“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

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“From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

The advice for dealing with your problems is often to suck it up and deal with them as best you can, rather than hiding away under the duvet, never mind which you’d rather do. I, however, am of the belief that aside from things like earthquakes, forest fires, or the person you were about to break up with kneeling in front of you with a wedding ring in hand, there aren’t many problems you can run away from, just for a little bit, or just until you’re stronger and have been able to regroup your thoughts. Arthur Less, the hero of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, appears to be of a similar opinion.

Less is about to turn fifty and not handling it very well. His publisher has just turned down his latest novel, and the man he loved for nine years is about to marry someone else. When Less receives an invitation to the wedding, he is faced with a conundrum. If he accepts, it would be too awkward. If he turns it down, it looks like defeat. Instead, he turns to a stack of other invitations he’s been ignoring; an interview panel in New York, an article in Japan, a series of lectures in Germany, an award ceremony in Italy. Apologising that he’ll be out of the country, Less heads off on a world tour.

You can, however, only run so far, and Less discovers that maybe he’s not so happy away from the action. As he catapults himself across continents, he finds himself continually struggling against misunderstandings, language barriers, lost suitcases and the barbed comments of old acquaintances. And rumours follow him too, of a scandal at the wedding he’s missing, but no one will tell him what happened. Less is left with a lot of time to think about his past and what really matters in life.

Simultaneously tragic and comical, it’s rare that a comic novel wins such a prestigious award. It’s not a fast book, and reads rather like much other literary fiction, but in a delightful twist of fate, it actually has some jokes in it. Less is immensely likeable – an innocent, sweet and nice man, who is beset by misfortune as wherever he arrives he gets the wrong end of the stick, loses something important, mistakes a situation, and is never on time to see or experience the best of the place he’s at. For example, he’s in Mexico on the day their grandest museum is closed. He’s too early in Japan for the cherry blossom, and too late in Germany for the autumn festivals.

As Less puts more and more distance between himself and the problems he’s trying to ignore, they do their best to make sure he can’t forget about them entirely. Indeed, the further away he goes, the more intense his emotions become. He tries to have affairs, and works on his rejected novel, but mostly he worries about his age. Fifty isn’t particularly old, especially not today, but at one point he laments that being fifty is like you’ve only just understood youth, and then it’s snatched away from you, like how on the last day of a holiday you finally work out where to get the best lunch or see the best views, but it’s too late and you’ll never be going back. Greer paints beautiful landscapes too, making the cities that Less visits a big part of the story in themselves, almost characters too.

While it is funny, above all I found the book very poignant. I came close to tears a few times with the sheer sadness and feeling of loss and loneliness that saturates the pages. Those around Less aren’t nearly as sympathetic as he is, adding to how alone he feels surrounded by people he views as being more attractive, more successful and more wanted than he is. He’s one of the most endearing characters I’ve come across all year, and I feel a huge amount of affection for him. The novel ends with several unanswered questions, and I really do hope that he is happy once the book is over. But it’s not for us to see.

Charming, funny and very moving.

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“Agatha” by Anne Martinetti (2016)

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agatha-comic“These novelists will stoop to anything for some attention!”

Of all the authors I’ve discussed on this blog over the years, there’s none I’ve talked about quite so much as Agatha Christie. As the bestselling novelist of all time, Christie is someone who, even if you’ve never read one of her books, you will be able to name at least one of them. Her life was much more than just writing murder mysteries, though. In fact, her feat of writing over eighty novels and countless plays and short stories is just about the least remarkable thing about her.

My love for Christie is unashamed and unlimited and, as you have probably noticed, today is Valentine’s Day. I’m told you’re meant to spend the day with someone you love, so I did the best I could and ventured to the small village of Cholsey in Oxfordshire to visit the grave of this incredible woman. It only seemed fitting, then, to read about her while I was there. Although I do have her autobiography on my shelf awaiting reading once I’m finished with her fiction – plus it’s a hefty tome and I need to work on my upper body strength first – I picked up this book, Agatha, last year and decided to read that for now. It’s a graphic novel that tells the story of her life; a story just as interesting and complicated as her finest novel.

The story opens with her fabled disappearance in 1926, before leaping back to explore her early life. Once caught up to her vanishing act again, it progresses forward. The story deals with all the important moments in her life, such as the death of her beloved father when she was just a child, her first husband’s affair, her time as a nurse during the First World War, her sister’s challenge to her to write a novel, her travels around dig sites in the Middle East, to the success of The Mousetrap and later receiving her DBE. It also explores things about her that are perhaps less well-known, such as the fact she was one of the first British people to surf standing up, having learnt while in Hawaii, and that she was once offered propaganda work by Graham Greene during the Second World War.

christie-graveThroughout the narrative, she is visited by her characters, Miss Marple, Ariadne Oliver, Tommy & Tuppence, and most of all, Hercule Poirot, a man she swiftly grew to hate and promised to kill off. Sometimes these characters serve to give her advice, but sometimes she longs for them to go. Her relationship with Poirot is particularly interesting, as she realises that while she doesn’t like him, he can’t exist without her and she has no fortune without him.

The book dwells a while on her disappearance, although because she never spoke about what happened, what is displayed in the book is pretty much all drawn from the imagination. One incident that really occurred around this time involved another great mystery writer – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He took one of Christie’s gloves to a medium to get to the bottom of whether she was still alive or had died rather than just gone missing. Rather pompously, but very sweetly, he comments here, “the father of Sherlock Holmes could hardly abandon the mother of Hercule Poirot!”

Above all, while reading this, not only do you get a sense of what an interesting and bright woman she was, she can also be considered very modern. While there’s no getting away from the fact that some of her books, particularly the earlier ones, contain views that are very much of their time, she was a pioneer in many other respects. In 1911 she flew in one of the first aeroplanes, and later she spent so much time on archaeological digs with her second husband Max Mallowan that she became the most knowledgeable woman in Britain on the subject.

Agatha Christie was a phenomenal woman, modest and humble right up to the end. She knew her own mind and lived an extraordinary life, but I sense that she didn’t always see that. I am honoured to have her in my life in such a big way, and if there was a better way to spend Valentine’s Day this year, I don’t want to know about it. Thank you, Agatha, for everything.

“They Came To Baghdad” by Agatha Christie (1951)

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Baghdad“Captain Crosbie came out of the bank with the pleased air of one who has cashed a cheque and has discovered that there is just a little more in his account than he thought there was.”

People go on about how travelling broadens the mind and that if you don’t travel you only read one page of the world’s book and a lot of other stuff like that. It’s not for me, though. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t judge those who like it. Do what you do! But for me, I find it far more comforting to travel by book. There’s none of that tiresome waiting around at airports, you don’t need vaccinations, and there’s no problem trying to understand the language … unless you’re reading Kafka in the original German, of course. No, give me a quiet corner and a book and I’ll travel that way. I’ve spent the last week, for example, in Iraq.

Chrisite is once again here playing with international intrigue, doing away with a murdered body in a quaint English village in exchange for something a bit bigger. With the Cold War looming, things are tense between Russia and the USA, and talks are planned to try and broker an arrangement for peace. They will take place in Baghdad. But hidden within the Middle East is an underground organisation that plans to sabotage the talks.

Meanwhile, young Victoria Jones has just been fired from her latest typing job and while consoling herself with a sandwich in the park, she meets the curiously handsome Edward. He seems just as smitten with her, and admits that he is off the Baghdad the following day with the professor he works with. Both young things are sad that their affair must end before it’s even had a chance to get started, so Victoria becomes determined to find her own way to Baghdad, despite knowing nothing about it. She is a girl keen for adventure, and a new one begins when she indeed finds a way to her destination.

But once she’s there she’s in trouble. She can’t find Edward, has no money or prospects, and then as if things couldn’t get any worse, a man dies in her hotel room. As he slips away from life, he utters three words – “Lucifer … Basrah … Lefarge”. Victoria quickly finds herself embroiled in an adventure far bigger than any she could have imagined.

Whenever Christie goes big, I find myself slightly less interested. While there’s no doubt she could do the bigger plot lines as well as the smaller murder mysteries, I generally prefer the latter. This one takes a while to get going – there’s no death until about halfway through – but things move rapidly from that point onwards. Christie seems mostly to be using the novel to tell us what she knows about the Middle East. Her second husband was an archaeologist and Christie often accompanied him on his digs, meaning she had first hand knowledge of this part of the world and the customs. This does not go to waste, and has been seen in others of her novels too, including Murder in Mesopotamia and Death on the Nile. It definitely adds sparkle and colour to the writing.

The only character of any particularly memorable note is Victoria Jones, a natural-born liar who manages to get herself out of any tricky situation thanks to her quick mind and ingenuity. While she might go giddy for a man so quickly, she’s definitely no damsel in distress and can more than take care of herself. Otherwise, this isn’t one of her best books for characterisation. Nonetheless, it’s a fun romp through the world of secret agents and secret political discussions which feels like a bit of an interesting change from Christie’s usual fare.

Anyway, time to read myself into a new location. I’ll be in Dublin if you need me.

“Jude In London” by Julian Gough (2011)

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jude“I left the iceberg behind me and swam toward England.”

My knowledge of Irish literature is scant. When I visited the Writer’s Museum in Dublin last year, I found myself facing the facts that I haven’t read much that’s come out of the country, mostly because I immediately think of James Joyce and the bits of Ulysses I read at university, which sends that part of my brain scurrying away beneath a desk and hoping no one mentions Finnegan’s Wake. I’ll probably get around to some of the less terrifying ones in time. I bring this up because the hero of today’s novel, Jude, is an Irishman, and there’s some suggestion that this book is an updated version of Tristram Shandy, but I’ll have to take the word of other reviewers for that.

The book opens with Jude clinging to an iceberg in the Irish Sea, floating towards Great Britain where he hopes to find the woman he thinks he’s fallen in love with, Angela. It’s worth noting this early on that this book is actually a sequel, so I assume the first book gives detail as to how he’s got into this situation. However, the book does nicely open with a recap on what we’ve missed, including the details that after an accident, Jude has had reconstructive surgery so that he looks exactly like Leonardo DiCaprio, except he has a fully functioning penis as a nose. Oh yes, it’s that sort of book.

Anyway, Jude washes up on the shores of England (or Wales) and then begins his journey to London to find Angela. But things aren’t as simple as just tracking down the love of his life. Along the way he saves the universe, stars in a porn film, chases a monkey, gets mistaken for an artist, kills the Poet Laureate, and comes close to finding out who abandoned him in an Orphanage eighteen years ago. He also finds himself in conversations about Irish literature, comparing them to famous superheroes, and a lengthy but brilliant explanation of the credit crunch using goats.

The plot itself is thin, but that’s not why anyone’s here. We’re here for the sheer strangeness of the novel. It’s well written, and you find yourself pressing on because you can’t imagine where on earth it’s going to go next. I don’t think Gough himself knows. While Jude’s situations are, frankly, unbelievable, you can’t really stop yourself from reading them. It’s sharply satirical – there’s probably a lot about Irish culture that I don’t get – and delights in messing around with surreal jokes, curious construction, and general piss-taking. I particularly enjoyed seeing him arrive early at the Tate Modern and decide to tidy up, which includes making a messy, unmade bed, and cleaning out an enormous fish tank with a dead shark in it, with a long piss in a handy urinal afterwards.

If you like a book you can understand, give this one a miss. If you like something rambling, funny and strange, then there are few books that fit the bill better. Odd, but satisfying.

“Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows” by J. K. Rowling (2007)

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I open at the close...

I open at the close…

“The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane.”

And so the series draws to a close for me once more. I have finished my re-read of the seven Harry Potter books, and once again found myself shedding a tear, caught up in the drama, finding nuances that I’d never noticed before and generally realising that this series doesn’t just deal with magic, but is imbued with the stuff itself. There are spoilers from here on in; if you’ve somehow never read it and want to remain uninformed, stop reading now.

In the final installment of Harry Potter’s adventures, he, Ron and Hermione are on a journey around the country in search of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, the hidden items that contain parts of his soul. If they can destroy them, then they can finally defeat Voldemort. But things are never as easy as that.

First they have to attend Ron’s brother’s wedding, deal with the fallout from Albus Dumbledore’s death, work out where the Horcruxes are, and avoid Voldemort and his followers, the Death Eaters. Their journey takes them around the country where they must break into three of the most heavily protected buildings in the wizarding world, deal with dark magic beyond anything they could have imagined, as well as get caught up in a secondary mission to reunite the Deathly Hallows, which will give the holder the power to cheat Death. It all comes to an earth-shattering climax during the Battle of Hogwarts as this thrilling series draws to a thrilling and powerful close.

What always gets me about this book is the sheer number of emotional wallops that Rowling subjects us to. Before it was released, she announced that the gloves were off and anyone could die in this one. I think we all sort of shrugged this off, convinced that she didn’t mean it about anyone too important. But then Hedwig dies just a few chapters in (a moment that represents Harry’s loss of innocence and passage into adulthood) and we all went, “Oh, right, she really did mean anyone.” By the end of the novel, Lupin, Tonks, Snape, Fred, Moody, Crabbe, Scrimgeour, Pettigrew, Dobby, Colin and Bellatrix will have joined the ranks of the dead. With the exception of Crabbe, Pettigrew and Bellatrix, who arguably deserved their fates, the rest all have the power to make one cry. This time round, I only shed a tear at one scene, and it wasn’t even one with a death in it.

The final showdown has begun.

The book presents a cavalcade of activity. Some of the information given is new and, while some people argue that it’s not fair that we didn’t get to know everything before this book (such as the true identity of the Grey Lady, and the very existence of the Deathly Hallows), I beg them to remember that the books are told from Harry’s point of view, so we can only know what he knows. Almost every character from the previous six books turns up again here, if only to be name checked and not actually seen. Harry recalls numerous events from the last six adventures, and patterns often begin to emerge from them.

One of the most interesting sections is towards the end when, during the break in the Battle of Hogwarts, we finally get to see into the mind of Severus Snape and find out his past. It’s moving and heartbreaking, but while this is true, it’s also true that I still can’t find it in my heart to particularly like the man. He was nasty and vindictive, and regardless of which side he was on, he remained a bully.

The whole Battle of Hogwarts is an absolute masterpiece of writing, bringing together all the characters and allowing the story to reach its head. There’s so much going on in these scenes that I almost feel like I’m there, surrounded by wizards both good and bad, house elves, giants, centaurs, spiders, and everything else in between. The teachers come into their own – McGonagall leading school desks into the fray, Sprout throwing dangerous plants at the Death Eaters, Trelawney simply lobbing crystal balls on their heads from a high balcony – and every character we’ve grown to know and love over the series shows themselves to be brilliant, perhaps none more so than Neville. The absolute pinnacle, however, is still Voldemort’s body at the end, dead and very, very mortal. It shows so clearly how he was merely a human, not the super being that he thought he was. The film ruined this moment; sure, it looked more cinematic, but it was not what we were supposed to see.

Nineteen years later…

I have unanswered questions, of course. I want to know what happened to Vernon, Petunia and Dudley when they were sent into hiding. How did Vernon handle any of that? What happened to Hermione’s parents afterwards? Where was Voldemort’s body laid to rest? I want to know how Hogwarts  rebuilt itself, whether Slytherin ever became better thought of, and just generally what happened to everyone else. The epilogue does some service with this (I know some people can’t bear the epilogue, but I happen to love it), and I guess we’ll just have to wait for Rowling to release some more answers, if she ever wants to.

Re-reading the Harry Potter books has proved to me that this is not a series to be taken lightly. Oh sure, they begin with the lightness and fun of a Roald Dahl romp, but very quickly you descend into something far darker. This is one for the ages. Harry Potter is already part of the planet’s syntax – I can barely find a (British) book written post-2000 that doesn’t make some reference to the boy wizard. Rowling is a genius, a queen of world building and characterisation.

What else is there to say about this series that hasn’t already been said?

All is well.

“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Elizabethan England” by Ian Mortimer (2012)

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And on your right, the Globe Theatre...

And on your right, the Globe Theatre…

“It is a normal morning in London, on Friday 16 July 1591.”

Why limit your travels to space when you can travel in time? That’s what I always think and it’s an attitude shard by many others, although they tend to be fictional. In 2013, I read and reviewed Ian Mortimer’s travel book, The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England, which as you can infer from the title, is a travel guide for anyone who finds themselves in the 1300s. This time, he’s applying the same idea to the latter half of the 1500s, when Queen Elizabeth I ruled the country, theatre was booming and the British were beginning their quest to conquer the globe.

As before, this book mostly ignores lists of facts and figures (although there are some included) to focus instead on the actual day-to-day life of those living in the sixteenth century. Mortimer explains that this is the best way to bring history to life, and he’s absolutely right. The premise is that you have found yourself in Elizabethan England and this is your guidebook on what to wear, what to eat, what diseases you might catch, how to greet people and how not to get conned by the local criminals.

The book is split into different sections that focus on different aspects of society, such as the landscape, the diet, travel, entertainment and religion. Like all good history books, it isn’t afraid to show you the negative side of things. This indeed may have been a Golden Age in the fields of architecture, drama and exploration, but nonetheless there is still much poverty, social inequality, racism and religious hatred. It emphasises that things are not easy and it isn’t all Shakespeare plays and jaunts down the Thames, but rather that many people are starving because their crops have failed, the death sentence is still very much a real thing, and that the Catholics and Protestants remain at each others throats for much of the reign, leading to trouble for anyone who finds themselves on the wrong side of the fence.

It also dispels many of the myths of the time, such as the belief that no one minded the smells of latrines in the towns, or that bathing wasn’t actually unacceptable or strange, merely difficult to do and time-consuming. The Elizabethans believed that disease could be spread by smell, so did their best to keep themselves clean, and while they did sometimes have to shit in a fireplace, they weren’t necessarily happy about it.

All aspects of the time are included, from what sort of accomodation you could expect from an inn (and at what price), how much the general population knew about the wider world, and what life was like on board ship. We even get to meet some of the greats of the time, such as William Cecil, Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and, of course, William Shakespeare himself. Refreshingly, there isn’t a huge amount about him and absolutely no speculation about whether he was the real author of his plays or not. He is presented as himself and the focus is on his plays and sonnets, noting that even in his lifetime, he was accepted as highly talented and very famous.

The chapter on religion is somewhat tedious, but that’s merely because it’s not something that interests me very much, but if you were to find yourself in this era, you’d absolutely need to know about it. These are dangerous times and you can now even be fined for not attending church. Nonetheless, the book is full of incredible facts, including something that has never been mentioned to me in any previous history lesson: a white slave trade was formed during this time that ran for centuries.

If you’re planning a trip to Elizabethan England any time soon, this book is definitely worth taking along with you. And if you aren’t, it’s still a great read. It’s important to remember that the people being discussed herein are not aliens, but your family. For you to be here now, they have to have been there then. That knowledge really brings this book to life, and might make you realise how good we now have it. England under Elizabeth changed everything, and this is a brilliant introduction to the whys and hows that led to us here today.

“The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket” by John Boyne (2012)

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brocket“This is the story of Barnaby Brocket, and to understand Barnaby, first you have to understand his parents; two people who were so afraid of anyone who was different that they did a terrible thing that would have the most appalling consequences for everyone they loved.”

Recent readings seem to have all been a bit dark. Sure, they’ve been good books but after a while a long chain of horrible characters, vile settings and appalling situations makes a man snap. A book with “terrible” in the title might seem like an odd choice to go with next, but a friend of mine mentioned it a while ago and said it was really good. I trust her judgement, so I went for it, only being a little bit daunted by the fact that the author, John Boyne, also wrote The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, which I haven’t read or seen but know to be immensely upsetting. So with only my friend’s word that this wasn’t going to be a horrible book, I pressed on.

The Brocket family are all perfectly normal. Alistair and Eleanor have no desire to stand out from the crowd or do anything that’s seen as unusual, an attitude they try to force into their first children, Henry and Melanie. But then Barnaby is born and their life is thrown into turmoil as Barnaby has a condition – he floats. Unable to obey the law of gravity, Barnaby is therefore constantly in danger of floating away. Alistair and Eleanor are horrified by what they see as a blantant act of attention seeking.

They do their best to hide Barnaby from the world, but eventually he has to go to school. After he accidentally gets his face into the newspapers, Alistair and Eleanor decide they have had enough and hatch a plan to rid themselves of their son and return to a normal life. Once free, Barnaby is confused by what has happened, but embarks on a series of adventures around the globe where he learns a thing or two about being normal.

Ultimately, it’s a novel for a younger audience, but that’s a rubbish way to judge any book, and there’s definitely plenty in here that narrow minded adults could learn from. On Barnaby’s journeys, everyone he meets tend to be people who are not considered “normal”, particularly by their families, and who have been cast out of their homes for whatever reason. Some of these are not normal because of appearance, or their dreams, but there is also a couple who are clearly lesbians (although not noted by Barnaby as explicitly being such), both cast out of their homes. The book does wonders for showing children (and, again, older people too) that normality is not strictly something you can define, as someone’s normal is abnormal to someone else.

Boyne has definitely taken from Roald Dahl with this novel, and it’s certainly got the feel of something that Dahl could have written. It’s in the way that Barnaby is a good child, if not slightly unusual, and he lives in a world where the “ordinary” grown-ups are of no use whatsoever. After a certain age, people’s imaginations dry up if not used properly, and this shows the damage that that can do to a family, as well as individuals themselves. It’s also very dark – Lemony Snicket came to mind repeatedly – given that Alistair and Eleanor are able to get rid of their son in the manner that they do.

The book is peppered with adorable little illustrations too, showing Barnaby both before and during his adventures, which add to the sweetness of the text. Barnaby is a wonderful boy who would be loved by any other family, but not by one who treats anything they aren’t used to as dangerous and bad. Barnaby actually notes at one point that in the books he reads, he identifies with orphans most of all. Sometimes it rings bells of Harry Potter living at the Dursleys. There is also a brilliant little nod to Harry Potter (is it just me, or has every book since 2005 made some mention or oblique reference to the series?) when Barnaby is stood on Platform 9 of a train station and his eyes glance over briefly to the gap between that one and Platform 10.

It’s a lovely book with a wonderful message that more people need to pay attention to. After all, if we can’t even define what normal is, why would anyone want to be it?

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