Hard-Baked and Cold-Yoked

Jasper Fforde's "The Big Over Easy"

Jasper Fforde’s “The Big Over Easy”

The subject of this, my book review for Berkshire, is Jasper Fforde‘s bizarre novel The Big Over Easy, set in Reading. It is the first in Fforde’s series of ‘Nursery Crime’ novels, featuring Reading Constabulary’s NCD (Nursery Crime Division), headed by DI Jack Spratt. Jack is responsible for solving all crimes relating to nursery rhyme characters: he was the arresting officer for “the violently dangerous psychopath, the Gingerbreadman” (12); he took the three little pigs to court over the messy murder of Mr Wolf and, now he investigates the mysterious death of Humpty Dumpty, who seems to have had a great fall from off his favourite wall…or was he pushed?

Like I said, bizarre. It is both straight-faced detective fiction, filled with all the expected twists, turns and rivalries, and comedic romp down “Grimm’s Road” (59), meeting a whole host of well-known childhood characters. You could read and re-read this novel countless times and continue to find more nursery rhyme references, some blatant and some brilliantly subtle.

Fforde’s novel is a marvellous work of imagination and extremely original but, it seems to me, a bit of a gimmick. I definitely developed allusion-fatigue by the time I was 25% of the way through, and the plot was unfortunately not strong enough to resurrect my interest at the end. I am not inspired to read the rest in the series: aren’t they all the same?! It’s another 2/5 starrer, I’m afraid.

Humpty Dumpty illustration by John Baroque

Humpty Dumpty illustration by John Baroque

Sadly (in respect of this challenge I mean) there is not much of a portrait of Berkshire in the novel either, aside from the fact that the indistinct city of Reading becomes the centre of this strange nursery rhyme world and of modern policing, which is more interested in making headlines and generating positive public opinion than the search for truth and justice.

It is interesting to think, however, that this could be considered a particularly British novel. Or, at least, an English-speaking-world novel. After all, there can’t be many other places that understand the references to Jack the giant-killer / magic-bean finder / beanstalk-climber, can there?

Next week I’ll be reading the slightly more mainstream (in a good way I hope) The Legacy, by Katherine Webb. It’s for Wiltshire, so join me then!

 

FFORDE, Jasper. The Big Over Easy. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005.

Featured Image: Illustration of “Hey Diddle Diddle”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nursery_rhyme

Adrift

“You never really pay attention to my culture. You English once took over Hong Kong, so you probably heard of that we Chinese have 5000 years of the greatest human civilisation ever existed in the world…Our Chinese invented paper so your Shakespeare can write two thousand years later. Our Chinese invented gunpowder for you English and Americans to bomb Iraq. And our Chinese invented compass for you English to sail and colonise the Asian and Africa” (289)

“In the West, in this country, I am barbarian, illiterate peasant girl, a face of third world, and irresponsible foreigner. An alien from another planet” (154)

Prejudice enrages me. Freedom of movement fills me with hope.

 ***

I love the feeling when you read a book and think, however delusionally, ‘Wow, this was written just for me’. That is how I felt when I turned the last page of Xiaolu Guo’s novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, set in Hackney, in the City of London.

Xiaolu Guo’s "A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers"

Xiaolu Guo’s “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers”

Zhuang Xiao Qiao – or ‘Z’, as the English are encouraged to call her since “my name too long to pronounce” (48) for them – is a twenty-three year old Chinese woman who travels to London for one year from her simple, rural home in China, in order to learn English. She struggles. England is “cold”, the people unfriendly (“nobody smile to me” (43)) and their system of etiquette in social situations a complete minefield. Trudging between her befuddling English classes, her bleak hostel and the late-night cinema showings (just to have something to do) Z is lonely and racked with confusion. It seems as though the Chinese and English cultures are just too different – seemingly incompatible. Even her beloved Chinese-English dictionary has difficulty defining the meaning she desperately needs; among other words, “romance not to be found in my Concise Chinese-English Dictionary” (91).

Guo makes this incompatibility between cultures all the more obvious and effective by setting out the novel in the style of the protagonist’s notebooks, in which she records new vocabulary and pens her diary entries, side by side. Through this original and compelling format, the reader is exposed to Z’s innermost thoughts and frustrations as well as her battle with the English language and with finding a place for herself in her new environment: initially, she feels like “a little alone teacup” or “like cat without master” (90).

Victorian Terrace in Hackney

Victorian Terrace in Hackney

On her journey, Z meets and starts living with an older Englishman and soon realises that the fight for understanding is not limited to nations, but occurs between individuals too. “You a free man of free world. I am not free, like you” (113); “You possess my whole body. […] My whole body is your colony” (132). What is more, the waters of love – or dependency – are treacherous: there is so much Z does not understand above love, sexuality, men and women; there is so much she is ready to give if she can…but when language between individuals fails, is physical proximity enough?

“After all these fightings, all these miseries, you don’t talk as the way you did before. You just listen; listen to my words; then stop listening and think of your own world. But I can’t stop talking. I talk and talk, more and more. I steal your words. I steal all your beautiful words. I speak your language. You have given up your words, just like you gave up listening.” (293)

The language Guo uses is simple (both because Z doesn’t know much of it and, later, because Z’s style is always innocently direct) but the emotions are complex – and, for me, painful. It is not so much the plot that makes me feel that this book is so personally relatable (although in many ways it is), but rather the fear of loneliness contained within every page and every exchange between characters. A person’s loneliness is something to which my heart almost always responds, wrenchingly.

Xiaolu Guo. In 2013 she was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists of this decade.

Xiaolu Guo. In 2013 she was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists of this decade.

At the end of the novel, Z sums up England as “the country where I became an adult, where I grew into a woman, the country where I also got injured, the country where I had my most confused days and my greatest passion and my brief happiness and my quiet sadness” (353). It is not only London that Z gets to know, but it is to London that she responds. Unlike the novel’s representations of the English themselves, who see “London is a place sucks”, “the place making everybody aggressive” (167), where “you can’t find love and keep it” (168), Z “loves these old oily cafes around Hackney. Because you can see the smokes and steams coming out from the coffee machine or kitchen all day long. That means life is being blessed” (118).

This is not a happy novel, but it is a phenomenally beautiful one. I love it. 4/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle, set in Greater London. Come and have a look-see then.

GUO, Xiaolu. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. London: Vintage, 2008.

Featured Image: Inset page in the front Xiaolu Guo’s novel.

http://allbookedup2014.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/book-5-review-concise-chinese-english.html

Chick-lit Quick-fix

Jo Platt's "Reading Upside Down"

Jo Platt’s “Reading Upside Down”

I’ve just this minute finished Jo Platt’s chick-lit novel Reading Upside Down, set in Hertfordshire, and it fills me with delight to say that, unlike my last post, this e-book I did actually manage to enjoy!

I’ve only read a handful of examples of ‘chick-lit’ in my life, and those were often only because they were on a communal bookshelf at a hotel and I had nothing else to read. Chick-lit is not, therefore, my go-to option in any sense, but every now and then a little bit of light, well-written romantic comedy does just the trick, doesn’t it?

I was pleasantly surprised and indeed impressed with Platt’s novel which was genuinely funny with dialogue written in a refreshingly natural style – so often I find first-time writers try too hard, but not here. The novel is 90% dialogue and 10% description which is exactly the right measure for the pace and mood required for the usual chick-lit quick-fix too, allowing the likeable characters to speak for themselves without necessitating too much readerly interpretation.

Simply put, it tells the story of Rosalind Shaw’s recovery from depression after she is jilted at the altar. Surrounded by friends, family, neighbours and, of course, various romantic interests, Ros gradually gets back on her feet. It’s not, as one might expect, forced or cheesy: instead the tone, combined with the humour, is just right.

The novel did not give much of an impression of its St Albans setting at all, except for it seeming oh so middle class (please note: this is not a book for people who like gritty plotlines). But as Ros moves away from her grief in London and starts anew in Hertfordshire, she discovers “other Ros” – stronger, happier and more independent than before. Sometimes it’s reassuring to have a happy ending! 3/5 stars: a good read.

Next week I’ll be reading You Drive Me Crazy by Carole Matthews. Join me then!

 

PLATT, Jo. Reading Upside Down. Amazon Kindle, 2013.

Featured Image: Mr Edward, the ill-fated guinea pig?

http://www.pets4homes.co.uk/pet-advice/guinea-pigs-for-beginners.html

 

 

Game-changing

Chris Cleave's Gold

Chris Cleave’s Gold

This week I’ve been reading Chris Cleave’s Gold, set in Manchester in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games. It follows the equally intense careers and personal lives of Britain’s two best female track cyclists, Kate and Zoe, and explores the difficult dynamic between friendship and rivalry as they train and grow up together, under the supervision of their coach, Tom. Whether for closeness or for competition, the two women depend on each other more than they think.

I chose this book, out of all the wonderful suggestions offered for Greater Manchester, for the same reason I chose to read Money Can’t Buy Me Love a few weeks ago – because of how recent the setting is. As I said then, it always amazes me when I find a book about events in my own living memory, having spent so many years reading curriculum-prescribed classics. Cleave, in an interview published in this very edition of Gold, explains this far more eloquently than I manage to:

“Some people find it jarring to read work that is set almost in real time. I understand that – it’s not something novelists generally do – but I like that territory for fiction and I suggest that it’s a fascinating space in which to be an artist, because it’s the space in which public opinion is formed. My novels area hybrid between reportage and fiction and they take place in the five year gap between the point at which newspapers leave a story alone and the point at which historians generally take up their analysis.”

'Fan-fiction' - is it so bad?

‘Fan-fiction’ – is it so bad?

Wonderful as it has been so far, my education – along with many other people’s I imagine – usually encourages me to associate modern writing, no matter how popular, with so-called ‘bad’ literature, simply because it might not (yet) carry historical or canonical weight or might not use complicated language or need footnotes to translate allusion and symbolism.  I admit I have been guilty of turning my nose up at Jodi Picoult’s global bestsellers, hiding my apparently humiliating enjoyment of Dan Brown and rolling my eyes at the epic Twilight series. But the truth of the matter is that these are the books that sell in modern times; the pursuit of understanding why certain genres have such cultic followings in the present is as fascinating and meritorious as the research done in any Jane Austen class, the real difference being that only one of these subjects has already been done to death.

(This video clip is a trailer for the 2009 book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody of Jane Austen’s classic in which the Bennett sisters are trained to fight the undead as well as to find suitable husbands.)

Think of this decade’s vampire phenomenon, the prevalence of zombie apocalypse fiction since 2000, and how, in 2012, erotic fiction suddenly became widely acceptable – even in the staunchest minds of our middle-age, middle-class relatives – and made its way onto bestselling shelves with Fifty Shades of Grey. Why then? Why not before or after? What forces are brewing under the surface of society now that might erupt into a new literary craze in ten years’ time?

I spent most of my final degree year (and all the time since – hence this blog) obsessing about these very questions, my interests shifting away from Shakespeare and Chaucer – as much as I value them – and resting on what I’d always dismissed: the current. I refused to stay in the closet any longer: having an interest in popular culture isn’t a cop-out; nor is it glamorously avant-garde. It’s a study of the nitty-gritty here-and-now, of the themes and events that are relevant to us in an increasingly battered world.

I love being on the other side of the dividing line that Cleave defines between history and fiction in this challenge. Producing serious writing set in ‘real time’, without being pejoratively classed as Airport Fiction or Chick Lit or Easy Reading – all the terms synonymous with Trash that sceptics choose to deploy – is a skill, and one that Cleave succeeds in. I find it bizarre that some reviewers describe his plot as predictable or farcical and his characters as underdeveloped. I completely disagree. I was deeply impressed with the descriptions of training and races in particular; I could feel the athletes’ muscular and emotional sensitivity twitching the pages in my fingers. There is an intense physicality and even sensuality in reading this novel which, aside from making you believe you’re on the racetrack too, gives the novel a cinematic feel – you hear the breath of Kate’s pursuer and the hum of Zoe’s tyres on the ground. It is not the same exhilaration as I felt when watching the London velodrome events on television last year; it’s much more tuned-in, more personal, more close-up. In short, Cleave is able to describe so much movement in so much slow-motion detail without once comprising on pace. Masterful. For this aspect of the novel alone, it’s a 4/5 star read.

Bodies at their limits: Anna Meares (Australia) + Vicky Pendleton (GB) fighting for victory in the final Sprint.

Bodies pushed to their limits: Anna Meares (Australia) + Vicky Pendleton (GB) fighting for supremacy in the final Sprint.

So finely tuned are the girls’ bodies, in fact, that the distinction between themselves as animals and machines is difficult to make, and Cleave’s juxtaposition of the two is hugely effective. Their “twelve thousand dollar American prototype race bike[s]” (9) are extensions of their own limbs, with “no distinction between their skeletal systems and the bones of their bikes” (74). In racing and training their reflexes are mechanical – superhuman, programmed in – and yet at the same time, bestial. Their senses are heightened to a primal state, in which changes in the breath and slight movements in the muscles of their competitors causes immediate and instinctual physical responses to achieve the most primitive of urges: to win. Teeth gnashing and claws scratching all the way.

And yet these girls have been friends for 15 years, through youth training, national competitions, the Olympics in Athens and Beijing…They are a support to one another, understanding the dangers of such a high level of competition, both physically and psychologically. There are, in fact, constant reminders of the damage it causes: Tom’s dodgy knees, the girls’ sore ankles, Zoe’s crash, Kate’s difficulty in juggling career with family life, Zoe’s brother’s early death and her resulting emotional trauma and failure to maintain relationships, as though “as soon as she got off the bike her heart was expected to perform all these baffling secondary functions – like loving someone and feeling something and belonging somewhere – when all she’d ever trained it to do was pump blood” (45). Cleave expresses, completely convincingly, the way in which racing obsesses them, consumes them and is always one step away from breaking them. They cannot even escape their bodies’ pressure when off the track, for when sitting on the sofa and unable to switch off, “Kate hated the way her body still readied itself to race […] hopelessly” (11).

Manchester's National Cycling Centre, where the girls (and so many real Olympians) train

Manchester’s National Cycling Centre, where the girls (and so many real Olympians) train

The complicated relationship the girls have to their own bodies results in an equally complicated relationship to the space around them: they cannot belong. For Zoe in particular, everything outside the racetrack is described as unfamiliar and disconnected. Despite her ability to see practically 360o from her luxurious skyscraper apartment – she looks over Manchester city and can pinpoint Snowdonia, Liverpool, the Blackpool Tower and beach and Cheshire plains in the distance – she feels so out of touch with the ground beneath her that she is like a “ghost” (42). There is “no traffic noise; no sound of the neighbours’ TV; nothing” (44), her apartment no more than an empty space designated for living by a faceless architect. Even Management has identified the need for a “souvenir of Earth” this far above it and is intent on “making a ‘green space’ with birds and plants and a water feature” (40) – but the “Italian olive tree ascend[ing] silently past [her] window” (45) attached to its crane only makes Zoe’s world even more surreal.

In fact, the whole of the country seems, to Zoe, like a series of disconnected “planet[s]” (86), Manchester being one of them, the generalised “up north” (220) another and “Surrey” a third, where “rain comes in bottles labelled Evian” (221) rather than being icy cold and endless. (North-South divide, we meet again.) Much like her inability to connect genuinely with other people, she is unwilling to admit to affection for any place she has lived or raced.

Victoria Pendleton, GB's winner of Gold in the Keirin and Silver in the Sprint of London 2012

Victoria Pendleton, GB’s winner of Gold in the Keirin and Silver in the Sprint of London 2012

Ultimately, Cleave creates an excruciating world in which the girls race round and round in circles on tracks that never change: no wonder their bodies jar at the tension between so much speed, and absolutely zero movement. Kate notes at one point, “What good did it ever do anyone to ride themselves back to their point of origin?” (16). Add to this the pressure of personal lives and off-the-track developments and Cleave has produced an excellent novel that has as much of a human factor as superhuman. I’ve heard it said that London 2012 did great things for the popularity of cycling in Great Britain – writing this novel in 2011, Cleave knew what he was doing.

Next week I’ve picked up Maureen Lee’s The September Girls to read. Can’t wait!

CLEAVE, Chris. Gold. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2013.

Featured Image: Anna Meares (Australia) vs. Victoria Pendleton (GB) in the Track Sprint at London 2012.

http://www.cyclingweekly.co.uk/news/latest/541076/anna-meares-returns-to-international-track-competition.html