Sunday, December 7, 2008

Day Seven of Forever Friends

Forever Friends Blog Tour

Thank you for reading this blog entry! This is the seventh post on the Forever Friends blog tour and we have made it through the first week! Thanks again to everyone following the tour for your support! I hope the next seven days are as enjoyable and eventful as the last seven days. On Tuesday, the book finally became available at the amazing price of $9.99. This was a mistake made by that allowed many members of the Published Authors Network and forum to take advantage of their mistake. You will find a link to at the bottom of this post. The same day the book became available from all the online bookstores, I received the first review of Forever Friends by Apex Reviews.

In the review, the reviewer, Linda Waterson referred to the different sections in the book:

Compiled in various sections, ranging from “Family Friends” to “Lost Friends” to “False Friends” to “Spiritual Friends,” the literary offerings contained therein just as equally travel the full spectrum of friendship, covering all imaginable ground in-between. There is reminiscing over childhood heroes, protectors of the four-legged ilk, and gracious musings over friends who were – quite literally – lifesavers. There are also poems that wish for the spreading of global goodwill, as well as verses rendered in homage to friends that are gone, but not forgotten.

She also made reference to the use of quotes at the beginning of each section:

For added contextual flavor, preceding each section is an insightful blurb helping to foster within the reader a greater understanding of what that particular facet of friendship is really all about. Consider, for example, this literary jewel that precedes the “False Friends” section:

False friends are like our shadow, keeping close to us while we

walk in the sunshine, but leaving us the instant we cross into the shade.

Christian Nestell Bovee

Philip Spires short story, Stranger than Friends, is the first book in this section. The well-crafted characterizations and authentic dialogue make for an entertaining read. The boredom of the staff and the insensitivity of the clientele in the bar of the Old Hotel in an off the track village, are all too obvious to an unmarried couple staying at the hotel overnight. In the morning, things have come to a head and one family will not be the same as it was the night before as people who were once friends become strangers to each other. I would like to congratulate Philip on a story that draws in the reader right from the beginning as two strangers descend the steep path to a small tightly-knit place, where outsiders are welcome – but only for a short stay.

I would also like to thank Philip for inviting me to make this post on his blog and for giving me the opportunity to add a bit more information about the anthology.

It isn’t too late to order a copy and, as I keep saying, you will not be disappointed!

Forever Friends is available now from all major online stores, including

Forever Friends


Forever Friends

Thanks again for reading this and best wishes for the holiday season!

Shelagh Watkins

Please follow the tour to learn more about the book.

Blog Tour

December 1 Chelle Cordero

December 2 Zada Connaway

December 3 Mary Muhammad

December 4 Helen Wisocki

December 5 Pam Robertson

December 6 Dick Stodghill

December 7 Philip Spires

December 8 Milena Gomez

December 9 L. Sue Durkin

December 10 A. Ahad

December 11 Malcolm R. Campbell

December 12 Lynn C. Johnston

December 13 Dianne Sagan

December 14 Donald James Parker

December 15 Karina Kantas

December 16 Grace Bridges

December 17 Tiziana Rinaldi Castro

December 18 Yvonne Oots

December 19 Dana Rettig

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Over By Christmas by William Daysh

Over By Christmas by William Daysh is a war novel. It is also a superb novel in which real events, imagined histories, human relationships and politics intertwine. These elements are combined via a beautifully paced narrative whose use of multiple forms only adds to its clarity.

While naval battles of the first half of World War One are described, we encounter some of the politics that generate their necessity. We see the in-fighting and posturing around the desire to avoid responsibility. We share the priority of a Prime Minister who, amidst the pressure of decision, remains obsessed with a young woman – and not for the first time! – a woman to whom he is compelled to write, often several times a day. There are numerous factual reports of the war. These provide the background, the context to allow us to position the experience of the book’s characters.

And central to these are the Royals, not the rulers in London, but a naval family in Gosport, Portsmouth. Jack the father and George the son are seamen, while Emily, wife and mother, is their home port. In his spare time, which seems to be quite sparse, George is a bit of a lad. He is a handsome, honest type who falls for two girls in particular, Carrie and Carla. The first is a single mother, left encumbered but compensated by a period of “service”. The latter, a minor character with a major role, is a dusky-skinned, half-Italian shop assistant.

And then there’s Bill, who takes up with Carrie, and then later with a Mr Paxman to further his growing business interests. But throughout there is the war. Throughout there is the threat of suffering alongside the daily reality of early death, the hell of battle. War, and especially this one, claims many lives and takes them arbitrarily, though never without loss for those who survive. The wounded, it seems, sometimes have to cope with more than death.

George emerges as the central character of Over By Christmas. We follow him repeatedly to and from Portsmouth. He sees The Pacific and the South Atlantic. He sails around Britain into the North Sea. He is in Malta and Gallipoli. Above all, he is in the war, perhaps not muddied in trenches, but permanently threatened by torpedo, shell and sea. He makes friends, is loyal, and gallant and is promoted. But throughout, his passion for Carrie remains. Chances to reconcile their differences, to realise their shared love are rare, but important moments. And then… And then this is the beauty of Over By Christmas. 

The narrative engages the reader in its characters’ lives. In twists and turn it surprises, but in the end we have merely the complications of human relationships. Warfare is about sparring, about conflict, imagined gains and suffered losses. Affairs of the heart may demonstrate strikingly similar qualities.

View this book on amazon Over By Christmas

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Pain Wears No Mask by Nik Morton

Pain Wears No Mask by Nik Morton is no ordinary thriller. It has an extra dimension that constantly encourages the reader to take an interest in more than a tale of events. It is the book’s central character that provides this extra dimension, because she seems to have two quite different identities. One provides the content of her tale, while the other informs her approach and motives. 

 As Maggie Weaver, the book’s first person narrator is a policewoman in Newcastle. She is devoted to her husband, also a policeman, and is utterly involved with her work. Like many honest, hard-working law enforcers, Maggie is angered at the suffering of the victims of crime and outraged at the ability of the guilty to avoid punishment. Even greater ire is reserved for the bent cops that facilitate both outcomes.

When Maggie Weaver, the policewoman becomes involved in a particularly brutal case, the final outcome affects herself personally, her marriage and her colleagues. The case is resolved, partially, but the mayhem it generates has permanent consequences.

Sister Rose works in a hostel for the homeless in south London. She has adopted her vocation as a mature woman, trained, taken vows and spent a couple of years as a missionary in Peru. It was there, high in the Andes, working with poor people who have to scratch for a living, that she truly understands the nature of her vocation. When, back in London, Sister Rose finds herself by chance involved in a complex, multiple crime, she resolves to accept the challenge to become involved, to pursue her privately-informed investigation of events.

Sister Rose, the compassionate nun, and Maggie Weaver, the experienced crime fighter and policewoman are, of course, the same person. Maggie’s and Rose’s stories are not presented sequentially, however. Nik Morton begins with the London crime which gradually reveals its relevance to what befell Maggie in Newcastle years before. Thus, both in form and content Pain Wears No Mask transcends its genre. Because of this the reader finds that Sister rose’s future is also as interesting as her related past. When, via Peru, the story returns to Newcastle to confront the unfinished business of years before, Maggie and Rose combine talents, approaches and identities when events promise the settling of old scores and the possibility of reaching beyond the mere foot-soldiers of injustice. 

 Pain Wears No Mask is a well written, intriguing story. It will entertain those used to its genre, but it will also provide interest for the general reader.

View this book on amazon Pain Wears No Mask

Notes On A Scandal by Zoë Heller

In Notes On A Scandal, Zoë Heller presents a novel narrated by Barbara Covett, a history teacher in St. George’s, a comprehensive school in north London. When Bethsheba Hart joins the staff as a pottery teacher, Barbara realises that a special person may just have entered her life. Sheba seems to be much that Barbara is not. She is younger, attractive, apparently free-thinking, married, has children and is irretrievably middle class. What she is not, unfortunately, is an experienced teacher, having trained only after bringing two children into adolescence. She is thus going to find life at St. George’s rather tough.

For reasons best known to herself, the sixty-ish, self-assessed “frumpy” Barbara decides to keep a journal. Sheba figures in its pages and eventually comes to dominate them. It is an out of character pastime, perhaps, since Barbara seems to have little but contempt for her colleagues, and survives her educator’s role by constantly keeping her students at arm’s length. Perhaps this is what Barbara has done with every aspect of her life, despised it and shunned it in one. Strange, then, that Sheba, her character, her actions, even her words come to dominate Barbara’s thoughts.

Like many who meet this new teacher, Barbara becomes apparently infatuated with this elegant, apparently free spirit. And also, we learn, does one of her pupils, a fifteen year old boy called Stephen. Sheba, of course, is not the confident, satisfied, fulfilled dominatrix that others invent. She is a vulnerable, not quite organised mother of two. The elder daughter is a difficult teenager, the younger son disabled. Her husband is considerably older than her. Like Barbara, she also suppresses emotion, suppresses it, that is, until it takes over her life with abandon as her relationship with the boy simultaneously fulfils both reality and fantasy.

It lasts for several months before it inevitably comes to light. Barbara’s role, throughout, is central. She is in the know. She is watching. She is not in control, of course, but exercises considerably more power than an onlooker. And when, eventually, the muck hits the fan, Barbara, who has done her share of the slinging, gets hit by some of the fall-out. The denouement is both surprising and logical. Though it is Sheba’s motives that the police, the national press and her colleagues want to dissect, it is Barbara’s that must interest the reader. She as been an informed, motivated diarist, it seems.

View this book on amazon Notes on a Scandal

A Sunday At The Pool In Kigali by Gil Courtemanche

For me, Gil Courtemanche’s book, A Sunday At The Pool In Kigali, bore a great similarity to the screenplay for the film Hotel Rwanda. Having seen the film twice, it is a positive statement about the book to state that I did not make the association until almost two thirds of the way through. On the other hand, much of the material I did not associate with the film verged on the prurient or scatological. Much of what rose above this level eventually depressed, because it addressed like an obsession the detail, the consequences and the pathology of AIDS. The doubly unfortunate truth about the last two sentences is that the book probably, in its excesses, under-states the reality.

An enduring memory is a character, a visitor to Rwanda, seeing what he takes to be a cultivated hillside and then praising effusively the presence of agriculture in the centre of town A moment later he is introduced to reality by his host who confirmed that the excavation was a cemetery to cultivate the profusions of corpses produced by AIDS. The scenes of genocide that follow can only match the horror of what went before.

At the core of the book is the relationship between Valcourt and Gentille. He is Canadian, a journalist film-maker, who seems at home in Rwanda’s tribulations. Gentile is a woman of virtue, a virtue she plies with ease. She looks like a Tutsi, but is a Hutu. In some ways their relationship mirrors the colonial heritage that at least exacerbated, if perhaps not actually caused the potential for ethnic conflict that eventually ignited so disastrously.

But A Sunday At The Pool In Kigali points to social divisions in an apparently valueless community that sees other people, both collectively and individually, merely as the exploitable given form. There’s not a lot of joy here, even in the book’s copious sex that seems, anaesthetised, to dominate much of the text. But overall there is little to uplift in the book. Almost no-one offers love or compassion. An almost unrelenting torrent of cynicism, abuse, persecution and social degeneration floods from every page. It is a portrait of an almost uncompromisingly ugly and abhorrent experience.

The book is thus an often one-paced, one-dimensional read. The problem, unfortunately, is that it might be accurate.

View this book on amazon A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Destiny Of Natalie X by William Boyd

An aspect of William Boyd’s writing that always seems close to the surface of his work is an examination of selfishness. At the very least, his characters fulfil their self-interest. One recalls how the events of The New Confessions or Any Human Heart unfold, how in both cases the central character’s aspirations are forever paramount, often to the detriment of those he proclaims to love. But it is probably in his short stories that this theme is best illustrated and his collection, The Destiny Of Natalie X, does precisely that.

Two of the stories, The Dream Lover and Alpes Maritimes, in just twenty pages each, pursue there ideas in depth. In the first, a student in a south of France university is envious of the obvious wealth and easy-going lifestyle of an American fellow student. This well-heeled American splashes money around, advertises his talents and gets the girls – at least in theory. He even has a desirable Afghan coat. By the end of the story, the narrator has utterly reversed the roles. Not only does he come out on top financially, he goes off with the girl, and even gets the coat. In addition, he has benefited from the other’s profligacy along the way.

Another side of selfishness is expressed via responses to temptation, specifically to the proximity of opportunity. Even a man in a stable, happy relationship cannot avoid speculating what a taste of something different might bring. The possibility that it might sour everything else is, of course, never contemplated. In Alpes Maritimes a lusty young man just cannot resist the idea that grass is greener on the other side of the twins. His partner is one twin, his desire might be the other. He years to sample what he seems to see as the merchandise. So while it is in progress, William Boyd suggests that life may be a neurotic search for ever greater fulfilment, even if that is only imagined. Future promise, it seems, always surpasses experience.

When it is ended, however, life seems inconsequential. We live, we love, we dream, we die. And we are soon forgotten, even the turbulence of the journey is soon smoothed. Those with whom we have shared our lives may remember us for a while, but even memory, it seems, is founded in self-interest. Perhaps memory of a deceased is the livings’ mechanism of coping with their own future.

The Destiny Of Natalie X, the title story, deals with the making of a film. It addresses pretence and the inflation of egos. But it also makes us think of the mundane and how, for every individual, it remains special, the only possible existence. As ever, William Boyd uses many different forms to express his ideas. For some readers this variability may get in the way of appreciation of the material. But rest assured, the material is worth the challenge and, if it forms a barrier, then the stories are worth several readings until their challenges are overcome.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Heart Of The Matter by Graham Greene

Over forty years ago a new English teacher at my school answered a question asked by an eager student. The question was, “What do you think is the greatest novel written in English?” He didn’t think for very long before replying, “The Heart Of The Matter.”

We academically-inclined youths borrowed Graham Greene’s novel from the library and eventually conferred. There were shrugs, some indifference, appreciation without enthusiasm. We were all about sixteen years old.

I last re-read The Heart Of The Matter about twenty-five years ago. When I began it again for the fourth time last week, I could still remember vividly the basics of its characters and plot. Henry Scobie is an Assistant Chief of Police in a British West African colony. It is wartime and he has been passed over for promotion. He is fifty-ish, wordly-wise, apparently pragmatic, a sheen that hides a deeply analytical conscience. Louise, his wife is somewhat unfocusedly unhappy with her lot. She is a devout Catholic and this provides her support, but the climate is getting to everyone. She leaves for a break that Scobie cannot really afford. He accepts debt.

The colony’s businesses are run by Syrians. Divisions within their community have roots deeper than commercial competition. There is “trade” of many sorts. There are accusations, investigations, rumours and counter-claims. Special people arrive to look into things. There’s a suicide, more than one, in fact, at least one murder, an extra-marital affair, blackmail, family and wartime tragedy.

But above all there is the character of Henry Scobie. He is a man of principle who thinks he is a recalcitrant slob. He is a man of conscience who presents a pragmatic face. He makes decisions fully aware of their consequences, but remains apparently unable to influence the circumstance that repeatedly seems to dictate events. He remains utterly honest in his deceit, consistent in his unpredictability. His life becomes a beautiful, uncontrolled mess. His wife’s simple orthodox Catholicism contrasts with his never really adopted faith. He tries to keep face, but cannot reconcile the facts of his life with the demands of his conscience. His ideals seem to have no place in a world where interests overrule principle. He sees a solution, a way out, but perhaps it is a dead end.

For twenty-first century sensibilities, the colonial era attitudes towards local people appear patronising at best. Perhaps that is how things were. But The Heart Of The Matter is not really a descriptive work. It is not about place and time. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, the events and their setting provide only a backdrop and context for a deeply moving examination of motive and conscience. And also like a Shakespearean tragedy, the novel transcends any limitations of its setting to say something unquestionably universal about the human condition. Forty years on, I now realise, that my new English teacher was probably right.

View this book on amazon The Heart of the Matter

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A valley side too far - Resistance by Owen Sheers

In Resistance Owen Sheers re-writes the history of World War Two. Germany has invaded Britain. The United States, having suffered reversals both east and west, has retreated home to navel gaze. Britain thus is occupied, but has not yet succumbed. In a remote rural community on the Welsh borders, a whole valley of farming families awakes one morning to find that all the men have gone. No-one knows where. They were recruited, perhaps, into an underground resistance and not one of them let slip any of the details. This, frankly, is incredible.

The demands of farming, however, continue, despite invasions and estrangement. Sarah, though devastated by her husband’s, Tom’s, disappearance, must battle on. There are dogs to see to, lambs to nurture, pigs to feed and foals to train. This permanence of landscape and activity is thus set against massive upheaval. Not only have the men gone, but German troops have appeared, troops who seem to be more on holiday than at war. Again, incredible.

Alex is good with animals and helps at Sarah’s farm, as does Albrecht, an English-speaking, Oxford-educated academic, uncomfortable in military garb. Relationships develop, whilst most involved apparently remain increasingly apologetic.

Owen Sheers also wants us to believe a scenario for conquest where the invaders lay siege to the cities. Again this lacks credibility, since German military success in the Second World War seemed to come when invasions went straight to the centre. Where they lay siege, such as Leningrad or Stalingrad, they failed. But then the whole point is that the history has been reversed.

In a situation where passions and tempers would probably have been frayed, tested at least, Owen Sheers presents a community that seems to survive just as before, minus the local males. Resistance is well written and is very readable, often beautiful. But it does demand that one’s belief be suspended from very high indeed.

View this book on amazon Resistance

Monday, October 6, 2008

Lives In Time - The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

For me, The Amateur Marriage represents the sixth time I have read one of Anne Tyler’s novels. On the surface it’s the story of Michael and Pauline. They meet by chance in 1941 in Anton’s, the grocery store run by Michael’s family. 1941, perhaps incidentally, is the year Anne Tyler was born. There was a war to be fought, of course, a war that affected both of their lives. But there’s a marriage, and a child, a daughter named Lindy. Others follow, a boy and another girl.

For Michael and Pauline, life progresses, as does their marriage. But twists and turns take them to places they have never visited. As with other novels by Anne Tyler, there is an obvious and consistent linearity about its time.

A reviewer has to be careful with detail, because what happens to this novel’s characters is a large part of how it happens, and thus an integral part of the book’s rationale. To some extent, a listing of the plot, event by event, would render a reading unnecessary.

But after a handful of Anne Tyler’s books, I am now convinced there is much more going on in them than mere story-telling. In the past I have found her characters shallow, rather self-obsessed, selfish, perhaps. They are people who have lives outside the family, but people who seem pre-occupied with the familiar and seem rarely to confront ideas or experience outside its apparently defining, but only sometimes reassuring confines.

And perhaps that’s the point. It is an American dream, a libertarian ideal under a microscope. It is analysed, picked apart, sometimes reconstructed. The characters are affected by political, social, economic and cultural change. Their lives are materially transformed by the same forces that lay waste and occasionally reinvent their home town, Baltimore. But they, themselves, are mere recipients of these effects, appearing to play no part in their instigation or, it seems, their analysis. They live their lives. They are pushed around by experience, jostled by life, reflect little, internalise everything, only occasionally recognising life’s potential to reform. Time thus moves on. Inevitability looms unexpectedly.

It is not a criticism of Anne Tyler, her novel or its characters to proffer the opinion that everything seems to happen in an intellectual wasteland. People go to college, do law degrees, become involved with good causes, procreate, but moments of reflection seem to be confined to what breed of dog might not provoke allergy. Perhaps that’s the point. Such things are the stuff of life. Time goes on.

View this book on amazon The Amateur Marriage

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Prisoners of ideology - Angels and Insects by A. S. Byatt

Angels and Insects is an intriguing pair of novellas. At one level it examines the complexities of human relationships, especially those incorporated within marriage and the family. It identifies tension, dissipates it, anticipates expectations and then seeks resolution of conflict when they are not realised.

In Morpho Eugenia, William, a suitor, pursues his beloved and she becomes his wife. They breed with regular success, but there is a darkness that separates them in their marriage, a darkness that becomes light when William comes home from the hunt unexpectedly.

In The Conjugal Angel we enter a spirit world. For the inhabitants of the world, the spirit reality is as tangible, as rational a universe as any other. It is a world with familiar landmarks that reveal themselves easily to the accepting mind. Powerfully and engagingly interpreted by an influential writer, their significance enters the participants´ assumptions, their existence never questioned.

Angels and Insects is set in the mid-nineteenth century and, as such, deals with concepts, both social and intellectual, which are quite foreign, quite removed from those of the contemporary reader. In Morpho Eugenia, we have a scientist exploring the revolutionary ideas of evolution and applying these not only to the natural world he researches, but also the private human world, both physical and emotional, that he inhabits. Needless to say, his radical ideas are not shared by many close to him. In The Conjugal Angel, we encounter a group of people motivated by a reality they all share. 

But, for the contemporary reader, it is a reality that is utterly foreign, its literature and its analysis both apparently bogus in today’s judgment. Thus, eventually Angels and Insects is a novel about ideology. It illustrates how ideological assumptions about the nature of existence can drive an individual´s and a society´s approach to life, and how it can convince people of the truth of illusion, or vice versa. And in considering the works of contemporary poets, Angels and Insects illustrate how the literature of an age can become suffused with its ideology and, indeed, how this can feed back into the substance of life to reinforce assumptions.

As ever, A S Byatt´s use of language is virtuosic, making the process of reading Angels and Insects a delight throughout. It is an ambitious project which almost achieves its design. The shortfall, however, becomes a frustration.

View this book on amazon Angels and Insects

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Regeneration by Pat Barker

In Regeneration, Pat Barker fictionalises an encounter between H. R. Rivers and Siegfrid Sasson in a military psychological hospital. In Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, there are numerous war wounded, whose experiences in the Flanders trenches of the First World War have left them psychologically, as well as sometimes physically scarred.

The symptoms are many and varied. In Sassoon´s case it is possible that the motivation might even be political, rather than psychological. Rivers attempts to analyse his patients and his own responses to them. He is of the modern school, unlikely to resort to the blunt-edged methods of some of his contemporaries. 

Descriptions of some of these established treatments read very much like torture. They were, after all, in the cases described, trying to make someone talk. How appropriate.

But Rivers is unimpressed and he pursues his own line. Along the way, he also develops new, ground-breaking treatments of his own invention. Sassoon befriends a young man called Owen, whom he encourages to write. Another friend called Graves visits whenever he can. Together, Sassoon and Owen work on some of Owen´s writing.

The results, they both agree, are improvements. The power of Regeneration is the relation between its overall idea and its setting. It presents the creative process as a reflection on experience and sets this in an institution where formal reflection on experience is a treatment.

Eventually, it is not just the individual patient who benefits from the cathartic process of reflection, but also the analyst and, ultimately, all of us when the relief takes the form of great poetry.

View this book on amazon Regeneration

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Heart Of The Country by Fay Weldon

For two thirds of its length, The Heart Of The Country by Fay Weldon is a brilliant, surprising, humorous, bitchy study of adopted and original rural life. Rural industries, agriculture, and yokel identity rub shoulders with antique dealers, long-distance commuters, owners of computer stores and benefit claimants. Pretty normal stuff, I hear you say.

The book examines their interactions and relationships, especially how public virtue interacts with private vice. Natalie, who was born with attributes of beauty and desirability, has suffered the confusion of many with her birthright. With the world available to her, she chose Harris, whose business acumen eventually matched his other skills.

At the start of the book, he has just gone bust, but has not told his wife or family. He has also just run away with that bit of fluff he used to see when... So Natalie, bestowed Natalie, is left penniless, mortgaged up to the hilt, carrying her husband’s abandoned debt and still trying to provide for his children, whom, of course, he left behind. A pity, therefore, that the local nob she used to visit every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon for a bit of light relief did not entertain an emulation of her husband’s life change. There are limits to alliances, after all.

And then there’s Sonia. Sonia has seen it all. She is living off the state. She is on the take, depending on your perspective. She is on family credit, the dole, the social, whatever. Natalie happens to splash her one day as she drives past on what petrol is left in the tank of the car her husband used to fund, just before the credit people appear to repossess it. Sonia has analysis. She knows things. She can spot a person up to this, or doing that at a distance. Whether an antique dealer, a respected farmer, a man with a computer business, of even a man who drives an Audi with an eye for a floosie young thing flashing her thigh, she picks up the vibes, registers them, keeps them on file. She knows the ropes, and can spot where they have been tied. She feels she has been hung by each and every one of them several times. 

She’s on the social and knows how to cook from tins. She runs the kind of household where she would experience surprise if introduced to the contents of her refrigerator. She’s also a cynic, a closet psychopath with axes to grind. If The Heart Of The Country had continued to explore these local, colourful and humorous rivalries, then the book would have been ultimately stronger.

Unfortunately, Fay Weldon moves into other, broader, bigger issues, and has her local people voice their significance. She delves into agribusiness, diet and supermarkets. She examines economic and professional, rather than merely social integrity. She stops short of macrobiotic diets, but only just.

Eventually, the book becomes something of a mishmash of ideas it could easily and profitably ignored. Its original thrust of human beings being as complicated as human beings are in order to create, effect and endure consequences would have been much more powerful.

View this book on amazon The Heart of the Country

Before The Knife by Carolyn Slaughter

In Before The Knife Carolyn Slaughter describes her childhood, a fraught, anxious prelude to an adulthood that continued to suffer from its heritage. She tells us early on in the book what caused this anguish, and what gave rise to its associated self-pity, self-abuse and anger. She was raped by her father at the age of six. But then the book unfolds almost without another mention of the trauma until its reality is finally recognized, long after the father, the self-tortured mother, and even the younger sister have gone to their graves.

Carolyn Slaughter’s life, though not fully acknowledged in the book, could only have been lived in a narrow window of history. The British Empire, always eager to install a white face in a position of colonial authority where people of race might not be trusted, elevated many lower middle class émigrés to effective aristocracy. It meant that they could only feel at home, that is, only attain the status they assumed, if they lived outside of the Sceptred Isle.

Carolyn’s mother had been born and brought up in India. She had grown used to a life with servants, where sewing, cooking and cleaning could be delegated to the competent. This created time for the important things in life, like deciding what to wear for dinner, what would go with what, and whether the lunch invitees would gel. Not that there were many expatriates to invite in the Kalahari Desert.

Carolyn Slaughter seems to have lived an itinerant’s life. More significantly she seems to have adopted an itinerant relationship with life. It happened as a result of denial, as a result of not accepting or acknowledging what happened to her. The father, a shop worker back home, was a District Commissioner in the Empire when his white face provided his main qualification. His wife, Carolyn’s mother, unable to accept what the daughter had told her or, indeed what evidence proved, slumped into a private depression that never left her. The author’s African childhood was almost wholly unhappy, even depressing. Her tantrums angered others, her self-abuse threatened her own life, and yet the father who was the source of the tragedy soldiered on, apparently stoically, delivering whatever duty the assumptions of Empire might demand. 

There were times when I lost touch with the sense of depression and foreboding, periods in the book when I knew things were lighter and brighter than the reminiscences suggested. Occasionally, the weight being borne got too much. But then I had a happy childhood, without abuse, indeed with love, affection, and support throughout, so who am I to criticize this insight into a world I never knew?

So, towards the end of the account, when the horror of the abuse can be re-lived in later life and thus partially expunged, we can sense the destructive havoc it has wreaked through the family’s life. It’s a rather one-paced account, but the seriousness of its focus justifies its form.

The South by Colm Toibin

The South by Colm Toibin is an intense, though fitful chronicle of a woman’s life, a life as yet incomplete. It presents a patchwork of detail amidst vast tracts of unknown, like a painting that has a suggestion of complete outline interspersed with patches of intricate detail. Thus, eventually, we know some amazing things about Katherine Proctor and we have shared much of her life. She remains, paradoxically, largely anonymous, however, as she probably does to herself.

The title carries an agenda for Katherine Proctor’s life, since aspects of the word provide setting and context for phases in her life. We meet her having just left her husband and her ten-year-old son. She was unhappily married to Tom. Richard was her spitting image. We never really get to know why she left, why she so definitively broke with a past that appeared both secure and fulfilled. A part of her motives may have sprung from her status as a Protestant in Enniscorthy, a small town near the sea in the south of Ireland, in the south-east. She thus inherited a status that bore its own history, a history of which she was aware, but minus its detail. But it could only have been part of an explanation, because it was her husband and her life, her private concerns, that she fled.

In the 1950s, she went south to Spain, settling in Barcelona. There she met Miguel, a man with his own history. He had fought with the anarchists in the Civil War. He still had friends, colleagues from the fight. Katherine falls for him. They move to a stone house in the Pyrenees. He paints. She paints. She bears him a child. Katherine meets Michael Graves, an Irishman, doubly coincidentally also from her home town. He is working in Barcelona. He seems to be an ailing, gently cynical character, who is clearly besotted with her. When things with Miguel turn unexpectedly sour, he offers solace and comfort.

This time, however, Katherine had nothing to do with the split, a separation that also took away her young daughter. She painted more, hibernated. And then there grew an urge to trace the son she had left behind many years before. He was still in their family house, the one she had deserted, where he lived with his wife and daughter. There are tensions. They are solved. Michael Graves is also back in Ireland. Katherine rediscovers the south, her homeland, through painting it. Though penniless, she gets by, sometimes appearing to live off her own resources of passion and commitment. Though perhaps not conscious of it herself, she is always striving for a fulfilment she believes she never attains. In fact, she has it all along. Though a victim of circumstance, she is ready to grasp any opportunity and live it. 

“Only a protestant would go into sea so cold,” Michael says to her. She gets wet. He doesn’t. And in the end, though we still hardly know her, we like Katherine proctor, and we respect her. The South alternates its narrative between first and third person in a subtle way tat allows the reader to sculpt its main character. She becomes wholly tangible, but rarely are we told anything about her. She lives. We meet her, and we react. Colm Toibin’s achievement in this, his first novel, is considerable.

View this book on amazon The South

Monday, September 1, 2008

2030 The Lottery by Peter Moore

2030 The Lottery by Peter Moore is a pseudo-Orwellian poke into a possible British future. In contrast to Orwell, who placed his all-powerful state almost forty years into the future, Peter Moore sets his just twenty-three years hence. This suggests that the author believes that many of the changes in Britain’s social and political fabric that he depicts in his book have already taken place. Indeed there are references to a certain war that no-one wanted, changes to the country’s sovereignty status and well reported, now familiar questions concerning political integrity.

But still, the 2030 that the book depicts is considerably further removed from the present that its twenty-odd years of displacement might suggest. The position of the Royal Family has been undermined, parliament has lost all authority and, indeed, credibility, and the country’s interests and assets have been sold off to foreigners. Perhaps it’s not so far-fetched, some might argue. Britain is under the despotic rule of Cromwell. His political style is to brand anyone who is not wholly with him as being utterly against him. This is not a tolerant regime. And those who are against him are ruthlessly pursued.

Wat Tyler and his wife, Pandora (who has a box!) lead an opposition group. Wat is arrested and tortured, and though the authorities have perfected chemical tortures that leave the body apparently unharmed, Cromwell has his captive murdered and Pandora opens the box. A full scale revolt ensues, but only after it starts with a women’s protest. A leading opposition politician takes up the cause and there is a good deal of mayhem.

Throughout Peter Moore uses character names and settings to evoke previous wars, revolts and rebellions. Cromwell sanctions a civil war in response to Wat Tyler’s peasant revolt. But in 2030 The Lottery, it is Bradley tanks and fighter aircraft that engage in locations where pikes, swords and muskets were once employed. The book requires considerable suspension of belief- it is a novel, after all. It will appeal to readers who like to poke a finger of ridicule in the direction of public figures who have lost political trust. 

View this book on amazon 2030 The Lottery

Please Sir, There’s A Snake In The Art Room by Keith Geddes

In Please Sir, There’s A Snake In The Art Room author Keith Geddes has his principal character, Tom Thorne, address a series of challenges. Thorne, this principal character, is a pre-school principal, or headmaster, depending of the regime in question. His first task is to manage and strengthen a Twickenham prep-school, to bolster its students’ performance in common entrance exams. Along the way he has to deal with unruly parents, some of which are so despicably attractive that they quite put his off his stroke.

There are problem teachers, some of whom scheme, wheel and deal, or even take days off sick. There are, inevitably, students. Some of them perform, others under-perform. Some are almost anonymous, while some excel. There are sports fixtures where the school could do better, and there are success stories that outnumber the disappointments. And amid this, Tom Thorne finds himself a new wife, a new family and, believe it or not, a new job. Tom takes up the challenge of a headship in a Kenyan school, near the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi, right on the boundary of the Game Park.

There he institutes a similar mix of curriculum reform, staff management, pupil stewardship and parental relationship that he used in Twickenham and, you’ve guessed it, things work out well. Tom is certainly kept busy. In addition, Kenya provides him with occasional experiences that Twickenham would not, such as snakes, hippos, lions and even flowering plants.

Please Sir, There’s A Snake In The Art Room is not really a novel. In the tradition of Gervase Phinn, it’s more like a fictionalised professional diary, a diary containing the things that were too unprofessional to put in the real thing. It remains of interest to a general reader, because we have all been to school and so we can all empathise with the events, many of which are displayed with considerable humour. Head teacher Tom Thorne, we realise quite early on, bears a strong resemblance to a certain Keith Geddes, whose own life history has witnessed the exact transformations that the author inflicts on his fictional hero.

And so Keith Geddes’s book begins to read more like an autobiography than fiction. It is an anecdotal, light and light-hearted depiction of the professional and personal challenges that a head teacher has to address. And throughout it is also an enjoyable and often humorous experience for both pupils and teachers, despite the fact that navigating its waters is rarely plain sailing.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a compelling portrait of people on the downside of a dystopia. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or J G Ballard’s Kingdom Come, Never Let Me Go is built around an abhorrent aspect of social organisation. Crucially, in all three books, the focus of the subject matter is merely an extension of a facet of our own society. Fertility issues provide the material for The Handmaid’s Tale, while brainless consumerism fuelled Kingdom Come. Kazuo Ishiguro’s subject matter has a medical focus that provides an essentially more credible idea than either of the two other works mentioned. Eventually Ballard’s vision cannot be maintained by his scant material, whereas Margaret Atwood’s is strengthened by the credibility of its own downside, its own contradictions. Ishiguro’s story line is strong enough in itself to maintain interest, credibility and drama from start to finish. There is real humanity in this story.

The book begins in Hailsham, an obviously special school set in an idyllic corner of the English countryside. But this is clearly no ordinary education. We follow the fortunes of three of its students, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy. We see them grow up, make their fumbling transformation from childhood to adolescence and then embark upon the stuttering unpredictability of young adulthood. Hailsham’s students have to learn how to deal with their own shortcomings and how to manage their talents. They must cope with sometimes strained relations with their teachers, especially in the area of reconciling what they want to do versus what seems to be demanded of them, and thus what they are allowed to attempt. They become aware of sex and introduce themselves to its world in their own ways at different times, each of them reacting differently to their experience.

So what makes these people so special? Well, for a start they live protected lives. They never appear to need any money, nor possessions, for that matter, what little they do have being recycled ad infinitum via a system of almost formal barter. They seem to be protected from fashion, consumerism, family break-up, mass media and even street life. Surely there is something strange about them, despite their apparently normal physical, mental and psychological characteristics.

Not until about half way through the book does the reader start to fill in the blanks. But by the end the dreadful picture is complete, and rendered even more frightening by its complete credibility. To find out the nature of the plot, you will have to read the book, but, though I have stressed the importance of the overall concept’s contribution to the book’s success, it is not the subject matter that makes this a superb novel. It is the characterisation, the empathy that the reader develops with Kathy and Tommy and the sympathy that their tragedy eventually engenders. The context served to amplify these responses, not blur or confuse them. It is this quality that makes never Let Me Go a completely memorable and highly moving read.

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Never Let Me Go

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Walk Up Fifth Avenue by Bernard Levin

Bernard Levin begins A Walk Up Fifth Avenue with three quotations from descriptions of New York City. These date from 1916, 1929 and 1949 and were written by Jane Kilmer, Theodore Dreiser and E. B. White respectively. Bernard Levin uses these vignettes to establish the reality, or perhaps unreality of a changing city, a superficially permanent edifice which really is in constant flux and is never more than a transient manifestation made concrete of the people, interests and activities it houses.

Bernard Levin’s 1989 book now becomes, itself, another such historical exhibit, since the twenty years that have elapsed since the publication of A Walk Up Fifth Avenue has seen major changes to New York’s skyline, economy and population. In 1989 Bernard Levin made scant reference to Arabs or Afghans, and hardly mentions Islam when referring to the city’s religious identity. In 1989, Russians, generally, were still in Russia, not the United States. The twin towers of the World Trade Centre appear in three of the book’s colour plates without remark, and nowhere in the book’s three hundred pages it took to walk the length of Fifth Avenue is there a single mention of the word “terrorism”.

For the targeted British audience of this book, the author, perhaps, symbolised something quintessentially English. An established columnist on The Times, well-known television commentator and latterly presenter of off-beat travel programmes, Bernard Levin was close to being a household name at the time, an instantly recognisable voice amongst the middle classes. But he was, himself, of immigrant stock, a Jew, and, at least originally, very much on the edge of the British establishment, no doubt knocking regularly on the its partially closed doors. Maybe this is why, in A Walk Up Fifth Avenue, he deals so informatively with the concepts of “new” and “old” money in New York. He describes beautifully how shady might be the origins of any kind of money, but the obvious class differences that the distinction engenders is keenly felt and wonderfully depicted in the book. Bernard Levin however, reveals that he is no fan of luxury for luxury’s sake, and clearly has little sympathy for any kind of conspicuous consumption.

He rubs shoulders with the better heeled at a New York party, but gently satirises the ostentation and the bad taste, perhaps being guilty of applying a new-world versus old-world, peculiarly British pomposity to place himself above an old money versus new money snobbery. It makes a fascinating juxtaposition of the author’s opinion and subjects’ assumptions. What makes the passages even more poignant for British readers, of course, is the Bernard Levin’s long association with satire, especially that aimed at the rich and powerful.

Levin is also clearly not a fan of commercialism. The appearance of Ronald McDonald in a Fifth Avenue parade promoted Levin to describe the character, somewhat sardonically, as “a true hero of our time”. It prompts the reader to reflect that Father Christmas, as we know him today, is largely the product of an erstwhile promotional campaign for Coca Cola and his default red and white is not much more than a corporate trademark. And perhaps even the practice of giving presents on a day other than the Three Kings was an American invention, driven more by marketing than generosity. One wonders whether a century from now children will sit on a burger clown’s knee to receive their annual schooling in consumerism.

A Walk Up Fifth Avenue is much more than a travel book. It’s considerably less than a history, and never attempts analysis. It is an informative, slightly random mixture of whatever caught the fancy of an observant, vaguely jaundiced British journalist as he tried to probe the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities. It’s an uneven read, but doubly rewarding, since the book not only takes the reader there, it also now offers evidence of its own justification, because it catalogues change and invites us to reflect on our current, equally tenuous, impermanent status.

View this book on amazon A Walk Up Fifth Avenue

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Poisoned Petals by Andy Crabb

Poisoned Petals by Andy Crabb is a set of over forty short stories, tales with a Spanish flavour. Most are set in Spain, with many featuring locations and people from within the Costa Blanca, where the author lives, works and continually observes. Some are historical, others utterly contemporary, both in time and in content.
Property developers, estate agents and used car salesmen figure alongside more traditional Spanish figures, such as the bar owner, the peasant farmer and the land owner. Some stories feature characters from Spain’s Moorish period, and others pre-Visigoth, even pre-Roman Iberians.

It is surprising, therefore, to read in the highly informative author’s postscript that several of the pieces germinated elsewhere, in Britain and southern Africa, for instance. Some were transplanted items from newspaper stories, while others arose from museum visits, local tales or shared discussion with other writers.

But the stories grew in Andy Crabb’s fertile imagination and bloomed into a veritable display of skilful, entertaining writing. The fact that the author claims they eventually flowered into Poisoned Petals gives the reader a hint from the start that irony and twist will play their part.

Many of Andy Crabb’s stories deal with the sibling concepts of revenge and retribution. People are often “getting away with something”, getting one up on an innocent or unsuspecting victim. Driven to anger by such perfidious exploitation, these inherently gentler, law-abiding characters themselves become vengeful, calculating deceivers, until the score is decisively settled. In often morally satisfying conclusions, many of the original villains receive a comeuppance that is significantly sweeter than mere defeat, longer lasting than simple victory.

And each of these conclusions has been richly deserved. In Preserved For Posterity, for instance, the retribution of the wronged husband is horrid in the extreme. But then the unjustly punished lover-thief-craftsman of the story was never really guilty of his accused crime. We know that. But then that’s perhaps why he has the final, though silent, laugh at the judgment of eternity. So it is ideas of morality and justice, honesty and loyalty that suffuse Poisoned Petals.

We are presented with people who try to ride roughshod over others, whose understandable, merely human hesitancy, born of their desire to uphold and respect another’s potential for dignity, identifies them as potential prey. Usually the victims win through in the end, turning the tables decisively on their predators. But this often happens only after the victims, themselves, have displayed their ability to become, if provoked, as devious, as base, as calculating and, indeed, as mercenary as the objects of their retribution. And so Poisoned Petals gives some beautiful insights into human behaviour, some vivid illustrations of resourcefulness.

It is a collection to read over a week or two, a few stories at a time, since each is self-contained and memorable. The stories provoke us to reflect on that human condition, and profitably, enjoyably so.

View this book on amazon Poisoned Petals

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White

A reviewer of A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White is presented with a number of problems, In the paraphrased words of one of the book’s characters, there may be a lot in the wash, but eventually not much to hang out, and this, by the end of the book, largely summed up what it had delivered. Be reassured, however, that the process of reading A Boy’s Own Story is a delight from start to finish. 

Edmund White’s style is quite beautiful, full of complex allusions, superb characterisation and, above all, masterful description. Every character springs to life off the page. If only collectively or individually they had more to offer… 

 A Boy’s Own Story is an adolescent’s discovery and realisation of his own homosexuality. The book promises a lot of sex and, sure enough, it both begins and ends with explicit encounters. Throughout the remainder, however, the sex seems to be more in the mind than in the experience. It appears that Edmund White’s adult recollection of his teenage dilemmas could have been subject to the embellishment of later reflection. Repeatedly the author stretches time to explore the detail of options whenever the boy of the title is presented with a dilemma. These were surely the voices of later years speaking through an ostensibly reconstructed, but surely imagined past. The boy always spoke eloquently about his choices, considered options in detail, but perhaps not convincingly. One of the more engaging aspects of coming of age sagas is how innocence is portrayed and how its conquest is engineered.

In A Boy’s Own Story one feels that Edmund White wants to deny that he was ever innocent, or at least suggest that he would ever admit it. And so a spark that could have lit up the glowing prose never quite ignited. When the book first appeared over twenty years ago, the fact that it did appear in its explicit form, apparently denying the guilt that oozes off every page, might itself have been worthy of note. Twenty years on it now reads as merely dated, but still it reads beautifully thanks to the author’s supreme skill with words and expression. The issues that might previously have rendered it remarkable have, however, long since cooled, so now the reader must approach the book either as it is, as an autobiography, or alternatively in historical terms.

The book, however, cannot sustain the latter approach. I will now certainly seek out other books by Edmund White, but in the case of A Boy’s Own Story I am tempted to conclude that though writers have to be self-obsessed, when that neurosis is turned completely inward, it raises new barriers that can exclude the reader. Hence the gloss. Hence the sheen of the whiter than white washing that proves to be just half a load.

View this book on amazon A Boy's Own Story (Picador Books)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Faith In Fakes by Umberto Eco

Faith In Fakes by Umberto Eco is a superbly entertaining beginner’s guide to semiotics. To what? Semiotics is the study and interpretation of symbols. In our increasingly iconic age, the discipline has much to say, and to do so must delve deeper and wider, into sociology, philosophy and psychology. In this superb selection of essays, Umberto Eco discusses topics as widely spaced as blue jeans, the film Casablanca, ancient monuments and theme parks. Throughout, he manages to communicate intensely difficult ideas with ease, making Faith In Fakes a truly enlightening read that both informs on theory and entertains via the mundane.

The reader must be prepared to go part-way into the discipline, however, especially in relation to specific authors and rarefied vocabulary. While names such as McLuhan, Foucault and Barthes might not deter most readers, words such as oneiric, corybantism, synecdoche, mytonymy, eversive and anthopophagy could prove to be stumbling blocks. There aren’t many of these specialist words, however, because overall Umberto Eco’s style is beautifully communicative and easy to read.

A particularly pleasing piece was Eco’s analysis of the film Casablanca and its cult status. He contrasts Casablanca with other films, ones that might be cited as “works of art”. He then makes a distinction not because these other films are intrinsically “better”, but because they aim higher in that they are better focused and constructed, intellectually. Basically they have potential meaning or significance, have been well written, well acted and well characterised, though most of them might not achieve any of their targets. Hence they are not necessarily better films.

Casablanca, on the other hand, Eco describes as a hodgepodge (bricolage) of ideas, badly characterised, poorly written and ultimately incredible, either as a film or as a reflection of any kind of reality. (Eco, I am sure, would also argue here that this latter point is wholly valid since the film employs realism both in its style and in its definite historical setting.)

But the point is that a near random juxtaposition of elements eventually becomes an art form of its own, able to make statements in its own terms. Copying from one learned text is called plagiarism, Copy from fifty and it’s called research. Use one cliché and it’s culpable. Use a hundred and it’s called Gaudi. It’s a brilliant point.

As a film, Casablanca, he argues, never inhabits a single genre, never communicates merely a single message. It is presented almost as a series of unrelated tableaux, where the characters do as required by the passing scenario. It thus becomes a pastiche where there’s something for everyone, where it can become more entertaining to spot, categorise, recognise and then discuss the loosely-related vignettes than to appreciate the whole, because there is no whole to appreciate.

McLuhan advised us that the medium had become the message. Eco takes us further, illustrating how mass media are no longer conduits for ideology because they themselves have become the ideology. So now, when we watch television news that concentrates on celebrity and the entertainment industry, we ought to be rendered keenly aware of the motives and interests at play. When, come to think of it, did you last hear a wholly negative film review? So where lies the line between reviewer and promoter?

We seem, according to Eco’s logic, to confuse three similar, related, but different concepts – popular, populist and demotic. What we call popular culture should really be labelled populist culture. Popularity is its aim, not yet its achievement. In a row over music downloaded via the internet, reports in July 2008 claim that over eighty per cent of musicians earn less than five thousand British pounds a year in royalties. And remember that they are the ones that actually have the recording contracts!

So what should we call this not so popular popular music? I argue we should refer to populist music and populist culture, because it aims to achieve popularity, though little of it ever will. But what happens if or when it does? At that point its very success becomes its prime platform for further promotion. Now it carries the illusion of being demotic, that it both stemmed from and is the property of ordinary people, rather than, obviously, a marketed commodity aiming to achieve a status that will foster that illusion. Its adherents to date can now be trotted out as evidence of its potential to attract and as proof of its worthiness to do so. The medium has thus become the ideology, the mechanism by which a commercial enterprise that aspires to popularity from a narrow sectional origin might achieve popularity and then use its achievement to seek more of the same.

Finally, it is the demotic currency provided by success that then suggests we should make aesthetic judgments on that basis. Success becomes proof of worth, almost as if the winner has run for election to that office. Success then becomes the only basis for aesthetic judgments, thus denying the validity of those made an any other basis, because they lack demotic legitimacy and must therefore be based on snobbery or elitism or both. The ideology thus rejects any basis for aesthetic judgment except that which its own ideology defines. Aesthetics, incidentally, tend to resurface when the advocate is reminded of the success, and hence aesthetic worth, of The Bridies’ Song or Remember You’re A Womble!

The essays in Faith In Fakes by Umberto Eco are stimulating, eye-opening and enlightening. They provoke thought rather than the desire to write a simple review. For that, I apologise.

View this book on amazon
Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Miraculous Bartok from Valencia Youth

A full symphony orchestra in full flight is a thoroughly rousing experience. When that is combined with a programme that offers contrasting style and form, the result is usually a treat. When the whole is also delivered with the enthusiasm of a youth orchestra, then joy also enters the equation. I would not claim that the Valencian Youth Orchestra performed perfectly in Palau Altea last night, but their efforts were well beyond the creditable. 

Even the two conductors, Robert Ferrer for the first half and then Isaac González were rookies, the latter especially appearing to possess a talent that might mature to fame.

The band began with a concert hall regular, Weber’s Die Freischütz Overture. They played it well, not always accurately, but the relatively simple musical ideas were clear and the lines always joined up. The second work proved to be something of an enigma. I know nothing of the music of Manuel Palau, and unfortunately his Dramatic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra did little prompt further investigation. It was a confused piece, with the orchestra sounding all triadic and modal, like Vaughan Williams 80 years too late, while the soloist mingled styles reminiscent of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, interposed with highly chromatic clusters and even, in the third movement, introducing the opening descending chords of the Schumann concerto as a theme! The orchestra and soloist, Bartolomeu Jaume, played beautifully throughout, but the work let them down. 

The second half began with a recently commissioned work by Miguel Gálvez-Taroncher. His Concerto for Orchestra was quite slow to take off, but take off it did. There was the influence of Kancheli, and also Berg. Small germs of music emerged, sometimes in high dissonance, to be passed around the orchestra’s sections. The giant band sported a veritable battery of percussion for this piece and the forces were eventually well used. The work was effectively a giant single climax, from a confused, quiet, chromaticism to a violent, thrashing, atonal quake. It might not prove to be memorable but it was an engaging, interesting and visceral experience. The composer took a bow. 

Bela Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin is a piece I have known for a long time, but listened to only infrequently. Though originally a ballet, it has rarely been staged outside the concert hall. Anyone who has read the story would understand why. Its sexually explicit plot involving a Chinaman who lights up after he has been hung by the neck from an electricity cable illustrates the challenge. It was 1918 in Central Europe, after all, post-Freud, expressionist and post-World War One. But what an experience! I was genuinely apprehensive about whether the youthful orchestra would be able to play its complex rhythms and fiendishly difficult ensembles. I need not have worried. They were faultless and extremely well rehearsed. When Bartok’s pounding rhythms, all assembled as a fugue, brought the piece to its frantic and exciting conclusion, it sounded as if the music had been driven off the edge of a cliff. Exhilarating! Good luck to the young players of the Valencia Youth Orchestra.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Going down with a bang - Amsterdam Percussion Group in Altea

Percussion ensembles often try to raise the macho to an art form. Loudness and aggression often predominate, usually to the detriment of music. Obvious exceptions would be any Korean samulnori ensemble, where the macho is utterly enshrined, Gary Burton at his best, anything involving Steve Reich and, in the past, occasionally, Kodo. But often they seemed intent on beating the guts out of their Japanese temple drums. 

Now I must add the Amsterdam Percussion Group to the list of subtler performers, their concert in Palau Altea proving to be a complete joy. Altea-born Josep Vicent fronts the group. For six years he was a percussionist with one of the world’s greatest orchestras, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, and is now also a superb conductor in his own right. Anyone who attended his reading of Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite with the World Orchestra of Jeunesse Musicales in Villajoyosa and La Nucia earlier this year will testify to that. 

But Josep Vicent is also a stunningly accomplished performer and percussionist. Surely he is destined for significant international recognition. The Amsterdam Percussion Group varied from three to six players. The three core members are all percussionists and, in Palau Altea, their battery of instruments was occasionally augmented by cello, guitar and bass guitar. 

The musical style is minimalist, the debt to Steve Reich explicit, but there was Gary Burton there as well in the jazz-style four mallet vibraphone techniques. Fundamental to Steve Reich’s musical personality was the idea of performance above recording and, surely, this philosophy was fundamental to everything offered by Josep Vicent’s group. 

They started with what proved to be a weakness, apparently improvising a climactic modal interchange over a musique concrète tape. In the 1960s I might have been impressed. The cello piece that followed eventually became vibraphone and bass guitar, and again it left a lot to be desired in the inspiration box.  
Then things came to life. The three percussionists played four tuned drums, offering a piece reminiscent of the first part of Steve Reich’s Drumming. It was superbly done, loud and musical, its rhythms complex yet immediately memorable. 

Quiet then intervened in the form of a Piazzolla tango played by a quintet, again with vibes and marimba. This was followed by one of the evening’s true high points, a piece called Black Page by Frank Zappa. The first section’s difficult chromatic cello led on to a ferocious and supremely skilful unison doubling of Josep Vicent’s drums and the marimba of Mike Schaperclaus, before the piece made its minimal point in vast proportions. 

The evening’s high point came next. It was the quietest piece of the night, played by the three percussionists, Josep, Mike and Arie de Boer, seated like kids at a party on the edge of the stage. Before them were three square bits of smooth plywood, each mounted on what appeared to be a couple of off cuts of two-by-one, amplified. With forehand and backhand strokes, finger prods, karate chops, slaps and taps, the three of them offered Table Music by Thierry de Mey, a percussive ballet for six hands. 

A sextet reminiscent of Gary Burton’s early jazz followed and then a piece of pure Africa, a fast, explosive piece of Burundian drumming. A flamenco-style sextet with guitar completed the performance, which was greeted with a universal standing ovation, and deservedly so. If you missed this one, there’s always the next time. They were exciting, subtle and musical, as well as loud. Josep Vicent will be back. He’s from Altea, after all.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Towards Asmara by Thomas Keneally

Towards Asmara by Thomas Keneally was eventually disappointing. As a process, the experience was strewn with beauty, vivid images and arresting phrases. The author, for instance, described desert vegetation ready to burst into life at the first “rumour” of moisture. The writing style has a quirky inventiveness that regularly surprises.

Where Towards Asmara eventually breaks down, however, is its inability to take the reader past the credibility hurdle that spans observer and participant. Not that one particularly wants to participate! War, famine, being shot at, placed under house arrest or being tortured are all experiences to avoid on most working days and Towards Asmara is packed with them. The journalistic skill with which the book’s events are described is enormous. We are introduced to enough history for context, enough current events to situate and enough political interests to begin an understanding. 

So if the style is good and the context is engaging, where is the problem? The answer is in the book’s characters. Darcy is an Australian, a bit mixed up after his ethnically Chinese wife ran off with an Aborigine jailbird back home. Now she won’t even deal with him. There’s Amna, an Eritrean guerrilla who has suffered every imaginable torture at the hands of the Dergue. There’s Julia, a British lady of some class who is researching women’s issues for the Anti-Slavery Society. There’s Masihi, a film maker, and Christine from France who finds a role working with him. And here is the problem. 

Towards Asmara claims the status of an African novel, but we never experience any aspect of the plot from within an African or local psyche. The place, its people and the events that unfold there are seen from without, via an external interpreter’s filter. The immediacy of war, ambush, famine, conflict becomes lost in the second nature of the characters’ experience. Also, the complications of the personal lives of these observers neither complement nor contrast with the exigencies of fighting for a cause. 

Eventually, everything seems unlikely, not least the very involvement of those involved with the events that unfold. At one point, there was a suggestion that Darcy’s ethnic minority wife back home in Australia might be offering an intellectual parallel with the Eritrean struggle. She, an apparent outsider, was allying herself and choosing to travel with an indigenous oppressed race, just like her estranged husband was doing with the Eritreans of Ethiopia. But that idea fizzled out, thankfully, because it could never have been sustained. Towards Asmara is a thoroughly enjoyable read. 

At times the style and language are a complete joy. But, when it avoids polemic, it approaches caricature. The reader, like its foreign observer participants, is left out of the understanding and experience the book promised to deliver. 

View this book on amazon Towards Asmara

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: Crime, punishment, and more

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was published in 1966, and is based on events that happened almost fifty years ago. The events were real. This is not a work of fiction. The Clutters, an appropriately surnamed Kansas family, have their own complications within their rambling homestead. What family doesn’t? Clutter the father is a farmer. Who isn’t in these parts? Life is not so productive of late. Whose is? The two younger children, a daughter and a son, still live in. The others have left, happily.

And then, in November 1959, the four Clutters are found gagged, apart from the mother, with either their throats cut or their brains blown out by shotgun fire, or perhaps both. The community is in turmoil. No-one can explain why anyone might have wanted to kill a whole family in Holcomb, a small, poor, rural community in the mid-West Bible belt. 

Hickock (Hicock) and Smith are two lads on the move. Their families might be dysfunctional. On the other hand they might not. Their socialisation might have been lacking. On the other hand it might not. For whatever reason, individually and collectively they prey on others, prey in a way that renders them culpable, detectable and ultimately punishable. They know thieving is wrong. So, one of them says, we’ve stolen lives, so it must be serious. It was the two of them that pulled the trigger, that blew brains out, that slit throats, that did not quite commit rape. There are limits. And all for forty dollars and a transistor radio.

I give nothing of this book away when I reveal that the two lads did commit the murders – exactly how no-one ever admitted – and that, after years of litigious wrangling, both were hanged. The strength of In Cold Blood is not what happens, but how it happens. Truman Capote offers us a vast book in just four sustained chapters, each of which is sub-divided as the narrative shifts between aspects of the different protagonists’ lives.

Throughout, the style is much more complex than mere journalism, but the clarity with which it communicates is at times breathtaking. We hear from those directly involved, both victims and perpetrators, their families, the police, the judiciary, the neighbours, the lawyers, the passers-by, the acquaintances, the cellmates. The detail is forensic. It is essential that the reader is constantly reminded that this is not fiction.

Truman Capote offers dialogue where a journalist would report, offers interpretation where an historian would defer, offer opinion where an observer might decline. And so In Cold Blood becomes and absorbing, multi-faceted, mid-twentieth century reworking of Crime And Punishment. The crucial difference that the intervening years have generated is that where the latter concentrated on the individual circumstances and motives of the perpetrator, In Cold Blood explores the social and the contextual alongside the psychological.

And this is where the book becomes deeply disturbing, because it seems to suggest that the individuality that contemporary society seems to demand of us might itself promote a degree of self-centredness, of selfishness, perhaps, that might give rise to nothing less than contempt for others. In the forty years since the publication of In Cold Blood, it could be argued that such pressures might have increased. Frightening, indeed.