Each year I write tiny reviews of nearly all the books I read. These are very much for my own purposes, serving to fix the books in my memory; but I put a selection on Facebook and they have often proved popular. They vary from the single-word and whimsical to more considered assessments.2020 Thumbnail Review #1 Rabbit Redux by John Updike
Set in 1969 (published 1971). Of its time, and designedly so. Moon landing, Vietnam, drugs, sex (lots of this). It acts as a kind of document of the times, recording the concerns and obsessions and predilections of the characters. Like Rabbit, Run (see 2019 Thumbnail Review #55) it’s over-written, and this time it begins to pall; the whole thing feels sprawly and rather repetitive. I’m now doubting whether I’ll read the next two.
2020 Thumbnail Review #2 Hollow Places by Christopher Hadley
A promising premise, about an unusual 12th-century tomb and its dragon-slayer legend. It looks as if it’s going to reveal a lot about the power of oral tradition and transmission through centuries, but turns out much less than that, with only more recent anecdotes. It does show what a wealth of information remains in old documentary records, maps and so on, but the feeling is that there is a shorter book here waiting to get out.
2020 Thumbnail Review #3 The Fair to Middling by Arthur Calder Marshall
A 1959 children’s book centred on a magical fairground that shows people aspects of what they really are, leading to moral growth. It’s well-conceived and thought-provoking. There must be a good number of such fairs/circuses; I’m thinking of those featured in The Last Unicorn, The Circus of Dr Lao, and so on.
2020 Thumbnail Review #4 Cornish Adventure by Derek McCulloch
The fun here is not so much in the novel, which is merely a well-written children’s adventure story, very much of its time and type, but in the decision of Penguin Books to launch a new series in 1941. Positive mentality when there’s a war on! PS1 was Worzel Gummidge; this is PS2.
2020 Thumbnail Review #5 A Whole Life/The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler
These two novels by the Austrian writer Robert Seethaler are very similar. Both are in minor key, focusing on the life of an ‘ordinary’ Austrian, and both are set or start in the 1930s, with war looming. A Whole Life – which does what it says in the title – was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. They’re well-crafted, engaging pieces; it’s hard to give them more than that.
2020 Thumbnail Review #6 In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki
A slim (60 page) essay on aesthetics by a major Japanese writer, published in 1933. It does what it says: it’s about the importance of shadows, in architecture, in rooms, in lives. Typically Japanese both in mode and meaning, and a worthwhile corrective to a world that seems to deal mainly in glare.
2020 Thumbnail Review #7 Earthfasts by William May
Like Melody’s Dragon, this is a children’s novel (from 1959) where the Otherworld – in this case, ultimately, King Arthur – obtrudes on the ‘real’ world. It’s interesting but not entirely successful, because the inexplicable is not sufficiently … er … explicated.
2020 Thumbnail Review #8 The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
2020 Thumbnail Review #9 Underland by Robert Macfarlane
Underwhelming. What was I expecting? A coherent, kind of grand-vision sweep through mankind’s relationship with the underworld, from myth to history to geology. What did I get? An episodic, kind of traveloguey mish-mash of visits to various locations (with the obligatory local characters), some patches pf poeticised writing, and a few insights into various underground-related topics. Bits were interesting, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts.
2020 Thumbnail Review #10 Beowulf
Research for a session with Civitas Schools. All children should be as familiar with Beowulf and Grendel as they with Arthur, or Achilles and Helen of Troy. The Sutcliff (1961) and Morpurgo (2006) versions for children are both worthy efforts, creating coherent and effective narratives of Beowulf’s conflict with three monsters (Grendel, Grendel’s mother, dragon). Morpurgo’s has echoes of Old English alliterative verse form; Sutcliff’s, entertainingly, has echoes of Tolkien.
Heaney’s version is decidedly the best way to approach the poem for adult readers. It is to an extent a line-by-line modernisation, and seeks to find a voice and idiom to match the drift and flow of the original. And his introduction is worth reading in its own right.
Nothing, of course, matches the power and vigour of the original. The description of Grendel’s approach to Heorot is full of menace and impending violence. It’s worth remembering that the audience would almost certainly have been sitting round the mead-benches in a hall just like … Heorot. They probably glanced at the doors fearfully from time to time while they were listening.
Com on wanre niht
scriðan sceadugenga. …
ða com of more under misthleoþum
Grendel gongan, godes yrre bær;
mynte se manscaða manna cynnes
sumne besyrwan in sele þam hean. …
Com þa to recede rinc siðian, `
The three hammer-blow repetitions of ‘com’ are lost in the modernisations (Morpurgo uses ‘came’ four times altogether, to his credit, but they’re in mid-sentence and underemphasised). Ditto the power and simplicity of ‘Grendel gongan’ (‘Grendel went’), echoing ‘sceadugenga’ (shadow-goer), with its sense of unstoppability. Good job Beowulf’s waiting for him.
Then out of the night
came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift; …
In off the moors, down through the mist-bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall. …
Spurned and joyless, he journeyed on ahead
and arrived at the bawn. (Heaney)
In the darkest hour of the spring night Grendel came to Heorot as he had come so many times before, up from his lair and over the high moors, through the mists that seemed to travel with him under the pale moon; Grendel, the Night-Stalker, the Death-Shadow. He came to the foreporch and sniffed about it, and smelled the man-smell, and found that the door which had stood unlatched for him so long was barred and bolted. (Sutcliff)
Up from his lair and through the shadows came Grendel, the stalker of the night … Grendel came gliding through swirling moorland cloud-mists, death-dealing in his hate-filled heart, thirsting to kill again that night as he had so often before. Down from the forest came Grendel now, saw the mead-house, scented the sweet flesh of those inside, easy victims; as easy as before, he thought. (Morpurgo)
2020 Thumbnail Review #11 The Binding by Bridget Collins
This is a book that I progressively unliked. Part 1 is promising, with an interesting premise (you can rid yourself of unwanted memories by having them bound into a book) and dense descriptive writing. But Part 2 shifts the mode and narrative diseffectively, and Part 3 descends into an Endeavour-in-the-maze-with-the-tiger* finale.
* For those not familiar with the Morse spin-off episode, it’s a jumping-the-shark event.**
** For those not familiar with any popular culture…….
2020 Thumbnail Review #12 The Europeans by Henry James
2020 Thumbnail Review #13 Volume the First by Jane Austen
This is a beautiful facsimile edition of the first volume of juvenilia by Jane Austen. All the pieces are of interest, but the satiric little story ‘The Three Sisters’ is a wonderful comic insight into the tensions surrounding a young woman’s choice of husband, where personal inclination, social bragging rights, and financial prospects are all at odds with each other. It also strongly prefigures Mr. Collins’ courtship scenes in Pride and Prejudice.
Mary mumbled out something, which I who sat close to her could just distinguish to be, “What’s the use of a great jointure if men live forever?” And then audibly, “Remember the pin money; two hundred a year.”
“A hundred and seventy-five, madam.”
“Two hundred indeed, Sir,” said my mother.
“And remember I am to have a new carriage hung as high as the Duttons’, and blue spotted with silver; and I shall expect a new saddle horse, a suit of fine lace, and an infinite number of the most valuable jewels.”
2020 Thumbnail Review #14 Melisande! What Are Dreams? By Hillel Halkin
Bought and read for personal reasons: Melisande is a character and chapter in Melody’s Dragon. Halkin’s derives from elsewhere: the title comes from a poem by Heine about Melisande (properly Melisende) of Tripoli. It’s a novel of a relationship, narrated by the main protagonist and addressed to the loved one; well-written, but the denouement is unconvincing.
2020 Thumbnail Review #15 Fair Stood the Wind for France by H. E. Bates
An age since I last read this. The serious side of H. E. Bates; published in 1944, it focuses on a downed Wellington pilot in Occupied France, and stands in the long tradition of novels about individuals seeking to survive in hostile territory. Bates always writes well, and this works through extensive description. There are moments when the relationships and even the narrative are a bit jerky, but overall highly effective.
2020 Thumbnail Review #16 National Velvet by Enid Bagnold
Originally published 1935, in 1962 this became PK1 – the first of the new Peacock Books from Penguin, to add what would now be called a YA extension to Puffin Books. It’s a remarkable novel; half girls’ wish-fulfilment horse story (a 14-year-old girl wins the Grand National?!), and half a stylish intimate portrayal of a family. The writing is often terse, often elliptical, and highly effective.
2020 Thumbnail Review #17 The Forest of Boland Light Railway by BB
2020 Thumbnail Review #18 Catweazle by Richard Carpenter
Quite entertaining (particularly the telephone incident), but too episodic: unsurprising, as it’s the book derived from the television series.
2020 Thumbnail Review #19 The Perilous Descent by Bruce Carter
A weird one, this. The premise is bizarre: two RAF pilots in WW2 bail out over the English Channel onto a sandbank, find a hole and parachute down into a ‘lost’ civilisation. This could be promising, but the narrative descends into a merely implausible fight against a group of rebels. The pilots then fly thousands of miles through a cave in a home-built aeroplane, and emerge in South America.
Like I said, weird. Kind of memorable, but not in a good way. Published in 1952 (Puffin 1958).
2020 Thumbnail Review #20 The Flight of the “Scarlet Eagle” by Michael Cely
Published 1937. A well-composed children’s novel about a flight round Africa in a flying boat, and interesting for the period detail. It’s made into an adventure story by the inclusion of a diamond thief whose monoplane they try to follow and intercept.
2020 Thumbnail Review #21 Here We Are by Graham Swift
Another minor novel by Graham Swift, minorly disappointing and only minorly successful. He’s one of the writers I like, but this doesn’t delve beneath surfaces. The fin-de-siècle theme (end-of-the-pier show, 1959) is evoked but not explored, the characters are evoked but not explored, the situations and relationships are evoked but not explored. Pleasant enough, but it could have done so much more.
2020 Thumbnail Review #22 Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin
A really interesting one, this. Published in 1924 and in 1963 in Peacocks (PK14 in the marvellous Penguin imprint of what would now be called YA), it’s ultimately a ghost story, or perhaps a time slip story, where modern and 18th century characters encounter each other. I’m wondering how far it has subconsciously influenced me (I originally read it decades ago). As well as the time slip thing, and all the literary quotations, there’s the section headings: Time Is, Time Was, Time Will Be. One of my greatest poems (ahem) is titled ‘Time Was’.
It’s always instructive to see how expectations of readers differ from generation to generation. No dumbing down here.
See also Review #23. The Peacock editors were visionary enough to publish The Owl Service, Walkabout and a raft of other fascinating titles in the 60s and 70s.
2020 Thumbnail Review #23 Fifteen by Beverly Cleary
Another Peacock Book (PK7) from 1962; originally published 1956. So very, very American, and so very, very 1956. By chance, a wonderful evocation of a vanished era, as a fifteen-year old girl has her first High School romance.
2020 Thumbnail Review #24 The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
A solid choice for Peacock PK2, this had won the Newbery Medal in 1959. It’s a strong historical adventure set in 1687, with an orphan girl coming to live with relatives in Connecticut. The historical detail is confident and the girl’s story well told.
2020 Thumbnail Review #25 The Plague by Albert Camus
When I studied La Peste for A Level, I never thought I’d live to live through it. But there it goes. Already one of the great books, it acquires a new resonance now. Both allegory and non-allegory (published in 1947, its original reference point was the German Occupation of France in WW2), its purpose is to examine the range of human responses to an existential crisis. As an existentialist, Camus is remarkably even-handed in exploring a variety of behaviours, but there is no doubt that the central character, Rieux, represents Camus’ own view.
By chance, the novel is also surprisingly prescient about the course of a pandemic and the way people’s reactions develop and progress. Worth reading for that alone.
‘There lay certitude; there, in the daily round. All the rest hung on mere threads and trivial contingencies; you couldn’t waste your time on it. The thing was to do your job as it should be done.’