Sunday, 27 June 2010

William Fiennes: The Music Room

William Fiennes has somehow escaped me until now - maybe because autobiography isn’t one of my favourite genres, except when it’s a person I’m really interested in. But I saw the Snow Geese reviewed on another book blog (Dovegreyreader, who raved about it) and then found the Music Room in a remaindered book shop for £2.99.
I read it quickly - it’s refreshingly short - and with more pleasure than almost anything else I’ve read in a long time. The prose is beautiful and the way he takes readers into the world of the child is perfectly done. I can’t believe it’s only his second book.
William Fiennes was brought up in a moated castle (Broughton in Oxfordshire) though it’s never named in the book. Apparently he wanted every reader to imagine their own perfect castle as they read (interview here). But although his childhood was more privileged than most, he was lonely, being about 10 years younger than his nearest siblings. The castle became his playground, the film set for his imagination.
The family’s outwardly idyllic existence was overshadowed by tragedy. An older brother, Thomas, had been killed aged 3 in a freak accident before William was born. His eldest brother, Richard, suffered severe epilepsy that left him brain-damaged and sometimes violent. One of the most poignant moments in the book is the one where William comes round the corner of a secluded part of the garden -
“I saw Dad standing next to the house, his right arm stretched out, palm pressed flat against a buttress, his head dropped. He didn’t move.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked.
He said he was asking the house for some of its strength.”

The book also explores the murky history of epilepsy and the effect that it has had on families and communities over the centuries, being associated either with witchcraft or divine revelation. I couldn’t help thinking about the ‘lost prince’, George V’s son John, who was hidden away from the public gaze until he died at the age of 13. William Fiennes’ brother survives into adult-hood, but the effect on the family is profound.  One reviewer called the book 'jaw-droppingly beautiful'  and it is.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Henning Mankell: Italian Shoes

I love Henning Mankell’s Wallander books - well plotted and written - so I thought I’d try one of his mainstream novels, the newly published ‘Italian Shoes’. In the beginning I was gripped by it. Mankell gets right inside the psychology of an aging recluse who has lived alone on a remote Swedish island for twelve years with only a dog and cat for company and the occasional appearance of a hypochondriac postman called Jansson. The descriptions of the frozen landscape made me (almost) want to move to Scandinavia.
One morning, the solitary recluse wakes up to see an elderly woman standing on the ice beside the landing stage, propped up by her zimmer frame, and realises that his past has tracked him down. Hannah, who is dying prematurely of cancer, has come to find him and, in a variety of devious ways, bring him to account. After this point the book begins to fall apart.
I didn’t find the central section of the book credible and the writing was thinner than the first. The book picks up towards the end, but I always felt that my credibility was being stretched too far. What kept me reading was the character - an utterly believable, deeply flawed individual who is made to behave in ways that are alien to him. His redemption didn’t ring true, as if the author had striven for ways to bend character and plot towards the happy resolution he wanted the book to have.
The Italian shoes of the title? These have a mythic, almost fairy tale significance in the story. Deep in the forest dwells an elderly Italian shoe-maker who only makes shoes for international celebrities. A pair of red stilletto heels tap, in a rebellious fashion, through the plot, and a special pair of shoes is ordered for the hero of the novel, to be delivered at a symbolic moment.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Three Crime Fiction Authors

Kathy Reichs: 206 Bones, Steig Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Shamini Flint: Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Mystery

With all the travelling I’ve been doing lately by train and plane, there’s been plenty of time for the kind of light reading I enjoy. I love any kind of puzzle, but the plot convolutions of crime fiction are my all time favourites.
I was attracted to Kathy Reichs when she began to publish because I was fascinated by the unpleasant details of forensic science. Who, in their right mind, would fancy picking someone’s toe nails out of the bathroom carpet, analysing maggots, or trawling the suspect’s sewage system for traces of blood? The feisty Tempe Brennan, apparently. But as the books have gone on being written, they have become more and more the same. Although the names may change the plot always follows the same pattern. I read 206 Bones because I wanted to find out who did it (although I had guessed before the half way mark), but the book itself bored me and I probably won’t bother to pick up any more.

Steig Larsson’s trilogy has had a lot of press coverage and much hype, so I picked up the first book with some reservations. They didn’t last beyond the first two pages. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as good as and probably better than its reputation. I was enthralled by the characterisation, the complexity of the plot and the originality of the story. Above all it is the depth of psychology that puts this book in the Premier League of crime fiction authors. I can’t wait to read the rest now!

I’m always on the look-out for new crime fiction authors and, having recently been to Singapore and about to return, I picked up one of the Inspector Singh novels as the result of an Amazon ‘like-for-like’ recommendation. But they didn’t get my tastes quite right. Shamini Flint writes very well, with good characters and an original and beautiful setting, but I found the book a bit cosy. If you like Alexander McCall Smith’s detective fiction then you’ll probably like this.