Friday, 31 March 2017

THE COMPLETE POEMS – Emily Bronte, this edition 1992

A stupendous collection of poetry which I will not even begin to suggest that I can comprehend. So much is hidden, and many of the poems have their origins in the Gondal Saga which Emily and Anne created between them in the parsonage on the Yorkshire Moors.
But there is no denying their power.

Read and weep…

LAST NIGHT AT THE VIPER ROOM – Gavin Edwards, 2013


Full title = Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind.
I think of River Phoenix as a ‘Dorian Gray’, a beautiful youth, fixed forever in time. His death, at age 23, shocked many of my generation in the early 1990s, just like that of Kurt Cobain. I must admit that I became a bit obsessed with him. That obsession has reached manageable proportions over the years since but if I hear his name or see his face I am instantly reminded of how I felt back then. Because his films were made when he was less than half the age I am now, it is weird to watch them and remember how much I used to find him attractive; but it is impossible to replace that ‘ache’, that feeling of loss.
Last Night at the Viper Room in many ways panders to the worst of popular culture, as it seeks to link real events with moments in film and gives itself an inflated sense of its own importance. But I was hooked. I read it in an afternoon and felt an emotional wreck at the end of it. It isn’t particularly learned, or original, but it touched a nerve and I couldn’t put it down until I had read of River’s burial all over again.
What I did like was its honesty regarding the value of his films. Phoenix started acting when he was in his early teens and made many bad choices, sometimes for the best reasons. Stand By Me may well be the best of all his performances. It is made even more poignant by the fact that his character, Chris Chambers, is already dead at the start of the film. The portrayal of the tough kid with the soft heart made him a star, but fame at such a young age comes with a cost that is not just a cliché. Other films were of mediocre quality with a few defining roles making him a star, such as the young Indiana Jones. He was Oscar nominated in 1988 for being another troubled boy searching for a normal life in Running on Empty but the film is more or less forgotten now. He was exceptional in Dog Fight, again playing tough/ sensitive. And then there is My Own Private Idaho which hinted at the life of the real River, or maybe it was just a role he got into and couldn’t get out of. The book takes us through all of these and doesn’t begin to pretend that A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon is a work of art, which is a relief.
Another point in its favour is that it does not seek to sensationalise his truly awful childhood with The Children of God, a cult which advocated free love even between adults and children. In some respects it is a wonder that River survived as long as he did, yet his brother Joaquin has gone on to deal not only with the same background, but also with witnessing his sibling’s tortuous death on the pavement outside The Viper Room, and make some of the most iconic films of the modern age including Gladiator and I Walk the Line. Clearly, even members of the same family deal with demons in different ways.
And so to the drug abuse. It is clear that the signs were there and the entire world it seems chose to ignore them, thinking that it was just good acting. But also, as Edwards shows, the carefully crafted image of the ‘flower child’ disguised what was sinister over the rainbow. Later it became all too clear. Watch A thing Called Love and you will see how often cuts had to be made as he almost passed out in front of the cameras (another of his over-confident-hiding-a-lack-of-confidence characters, which in retrospect, became almost a trademark.)

Last Night at the Viper Room brings all the strands together, not in an entirely satisfactory way, but it is (and I don’t mean to seem condescending) a very good effort. If someone like me, who felt as though they were bereaved at River’s death, can read it and be moved by it, there is worth in reading it.

JANE EYRE – Charlotte Bronte, 1847

I am having a bit of a Bronte Revival after watching a television adaptation of their lives. As with all adaptations it seems, there were parts I disagreed with, but it served a purpose in that it has made me want to re-read all the major works as well as the biographies.
I first read Jane Eyre (or rather my Mum read it to me) when I was about eight. Back then, I loved it just for the power of the narrative. I cried for Helen Burns and when Jane and Rochester were finally married.
I read it again as part of my degree, although ‘read’ is rather a misappropriation of the term as the story itself was almost disregarded in favour of a mad excavation of imagery, rather like looking for fossils on a beach and missing the sunset.
So this is actually my third reading, although the story is so well-known and seems so familiar that I might as well have read it ten times. However, I treated this like the first time and, while not unaware of the author’s techniques and literary references, I also soaked up the sheer majesty of the plot. Yes there are some unbelievable events, such as the way that Jane hears Rochester calling to her after St. John has proposed, but the madwoman in the attic is entirely plausible and is a menacing presence throughout the entire novel.

Far from being a ‘dusty old classic’, this is a vibrant and faced paced thriller which still holds its own against all modern offerings.

Monday, 20 February 2017

FERGUSON’S GANG – Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck, 2015

Such a fun book! ‘A Remarkable Story of the National Trust Gangsters’ as it says on the cover.
This just could not happen today. A secret group of people, even with the best of intentions, bursting into meetings in disguise and leaving unidentified packages would not be tolerated. The world has changed.
The book tells the story of a simpler time, but a time which saw a new awareness of the significance of the past and a passion to preserve it.
Much of the history of Ferguson’s Gang was kept secret, long after their exploits had ended. At the end of the day, they were a group of like-minded friends who were able to make a difference. What this book also highlights, though, possibly without intending to, is the way that the ‘gang’ filled a space in the lives of many of its members. Indeed, as individuals began to find love and alternative pleasures, they dropped out.
In many ways they preserved the innocence of childhood with their nicknames and ‘stunts’, almost like a group of teenagers with a secret den, but in the 1930s and ‘40s their efforts ensured that historic places from the Isle of Wight to Cornwall were available for future generations to enjoy.

I loved reading about Ferguson’s Gang. 

Thursday, 27 October 2016

FEVER OF THE BONE, 2009 and THE RETRIBUTION, 2011 by Val McDermid


Two of the latter Tony Hill and Carole Jordan novels, the characters who were used in the Wire in the Blood TV series.

I read each one in a day or two, turning pages quickly as I was gripped by the dramatic nature of the plots. But they were not pleasurable reads. The killers aren’t just evil; they are sick and twisted and the plot leaves you with more questions than answers.

Would I read another? Yes, probably.

Monday, 19 September 2016

THE SECRET HISTORY – Donna Tartt, 1992

This has been on my ‘to read’ list since its publication almost 25 years ago but I have only just got round to opening it.
The delay has, of course, left me open to many other people’s views of it and I had heard that the characters are stereotypes and it is intellectually snobbish.
What a great read though! It matters not whether the students all stand for a particular type and whether it is trite to make the twins lovers.
I loved it. The way it unfolds is superb. The murder occurs half
way through, so the first part is the build-up and the second part is the aftermath.

The obsession with culture is what makes it so splendid.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS – Ian McEwan, 1981

Ooh what a scary novel!

There are not many pages but the tension boils up and over every one of them until we know the fate of two normal people and two twisted inhabitants of Venice.

THE AGE OF DOUBT – Andrea Camilleri, 2014

The ‘age of doubt’ refers to Inspector Montalbano’s worries about his advancing years and his unresolved relationship with Livia. He is especially disturbed when he dreams that he is dead and she declines to come to his funeral. Then he falls for the lovely Laura but this romantic delusion has a very unhappy ending.

Amongst this we have the usual tightly-plotted thriller, the comic elements, the food and the twist in the tale which makes this another classic Montalbano mystery.

THE TEN FOOD COMMANDMENTS – Jay Rayner, 2016

There comes a point when someone who has written on a particular subject for many years can either take themselves very seriously or ham it up beautifully. Guess which path the wonderful Jay Rayner decided to take?
Dressed in a flowing robe and proclaiming loudly, he spouts forth on a number of culinary issues. I agree with some; I disagree with others; but I love the way he backs up his points with recipes.

I have seen him live on a previous occasion. I can’t wait to catch one of his live shows to promote this. 

THE OYSTER HOUSE SIEGE – Jay Rayner, 2007

Jay Rayner spends a large proportion of his time writing about food. He has proved, however, that he can write, very eloquently, on a number of different subjects, so why should he not – even in a novel – write about food?
The Oyster House Siege is a great bit of escapism. It is full of suspense and the characters are believable and interesting. We even have the robber with a heart who is worthy of a role in a Bogart film.
And the whole things just oozes food: recipes, ingredients and rotting left-overs.

I loved it.

Monday, 4 July 2016

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS – H G Wells, 1997-8

I grew up listening to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, a musical adaptation of this story. I loved it - and still do; but this is so much better. I can hardly believe that I haven’t taken the time to read it before now.
It really is quite menacing as it is written as a personal account of the events and there is a lot more death and destruction than I was expecting, although I don’t know why – after all, any kind of invasion would surely cause a great deal of death and destruction.

It is also much subtler than I was expecting with so many points to make about scientific discoveries, the nature of warfare and the way that the defeated can help to make themselves into victims.

FEDERER AND ME, A STORY OF OBSESSION – William Skidelsky, 2015


I love to watch Roger Federer play tennis. I did not think that I would ever read a book about him and his game where the style of prose is at this same level.

This is, in places, a very personal account of how Skidelsky became fixated on the man and his game but it is also a clinical dissection of the technical side of his performances which is so gracefully written that it is a perfect match.

THE SHELL SEEKERS - Rosamunde Pilcher, 1987

I think I have written before about how sometimes a book I first read twenty years ago is so much more appealing now. I remember quite enjoying The Shell Seekers back then but I loved it when I re-read it this week, almost as though it had aged and matured like a fine wine (or is it I who have?).
The interwoven viewpoints and distorted chronology are quite captivating and I must admit that I was in floods of (surreptitiously shed) tears at several points; a good job I didn’t read this one on the train.

Of course the thing that appeals to me most is the setting of the Cornish part of the novel, in an artist’s colony which may be Newlyn or St Ives.

Monday, 20 June 2016

GO SET A WATCHMAN – Harper Lee, 2015

This long-awaited novel is a good read by any standard; but I miss the innocence of Scout now that she has grown up into worldly-wise New Yorker Jean Louise, just back to Maycomb County for a holiday. I still want to see the world through her eyes and I want Atticus to be the strong, compassionate man I have known him as for all these years. 

HUEY MORGAN’S REBEL HEROES – Huey Morgan 2015

Ahh, Huey Morgan! Twenty years ago I thought all he said was gospel and I must admit that I still find him incredibly attractive and amusing.
He is also very authoritative (in his own unique way) about his musical heroes. Unsurprisingly they are those who also have a maverick reputation but his point is that this kind of character, living at the edge, is what makes music exciting and that it is sadly lacking today.
Ultimately, his argument is a convincing one, although we have to offset that with the fact that most of these ‘rebels’ have not lived long enough to change their ways, their opinions or their styles so there is clearly a price to pay.
I bought the book in Nottingham and then read it at a stop off in a pub on the way home which was, I think, the perfect way to experience it at its best.
I read passages out loud to D (who although not a fan of Huey – despite escorting me to see FLC live – is a fan of many of the various musicians he writes about) and we both laughed out loud.
This, for example, is his account of Leadbelly’s mysterious disappearance when he supposedly sold his soul to the devil in order to become a great guitar player: I imagine he holed himself up for a couple of months and practised like a mother fxxxxxr.
And this (after a whole chapter singing his praises) is his last word on Jimi Hendrix: The poor bastard ended up with a girl that didn’t know to turn him on his side.

You get the idea.

RICHMAL CROMPTON, THE WOMAN BEHIND JUST WILLIAM – Mary Cadogan, 1986

I love the Just William stories and here is a biography of Richmal Crompton who conceived William and shared him with the world.
Surprisingly, she had no children of her own. She was of the post-WW1 generation of women who, with few men on offer, created her own life as a teacher and then writer. She based William on various family members but endowed him with a cheekiness which has captivated children and adults throughout the years since.