Hastings District Libraries

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Fallout by Sadie Jones

Fallout chronicles the lives, loves and aspirations of four talented young people in London’s theatre scene during the 1970s. Lucas lives a life of quiet perseverance in Lincolnshire, caring for his alcoholic Polish father, and visiting his French mother in the mental hospital that has been her home since he was a boy. He works as a factory clerk, collecting Bob Dylan records and reading plays, without ever going to any live theatre.

One wet night, theatre hopefuls, Paul and Leigh, turn up from London and Lucas discovers two like minds. He throws in his job, heads for London and lands on Paul’s doorstep ready to dedicate his life to the theatre.

Meanwhile, Nina is an aspiring actress, struggling to be her own person, while her mother controls her auditions and appearances, and even her relationships. Like Lucas she is clearly damaged; when their worlds collide, the close working friendship Lucas enjoys with Paul and Leigh is suddenly at risk.

Sadie Jones creates a very intense story around her characters, filling in their histories, their insecurities and their flashes of brilliance. Tension builds between the characters, and Jones develops suspense and romance in equal measure, without descending into melodrama. She also immerses the reader in 1970s culture: feminism in the face of nudity on stage, experimental theatre, the music and fashions of the day.

Fallout is Sadie Jones’s fourth book, another credit to a novelist who can be relied upon to provide a vivid and diverting read.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Fallout

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth

The Tall Poppy Syndrome might be well and truly alive in Michael Booth’s new book. The Nordic countries have been held up as examples of successful societies who manage to be both socially cohesive and financially prosperous. Having married a Danish woman and taken up residence in the country, Booth has taken advantage of this part-insider/part-outsider status to take a closer look at each countries national psyche, in the hope of revealing the secrets to their success and to question whether they really deserve such a glowing reputation.

He admits at the outset that his aim was to seek out the flaws of the Nordic countries and give a more balanced picture. What he gives us is a mixed bag full of cultural stereotypes, quaint local custom, and reportage on social problems such as binge drinking, prejudice against immigrants, right wing politics, and social conservatism. And, that’s before getting on to the Swedes' lucrative arms selling industry and Iceland’s reckless, self-destructing economic policy.

Interviews with numerous experts and leaders are thrown into the mix, but they don’t go deep enough. Booth finishes off without the necessary in-depth analysis or coherent narrative to really answer the burning questions – why do these countries repeatedly come out tops on so many happiness and social wellbeing measures?  And, how can other countries achieve their levels of education, social mobility and plain old contentedness?

Despite this, and the lack of human story to connect to, I can’t complain. I wanted to keep on reading - obviously, I quite enjoy a spot of cultural stereotyping, as un-PC as this is. Who isn’t entertained by learning such interesting facts as 54% of Icelanders believe in elves, and how much in-depth analysis is really necessary on such a topic?

As I can’t afford the airfares to go and see for myself, the book satisfied part of my curiosity about the ‘happiest nations’. We all have flaws, there is no perfect utopia, and social harmony takes more than a shared liking for pickled fish and knitwear.

Posted by Spot

Catalogue Link: The Almost Perfect People

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir

When American astronaut, Mark Watney, becomes stranded on Mars, we have the beginning of a thrilling, Robinson Crusoe kind of adventure story, that grabs the reader on page one and doesn’t let up until the last paragraph.

Mark has been left for dead as his fellow crew-mates flee for their lives in the middle of a ferocious storm. What follows is Mark’s journal of survival, packed with science and nail-biting tension, as Mark has to figure out how to provide all the elements he needs to keep himself alive: air, water, food and warmth – all of which are glaringly in short supply on Mars’ barren landscape. Once he’s got that lot sorted, he has to make NASA realise he is still alive, and stay that way long enough to be rescued.

Luckily a smart young scientist has already noticed some activity via satellite imagery, and soon the pointy heads at NASA are swinging into action with a daring rescue plan. Mark is a great character – smart, resourceful and funny – but the various scientists and their bosses on Earth are interesting too, and the reader follows their triumphs and despair as various options are trialled and don't quite come off. When Mark’s crew-mates get involved as well, the tension really cranks up and the reader has a nail-biting ride in store.

The Martian is a gem of a novel, loaded with science which makes it all seem weirdly credible, yet managing to keep the reader entertained, even not very scientifically savvy readers like me.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: The Martian

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Natural Flights of the Human Mind by Clare Morrall

Clare Morrall has a knack for producing very different novels featuring unusual characters in unique and often difficult situations. And no one could be more unusual than Peter Straker, a hermit in his fifties who lives in a disused lighthouse with two Siamese cats. He’s a hermit because he is burdened by guilt over an incident in his past, when he somehow caused the deaths of 78 people.

This is a shocking way to start any novel, so we can only hope that Straker is on a path to redemption. If he is, then his saviour can only be Doody, the frumpy, unhappy and angry woman who has inherited a cottage nearby. Doody’s life is also a mess because of an unhappy childhood, and because around twenty-five years ago her husband walked out never to be heard from again.

Morrall throws these two odd characters together to create a present that is full of quirkily humorous scenes, providing light relief from their own past histories, which she slowly weaves into the body of the story. Meanwhile the tension builds as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the incident which killed those original 78 people rolls around.

This is a beautifully put together story, which takes the reader through a range of emotions. At the forefront of these is the question of how does someone live with themselves if they have done a truly terrible thing. Sympathy and empathy are never far behind however, as well as hope. The reason it works so well, apart from Morrall's talent for creating memorable scenes, is the way she breathes life into her weird and wonderful characters and makes them very real. Recommended.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Natural Flights of the Human Mind

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Shy: A Memoir by Sian Prior

Shy is a creative mish-mash of journalism and memoir that offers up rich insight into a temperament trait that can both enhance and detract the lives of those who possess it.

Sian Prior provides a remarkably candid account of how shyness has affected her life, as well as the strategies she has employed over the years to combat it. Adopting a façade she dubs ‘Professional Sian’ has allowed her to maintain a career in the public eye as an environmental campaigner, journalist, broadcaster, teacher, and musician. But over time this rebellion against her own shyness has taken a physical toll. That’s because shyness isn’t a lifestyle choice – it’s an inborn behavioural style that is intimately tied to the fight-or-flight survival mechanism.

Prior explores the many social and biological forces that pull at and push the naturally shy. She weaves in and out of her own personal experiences to highlight and expand on more formal descriptions. It came in handy that her mother was a psychologist and was an understanding ally but, despite this, Prior clearly has a great deal of ambivalence about the trait. You get the feeling that the cathartic process of writing this has still not expelled all the negative cultural judgements she’s received over a lifetime of being shy.

There is no redemptive resolution or acceptance of the author’s shyness in the closing chapters, nor is there a prescription offered to redress the perceived social inadequacies of the shy or guidance on how to alleviate the distress of those afflicted with more than a fair share of trembling, blushing, or social anxiety. Despite this, and probably because of this, it’s a great read - its deeply personal and throws light on a subject that is often a private and solitary struggle.  Hopefully, it makes a contribution to society rethinking its intolerance towards shyness - surely we should accept people wherever they are on the bold-shy spectrum.  As a memoir, it provokes the reader to reflect on their own life and encourages us to remember that we all experience life with a vulnerable intensity that is belied by our exterior, whether it be aloof, calm, or confident.  Shy is well-crafted, insightful, and gently upbeat.

Posted by Spot

Catalogue Link: Shy: A Memoir

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Hollow by Agatha Christie

With a new series of Poirot now screening on TV, I thought it timely to share my enjoyment for one particular Agatha Christie novel featuring her Belgian detective. The Hollow takes its name from the Angkatell’s genteel country house, where during a weekend hosted for their friends and relations, a murder takes place. No surprises there.

The victim is the handsomely brilliant Dr John Christow, shot dead by the pool just as Hercule Poirot arrives on the scene for luncheon. Standing over the dying doctor, clutching a gun is his mousy wife, Gerda. She has a motive to kill her husband, as he frequently treats her with ill-concealed exasperation and has recently become involved in a dangerous flirtation - to say nothing of his mistress, Henrietta, another guest at the Hollow.

Things are definitely not what they seem and there are motives and suspects by the truckload, as well as an assortment of guns hidden in the oddest places. It is just as well Poirot is on the spot to sort it all out, which he does in his usual fashion, chatting to suspects and putting his little grey cells into gear.

But what I really enjoy about this one is the cast of characters, particularly the snobbish and charmingly off-hand hostess, Lucy Angkatell. There’s also her ‘poor cousin’ Midge, making ends meet working in a posh dress shop where she is treated like a skivvy, and shamelessly theatrical Veronica Cray, Cristow’s old flame.

There are plenty of digs at the oddities of the leisured classes and some interesting thoughts on a woman’s place in a post-war Britain. All this is wrapped up in a very satisfying mystery loaded with red herrings and laced with gentle humour. Classic Christie at her best.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: The Hollow

About the author

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Reckless by William Nicholson

William Nicholson’s latest novel follows three characters, each at critical times of their lives at the time of two critical points in history. The first event is the atomic bomb going off in Hiroshima in 1945; the second, taking place nearly twenty years later, is the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Rupert is something of a philosopher, working for Mountbatten, British Chief of Staff, as the Cuba/US stand-off unfolds. At the end of World War Two he'd pledged to do what he could so there would be no more wars. Mary, living in a remote part of Ireland, has had visions as a young girl, predicting the end of the world. Cosseted in a convent, Mary’s life changes dramatically when she meets Rupert.

At the age of eighteen, Pamela has begged to be allowed to live in London, and devotes her time trying to dazzle everyone with her youth and loveliness. She is soon caught up with the artistic and moneyed crowd who become the major players in what will go down in history as the Profumo Affair.

Nicholson has captured a period when things could have all gone horribly wrong and the end of the world seemed a distinct possibility. The growing tension throws the characters into various types of crisis and Nicholson makes them all very real and sympathetic. The reader is also treated to a fly-on-the-wall view of history through scenes involving Kruschev, Mountbatten and even JFK, which is a big help if your grasp on these events is a bit shaky. I found the novel by turns moving and thought-provoking, and throughout, utterly gripping.

Posted by JAM