Day 1229: The Streets

Cover for The StreetsIt is Victorian London. David Wildeblood has obtained a job as a gatherer of information for “The Labouring Classes of London,” a weekly paper owned by Mr. Marchmont. He is assigned the neighborhood of Somers Town, where he observes what is going on and makes calls to gather information about the households.

David doesn’t do well at first, because he doesn’t understand the dialect spoken in Somers Town. He is also robbed twice and almost killed when he tries to pursue the second robber. But an encounter with a young coster, Jo, saves him.

Slowly, David begins to realize that something is going on in the neighborhood. First, he helps protest against the landlords, who are charging the poor exhorbitant rents for ruinous quarters, by finding out who the owners are. As it turns out that the owners are on the council in charge of taking tenant complaints, that raises the storm. But eventually, David learns that something even more corrupt and disturbing is going on.

The blurb of this book compares it to Dickens, and that comparison has some validity. Although this novel doesn’t teem with humor and colorful characters, it does contain effective descriptions of London neighborhoods and the city’s poor. It is well written and nicely paced, and I enjoyed reading it. This book was another one I read for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Day 1224: The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire

Cover for The Alphabet of Heart's DesireThe Alphabet of Heart’s Desire is about an incident in the early life of Thomas De Quincey, best known as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater. The bare bones of fact are that De Quincey, as a young man, was given an allowance to use in his travels around the country, which he stopped getting when he fell out of touch with his family. Destitute, he was rescued by Anne, a prostitute. This novel tells their stories, along with that of Tuah, a Malay slave who is taken in by Archie, who sells used clothing.

I had a lot of trouble reading this novel and kept putting it aside to read other books. I almost decided to quit reading it when I realized I was 80% done, so I finished it. My problem was that I didn’t find any of the three major characters, De Quincey, Anne, and Tuah, particularly interesting. Here is a situation where the author tries to invoke interest in his characters by making bad things happen to them, trying to raise our sympathy from these unfortunate events rather than from the characters’ own personalities.

link to NetgalleyI also found this fictionalized interpretation of a short period in De Quincey’s life to be relatively pointless. All it serves is to wrap up Anne’s fate in a pretty bow. In reality, she disappeared into the London stews.

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Day 1223: To Kill a Tsar

Cover for To Kill a TsarI have such a struggle with reading eBooks that I often put them aside while I’m charging my iPad and pick up a paper book, only to not return to the eBook until I finish the paper one. This is what happened with To Kill a Tsar, which was the paper book I picked up. Sometimes, the reason for continuing with the paper book is that I’m engrossed in it, but this time, it was just because I was finding the eBook no better.

The main character of To Kill a Tsar, Dr. Frederick Hadfield, is a Russian of British ancestry whose uncle is high up in Russian political circles. Hadfield has recently returned from studying in Switzerland and has liberal tendencies, which in Russia makes him a radical.

At a radical social event, he meets Anna Kovalenko and agrees to help her on Sundays at a free clinic. He is drawn to her, but he realizes very soon that she is part of a political group who just attempted to assassinate Tsar Alexander II. Does he avoid her despite his belief in nonviolence? No, of course not.

For me, this is one of the many places where the novel breaks down. To keep us interested in this story about terrorists, we are presented with a wholly unconvincing love story. Then, there is the question of what the author is asking of us. Are we supposed to sympathize with these people, who don’t care how many people are killed, as long as they make their point? Certainly, Williams doesn’t spend enough time revealing the characters of the police for us to sympathize with them. In fact, there is a subplot of an informer inside the police, but when his identity was revealed, I didn’t even know who he was.

I honestly couldn’t figure out what Williams was thinking when he made his choices. There were lots of things he could have done to make this novel interesting. He could have, for example, worked more to make us sympathize with one side or the other instead of assuming, in this age of terrorism, that we would think “No rights? Of course, kill the tsar!” never mind that, as tsars go, Alexander II was one of the most liberal. If Williams simply wanted to report what happened without following a side, he could have left out the lame love affair and spent equal time with both sides. If he wanted us to sympathize more with Hadfield, then make his reactions more understandable.

This is one of the books on my Walter Scott Prize list that I didn’t enjoy that much. That has happened before, but in this case, I also didn’t think it was a very good novel. I don’t think that has happened before.

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Day 1220: Tightrope

Cover for TightropeYet again, I had no idea that Tightrope, which I read for my Walter Scott project, was a sequel until I went into Goodreads to indicate I had started reading it and saw that it was “Marian Sutro #2.” In this case, the novel seemed to recap the events of the first novel rather heavily, so I don’t think I missed anything by skipping the first book except maybe some feeling for Marian.

I found Mawer’s The Glass Room to be icy in its distance from the characters, so I wasn’t excited about reading Tightrope. It turned out to be better than I expected but not much.

Tightrope begins toward the end of World War II, when Marian Sutro returns to England. She was one of the women sent over to infiltrate Europe during the war, where she worked with the French resistance. But she was betrayed and spent the last two years in Ravensbrück. Shortly before the liberation, she and some other women managed to escape.

Because of Marian’s background, she is of interest to the British secret service. She is of interest to the Russians, too, primarily because her brother Ned is a nuclear physicist. Her own beliefs that knowledge of nuclear weapons must be shared to maintain peace also draws her into the midst of the Cold War.

This novel is narrated by Sam, the son of one of Marian’s friends, and his story contains lots of details he couldn’t have known, even though he had access to her file and she tells him parts of her story. This narrative also allows Mawer to insert a certain amount of salacious detail, as Sam has a mad adolescent crush on Marian. I think I mentioned Mawer’s fascination with labia in my last review.

Marian is essentially an unknowable character, which kept me, as a reader, from becoming very engaged with her story. It didn’t help that she seemed to be the product of some adolescent idea of a perfect woman—a beautiful woman who sleeps with just about every man she meets and cares for none of them. Yet we are to believe she cares for one, even though there is little evidence for it. I found the book blurb, which says “Marian must risk everything to protect those she loves . . .” laughable.

Quotes on the cover call Mawer “a true master of literary espionage” and call the novel “gripping.” If you want gripping, try John Le Carré or Robert Harris instead.

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Day 1218: The Singapore Grip

Cover for The Singapore GripThe Singapore Grip is the third of J. G. Farrell’s Empire trilogy, which takes a sardonic look at various parts of the British Empire. The Siege of Krishnapur is set in the nineteenth century during the Sepoy rebellion. Troubles takes place in Ireland during the Troubles in the early 20th century. The Singapore Grip is set during the Japanese invasion of Malaya in World War II.

The novel begins in 1939. Walter Blackett is a powerful Singapore businessman whose sole concern is the profits of his company, Blackett and Webb. Despite the Allies’ need for rubber, Blackett is concerned with keeping the price up and spends his time fixing prices and manipulating the market.

His senior partner dies, and Walter awaits the arrival of Matthew Webb, his partner’s heir. Although Walter’s beautiful daughter, Joan, spends her time tormenting various young men, she readily agrees to help her father’s ambitions by marrying Matthew.

Matthew is a naive and feckless young man, whose ideals have been somewhat battered during his work for the League of Nations. Although he is chubby and unprepossessing, Joan makes a dead set for him, dismaying Ehrendorf, the previous favorite. But Matthew is more interested in Vera Chiang, a Eurasian girl who may be a prostitute or possibly a Communist or maybe neither.

This novel is peopled with Farrell’s usual peculiar characters, including a figure from Troubles, Major Brendan Archer. As Singapore begins descending into chaos, the Major attempts to organize a volunteer fire department. But his efforts are hampered by a lack of interest, as the Singaporians concentrate on selling things and the Blacketts focus all their activities on a Jubilee celebration of the company.

Farrell’s cynical look at the last years of the British in Singapore is occasionally hilarious, with a dark and deadpan humor. It also contains much to consider, as various characters discuss the benefits of colonization (whether there are any), theories of commerce, and other ideas that obsess them.

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Day 1215: The Flamethrowers

Cover for The FlamethrowersSet in the mid-1970’s, The Flamethrowers evokes two distinct but frenetic movements. In New York, it is the art scene, where performance art is coming to the fore and artists are trying to live their art. In Italy, it is revolution and the Red Brigade, where common people are rising up against business and political corruption.

The heroine, Reno, has grown up in Nevada ski racing and has a fascination with motorcycles and speed. She moves to New York to become an artist (although we never see her making any art) and eventually becomes the girlfriend of Sandro Valera, a well-known, older artist.

Sandro’s family in Italy made its money in motorcycles and tires, and when Reno travels to the Great Salt Flats to do a time trial on her Valera motorcycle, she accidentally gets involved in the family business. As a result, Sandro reluctantly brings her to Italy during a time of great instability and confusion.

Kushner evocatively depicts both the New York art scene and the seething streets of Rome, although often the artists seem like poseurs to me. I don’t think the depiction is meant to be satirical, though.

However, Reno as observer seems to be a different person than the risk-taker who went to New York. Further, the narrative, which occasionally jumps to the story of Sandro’s grandfather, who started the company, feels disjointed and as if it doesn’t really add up. Although I was entranced by long passages of this novel, I ended up wondering what it really was about. In particular, the novel relies on Reno’s relationship with Sandro to tie it all together, but that relationship is barely touched on.

This is the first book I read specifically because it is part of my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project.

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Day 1213: A Country Road, A Tree

Cover for A Country Road, A TreeBest of Five!
I know little about Samuel Beckett except that he was Irish, and I have the most basic knowledge of Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape. (“A country road, a tree” is his setting for Godot.) So, I would not be able to say whether the novel at all conveys a true sense of what Becket was like. I can say, though, that I’ve read other works of biographical fiction that felt as if they gave a false or poor sense of their main character. A Country Road, A Tree is much more plausible in depicting Beckett.

The novel does not cover his entire life but concentrates on the war years, 1939-1945. Beckett is already a published writer, although probably not to much attention. He is friends with James Joyce and other writers and artists in Paris.

At the beginning of the war, Beckett is in Ireland. He feels stifled there, though, and chooses to return to Paris despite the instability. There he lives an increasingly stressful and straitened existence with his lover, Suzanne. At first, he has no papers, which complicates things when he and Suzanne are forced to evacuate Paris with the German invasion. Later, he decides to work with the French underground, which makes their lives even more precarious. Finally, they must flee to the countryside again.

Although this novel does not concentrate on the literary side of Beckett’s life—in fact, during much of it he is unable to write—it grabs your attention and keeps it. It also provides some insight into the man who produced his later works. I loved Jo Baker’s Longbourne and have been waiting for her to produce a work equal to it. This is that work, which I read for both my Walter Scott Prize and my James Tait Black projects.

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