The Destroyer

Back in the mists of time, well, July, I was offered a book as part of a blog tour. It was billed as similar in style to Jack Reacher and I thought, hmm, wouldn’t it be interesting if I persuaded my son and Mr Litlove to read the book and comment on it? Wouldn’t that make a nice change from me giving you the same old same old? So I spoke to my son and he said, sure, sounds intriguing. And I asked Mr Litlove and he laughed and said yes, he’d read it. And we were all set.

Well the book arrived and the tour itself was ages off. When my son visited, I gave him the review copy and he took it back to London. Not many days after this, he found his job in the pub and so the book sat, unread, on his shelf. As August turned into September, it became apparent that not much reading was happening in London, nor indeed was it likely to happen, and getting the book back looked like a sensible idea. As it happened, there was going to be a family party and we arranged to transfer. The night before the party, my son put the book in his bag so he wouldn’t forget it. In the morning, just before going to get the train, he decided he didn’t need to bring his bag with him… And so no book. Now time was getting short.

Okay, so the company Mr Litlove works for has an office in London, where my son worked for a while earlier in the summer. Often people travel back and forth between London and Cambridge and we figured someone wouldn’t mind carrying a book with them. My son was going to call in, leave the book and Mr Litlove had an employee visiting the city who would bring it back. Last Monday Mr Litlove called me. ‘We’ve got a problem,’ he said. ‘The guy isn’t coming back to Cambridge tomorrow after all. They’ve told him he needs to be at a convention.’

The next bit was a little garbled. ‘He’s going to Mexico?’ I asked.

‘No, the convention is called Demexeco.’

‘So where’s he going?’

‘Germany.’

Right. My son had dropped off the book by now but we had no courrier. Mr Litlove gave another of his employees headed for the London office a stamped addressed envelope. I hadn’t seen the book for so long I wasn’t sure how big it was. We fretted over the postage costs for a while, erred on the side of caution and hoped for the best. Finally on Wednesday morning, the book arrived safely. But then Mr Litlove seemed very busy with work.

Guess who ended up reading it?

I may have had one eyebrow raised in irony as I read about a secret service organisation called CURE whose brief was to undermine all organised crime syndicates in the USA. I had a dim view of the power of organisation per se at that point.

created the destroyerSo anyhow, The Destroyer is a series of novels written by Warren Murphy from the start of the 70s onwards, the last one published in 2012 making a whopping 150 titles altogether. Apparently there’s a film adaptation on the cards, hence this recent re-issue. Created, The Destroyer is an enjoyable piece of hokum about ex-Vietnam vet and cop, Remo Williams, who is waiting on death row when the novel opens, framed for a crime he didn’t commit. The thing is, Williams was spotted during his Vietnam days, when he made something of a reputation for himself as a man able to undertake difficult and dangerous intelligence missions and complete them with success. He had a talent for subterfuge and an even more useful knack for killing people.

CURE needs to recruit a reliable killer, and has been given the curious condition that the man cannot exist. What better solution to the problem than someone who is officially dead? As the electric chair beckons, an unusual monk slips into Remo Williams’ cell and gives him a pill to bite, telling him not to do so until the last possible minute. When Williams comes to he is in a medical facility. He has his life but at the cost of his freedom. He’s to be trained as an assassin and boy does it sound fun. ‘I promise you terror for breakfast, pressure for lunch, tension for supper and aggravation for sleep,’ his new boss tells him. ‘Your vacations are the two minutes you’re not looking over your shoulder for some hood to put one in the back of your head.’ If he lasts a year, it will be a miracle. (Though we all know now that he lasted 40 years and ought, by rights, have been fighting crime long into his retirement.)

He’s then trained in the subtle yet deadly art of Sinanju karate by a wizened Asian, which is all quite good fun, and of course he masters these ancient techniques in the space of a fortnight or whatever, and then he’s on his way, sent on the trail of a baddie. You can imagine where it goes yourself. This is light reading, no need to chew, quick-fix fiction with a soupçon of brutality and love interest in the vein of James Bond – the lone female character is the only real indication we’re in the 70s here. It rattled along at a good rate, held together well and was entertaining to read, even if the prose sometimes made Lee Child look like a poet. I thought it was very similar to Reacher, only what he does in 500 pages, Remo Williams does in 200. They were less verbose in those days. It’ll be interesting to see what the film is like – now that’s a mission that I daresay my menfolk will undertake more willingly!

Season’s Greetings!

I wanted to leave something festive up here for the next few days and thought I’d find something by the wonderful Sulamith Wulfing, the German artist and illustrator whose paintings have strong mystical and fairy tale influences. There were so many to choose from and they were so gorgeous that I decided in the end to put several up. Whatever you are celebrating this winter, I hope you have a lovely time. I won’t be posting until the end of the week, but I do hope to be visiting. Happy holidays in the meantime, dear blog friends!

sulamith wulfing

sulamith wulfing 2

sulamith wulfing 3

The Signature of All Things

Signature of All ThingsWhen this book arrived for review I had a mixed reaction. I thought, Elizabeth Gilbert, yay! Because I very much enjoyed Committed and think she is generally a Good Thing. But then I read the blurb and I thought, a 19th century epic novel about botany? Well, hmmm, maybe. It didn’t seem a likely topic somehow for an author who has always seemed to have such modern concerns. And it is a very big book and I can be lazy about big books sometimes. So imagine my pleasure to find, in the closing pages of this novel, that I was really sorry to see it end. This was altogether a much more convincing and and enjoyable riposte to the 19th century novel than Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, and I think Elizabeth Gilbert has pulled off something quite special here.

The story belongs to Alma Whittaker, first born daughter of an lowly English thief turned pharmaceutical giant in Philadelphia and his education-crazy, strict and starchy Dutch wife. Alma inherits Henry’s passionate, determined genes and her mother’s love of order and reason. Crammed with a classical education, obliged to dine with collectors and specialists every evening at her parents’ table, and free to wander around her huge family estate, full of prime botanical specimens shipped in from all over the world, Alma grows up with science in her blood and a knowledge of botany to rival any expert. This turns out to be useful as she grows up big, strong and not terribly attractive, with a shock of red hair. When her parents adopt the beautiful orphan, Prudence, Alma is forced to realise that she is lacking something terribly important. But look, in this excerpt, what Elizabeth Gilbert does with such choice material:

 

            One winter’s day, when the girls were about fifteen years old, an old friend of Henry’s from the Calcutta Botanical Gardens came to visit White Acre after many years away. Standing in the entryway, still shaking the snow off his cloas, the guest shouted, “Henry Whittaker, you weasel! Show me that famous daughter of yours I’ve been hearing so much about!”

The girls were nearby, transcribing botanical notes in the drawing room. They could hear every word.

Henry, in his great, crashing voice, said, “Alma! Come instantly! You are requested to be seen!”

Alma rushed into the atrium, bright with expectation. The stranger looked at her for a moment, then burst out laughing. He said, “No, you bloody fool -  that’s not what I meant! I want to see the pretty one!”

Without a trace of rebuke, Henry replied, “Oh, so you’re intrested in Our Little Exquisite, then? Prudence, come in here! You are requested to be seen!”

Prudence slipped through the entryway and stood beside Alma, whose feet were now sinking into the floor, as into a thick and terrible swamp.

“There we are!” said the guest, looking over Prudence as though pricing her out. “Oh, she is splendid, isn’t she? I had wondered. I had suspected everyone might be exaggerating.”

Henry waved his hand dismissively. “Ah you all make too much of Prudence,” he said. “To my mind, the homely one is worth ten of the pretty one.”

So, you see, it is quite possible that both girls suffered equally.

This is what I loved about this novel. So many historical novels have these anachronistic heroines in order to portray strong women. But Gilbert takes a situation which happens to create a strong woman, one who is not endowed with the beauty that was a woman’s main marketable skill, and she gives her a brain instead, and a robustness that is wholly organic, and a plausible passion for science. Then she tells her story in a wonderful voice: straight, entertaining, informative, cunning. Alma is unlucky in love, but she’s prepared to take that on the chin. She settles down to a life devoted to the study of mosses until, nearing fifty, a visitor to White Acres turns her life upside down, and not in a way she could have predicted. I think this was the best, most original, most surprising love affair I’ve read this year. It’s also a battle between science (the word ‘scientist’ being coined during the course of the story’s history) and romanticism, a battle which of course no one wins. But it sets Alma off on a voyage to the other side of the world, and towards what might be considered her greatest triumph and her greatest tragedy.

Thematically, this novel is immensely clever. The 19th century is understood to be a time dominated by what we now call ‘grand narratives’; that’s to say this era believed that we were still heading towards the perfection of mankind and that there were various ways to tell the story of human history that stitched it up neatly and coherently – religion and science in particular were thought to hold the key to understanding all human life. All the strands of this well-organised novel come together in the theory intended to explain the development of biological life on the planet: Darwin’s theory of evolution. But Alma identifies the problem with that theory, and she is left holding it to the end of the book, ready, as it were, to give one big tug and watch the whole thing unravel. It seems so appropriate that, as an anomaly throughout her life, she should hold this awareness, but equally appropriate that, as an anomaly who has happily found her place and her purpose, she should be too respectful to apply it.

Apparently, it took Elizabeth Gilbert three and a half years to do just the research for this novel, and it shows. There were times when I wished her zeal for non-fiction had been curbed just a little. But there is so much entertainment in this novel, so much that is beautifully observed and well written that I forgave her. After all, any reader who approaches a contemporary version of the 19th century novel is going to have to expect a few digressions and be prepared to settle down to enjoy them. This is definitely the kind of book you want to get lost in; give it time, take it slowly and just enjoy the treat in store. This is character-driven fiction of the best sort.

 

 

 

Three Great Novelists

I’ve been reading as much as ever but writing very little about it here – a most unusual turn of events! What it means, though, is that I can cherry pick the best of my reading to tell you about, three novels by these fantastic writers: Maggie O’Farrell, Kate Atkinson and Siri Hustvedt.

Instructions for a Heatwave

instructions for a heatwaveWe’re in London in the heatwave of 1976, when Robert Riordan tells his wife, Gretta, that he’s going round the corner for a newspaper and doesn’t come back. Robert is recently retired, but there’s been no indication he’s unhappy. In the first flush of the crisis, Gretta – one of the candidates, surely, for the great ongoing list of hypnotically awful fictional mothers – summons her three grown children home for support. The Riordans are an Irish family, a rambunctious lot who grew up with a lot of yelling and flouncing out at mealtimes, which has led them in consequence to hold their real adult problems very close to their chests. Michael Francis is a history teacher with a rocky marriage, Monica the over-loved daughter who can’t get a purchase on her life and is sleepwalking through a second marriage and awkward stepchildren. And Aoife is the black sheep, a severe dyslexic (though no one knew enough to name it, back in the 70s) who is working in New York as a photographer’s assistant and living in fear that the blue file will be discovered where she’s hidden all the paperwork. Family tensions flourish in the heat and the confusion, but it’s a crucible where some old, treacherous issues can finally meltdown and assume new shape. This is such a warm, kind, generous novel, unflinching in its analysis of families and their foibles, but endlessly forgiving and full of love. I didn’t want it to end (happily, of course, all you doom-merchants be warned).

One Good Turn

oneGoodTurnI know Jackson Brodie is high on most people’s list of ideal male heroes, but I’ve been slow in getting around to reading Atkinson’s novels. Better late than never, though, as I loved this. The novel opens at the Edinburgh Festival where crowds queuing for lunchtime shows are made witness to a shocking road rage incident. Present at this scene are most of the characters whose lives will intertwine over the course of the next three days in surprising, sometimes alarming, ways. There’s Martin, the wimpish novelist, Gloria, late middle-aged wife of a very dodgy property developer, the two mysterious men involved in the road rage and Jackson himself, in Edinburgh accompanying his girlfriend, Julia, and her dreadful avant-garde production. Atkinson draws some more eccentric types into her convoluted web – a firm of Russian cleaners-come-call girls, a woman police detective with a troublesome teenage son and Graham, the property developer, who is hooked up to life support for most of the novel but has been the offstage cause of many of its problems.  Quite unlike O’Farrell, Atkinson is not at all kind to her characters. In fact, she makes dreadful things happen to them, and proceeds to be very, very funny about it. This is a novel of chance and coincidence as lives collide and no one is quite what they seem, but it’s all so well done and enjoyable – apart maybe from the ending which gets a bit mad. But that didn’t matter to me when the journey there had been so entertaining.

The Sorrows of an American

siri hustved sorrowsWe take a stylistic left turn out of frantic Edinburgh into an elegant street of sophisticated if melancholy boutiques for Siri Hustvedt, who can write some of the most gloriously intelligent yet heartfelt sentences I’ve ever read. I have a taste for shrink lit in any case, and this is a fine example of it. Erik Davidsen is a New York psychoanalyst and a man grieving for his recently deceased father, Lars. Going through his papers, he and his sister, Inga, discover an enigmatic note referring to a secret their father kept for a woman named Lisa. When their mother turns out to know nothing about it, brother and sister decide to unravel the mystery, if they can. Both have other ongoing problems in their lives. Erik falls for the mother and daughter who move into the flat below his. Miranda is a book cover designer who makes it clear she has no interest in him, but is grateful for his support when her ex-partner behaves in stalker-ish mode. Her daughter, Eglantine, is altogether more drawn to the man she calls the ‘worry doctor’, exerting her charm in exchange for some security of her own. Meanwhile, Inga, who was married to a late, great novelist, Max Blaustein, is contacted by the actress who starred in the one film he made and who claims to have had a child by him. She also owns letters that could spoil Max’s posthumous reputation, and Inga is aware that a vindictive journalist is hunting for damaging material. What makes this book (what makes any book, really) are the voice and the vision. Hustvedt effortlessly evokes the complex life of the mind, and the multiple sorrows and fears that are the inevitable residue of living every day. Erik’s interactions with his patients are fascinating and disturbing in equal measure, but it’s clear that everyone in this novel, ‘normal’ or otherwise, suffers the way all humanity must from unexpected disappointments and not knowing what they want, or what will make them happy. If this sounds sad, it isn’t; Hustvedt makes something very beautiful out of the mystery of life, as is only right and proper.