“…any one who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul destroying.”
I have read Brideshead Revisited once, many years ago, but apart from that had never read anything by Evelyn Waugh until I picked up this book. I had no idea what to expect, but I had not expected a laugh-out-loud story which caused me to choke on my chuckles in the quiet carriage of a train to London.
This story tracks Paul Pennyfeather’s escapades following a rather ignominious expulsion from college. Every time things are going right, something goes wrong. The characters Paul meets along the way are invariably a mix of grossly unbelievable and intimately plausible- if you think that sounds like a contradiction, you’d better read this book.
We realise, somewhere close to the end of the story, that Paul’s decline and fall is down to the outside actions of other characters, boisterously thrusting themselves through life. Paul is a bystander and, as a result, is treated if not badly then with a great amount of indifference to his comfort. If there is a moral to this story, then perhaps it is this – do not be a bystander in your own life. I’m not sure Waugh would agree with that conclusion, though.
An entertaining account of the absurdity of life.
Decline and Fall (2) (Penguin Classics Waugh 02)
“All your questions can be answered, if that is what you want. But once you learn your answers, you can never unlearn them.”
I am so excited to finally be sharing this review with you. This book is long (635 pages!) and due to various commitments it took me about a month to read. But, I don’t regret it for a second.
So far, I have adored everything I have read by Neil Gaiman – though that is limited to Coraline, Norse Mythology and now American Gods – and it is entirely down to his story craftmanship. So unique.
Anyway, to this story – I had no idea what to expect. However, I was pleased to surmise within the first few pages that there is something to do with ancient gods within these pages – and I am fascinated by ancient gods (as Neil seems to be). I immediately thought, ‘ah! This is a story about gods’. I was wrong. It is a moving, disconcerting dissection of human grief. Well, that was the impression I was left with, though there are so many layers to this story that I am certain every reader could come away with an entirely different perspective.
This was an immense, strange masterpiece and, now that I have read it, I am greatly anticipating watching the series on television. But I’m glad I read the book first. I pity the poor person who squeezes Gaiman’s imagination into eight episodes.
The book:American Gods + Anansi Boys
The TV series:American Gods [DVD] 
“Man is a bird without wings and a bird is a man without sorrow.”
I adore Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The first time I read it was on holiday, sitting in the sun listening to the birds and the crickets, the scents of oranges and lemons filling the air. I am taken back every time I reread it.
However, this is not a review about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. This is a review about a less well known book by the same author- Birds Without Wings. I didn’t read this on holiday, because I have none of the nostalgia when I reread it. Instead, it is unsettling.
Louis de Bernieres weaves intensely real stories about incredibly believable people. His settings (this one is set in Anatolia) are compelling and I was left with the impression that I had physically been there. But, Louis de Bernieres takes these people, who you come to love, and these settings, where you can see yourself living, and smashes them up, leaving you heartbroken.
Of course, the smashing is done artfully and poetically. He is mimicking the destruction that occurred during World War I. He turns it into many intimate and devastating personal stories, reflecting the huge loss of life during that conflict. He manages this, in my opinion, better than that other master of war stories, Sebastian Faulks.
At its heart, this is a love story, as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is. It is as raw and desperate and bittersweet as love can be.
Birds Without Wings
“I come into this world
Bringing only paper, rope, a shadow.”
My Bank Holiday Monday has not quite gone the way I expected it to. I had planned a Spring clean, preparations for the coming week at work, perhaps a walk. None of this has yet happened. I have instead read, from start to finish, Brushstrokes in Time by Sylvia Vetta.
The story, based (heart-wrenchingly) on real-life events, is set in China and spans decades, through the 1950s to the 1990s. Prior to reading this book, I had not considered life in this period as particularly difficult in China. I was born in 1988, and this struggle has been invisible to me before now. Of course, I have seen the image of the solitary man in Tiananmen Square holding up the tanks, but I didn’t know the reasons for this, nor had I considered the human stories behind it.
As with all my reviews, I do not wish to give the plot away here (the joy of reading a story is discovery, surely?) but to briefly overview – we follow a young woman who just wants to experience the joy and beauty in the world. Perhaps unwittingly, she becomes a scapegoat for a regime which is violently and embarrassingly lacking in self-confidence by this time.
By the time I finished reading, I (normally stone-hearted, as anyone who knows me will tell you) was wiping tears from my face. Perhaps the most beautiful part of the story is that our main character was relaying her life story to her daughter, born in America and unaware of the struggles her immigrant mother had faced.
A truly human story, in equal measures enlightening and disheartening. I read this story as an ebook but will be purchasing a physical copy for my bookcase so I don’t forget it.
Brushstrokes in Time
I have always adored Norse Mythology. I love the way that the Gods are, despite being all-powerful, as flawed as humans. Thor is reckless. Odin is self-centred. Loki – well, Loki is the most amazing character I have ever come across. Greedy, cunning and always scheming.
I’ve read many depictions of Norse mythology, from many well respected authors. None of them were quite like this re-telling by Neil Gaiman.
Prior to this book, I had, to my shame, only ever read Coraline by Neil Gaiman. I had enjoyed the creepiness of that story, and could see how his style would be well suited to Norse mythology.
Gaiman is true to the original myths, but uses his unique talent to bring the Gods to life as I have never experienced them before. I flew through the book, greedily absorbing the tales of Loki’s terrifying children, Odin’s missing eye, Thor’s unusual wedding day. This may be the only re-telling I ever read again.
A must read for any fan of Norse mythology.
“You are innocent until the courts have ruled that you are guilty. What kind of weird statement is that? Either you’re innocent all along, or else you did it, right from the start.”
I’d never heard of Malin Persson Giolito before I picked up this book, drawn in by its cover and a description of it as ‘The Secret History meets We Need To Talk About Kevin’. I was not disappointed- more than that, I was astounded.
I couldn’t put the book down. It’s one of those which hooks you in; I ended up cooking dinner one handed, the other grasping this book. Luckily, I avoided any serious burns.
The story starts with a high school shooting. The main perpetrator, Sebastian, is dead. His girlfriend, Maja, survives and we follow her trial as we try to establish whether or not she was complicit in the murder of her classmates.
Malin Persson Giolito has struck the perfect balance with her main character. She is not overly likeable, but I didn’t hate her either. She seemed naive, but as convinced about the definition of ‘true love’ as we all were at eighteen. From the outside looking in, we can see the huge flaws in her relationship, but it is impossible to say we would have acted differently when overwhelmed with the attentions of an older, richer and more popular man.
I won’t say any more about the story because the main enjoyment I got from it was never knowing what would happen next. Suffice to say, the description I had read prior to the book is an apt one and I immensely enjoyed the process of reading it. The accolade of ‘best Swedish crime novel of 2016’ is worthy and I’m looking forward to Malin’s next book already.
“Lonely’s like any other organism; competitive and resourceful in the struggle to perpetuate itself.”
Everyone knows Sebastian Faulks; Birdsong is an immensely popular novel (with good reason, it was impeccably researched and written with precision). I’m not sure if Engleby is as well known. I have no idea if people like it. I’ve never heard anyone talking about it.
But, to me, Engleby is one of Faulks’ best novels. There is less of a cinematic quality to it, and I prefer that – it is instead a story of a killer, written from his point of view.
We are taken on a journey into the mind of Engleby, a strange character. At first, he seems perhaps shy and anti-social; as the story moves on, his way of thinking becomes more and more disturbing and we start to realise that all is not as it seems.
Whether or not Engleby actually committed these crimes, I’ll let you decide. And as to the question of whether Engleby is ill or – more chillingly – evil and taking the reader for a ride too, well, I have drawn my own conclusions and you’ll have to draw yours.
An entertaining and readable book from beginning to end.