loulamac’s #CBRV review #75: Alfred & Emily by Doris Lessing

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Alfred and Emily were Doris Lessing’s mum and dad, and like many of their generation, both were badly affected by the First World War. Alfred was injured by shrapnel, and lost his leg above the knee. For the rest of his life he refused to accept the limitations of his disability, and tried to live as an active, physical man. He was dead in his early 60s, his heart giving out after many years of battling diabetes. During the war, Emily was a well-respected nurse, tending to the broken young men coming back from Europe. What they saw and suffered during their wartime experiences hung over both of them for the rest of their lives.

Alfred & Emily is one of Lessing’s last books, and she is in contemplative mood. The book is split into two halves, with the first telling their alternative story. In it, they meet as young adults and become friends. The Great War doesn’t break out, they marry other people, and tread very different paths. Lessing’s memories of her parents become fantasies, with him a prosperous farmer and her a rich man’s widow who captivates children with her stories of the exploits of mice and uses her influence to open charity schools.

The second half shares anecdotes from their real existence. Although the war has shattered them, they are married with two children. Ex-pat life in Rhodesia is tough. Without advice or experience, they select land and build a house without shelter and far from water. Their dreams of a glamorous ex-pat lifestyle are shattered, and the evening dresses and cricket whites they packed expecting Kenya’s ‘Happy Valley’ moulder in their trunks. This is a life from which Doris and her brother escape as quickly as they can, although of course they never really leave it behind.

This approach is a really interesting idea, but it doesn’t quite come off. The writing style of each half is very different, but neither is satisfactory. It’s hard to explain, but I was left wishing there was more for me to sink my teeth into. The first part fails to create a convincing England in an alternative reality where a whole generation of men wasn’t decimated by the First World War. The second is a jumbled mix of events that just about hang together, but barely. Buried in there are Lessing’s musings on grief, disappointment, and children bearing the sorrows of their parents, which are as acute and raw as you would expect of her. But overall it saddens me to say that the book is patchy and disappointing.

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loulamac’s #CBRV review #74: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

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My mum has always been mad about Doris Lessing, mad enough to put me off reading her like some kind of embarrassed teenager. I really enjoyed The Grass is Singing when I read it many years ago, but vague antipathy had prevented me from voyaging any further into the back catalogue of this prolific writer. Her recent death prompted me to pick up the first book of hers I found on my mum’s shelf, which happened to be The Fifth Child. I was startled and left feeling decidedly uncomfortable.

Harriet and David Lovatt are happy to have found each other. It’s London in the 1960s, and unlike most of their peers they’re not looking for casual sex or meaningless encounters. So when they meet at a work Christmas party they are relieved, and quickly map out their lives together. They buy a big house in a commuter town, a house far bigger than they need for just the two of them, and proceed to fill it with children. Harriet is pregnant four times in quick succession, and though she suffers with her pregnancies, relies on her mother to keep the house going, and causes her relatives to roll their eyes, life is good for the Lovatts.

And then Harriet falls pregnant for the fifth time. From the start, the pregnancy is different to the others. By the time Ben, the fifth child, is born, Harriet is ill and exhausted and knows something is gravely wrong. Ben is fearsomely strong, barely needs to sleep, doesn’t speak. While it is hardly spoken of, Ben’s strangeness, how different he is, has started to take its toll on the family. The other children are badly affected, Harriet’s mother leaves, David throws himself into his work, friends and relatives stop coming for Christmas. By the end of the book, Harriet is alone with little but the memories of the family that has been destroyed by the changeling child.

The book is at its best in the first two-thirds, as we get to know Harriet and her family, and as a result can appreciate the havoc that Ben wreaks upon this domestic idyll. The sense of dread that hangs over them from the start of Harriet’s fifth pregnancy only intensifies as Ben is born, and becomes a terrifying and dangerous presence in their lives. The final part of the novel, as Ben gets older and starts to find his place in the world is much weaker, and the theory that Harriet constructs to explain Ben would have been better left unsaid. Despite that, the horror and anxiety that stalks Harriet as she tries to do her best by her children, raising Ben while trying to protect the others from him, makes chilling reading.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #73: The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

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It’s the early 1900s, and Digory and Polly are next door neighbours in a smart part of London. Digory, whose mother is very sick, is staying with his aunt and uncle, and the two children form a friendship as they play in their houses and gardens over the course of the summer. One day, their adventures take them to Uncle Andrew’s study. Uncle Andrew is a nasty piece of work who has been dabbling in magic. He tricks Polly into touching a magic ring that causes her to vanish, and Digory has no choice but to follow her to bring her home.

The two children find themselves in the ‘wood between worlds’, and their first adventure takes them to the dying world of Charn and introduces us to Queen Jadis (who we get to know even better in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe) when Digory awakes her from her sleep. After a disastrous trip back to London, the children, with Uncle Andrew, Jadis, a London cabby and his horse Strawberry in tow, end up in a dim new world. Light dawns with Aslan, whose song gives life to the darkness, and the land and seas, plants and animals of Narnia are created. After a failed attempt on Aslan’s life, Jadis escapes to the north, and to atone for his part in bringing such evil into the new Narnia, Digory goes on an errand to bring back a magical apple that will protect Narnia. With Narnia now safe, Aslan returns Digory, Polly and Uncle Andrew to London, where a fruit from the magic tree restores Digory’s mother back to health.

The Magician’s Nephew, although published sixth, chronologically speaking is the first of the Narnia stories, dealing as it does with the creation of the magical land. As well as meeting Aslan for the first time, we learn the origins of The White Witch, and discover how the wardrobe came to be a magical portal to Narnia. The book gives the Narnia series its own creation myth, and as you’d expect with Lewis, there are biblical parallels with this and the forbidden fruit that Jadis gorges herself on. As with the other stories, Lewis doesn’t shy away from showing the selfish, cowardly and greedy sides of his characters, and as with the Pevensie children in later books, Polly and Digory are more real and likeable for it. This book was is magical to me now as it was on first reading when I was seven years old, and I don’t think that will ever change.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #72: Anonymous! by Andy Powell

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This is a novel written by an ex-colleague of mine, and he’s been brave enough to let some of us read it. He wrote it in the month of November as part of NaNoWriMo 2013, and so I’m not going to knock the structure or point out typos. With a bit of editing this could be alright.

Much of the novel is set in the ego-filled, somewhat bonkers world of London marketing agencies. We first meet the main characters, who share the narration of most of the novel, on a night out in an over-priced bar that’s full of posing wankers. Mark is in the marketing department of a .com travel agency, Dee works in the client service team of the agency his boss has just hired. Somehow, in this den of over-priced Czech lager and banging house tunes, they identify each other as kindred spirits. Soon they’ve fallen in love, and after a very public proposal, they end up on their honeymoon in Mali. Which is where things go a bit wonky, for our protagonists as well as the novel.

As I said, I don’t want to knock this too much. Andy has a keen eye for the silliness and absurdity of the world of advertising (which is where the ‘!’ comes in), and so he should as it’s where we both work. The romance is sweet too, with Mark and Dee falling head over heels in love really quickly, and Andy captures that special kind of madness well. He does struggle to give the two narrators different enough voices, but that can be worked on. When the action moves to Mali, things lose focus a little with too much time given over to descriptions of long jeep journeys and African sunsets. All in all though, this is a great effort. Writing any kind of novel in November is a lot more than I managed.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #71: Slugs by Shaun Hutson

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I first pored over this preposterous horror novel back in the heady days of the early ‘80s, when I was ten years old. It belonged to the elder brother of one of my schoolmates (he also owned James Herbert’s The Rats and The Fog), and I used to read the particularly racy and gory bits aloud to my squealing friends at lunchtime. I’m pleased to report that, while there’s no question that it’s trashy and naff, it has stood the test of time pretty well.

Life is plodding along in the quiet English town of Merton, the hot summer being the worst that people have to deal with. Things are going to get nasty though, as beneath the town’s streets, carnivorous slugs are multiplying, and they’re about to get a taste for human flesh. They first emerge from their lair in the local alcoholic’s cellar to eat him alive when he returns from the pub one night. Health inspector Mike Brady (Chief Martin Brody’s spiritual twin) is one of the first at the scene of carnage and spots slime trails all over the house. When slugs start coming up in his back garden and one tries to bite his finger, he begins to wonder…

All the usual tropes are there, as well as a few borrowed from horror’s kissing cousin the disaster story. There’s the hero who’s the only one who knows what’s going on, and isn’t believed by people in positions of power; there are the sexually adventurous teenagers who come to a messy end; there’s an innocent child who falls victim to the voracious menace (i.e. the slugs). The final raid on the sewer system, where our plucky hero is accompanied by a blue-collar buddy and a scientist, is essentially the final section of Jaws but underground. Not that I mind, if you’re going to borrow, why not borrow from one of the finest creature features of all time?

loulamac’s #CBRV review #70: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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The British Film Institute in London has a ‘Gothic’ season on at the moment, and will be screening a fair few ghost stories over the next few weeks. The 1961 film ‘The Innocents’ is of course one of them, which prompted me to re-read the source novel. While I’ve become a coward in recent years, I do love things that go bump in the night, and so was hoping I’d be gripped by a book that’s so often touted as one of the great examples of psychological horror. I wasn’t.

A group of friends gathered in an old house are presented with a manuscript that one of the group was given by a governess many years before. It tells the tale of her first position, where she was employed as the ward of two orphaned children. Her employer, the children’s uncle, has little interest in them, and so she is dispatched to care for them in his secluded country house. This physical isolation mirrors her emotional solitude, as the only company she has are the two young children and the housekeeper. The governess has not been long at the house, when she begins to see a man and woman in the grounds. On describing them to the housekeeper, she realises that she is seeing the ghosts of the previous governess Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, another employee who was also her lover. These two had intense relationships with the children in life, and the governess decides she must do all she can to stop the spirits from interfering with the children in death. The real battle comes when the children reject her attempts to protect them, and seem to conspire against her.

There has been much debate in literary circles about whether the ghosts are real, or if the governess is insane. I took the book at face value, and chose to go with the notion that the evil spirits wish to take possession of their erstwhile charges. Unfortunately though, I found the prose impenetrable and convoluted, which hindered any building sense of menace and atmosphere. While some passages (particularly the one where the governess sees her predecessor sitting below her on the stairs) are creepy, this is no The Haunting of Hill House.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #69: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding; audiobook read by Samantha Bond

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I’ve never been particularly touched by Bridget Jones and her adventures. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a laugh at her disastrous wine-induced decisions and thought ‘thank fuck that’s not me’ more times than I can count, but she never spoke to me like Carrie and the girls (or Sally Jay Gorce for that matter). I just never got it, you know? That feeling of mild, detached amusement continued with this belated latest instalment. Detached amusement and mild boredom.

Bridget is 51, and a widow. Yes, a widow. I realise this fact led to much howling and gnashing of teeth amongst fans, but I never gave a crap about Mark Darcy (he’s in the same ‘get me away from this chump’ bracket as Aidan in SATC) so I didn’t care that he’d been killed off. She’s also a mum of two small children (smaller than you’d expect given her age), and has been celibate since Darcy’s death four years before. The book is basically about her finding love again, while struggling with her weight and not knowing what to wear. Along the way she also writes a screenplay and makes friends with the boho woman across the road, and there’s a sub-plot about head lice isn’t as funny as Fielding seems to think it is.

Fielding has never been Le Carré or Dickens, but the combination of diary entry, text and exposition disguised as diary entry is a muddle that wasn’t helped by the audiobook format. Samantha Bond is of course a consummate pro, but I couldn’t help but cringe at some of the words she had to read. The plot was excruciatingly smug, twee and predictable, without any of the charm of its predecessors. And herein lay the book’s biggest problem. While Bridget, with her affluent middle-class problems, was never an every-woman, she was always funny, sympathetic and REAL. While we might not shag our bosses and get jobs as TV reporters, we’ve all drunk too much wine, begrudged our married friends their ‘happiness’ and had to rely on control pants more than we’d like to admit. This skinny, toy-boy shagging, well-enough-off-that-she-doesn’t-have-to-work Bridget, doesn’t seem to have any grounding in reality, and so had even less to say to me than usual.