Sunday, 31 January 2010

A Severed Head

Title: A Severed Head

Author: Iris Murdoch

Number of pages: 208

Started: 27 January 2010

Finished: 31 January 2010

Opening words:

'You're sure she doesn't know,' said Georgie.

‘Antonia? About us? Certain’

Georgie was silent for a moment and then said, 'Good.' That curt 'Good' was characteristic of her, typical of her toughness which had, to my mind, more to do with honesty than with ruthlessness. I liked the dry way in which she accepted our relationship. Only with a person so eminently sensible could I have deceived my wife.

We lay half embraced in front of Georgie's gas fire. She reclined against my shoulder while I examined a tress of her dark hair, surprised again to find in it so many threads of a pure reddish gold. Her hair was as straight as a horse's tail, almost as coarse, and very long. Georgie's room was obscure now except for the light of the fire and a trio of red candles burning upon the mantelpiece The candles, together with a few scraggy bits of holly dotted about at random, were as near as Georgie, whose 'effects' were always a little ramshackle, could get to Christmas decorations, yet the room had a glitter all the same as of some half desired treasure cavern. In front of the candles, as at an altar, stood one of my presents to her, a pair of Chinese incense holders in the form of little bronze warriors, who held aloft as spears the glowing sticks of incense. Their grey fumes drifted hazily to and fro until sent by the warmth of the candle flames to circle suddenly dervish-like upward to the darkness above. The room was heavy with a stifling smell of Kashmir poppy and sandalwood. Bright wrapping paper from our exchange of presents lay about, and pushed into a corner was the table which still bore the remains of our meal and the empty bottle of Chateau Sancy de Paraběre 1955. I had been with Georgie since lunchtime. Outside the window and curtained away was the end of the cold raw misty London afternoon now turned to an evening which still contained in a kind of faintly luminous haze what had never, even at midday, really been daylight.

Plot summary:

Martin Lynch-Gibbon believes he can possess both a beautiful wife and a delightful lover. But when his wife, Antonia, suddenly leaves him for her psychoanalyst, Martin is plunged into an intensive emotional re-education. He attempts to behave beautifully and sensibly. Then he meets a woman whose demonic splendour at first repels him and later arouses a consuming and monstrous passion. As his Medusa informs him, 'this is nothing to do with happiness'.

What I thought:

This is a book about self-deluded people who think that as long as you are “reasonable” that somehow everything is fine. This is despite some rather farce like bed-hopping, affairs and other such adverse circumstances. But as an outside observer you see how deluded the narrator and the other characters in the book truly are. It was a somewhat humorous read, but also one that did not show the middle-classes best possible light! I have never read any other books by Iris Murdoch, but my understanding is that this book is not ‘typical’. It is meant to be more humorous and more accessible, but it was an interesting introduction to her writing and I would be interested to see what sorts of themes she uses in her other novels and if they are as readable as this one because this was certainly a well written book.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Wolf Brother

Title: Wolf Brother

Author: Michelle Paver

Number of pages: 256

Started: 21 January 2010

Finished: 26 January 2010

Opening words:

Torak woke with a jolt from a sleep he’d never meant to have.

The fire had burned low. He crouched in the fragile shell of light and peered into the looming blackness of the Forest. He couldn’t see anything. Couldn’t hear anything. Had it come back? Was it out there now, watching him with its hot, murderous eyes?

Read the first chapter here

Plot summary:

Thousands of years ago the land is one dark forest. Its people are hunter-gatherers. They know every tree and herb and they know how to survive in a time of enchantment and powerful magic. Until an ambitious and malevolent force conjures a demon: a demon so evil that it can be contained only in the body of a ferocious bear that will slay everything it sees, a demon determined to destroy the world.

Only one boy can stop it - 12 year old Torak, who has seen his father murdered by the bear. With his dying breath, Torak's father tells his son of the burden that is his. He must lead the bear to the mountain of the World Spirit and beg that spirit's help to overcome it.

Torak is an unwilling hero. He is scared and trusts no one. His only companion is a wolf cub only three moons old, whom he seems to understand better than any human.

Theirs is a terrifying quest in a world of wolves, tree spirits and Hidden People, a world in which trusting a friend means risking your life.

What I thought:

Technically, this is a children’s book (despite some very long words in places!). However, it is a perfectly good read for adults – and I note it appears to be on Waterstone’s books of the decade list.

It was a good read, and very quick. It probably isn’t the kind of book that I would normally choose to read, but it came highly recommended, and I am glad I gave it a go. There were parts of it that reminded me of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, although I am not sure I can quite explain why. I did think it rather suddenly came to its conclusion, but that didn’t detract from the book particularly, which was a decent adventure story.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Amongst Women

Title: Amongst Women

Author: John McGahern

Number of pages: 184

Started: 15 January 2010

Finished: 21 January 2010

Opening words:

As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters. This once powerful man was so implanted in their lives that they had never really left Great Meadow, in spite of jobs and marriages and children and houses of their own in Dublin and London. Now they could not let him slip away.

Plot summary:

A lyric lament for Ireland, McGahern's lovingly observed family drama is dominated by an almost pathetic paterfamilias. Gruff, blustering Michael Moran, former guerrilla hero in the Irish War of Independence, is a man "in permanent opposition." Now a farmer, he vents his compulsion to dominate, his cold fury and sense of betrayal on his three teenage daughters. Yearning for approval but fearing his flare-ups, they periodically beat a path back to the farmhouse from London and Dublin, then take flight again, both proud and dependent. Moran's second wife, Rose, much younger than he, displays saintly patience in her attempts to heal this splintering family. Moran also claims a renegade son in London who is "turning himself into a sort of Englishman," and another son driven away by Moran's threats of beatings.

What I thought:

This book was an interesting read. To a degree, not a lot happened. It centred around the controlling nature of the father, Moran, who sought to guide his children (and others) in the belief that he was a decent man who only wanted what was best for them. In reality, he held his children back and they escaped him by moving to places like Dublin or London – and yet still they were drawn back at various times, and somehow all but one could not let him go. It was quite a dark book and one that did not show a good side of family life. One to ponder I think.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow

Title: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

Author: Peter Hoeg

Number of pages: 410

Started: 27 December 2009

Finished: 14 January 2010

Opening words:

It is freezing, an extraordinary -18°C, and it’s snowing, and in the language which is no longer mine, the snow is qanik – big, almost weightless crystals falling in stacks and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost.

Plot summary:

One snowy day in Copenhagen, six-year-old Isaiah falls to his death from a city rooftop. The police pronounce it an accident. But Isaiah's neighbour, Smilla, suspects murder. She embarks on a dangerous quest to find the truth, following a path of clues as clear to her as footsteps in the snow.

You can see an article on the differences in the US and UL versions here

What I thought:

I started this book many years ago and gave up very near the beginning, possibly on the very first page. This time I read it right through to the end. It was actually very snowy when I read the book, which perhaps enhanced the read and at times the writing in the book echoed the crispness of the snow around me. However, I struggle to say that I truly enjoyed this book. At times I found it hard to grasp how the death of a young boy ended up in the places that it did and I didn’t find it all that credible at times really. It is meant to be a thriller of sorts, but I didn’t really find it to be one. I found the book to be one where I could read pages of it and the words would pass straight out of my mind. Perhaps that says more about me than the book, but it was not a riveting read from my perspective.