Vinyl dreams

14 07 2018

 

The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills

 

Two men with a passion for vinyl create a society for the appreciation of records. Their aim is simple: to elevate the art of listening by doing so in forensic detail. The society enjoys moderate success in the back room of their local pub, The Half Moon, with other enthusiasts drawn to the initial promise of the weekly gathering. The master of the comic deadpan returns for his ninth novel, a spectacularly disingenuous exploration of power, fanaticism and really, really good records.

 

A wonderful novel which two vinyl-loving musical purists launch a distinctive society, which meets in a local pub and is dedicated to listening to records (mainly singles) forensically. Others soon join in, each with their own musical preferences, but then there are ideological splits, the forensic records society fractures and different groups form, with alternative musical criteria. Nothing is ever quite as it seems in Magnus Mills’ novels though and, despite the matter of fact, plain deadpan style, strange things happen in the Half Moon pub, time seems to pass unevenly, the musical selections are eclectic to say the least and the undercurrents at play between the main characters are difficult to fathom. Ultimately, the forensics are very much left to the reader but it is nevertheless a highly entertaining and delightfully strange story.

(This brief review originally appeared in THE on 5 July.)

four stars

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Let it Snowe

30 06 2018

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

 

With her final novel, Villette, Charlotte Brontë reached the height of her artistic power. First published in 1853, Villette is Brontë’s most accomplished and deeply felt work, eclipsing even Jane Eyre in critical acclaim. Her narrator, the autobiographical Lucy Snowe, flees England and a tragic past to become an instructor in a French boarding school in the town of Villette. There, she unexpectedly [develops] her feelings of love and longing as she witnesses the fitful romance between Dr. John, a handsome young Englishman, and Gineva Fanshawe, a beautiful coquette. The first pain brings others, and with them comes the heartache Lucy has tried so long to escape. Yet in spite of adversity and disappointment, Lucy Snowe survives to recount the unstinting vision of a turbulent life’s journey – a journey that is one of the most insightful fictional studies of a woman’s consciousness in English literature.

Plot summaries like this really fail to do justice to Brontë’s big, deep and hefty novel which paints an incredibly detailed picture on a very small canvas. Lucy Snowe’s narrative is long and winding and often frustrating in its detail of her life, work and longings. However, the overall effect is incredibly powerful in places and the characters are portrayed in delightfully rich detail. Undoubtedly a great book which leads to a remarkable conclusion.

 





Living on an island

23 06 2018

No Dominion by Louise Welsh

 

It is seven years after the Sweats wiped out most of the world’s population. Survivors settled on the Orkney Islands are trying to build a new society but their world crashes for a second time when the islands’ teenagers vanish. Stevie and Magnus are the only ones who can bring them home.

Stevie hasn’t been back to the mainland since she escaped to the islands after a desperate flight north from London. Magnus never saw himself leaving either. After all, what’s left for him there? But Shug was born on the islands and has never known anything different; has never left them. Until now.

And what starts out as a journey to bring home some young people intent on adventure soon turns into a race against time to find Shug before he comes down with the Sweats. Or worse.

 

The third in Welsh’s plague trilogy, following Death is a Welcome Guest, No Dominion is another fast-moving and entertainingly grim tale from Louise Welsh. The representation of a post-apocalyptic world is as convincing as ever and the narrative is at times gripping and at times quite moving. A fitting climax to the series.

 





In a time of cholera

16 06 2018

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham

 

 

Kitty Fane is the beautiful but shallow wife of Walter, a bacteriologist stationed in Hong Kong. Unsatisfied by her marriage, she starts an affair with charming, attractive and exciting Charles Townsend. But when Walter discovers her deception, he exacts a strange and terrible vengeance: Kitty must accompany him to his new posting in remote mainland China, where a cholera epidemic rages…

First published to a storm of protest, The Painted Veil is a classic story of a woman’s spiritual awakening.

The protest referred to in the blurb is about the fear of possible confusion of the caddish Townsend to a British consular staff member in Hong Kong which resulted in the name of the colony being changed to a fictional one. This followed a successful libel case against the publishers by a couple from Hong Kong named Lane as a result of which Maugham changed the name of the main characters to Fane.

The story though is a compelling one as we move from the scandalous affair to the cholera-stricken region to self-realisation and death and then to the gentle conclusion. Not seen the movie but it appears, somewhat inevitably, to feature Toby Jones (although not in a leading role) and therefore now tempted to get it. In the meantime, the book is worth a go.

 

 





Dictatorial

26 05 2018

Dictator by Robert Harris

 

‘Laws are silent in times of war.’
Cicero

There was a time when Cicero held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. But now Caesar is the dominant figure and Cicero’s life is in ruins.

Exiled, separated from his wife and children, his possessions confiscated, his life constantly in danger, Cicero is tormented by the knowledge that he has sacrificed power for the sake of his principles.

His comeback requires wit, skill and courage – and for a brief and glorious period, the legendary orator is once more the supreme senator in Rome.

But politics is never static and no statesman, however cunning, can safeguard against the ambition and corruption of others.

Riveting and tumultuous, DICTATOR encompasses some of the most epic events in human history yet is also an intimate portrait of a brilliant, flawed, frequently fearful yet ultimately brave man – a hero for his time and for ours. This is an unforgettable tour de force from a master storyteller.

Yet again it’s all about the politics. It is all a bit up and down for Cicero in the most challenging of times but he nevertheless remains a compelling central character to the very end. A terrific finale to a wonderful trilogy.

 





Cicero goes large

20 05 2018

Lustrum by Robert Harris

Rome, 63 BC. In a city on the brink of acquiring a vast empire, seven men are struggling for power. Cicero is consul, Caesar his ruthless young rival, Pompey the republic’s greatest general, Crassus its richest man, Cato a political fanatic, Catilina a psychopath, Clodius an ambitious playboy.

The stories of these real historical figures – their alliances and betrayals, their cruelties and seductions, their brilliance and their crimes – are all interleaved to form this epic novel. Its narrator is Tiro, a slave who serves as confidential secretary to the wily, humane, complex Cicero. He knows all his master’s secrets – a dangerous position to be in.

From the discovery of a child’s mutilated body, through judicial execution and a scandalous trial, to the brutal unleashing of the Roman mob, Lustrum is a study in the timeless enticements and horrors of power.

It’s all about the politics and the battle for power. The struggles between Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, with Cicero in the middle, is skilfully portrayed and the narrative is thoroughly gripping as Rome spirals into crisis.

It’s another corker from Harris.





Serious things happened on the way to the Forum

13 05 2018

 

When Tiro, the confidential secretary of a Roman senator, opens the door to a terrified stranger on a cold November morning, he sets in motion a chain of events which will eventually propel his master into one of the most famous courtroom dramas in history.

The stranger is a Sicilian, a victim of the island’s corrupt Roman governor, Verres. The senator is Cicero, a brilliant young lawyer and spellbinding orator, determined to attain imperium – supreme power in the state.

This is the starting-point of Robert Harris’s most accomplished novel to date. Compellingly written in Tiro’s voice, it takes us inside the violent, treacherous world of Roman politics, to describe how one man – clever, compassionate, devious, vulnerable – fought to reach the top.

Have recently re-read this and found it as compelling as the first time around. The portrayal of Cicero and all of his political allies and opponents is excellent and the Roman backdrop is impressively painted. Whilst there is much rich historical detail here the thing which makes it genuinely gripping is the political ebb and flow around Cicero. It’s all politics at the end of the day and it is almost impossible not to draw parallels with contemporary political life too.

Just outstanding and highly recommended.








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