfully drawn. though there is just a little too much reliance upon stock traits - hard-bitten journalist, obsessed detective - and the narrative never quite manages to dig as far beneath the surface as this reader would have liked. There is also a lot of telling rather than showing. But that's a fault of so many crime novels.

 

Nevertheless, despite its nightmarish subject,  The Widow is a remarkably compelling and even entertaining read, cleverly probing the line between victimhood and complicity.

Van Gogh In Saint Paul De Mausole

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew - Susan Fletcher

Set in Provence at the end of the nineteenth century, this is the story of the arrival of at the hospital of Saint Paul de Mausole of an unusual patient, a painter who has caused outrage in the nearby town of Arles by fraternizing with prostitutes, by wandering into the town completely naked, and by cutting off half his ear. He is, of course, Vincent Van Gogh.

 

But this is not Vincent's story, it is the story of Jeanne Trabuc, wife of the hospital's chief warden, a woman whose world has been steadily diminishing with the departure of her children and her husband's withdrawal into his work. The exotic, unpredictable new patient, and the extraordinary paintings that he produces, changes the way she views her world:

 

Jeanne looks beyond the yard. The sun has caught Les Alpilles, lightening their western sides. In the groves, too, she sees at that moment that the western side of every tree is golden with sunshine, row upon row, and there's a brightness in the depths of the waist-high grass.

 

When she is forbidden to talk to him her frustration provokes a rebellion against the narrow passivity that is expected of her and  a crisis in her marriage.

 

 There is a pleasing sense of authenticity about this novel. Susan Fletcher writes with a delicate intensity, lingering over the small details of domestic life and shining a painterly light on the landscape.

 

A European Identity Crisis

The Italians - John Hooper

Italy correspondent for The Economist and Southern Europe editor of the Guardian and the Observer, John Hooper writes with authority about a country beset by paradox, where an obsession with bella figura (creating a good impression) goes hand in hand  with dietrologia (suspicion of what lies beneath the surface).

 

Like all attempts to sum up the character of a nation, this one ocasionally falls into generalisations. Italian has no word for accountability, Hooper declares, with a breezy disregard for linguistic processes. But on the whole he avoids such pitfalls, marshalling the evidence with care and paying due regard to the arguments on both sides.

 

He's particularly good on the political and economic backdrop to modern Italy, the impact of the Vatican on cultural mores and the bureaucratic idiosyncrasies that bedevil every aspect of Italian life.  This is a country which responded to administrative over-kill by creating a Ministry of Simplification. It is also the country that gave us both the Renaissance and Silvio Berlsuconi.

 

Hooper sifts intelligently through  its complexities and contradictions. The result is an engaging and entertaining portrait of a country that for hundreds of years has been at the very centre of European identity, even when it has been unsure of its own.

The Idea Of Rome

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome - Mary Beard

Over the years writers from Suetonius onwards have created ruts in the road by focusing on a biographical approach to the history of Ancient Rome. Mary Beard prefers to avoid those ruts, concentrating instead on the idea of Rome, and the many ways of defining oneself as Roman, as evinced in the everyday lives and pre-occupations both of the ruling classes and of those who were ruled, including the very poorest and the slaves.

 

She is particularly interesting when examining what foundation myths tell us about the mind-set of Romans, how they projected their anxieties and identities backward into the past and how those identities were changed by the processes of empire.

 

Of course Beard cannot avoid the temptations of biography altogether. This is the history of Rome after all and we are dealing with the likes of Nero. However, one of the more intriguing conclusions she comes to is that the empire created the emperors as much as vice versa.

 

It's a development that begins with Pompey who could arguably be described as the first emperor, and who was defined by territorial acquisition and the power and wealth it provided. The process was formalised in the life and legacy of Augustus who was transformed into a model of imperial identity to which his successors were obliged to conform for the next millennium.

 

Beard's main argument, however, is that what made Rome unique in the Ancient World was not that its rulers were more cruel or excessive than those of other people, or that its people more ingenious, or even that its soldiers were more ruthless, but  the fact that from very early on its rulers untethered the concept of being Roman from its geographical limitations. You could be a Roman and a Greek, even a Roman and a Briton.

 

In an age of identity politics, this doesn't sound so startling but more than two thousand years ago it was a radical development that made possible the construction of an empire which assimilated local customs, incorporated many different languages, and in which many different gods were worshipped - at least until the appearance of Christianity which refused to co-exist alongside other religions and ended up assimilating the Roman empire itself.

All The Hopeful Lovers - Variations On A Theme

All The Hopeful Lovers - William Nicholson

Enjoyable and emotionally satisfying, All The Hopeful Lovers is a set of variations on an age-old theme. A large cast of inter-connected characters struggle with their emotional lives and find themselves caught between twin poles of idealism and compromise.

 

Young, old and middle-aged, they weave in and out of each other's lives, some impeded by selfishness, others by honesty; some gifted with good-looks, others with sensitivity, some borne aloft on confidence, others crippled by self-consciousness, all in search of love.

 

It's a challenging narrative structure - so many plot-lines, so many different solutions to the same essential problems. What carries the novel forward is the acute observation of human nature and the authenticity of the characters. These feel like real people, their weaknesses and strengths are familiar to us all.

 

Nicholson is always looking for the truth about the individual under the chaos of impulse and he finds that truth in the small details. As one of his characters, an elderly artist whose portraits have long ceased to be fashionable,  observes, "You paint what you see and what you feel. I can see you but I can't feel what you feel, I can only feel what I feel. So I latch on to the little clues I get from your face that take me to my own feelings."

 

 

Anthony Quinn's Curtain Call - Portrait Of A Society On The Brink

Curtain Call - Anthony Quinn

Set in nineteen thirties London, Curtain Call depicts a network of contrasting characters - a pompous gay theatre critic, his long-suffering secretary, a West-End actress, a prostitute, and a society portrait-painter -  all caught up in a series of sadistic murders that changes  their lives  irrevocably.

 

What sets this novel apart from the average run-of-the-mill thriller is the skill with which the author summons up a picture of London  between the wars. It is a two-faced society, proffering glittering rewards to those who succeed, but merciless towards those who fall by the wayside.

 

It is also a society on the brink of radical transformation, the gaze of many of its inhabitants still fixed upon the end of the nineteenth century while a series of seismic events - the rise of fascism, the abdication crisis, the dawn of the movie industry -  are beginning to change their world forever.

 

Intent upon their own desires or simply struggling to find security, the characters are oblivious to the changes being wrought around them. Only Madeline, the prostitute around whom  much of the plot revolves, glimpses the truth about the killer hiding in plain sight as well as possessing an intuitive awareness of the impending catastrophe that will overtake them all and end in the cataclysm of world war; but she has no idea what to do with this knowledge.

 

Colourful and well-researched, Curtain Call is an intelligent and richly-textured novel that manages to transcend the limitations of its genre

 

A Study In Suspicion

The Weightless World - Anthony Trevelyan

Charismatic, unorthodox and utterly unpredictable, Raymond Ess, the founder of Resolute Aviation, a once trail-blazing aeronautics company on the brink of collapse, is either about to change the history of the world or he's having a nervous breakdown. Steven, his personal assistant, isn't sure which.

Steven is accompanying Ess on a trip to the wilds of rural India where Ess believes a brilliant inventor called Tarik is hiding from a hi-tech corporation that wants to get its hands on his astonishing invention - an anti-gravity machine. But is the whole thing a fantasy caused by the impending collapse of Ess's company?

At the centre of this book is Trevelyan's intense sense of India - the teeming chaos of Mumbai and the and the vast open spaces of the countryside where the edges of the evening sky are like a gas flame. Against that backdrop the characters play out their little drama of bluff and double-bluff. Funny, clever and always entirely plausible The Weightless World keeps the reader guessing to the end.

Exciting But Ramshackle Fantasy

The Wolf in the Attic - Paul Kearney

Set in the nineteen twenties, this is a dark fantasy about twelve year old Anna, a refugee from the Greco-Turkish war who ends up living in Oxford with her bankrupt father where she is briefly befriended by C S Lewis and J R Tolkien.

 

When her father is murdered without warning, she finds herself drawn into a battle between ancient forces who compete to win her allegiance. It seems that Anna is heir to a legacy stretching back to the world of Homer and beyond, and capable of powers she is only dimly aware of.

 

Often beautifully written and always wonderfully evocative, The Wolf In The Attic, nevertheless fails to live up to its promise. Nothing is explained properly, the overarching mythos is a jumble and the plot feels as though the writer has made it up as he went along. What are Lewis and Tolkien doing in the book, for example? They appear and are carefully drawn but then they just seem to get forgotten.

 

Kearney is a talented writer and the possessor of a vivid and poetic imagination. The Wolf In The Attic  is an attractive and exciting read but lack of attention to structure makes it ultimately slightly unsatisfying.

                                                                                                                          

A Convenient Fictional Landscape

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep - Joanna Cannon

Set in suburban England in the long hot summer of 1976, The Trouble With  Goats And Sheep is a study of a community with something to hide. The story is largely narrated by ten-year-old Grace who, together with her side-kick, Tilly, sets out to uncover the dark secret festering at the heart of her neighbourhood.

 

Joanna Cannon has a real way with words and she is always crafting neat little vignettes of her characters e.g. "There was always a glaze of anxiety to Dorothy, even when she was younger. She combed the landscape for the next catastrophe, whittling at her thoughts until she'd shaped a problem out of them and then grooming herself with the satisfaction of worrying about it."

 

There is a lot of really excellent observational writing here. But, actually, that's my issue with this book. The whole focus is on observational writing. It's all little tics of behaviour coupled with period details - pop songs, TV programmes, adverts, hairstyles, popular foods etc.

 

Despite this attention to detail, characterisation, while amusing, is not entirely credible. There is too much reliance on stock traits. This is one of those convenient fictional landscapes where everyone knows everyone else, where the vicar is at the centre of the community and where the local policeman licks his pencil before he starts writing in his notebook.

 

Grace, the juvenile detective, is a combination of intuitive wisdom and charming naivety which allows the author plenty of scope for ironic observation of adult behaviour but which also comes over, after a while, as irritatingly twee. After a while I began to feel like I was listening to a stand-up comedian rather than reading a novel. Clever but not very challenging.

An Exciting New Voice In Children's Fantasy

Riverkeep - Martin Stewart

A rich, gothic fantasy about Wull and his father who keep the river free from ice in the winter but whose lives are overturned by the arrival upstream of a mormorach, a huge, magical creature that causes all sorts of other long-dormant magic to awaken, including the terrible bohdan which takes possession of Wull's father.

 

Stewart's writing positively seethes with raw talent and imaginative power but his structure is slightly ramshackle.  He has a tendency to move the plot on by generating an endless supply of  lavishly grotesque characters. They are great fun but it's not always clear why they are in the story.

 

As a result the narrative ends up littered with loose ends and abandoned sub-plots so that in the end you are left wondering what it was all about. Nonetheless, Riverkeep is a remarkable debut and heralds the arrival of an exciting new voice in children's fantasy.

 

 

A Warning From History

The Ballroom - Anna Hope

The Ballroom is set at the beginning of the twentieth century in a huge lunatic asylum near Manchester, the centre-piece of which is a ballroom where weekly dances are attended by the normally segregated female and male patients.

 

At the heart of the story are four strongly-drawn characters: Ella, the factory worker committed for breaking a window, John the Irish labourer recovering from a breakdown after the collapse of his marriage, Clem an educated young woman who refuses to accept her father's choice of husband, and Charles, the second-rate doctor fascinated by the newly-popular ideas of the eugenic movement.

 

A  study of the abuse of power, The Ballroom examines the consequences of  poorly understood scientific thinking , in this case the extension of evolutionary theory to ideas about race, class and mental illness,  and, in particular, the ideas behind the eugenics movement.

 

Eugenics ultimately gave birth to the horrors of Nazism, but in its early days it was supported by influential people on the right and left of the political spectrum including, in Britain, the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill,  whom ambitious Charles hopes to impress with his plans for a programme of compulsory sterilization for the feeble-minded

 

Lyrical writing, a compelling emotional narrative and a nail-biting plot make for a novel that functions on a number of different levels and afterwards lingers powerfully in the reader's mind like a warning from history.

Recycling The Tropes Of Governess Fiction

The Shadow Hour - Kate  Riordan

Set partly in the late eighteen seventies and partly in the early nineteen twenties, The Shadow Hour is the story of two governesses, grandmother Harriet and grand-daughter Grace, whose lives become inextricably bound up with those of the family whose children they are engaged to teach.

 

The plot is complex and, frankly, rather contrived, being dependent on coincidences and on an inherited gift of clairvoyance that Harriet and Grace refer to as the 'glimmers'. Moreover, it takes a long time to unfold and I grew impatient, feeling the pacing could have been better managed.

 

What gives the book its strength, however, is the atmospheric quality of Riordan's writing. She is particularly good at period detail and at telling sense-impressions. I loved this description of a railway carriage:

 

Taking a seat in first class, he breathed in the familiar scent of a carriage on a fine spring morning. They smelt different according to the weather and season. Warmed dust, shaving soap and a hint of varnish on dry days; mackintosh wax and damp wool on wet ones. Winter after a downpour was least pleasant, stale smoke and sour breath turning the tightly closed windows opaque.

 

Readers who enjoy recycling the tropes of governess fiction - an old house, ageing servants, family secrets and and plucky but dis-empowered heroine - will love this. Others must content themselves with the very considerable flashes of talent in those descriptive passages.

Not For The Squeamish

Our Endless Numbered Days - Claire Fuller

Convinced that the world is going to be destroyed in some apocalyptic scenario, eight-year-old Peggy's father takes her to a forest wilderness in Bavaria where he convinces her that they are the last two people left alive.

 

For the next nine years their life is one of bare subsistence - growing vegetables, trapping small animals, eating acorns . Without sufficient clothing or tools, they soon turn into half-wild creatures themselves, descending eventually  into outright madness that ends in terrible violence.

 

This is a story of psychological and physical abuse and the victim is a child. Consequently, I found it extremely hard going.  Moreover, the way the book was written contributed to the difficulty. There's a great deal of jumping about between the past and the present for what seemed to me to be little significant gain in terms of narrative force. There is also a good deal of  extended description of nature which I strongly suspect the author enjoyed a good deal more than I did.

 

A powerful novel with a compelling premise, Our Endless Numbered Days is a tremendously brave piece of writing  - but it's not for the squeamish. I was mightily relieved when I reached the end.

A New Voice In Children's Fiction

Time Travelling with a Hamster - Ross  Welford

This book has a really cracking opening paragraph:

 

My dad died twice. Once when he was thirty nine and again four years later when he was twelve. The first time had nothing to do with me. The second time definitely did, but I would never even have been there if it hadn't been for his 'time machine'..."

 

And it pretty much carries on in the same vein.

 

It's the story of Al Chaudhury, a twelve year old mixed-race boy from North East England, who discovers his dead father's time machine (a laptop and a zinc bathtub) and sets off on a mission to prevent his dad having the accident that led to his death. Only, altering time is not a simple matter. You make a small mistake and everything goes haywire. Al makes more than one mistake.

 

Very funny and hugely readable with a likeable central character and a plot full of  twists and turns Time Travelling With A Hamster is a terrific piece of storytelling and a very impressive debut. And it's great to see a mixed-race Indian heritage boy at the centre of the action. I loved this.

Light In An Abandoned Theatre

Dictator: A novel (Cicero Trilogy) - Robert Harris

The third part of Harris's trilogy based on the life of Cicero, Dictator, like its predecessors, is told from the point of view of Tiro, the orator's secretary. The book deals with the events surrounding the seizure of power by Julius Caesar, his assassination and the subsequent power struggle between the forces of the Senate and those of Marc Anthony, Lepidus and Octavia. It chronicles Cicero's vain attempts to preserve the republic,  a struggle which ultimately cost him his life.

 

Meticulously researched, eminently readable and hugely enjoyable, Dictator is a first-class piece of historical fiction. The ambition, vanity, cruelty, jealousy and spite which motivates so many of these power-hungry individuals is immediately recognizable; as are their weaknesses, compromises and the occasional moments of lucidity and courage.

 

Harris's gift is to make political life in Ancient Rome entirely accessible to the contemporary reader so that one entirely forgets one is reading about a conflict that happened over two thousand years ago. It is as if someone had come across the abandoned ruin of a magnificent theatre, flung a switch and suddenly the whole edifice had come to life, with all the brutality and poetry of which for so long we had only heard rumours.