Sunday, 24 February 2013

The End of the Affair

After my last read was a little disappointing, I decided to go back and revisit some Graham Greene. One of my favourite authors, The End of the Affair is the work I'd always ranked highest. I've always been a little morbid where books and films are concerned; I'm a sucker for tales of woe. What greater tale of woe can you get than Maurice Bendrix's bitter narration and searing jealousy at the sudden end of his affair with civil servant's wife, Sarah?

Bendrix's love, and hatred, for Sarah is deep and twisted. His hatred stems from his possessive passion for her. He looks back on their wartime affair, which he poisoned with his insecurity, after a chance encounter with her husband. When he meets Henry, whom he had cuckolded, he is unsettled and suspecting Sarah's infidelity. It has been some time since Bendrix saw her and old feelings are awoken. Henry is considering hiring a private eye to get his answers; it's an idea he disregards, but Bendrix cannot. So we follow his present quest to see if Sarah has moved on, while he reflects on what went wrong.

I've always loved this story as a compelling take on the power of jealousy to destroy those things we treasure. Bendrix is a man who believed he had exactly what he wanted in Sarah, but he is forever in limbo while she remains married to Henry. He's aware of previous lovers and cannot disregard these niggling memories to enjoy the present. As he muses, "because I couldn't bear the thought of her so much as touching another man, I feared it all the time, and I saw intimacy in the most casual movement of the hand".

Bendrix's love for Sarah is unhealthy, and eats away at him; "I measured love by the extent of my jealousy, and by that standard of course she could not love me at all". He takes it as far as wishing "I'd rather be dead or see you dead...than see you with another man", as "anyone who loves is jealous".

One day, after Bendrix's building is bombed while Sarah spends the night with him, he nearly dies; Sarah, apparently disappointed by his survival, leaves, and he does not hear from her again. Bendrix falls apart, and his bile builds. The "end of love" he so dreaded has arrived; he is a broken man and the scars do not heal well.

The second half is where Greene builds on the religious themes of his previous novels. The End of the Affair is considered to be the most Catholic of Greene's works, and as the reasons for Sarah's abandonment become clear, the story focuses more on the exploration of faith and non-belief. Bendrix is as angrily opposed to Sarah's adopted beliefs as he was about whether she loved him enough. He becomes enraged and vindictive towards the priest he encounters and Catholic views of God. Even after Sarah is out of his life for eternity, he continues his vitriol towards the deity while miracles surround those who encountered her.

The strengths of this book for me were its exploration of jealousy, and how love can be a destructive force. The religious elements were of interest, but I'd forgotten since I last read this how major a part they played.

I've read some critiques of the character of Sarah, and how underdeveloped she appears; however, I felt this to be crucial to forming some kind of understanding of Bendrix's perceptions. Arguably, he never truly knew Sarah, not deeply; he was so blinded by his passion and desire for her, he lost sight of who she was and how she felt for him. It's this tunnel vision which forms his angry, bitter voice which gives this novel its power.

I enjoyed re-reading this, and I'd always recommend Graham Greene to anyone. Immensely readable, this story is a great tap into those deep, dark emotions which rarely appear in works about love and heartbreak. It's also allegedly based on a real-life affair Greene himself had, so there's interest too in imagining the parallels with Bendrix's author character. In general, it's a reliable rush hour read which I never fail to enjoy.

(Available in hardback, paperback, Kindle and audio from Amazon)

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Quick Reads: Empowering Readers

Books inspire passionate debate, deep concentration and plenty of blogging. For many of us, reading a good book isn't a luxurious means of passing time, it's an important part of our lives.

However, for the one in six working adults in the UK who struggle with reading the picture is very different. A book presents a real challenge and one those with difficulties avoid.

This is something the Quick Reads project aims to change. The team commission big name writers to write great, compelling reads of shorter length. By creating more bite-sized pieces of fiction, a barrier is chipped away for those less confident with reading. The fantastic authors involved with the project produce strong, action-packed stories to open up a world of reading to those whose previous experience with fiction caused them to shy away.

Quick Reads is a fantastic outreach programme, helping make a real difference for those with reading difficulties. Improved reading skills have a notable effect on not only job prospects but also self esteem. Parents with higher reading confidence are also more likely to share the benefits of reading with their children, inspiring and improving aspirations for the next generation.

Today marks the launch of six new titles by some really exciting authors. For a bargainous £1, these could be yours via booksellers and online retailers. So get involved, and help support this brilliant programme!

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Universe versus Alex Woods

Sometimes, you want to like a book so much. Everything about it sounds like something you'd enjoy. It has recognition too, a bit of buzz which tempts you to try it.

This was why I decided to read The Universe versus Alex Woods. One of the Waterstones 11, I was between books and suggestible. I began the first chapter and was optimistic; Gavin Extence's beginning convinced me that this was one I wanted to see through, with tension and intrigue from page one. I couldn't wait to find out what happened.

Unfortunately, I just didn't get on very well with Alex Woods after this.

There were definite signs of promise. The story was event-led at the beginning, from Alex's arrest as a 17-year-old to the incident when he was hit by a meteor fragment in his younger years. This episode changed the course of his life, putting him a year behind his peers at school and causing his epilepsy. Alex is an outsider, and his struggle was proving an interesting tale.

Then Alex meets Mr Peterson, and starts to grow up. The elderly Vietnam veteran becomes his closest friend. So close that, when the pair receive some bad news, Alex realises how far he'll go to help his friend fulfil his wishes.

For me, the book was quite inconsistent. It felt there were distinct segments of the novel; Alex's youth and distance from his peers felt very different from the section where he forms a close bond with Mr Peterson. How they fused together was a struggle for me. At one point I actually forgot the bit about meteors had any relation to the bits where Alex and Mr Peterson are on their final journey, and too many bits had happened between the first chapter and the loop it fills at the end.

I also didn't particularly believe the characters, nor warm to them. Alex's naivety at the beginning did not wash for me later in the story. It's proven to readers that Alex is clearly very well read, but has what felt like silly gaps in his knowledge of culture. For example, when he is in a hotel described as having art deco interiors, there is an apparent need for him to narrate, "art deco turned out to be the name of the strange modern-antique style of furniture in the rooms". It felt unnecessary and just irritated me. Similarly, Alex feels the need to tell us "I hadn't read War and Peace, but I understood what Mr Peterson meant: War and Peace was extraordinarily long". Again, this just felt needless.

Other characters in the story just felt like a collection of stereotypes. No nonsense, pacifist war vet Mr Peterson. "Out there" witch mum. Feisty swearing teen Ellie. You get the picture. There was a bit more depth in the last section; but at this stage I was just focused on finishing and getting to my next book.

It's a real shame as I wanted to like this title. It has great reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, so perhaps it's just me and I didn't get it. On the basis of this I'd say give it a try; it just really wasn't for me. Not my favourite rush hour read I'm afraid.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Adventures of a London Paperback

Sometimes you come across an idea which leaves you wondering, why didn't I think of that?

Books on the Underground is one of those.

You read a book, you love it. What to do with it now? Perhaps storage space is a premium in your flat and your bookshelves are groaning under the weight of too many novels. Maybe you have your next book ready to go in your bag, and would really appreciate not having to lug about two any longer.

This is where Books on the Underground and their clever packs of stickers can help. Simply add one of these to the front of your book:

Then you can happily leave it behind as you go for a fellow commuter, as you may with your morning Metro, and voila! Your book lives on, there to unexpectedly brighten someone's otherwise grim morning travels. Whoever finds the book can then tweet their find (@BooksUndergrnd), read, then leave it on the Tube when done. Meanwhile, you can follow the progress as it travels the London Underground through Twitter or the Books on the Underground blog.

I've not come across one of these books yet, but I'm looking forward to the day I do. I'm really hoping I might benefit from the team's Valentine's Day "Love on the Underground" tie-up with Mills & Boon...

London may be a city with a dog eat dog reputation, but I genuinely believe it has a good heart - you can witness this is the little everyday acts of kindness that happen out the corner of your eye. The Underground represents a microcosm of the best and worst of London, from the shoving and elbowing to people offering their seats to those in need. This idea represents London at its best, the desire we all have deep down to be part of a community and to share kindnesses, even towards those annoying folk who don't take their massive backpacks off in a busy carriage (a particular bugbear of mine - grr!).

I just love the idea of these humble paperbacks travelling to the furthest reaches of the Tube and back, passing through different homes and handbags. It's like a fightback against the destiny of most books to gather dust on shelves, and instead they're out in the world, exploring and adventuring. If only books could talk....

As Kindles, iPads and Kobos become increasingly part of a commuter's armour, it's great to see physical books playing such a fun role in the rush hour. So, how to get involved? Visit the blog, have a read and request stickers to add to your books. Here's hoping I'll be lucky to stumble across one soon!

Friday, 8 February 2013

Gone Again

Yesterday morning an exciting package arrived for me in the post:

So excited by this delivery was I that I thought I'd open and read the first few pages, just to get a feel for the story.

I was gripped. It's now 24 hours later and, apart from participating in the necessities of eating and sleeping, I've not been able to put this addictive read down.

As mentioned in my previous post, this was a break from the typical books I've read this year. I tend not to read too many thrillers; my reads tend to be gentler fare, probably for no other reason than habit. I'm glad I made the break for this one. Gone Again is the story of a family torn apart when wife and mother Lauren fails to pick up son Nathan from school. Told from the perspective of husband and father Mark, we follow the duo as minutes turn into hours and worry builds as Lauren's whereabouts remain a mystery. A shocking discovery is then made which changes their lives forever.

Doug Johnstone's style is brilliantly raw. We observe Mark's thoughts as his worry grows, his doubts peak and he is tortured by memories of what now must be a previous life. Alongside his own torment Mark desperately tries to protect his son. Their relationship forms the heart of this story and as a reader you can empathise with Mark's determination to shield the young boy from the pain of loss as well as the trauma that spills in the latter half.

I loved the simplicity of Johnstone's storytelling. We've all been in those situations where we've watched the clock, wondering where a late loved one is. In this tale we see what happens when our darkest imaginings come true, causing our baggage to come tumbling out the closet as every element of our lives is scrutinised. The reveals about their family history, Lauren's previous disappearance and the mysterious goings on at her place of work are drip fed to the reader so that the novel's pace never flags. As for the last few chapters of this book - these are best tackled when you have plenty of time to read without interruption. I was glad I had the luxury of a day off when reading, as I would have hated to put this down at any point during the thrilling climax.

My only slight criticism would be that I felt there were a few unresolved components at the end of this story. Without wanting to give too much away, we leave the characters at something of a beginning of the end; there are still issues to be resolved, questions unanswered. This isn't necessarily a weakness, as it does leave the reader thinking and wondering what happens next (personally I've been hoping desperately that poor Nathan won't be too traumatised by his early experiences with Edinburgh's criminal underbelly). Ultimately, whether you find this slightly frustrating or highly intriguing is down to personal preference.

Regardless of this, I found Gone Again to be a dark, pacy thriller; you'll find yourself flying through the pages, wanting justice for Mark and his family. I'd definitely recommend it as an entertaining, easy to read commute book which provides both escapism and excitement en route to the office.

(Published 7 March 2013. Available for preorder on Kindle or paperback. Thanks to Doug Johnstone and Faber and Faber for sending me a copy for review.

To learn more about Doug Johnstone and his work, visit his blog.

For another review of this title, or to find out about other crime novels, visit Raven Crime Reads)

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Rush Hour Bookshelf: February 2013

Time has whizzed by and 2013 is already in its second month. I've read some brilliant books so far this year but, according to Goodreads, I need to up my game by 4% to reach my reading target for the year of 100 books. So, as an act of self-motivation, here are the next few reads I aim to tackle:

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence (Hodder & Stoughton, available in Hardback or ebook): Currently in progress. One of the Waterstones 11 for 2013, I was intrigued by the blurb and keen to give this debut a try. So far, some parts are inspired, others I'm not so sure about. I'm interested to see how this develops and how the pace settles in the latter half.

Gone Again by Doug Johnstone (Faber and Faber, published 7th March 2013, currently available for preorder). Kindly sent to me by Doug Johnstone and Faber, I'm excited to read what promises to be a gripping psychological thriller. It's the first book of this genre I'll have tackled in 2013 and I'm looking forward to trying something new.

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple (Persephone Books, available through the Persephone website) Persephone books are truly beautiful objects, and a publisher I've become familiar with through my short time blogging. Their focus is on female authors who have dropped out of print over the decades and are a brilliant champion of women's writing. After much research and recommendations, I've ordered this title. I can't wait to try this new author and can't thank my fellow bloggers enough for drawing my attention towards this great publisher!

Reviews to follow the meantime, happy reading! Please do let me know your thoughts if you've read any of the above, or hope to in the near future.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

A Glass of Blessings

One thing needs to be said before I can even start to review this book; everybody must read Barbara Pym. Named by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil in the Times Literary Supplement as "the most underrated novelist of the century" back in 1977, her work was unknown to me until I stumbled upon Excellent Women last year. I was stunned that it had taken so long for her books to come to my attention. Something of a Jane Austen of the 1950s, her works are witty social comedies capturing a time sandwiched between the great changes of the Second World War and the Swinging Sixties.

2013 marks the centenary of Pym's birth, so along with many Pym fans I'm marking the occasion by reading my way through one of her works a month. Rather than being logical and going by publication date, I decided to start slightly at random and chose A Glass of Blessings, first published in 1958.

Our heroine is Wilmet Forsythe, who has a comfortable, if dull, life with her civil servant husband Rodney and mother-in-law Sybil. Her world circles around the community in the high Anglican church she attends, where she often finds her thoughts wandering. During one service where Wilmet's mind is typically elsewhere she spies Piers Longridge, the handsome brother of Rowena, her old friend in the suburbs. Wilmet is intrigued by Piers and his mysterious life and soon starts to find him a welcome romantic distraction from her safe existence at home.

Wilmet finds her heart a-flutter as she fantasises about how her influence could change him from his moody, brooding, drinking ways. However, what Wilmet hasn't considered is just why Piers is unmarried, and she soon realises her assumption that he lives with a "colleague" isn't quite on the mark.

This book represents so many of the things I love about Pym's writing. Her stories are complex webs of many well conceived characters who all fit together into a deliciously funny portrait of 1950s London. Every detail of her characters is irresistible. For example, her choice of names add a richness and help to create a clear portrait of how she's imagined them. Wilmet and Marius Ransome are obviously fabulous examples, but Rodney summarises his safe, civil service ways; spinster Mary's name highlights her good, devoted nature and, my favourite of all, Keith. 

Piers' lover (as is implied but never explicitly stated) was a great construct. In a world of money and dressing for tea, Keith is from the lower social echelons. He dresses down, works in a coffee shop and models knitwear patterns. This contrast served both as great comic material but also a subtle way to illustrate the changing nature of society at the time. In the periphery there are great little sketches involving the goings on at the clergy house, a kleptomaniac male housekeeper and the students at Piers' Portugese classes.

It would be easy to take a simple view on both this story and Pym in general. Her tales may be a narrow view of a specific time in English history. What I love, however, is that we get sneaking glimpses of a society in flux through Wilmet's inquisitive and innocent eyes. Women can vote and work, but females with a career are a novelty; women clearly have their place. As Wilmet mused about working women, "I suppose some of them try to combine marriage with a career - I mean the ones who carry baskets as well as briefcases and look both formidable and worried, as if they hoped to slip into the butcher's before going to their desks". Father Ransome is from a more impoverished parish Wilmet suspects benefits from "these days of the welfare state". Similarly, we are witness in Wilmet's wanderings to the postwar redevelopment of urban areas; "I supposed it was a good thing that children should now be running about and playing...their shouts and laughter drowned out by the noise of the machinery that was building hideous new homes for them". That's before we even touch upon Piers and Keith's relationship in a time when homosexuality was illegal.

A Glass of Blessings is a perfect rush hour read. I chuckled away as Wilmet's focus flitted from important events to the silly, little details our bored minds often occupy themselves with. Every character fitted so well and all rang true. I even found myself feeling somewhat lucky to be on my way to another day in the office as Wilmet longed for excitement and a purpose in an age where being a professional wife was the norm. So, for some escapism with depth, I couldn't recommend this novel more highly.

I'm already looking forward to next month's dose of Barbara Pym!