Two Novellas in Now and Forever by Ray Bradbury:#NovNov22

HarperVoyager| 25 June 2012| 240 page| e-book| 4*

Now and Forever is the first book by Ray Bradbury that I’ve read. It contains two novellas – Somewhere a Band is Playing, in which a young writer discovers that all is not as it seems in a nostalgic community, and Leviathan ’99, a retelling of Moby Dick set in space. Two very different stories, each one fascinating, and both with a long history, as Bradbury wrote each one over several decades. They contrast both in style and content. I enjoyed both, but Leviathan ’99 is my favourite.

In the first, Somewhere a Band is Playing, (102 pages) a reporter James Cardiff arrives in Summerton, a small town in the middle of Arizona, a town which seems perfect, a quiet peaceful place. He can hear in the air the quiet sound of a band playing. But the more he explores the more mysterious Summerton becomes. For one thing there are no children and no hospitals or doctors because no one gets ill and even stranger the graves in the cemetery are empty. The story has a nostalgic feel, a sense of melancholy and myth as James, under the guidance of a beautiful young woman, Nefertiti, discovers the truth about Summerton.

Bradbury’s introduction to Somewhere a Band is Playing explains that he begun writing a screenplay and short story about a small town somewhere in the desert and how he had kept encountering Katharine Hepburn either in person or on the screen and was attracted by the fact that she remained youthful throughout the years. Then in 1956 she had made the film Summertime and this had led him to put her at the centre of a story and so Somewhere a Band is Playing slowly evolved. Another element of the story came when he saw the film, The Wind and the Lion and was so taken with the score that he wrote a long poem based on the enchanting music. He then put these elements together to produce this novella, which he dedicated to Anne Hardin, who had encouraged his work and to Katharine Hepburn.

Leviathan ’99’ (101 pages) is dedicated to Herman Melville because after spending a year writing the screenplay for John Huston’s Moby Dick he’d fallen under the spell of Melville and his ‘leviathan whale’. Bradbury then wrote his first script of Leviathan ’99’, which was eventually produced by BBC Radio in London, then as a longer version as a play in 1972. Finally thirty years later he finished writing it as a novella as his ‘final effort to focus and revitalize what began as a radio dream.’

I haven’t read Moby Dick, but I enjoyed this story about spaceships instead of sailing ships, mad astronaut captains instead of seafaring captains and the blind white comet instead of the great white whale. It’s set in 2099 and begins as Ishmael, an astronaut joins the Cetus 7, the largest interstellar ship ever built. The spaceship is on a mission, travelling beyond the stars. His cubicle roommate is Quell, a seven feet tall, green spider who is a telepath. The captain is mad, obsessed with finding the comet, Leviathan, the largest comet in history that had blinded him thirty years earlier. As Quell described it ‘the universe set off a light-year of immensity of photographic flash. God blinked and bleached the captain to this colour of sleeplessness and terror.’

It is an incredible achievement transposing Melville’s 19th century epic into a hundred page novella set in the future.

Two Novellas by Claire Keegan #NovNov22

Week 4 in Novellas in November is Contemporary novellas (post 1980). It was only this year that I ‘discovered’ Claire Keegan’s work when her novella, Small Things Like These was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize. I liked the description, so I was eager to read it and I thoroughly enjoyed it. So wanting to read more of her books I read Foster, another novella, which is the buddy read during the Novellas in November event.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (73 pages) 5*

It is 1985, in an Irish town. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, faces into his busiest season. As he does the rounds, he feels the past rising up to meet him – and encounters the complicit silences of a people controlled by the Church.

It won the 2022 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, an award for outstanding novels and collections of short stories, first published in the UK or Ireland, that illuminate major social and political themes, present or past, through the art of narrative. It also won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2022.

Claire Keegan’s style of writing is a refreshing change from so many of the long and complicated books I so often read. It is precise, focused, and beautifully written bringing her characters to life – these are real, ordinary people, living ordinary lives in 1980s Ireland. And the detail is there too in all the particulars of everyday life – it packs a lot into its pages. Bill Furlong is happily married with five young daughters, but he still remembers his own childhood. He never knew who his father was, brought up by his mother and the widow for whom she worked. Life was hard then and his own childhood Christmases were not like his daughters’, and it is this, I think, that makes him such a kind and compassionate man. As he does his rounds delivering coal and wood, he goes to the local convent and is confronted with the cruelty meted out to the young girls living there.

Set in the weeks leading up to Christmas it contrasts the season of hope and joy at the birth of a child with the treatment of unmarried mothers received in the homes known as the Magdalen laundries – and at the end of the story Claire Keegan explains the history of those institutions that were run by the Roman Catholic Church and the Irish State until they were closed down in 1996. Small Things Like These demonstrates the courage and compassion needed to stand up to the power of the church and state.

Foster by Claire Keegan (101 pages) 5*

A small girl is sent to live with foster parents on a farm in rural Ireland, without knowing when she will return home. In the strangers’ house, she finds a warmth and affection she has not known before and slowly begins to blossom in their care. And then a secret is revealed and suddenly, she realizes how fragile her idyll is.

I was amazed at the emotional depth Claire Keegan has instilled into such a few pages. She writes such clear sentences filled with poetic beauty. She shows how a young girl from an overcrowded and poverty stricken family blossomed whilst living with relatives of her mother, the Kinsellas, as her mother is about to give birth to yet another baby.

Yet it is not that straight forward. There is an undercurrent that hints of something that is not right, something that has happened that is never put into words. There is a sadness that pervades the story, along with kindness, caring and compassion. The girl knows she’ll return to her family, but she doesn’t know when, so the story is always told as it is happening. It’s in the present tense, which I never realised until I came to the ending. This is one of the rare instances for me that the use of the present tense seemed just right. The ending too could only happen the way it does. I absolutely loved Foster.

Book Beginnings & The Friday 56: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading. You can also share from a book you want to highlight just because it caught your fancy.

I’ve borrowed Demon Copperhead from the library and I’ve started reading it – even though I’m currently in the middle of two other books. As it’s had such good reviews, I’m a bit worried that it won’t live up to all the hype for me. It’s a retelling of David Copperfield, which I read earlier this year.

My Book Beginning:

First, I got myself born. A decent crowd was on hand to watch, and they’ve always given me that much: the worst of the job was up to me, my mother being let’s just say out of it.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an eBook), find one or more interesting sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

Page 56:

Finally Miss Barks turned round with her elbow on the back of the seat and said let’s talk about where we are going. I’d be staying with a gentleman named Mr Crickson that took kids for short-term only. He had boys there now. The Cricksons had been regular fosters until his wife passed away, and now he just took in the odd hardship case.

So, I’m guessing Miss Barks and Mr Crickson are the equivalent characters of Mr Barkis and Mr Creakle in David Copperfield. I have a feeling I should not approach this book as a retelling of David Copperfield, or I’ll be forever comparing the two and not really reading it as a book in its own right, as it were.

Synopsis:

Demon’s story begins with his traumatic birth to a single mother in a single-wide trailer, looking ‘like a little blue prizefighter.’ For the life ahead of him he would need all of that fighting spirit, along with buckets of charm, a quick wit, and some unexpected talents, legal and otherwise.

In the southern Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, poverty isn’t an idea, it’s as natural as the grass grows. For a generation growing up in this world, at the heart of the modern opioid crisis, addiction isn’t an abstraction, it’s neighbours, parents, and friends. ‘Family’ could mean love, or reluctant foster care. For Demon, born on the wrong side of luck, the affection and safety he craves is as remote as the ocean he dreams of seeing one day. The wonder is in how far he’s willing to travel to try and get there.

Suffused with truth, anger and compassion, Demon Copperhead is an epic tale of love, loss and everything in between.

~~~

What do you think? Have you read it, or are you going to read it? Do you like books that retell classics?

The Black Mountain by Kate Mosse #NovNov22

Week 4 in Novellas in November is Contemporary novellas (post 1980)

The Black Mountain by Kate Mosse (136 pages) 3*

This is a Quick Reads publication – a series of short books by bestselling authors and celebrities. They are designed to encourage adults who do not read often, or find reading difficult, to discover the joy of books. I like the long novels Kate Mosse writes, so I wondered what this short novel would be like.

It is historical fiction set in May 1706 on the northern part of the island of Tenerife, where Ana and her family live in the shadow of a volcano, known locally as the Black Mountain. It’s also a murder mystery – Ana’s father Tomas had apparently committed suicide, but Anna just can’t accept that and reading the letter he’d left she is convinced it was murder. She is determined to find out the truth.

Legend says the mountain has the devil living inside it and when the devil was angry he sent fire and rocks up into the sky. However, there has been no eruption for thousands of years and no one believes it is a threat. Sometimes the earth trembled and shook but the sky never turned red. Until, that is two days after Tomas’ death. He had seen the signs that the mountain was about to erupt and had tried to warn people – but they didn’t want to know. When more tremors occur, and grey ash starts falling Ana realises the danger signs are increasing and she needs to warn people that they must flee before the volcano erupts and destroys their world.

I enjoyed this novella, reading it quickly, feeling almost as though I was also in danger as the Black Mountain threatens to erupt and wondering if Ana would discover the truth about her father’s death in time for her to escape.

The Black Mountain is based on a real historical event. The town of Garachio erupted from May 4 to 5, 1706, which was disastrous not only for the town but also for the entire archipelago. Its port concentrated a large part of the international trade that linked the island with Europe, Africa and America.

~~~

I’ve read a few of the Quick Reads. Here’s a list of all the available titles.

Two Short Reviews: Coffin Road by Peter May and The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Two more short reviews as I try to catch up on the books I’ve been reading. Both are excellent books, each one with a great sense of location and descriptive writing bringing the scenes and characters vividly to life.

First, Coffin Road by Peter May, is a standalone novel, set on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. I read it because I loved his Lewis trilogy. There are 3 strands to the story. There’s a mystery surrounding a man, washed up during a storm on a deserted beach on the Isle of Harris. He is wearing a life jacket, is battered and bruised – and has no idea who he is or where he is. The only clue to why he is living on Harris is a folded map of a path named the Coffin Road and following the route marked on the map he finds some hidden beehives that are familiar to him. In the second strand DS George Gunn investigates the murder of a bludgeoned corpse discovered on a remote rock twenty miles to west of the Outer Hebrides. And thirdly, a teenage girl in Edinburgh is desperate to discover the truth about her scientist father’s suicide.

It is fast-paced, almost impossible to put down, and full of intrigue and mystery. Each strand of the story kept me guessing, wondering what the connections between them were. It’s tense with the sense that time is running out for all the characters and I wasn’t sure whether any of them were reliable narrators or were who they appeared to be.

In addition the bees have a major role in the story. All the facts about the bees slot seamlessly into the story and I learned quite a lot about bees that I didn’t know before, especially their role in climate change.

The Wonder is a very strange story. It’s uncomfortable reading, but I felt I just had to read it. And although it moves at a slow pace I read it quickly in large chunks. It is tense, full of atmosphere and just like Coffin Road, I found it almost impossible to put it down, such is the power of Emma Donoghue’s storytelling.

The plot is simple: it is set in a small village in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s. Eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, Lib Wright, trained in the Crimea by Florence Nightingale, and a nun, Sister Michael are hired by a committee of influential locals to spend two weeks observing her to make sure she is not being fed secretly.

Lib observes Anna in scrupulous detail, noting Anna’s symptoms. At first she seems a healthy little girl but as the two weeks go by she develops worrying symptoms – downy cheeks, scaly skin, blue fingertips, and swollen lower limbs and hands. Lib begins to realise that it is not just a question of how Anna is managing to exist without food, but also why. What is motivating Anna to persist in saying she is not hungry and doesn’t need to eat? The answer seems to lie in her religious beliefs, and maybe religious hysteria is playing a part as well as the clash between medical science and faith. But is there more to it? Lib wonders about the family’s relationships and the effect of Anna’s brother’s death just a few months before Anna stopped eating.

As Donoghue explains in her author’s note The Wonder is an invented story, inspired by almost fifty cases of so-called Fasting Girls in the British Isles, Western Europe and North America between the 16th and 20th centuries. A film of the book is available on Netflix, but I don’t think I could bear to watch it.

Book Beginnings & The Friday 56: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading. You can also share from a book you want to highlight just because it caught your fancy.

Today I’m featuring one of my TBRs books Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, a book I bought four years ago and promptly forgot about it. Earlier this year I thoroughly enjoyed reading State of Wonder and then remembered that I hadn’t read Bel Canto. I’ve just started reading it.

My Book Beginning:

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an eBook), find one or more interesting sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

Page 56:

The crowd on the floor pulsed with needs. Some had to go to the bathroom again. There were murmurings about medications. People wanted to stand up, to be fed, to have a drink of water to wash the taste from their mouths.Their restlessness emboldened them, but there was this as well: eighteen hours had passed and still no one was dead.

Synopsis:

Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country’s vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honour of the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa. Roxane Coss, opera’s most revered soprano, has mesmerised the international guests with her singing.

It is a perfect evening – until a band of gun-wielding terrorists takes the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, a moment of great beauty, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds and people from different continents become compatriots, intimate friends, and lovers.

What do you think? Would you read it?

The Island by Victoria Hislop: A Short Post

I have been struggling to write posts recently. I haven’t been able to settle down to writing after finishing a book, either because I’m too eager to read the next book, or like Heavenali I’ve been so distracted and mithered by other things going on in my life, mostly minor that shouldn’t really bother me, but do, that I am finding it hard to concentrate on writing.

So, that is why I haven’t written about a number of books I read earlier this year. Some of them are books that qualify for the Wanderlust Bingo CardThe Island by Victoria Hislop, The Fellowship of the Ring by J R R Tolkien, The Night of the Mi’raj by Zoë Ferraris and Coffin Road by Peter May. These aren’t the only books I’ve read that need to write about, but it’s a start.

The first one I’m writing about is The Island by Victoria Hislop, her debut novel and one of my TBRs. It’s been on my bookshelves for years and I did start reading it soon after buying it, but I didn’t get very far and put it back on my bookshelves. Since then I’ve read three other books by Victoria Hislop and enjoyed them so I decided to try it again, especially as it fills the Island Square (set in Greece) on the Wanderlust Bingo card. I began reading it in August, when I took it away with me, visiting family, but didn’t find much time to read it and had to set it to one side. After I returned home I went on to read other books until October when I picked it up once more.

It is historical fiction set in Plaka on the island of Crete and in Spinalonga, a tiny, deserted island just off the coast of Plaka. I wasn’t very sure I would like it when I read the first chapter about Alexis Fielding longing to find out about her mother’s past. Sofia had never told her anything about it and all that Alexis knew was that Sofia had grown up in Plaka, a small Cretan village before moving to London. She gave Alexis a letter to take to an old friend, Fotini, promising that through her she will learn more. And once Fotini entered the story I was hooked as she told what had happened to Sophia’s grandmother, Eleni and her daughters, Anna and Maria after Eleni caught leprosy and was sent to live on Spinalonga.

Beginning before the Second World War the story moved between Plaka and Spinalonga and I loved all the details of Elena’s life on Spinalonga, but then when the narrative moved on to describing her daughters’ lives I began to lose interest. Instead of a fascinating historical novel about leprosy it changed into a historical romance, which I didn’t enjoy as much as the earlier part of the book. Overall, I think it’s too long and drawn out, and the ending is a bit too neat. So I’m giving this book 4*, combining 5* for Eleni’s story and 2-5* for both the beginning and the ending.

I’m hoping to write similar short posts for the other three books.

Maigret’s Memoirs by Georges Simenon Translated by Howard Curtis

Week 2 in Novellas in November is Novellas in translation and a Maigret book is an obvious choice for me. But Maigret’s Memoirs is not your usual Maigret mystery. This a memoir written by Simenon writing as his fictional character, Maigret.

Penguin Classics| 2016| 160 pages| My Own Copy| 4*

I can still see Simenon coming into my office the next day, pleased with himself, displaying even more self-confidence, if possible, than before, but nevertheless with a touch of anxiety in his eyes.’

Maigret sets the record straight and tells the story of his own life, giving a rare glimpse into the mind of the great inspector – and the writer who would immortalise him.

‘One of the greatest writers of the twentieth century . . . Simenon was unequalled at making us look inside, though the ability was masked by his brilliance at absorbing us obsessively in his stories’ Guardian

‘A supreme writer . . . unforgettable vividness’ Independent

The original French version of Maigret’s MemoirsLes Mémoires de Maigret, was first published in 1950. An English translation was later published in Great Britain in 1963. It is unlike any of the other Maigret novels. It’s a fictional autobiography by Georges Simenon writing as Maigret, beginning in 1927 or 1928 when Maigret and Simenon, calling himself Georges Sim, first ‘met’. I don’t recommend reading if you haven’t read some of the Maigret mysteries.

I enjoyed it – it’s a quick entertaining read as Maigret looks back to his first ‘meeting’ with Sim. He fills in some of the background of his early life and talks about his father and how he first met his wife, Louise. Simenon had written 34 Maigret novels before this one and Maigret took this opportunity to correct some of Simenon’s inaccuracies. I recognised some of the books – I’ve read 11 of his first 34 books.

One of the things that irritated Maigret the most was Simenon’s habit of mixing up dates, of putting at the beginning of his career investigations that had taken place later and vice versa. He’d kept press cuttings that his wife had collected and he had thought of using them to make a chronology of the main cases in which he’d been involved. And he also considered some details his wife had noted – concerning their apartment on Boulevard Richard Lenoir, pointing out that in several books Simenon had them living on Place des Vosges without explaining why. There were also times when he retired Maigret even though he was still several years away from retirement. Madame Maigret was also bothered by inaccuracies concerning other characters in the books and by Simenon’s description of a bottle of sloe gin that was always on the dresser in their apartment – that was in actual fact not sloe gin but raspberry liqueur given to them every year by her sister-in-law from Alsace.

Simenon drops facts and information piecemeal in his Maigret books and one thing I particularly like in Maigret’s Memoirs is that it is all about Maigret, but I did miss not having a mystery to solve.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding: a Mini Review of a Short Classic

The first weekly theme for Novellas in November is short classics and I read Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s 1954 novel about a group of boys stranded on a desert island. It was his first novel and it certainly packs a punch. It was described as ‘A post-apocalyptic, dystopian survivor-fantasy … [A novel] for all time … A cult classic.’ Guardian. It’s a quick read of just 183 pages.

What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages? What’s grown-ups going to think? Going off-hunting pigs-letting fires out-and now!

A plane crashes on a desert island. The only survivors are a group of schoolboys. By day, they explore the dazzling beaches, gorging fruit, seeking shelter, and ripping off their uniforms to swim in the lagoon. At night, in the darkness of the jungle, they are haunted by nightmares of a primitive beast. Orphaned by society, they must forge their own; but it isn’t long before their innocent games devolve into a murderous hunt …

I thought I’d read this book years ago. But as soon as I began reading I realised I hadn’t read it – it’s one of those books you think you’ve read because you know the basic outline of what happens.

It is frighteningly believable. What at first seemed to the boys as a great adventure – stranded on a desert island, leaving them free to play all day without any annoying interference from adults, soon descended into a sinister nightmare scenario. They elected a leader, Ralph who initially made friends with Jack, the leader of a group of choirboys. But soon the two fell out as Jack, disappointed at not being chosen as leader, tried to take over – and a battle for power followed.

Ralph wanted to make sure they were seen if a ship passed the island and organised the boys to keep a fire going as a smoke signal. But when one of the younger boys thought he saw a beast in the jungle panic set in. Jack made himself the leader of the hunters, promising to hunt and kill the beast band the boys let the fire go out as they joined the hunt. Things got completely out of hand ending in chaos. It is absolutely gripping and very dark, showing the savage side of human nature.

Throwback Thursday: They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie

Today I’m linking up with Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog for Throwback Thursday. It takes place on the Thursday before the first Saturday of every month (i.e., the Thursday before the monthly #6Degrees post). The idea is to highlight one of your previously published book reviews and then link back to Davida’s blog.

They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie is a standalone spy thriller. I first reviewed it on November 4, 2011.

My review begins:

I made copious notes as I read Agatha Christie’s They Came to Baghdad because it’s such a complex plot and there seemed to be so many significant events and people that I wanted to clarify what was happening. This is not one of Agatha Christie’s detective novels – no Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot,-  just Victoria Jones, a short-hand typist, a courageous girl with a ‘natural leaning towards adventure’ and a tendency to tell lies. Set in 1950 this is a story about international espionage and conspiracy. The heads of the ‘great powers‘ are secretly meeting in Baghdad, where if it all goes wrong ‘the balloon will go up with a vengeance.’ And an underground criminal organisation is out to make sure it does go wrong, aiming at ‘total war – total destruction. And then – the new Heaven and the new Earth.’

Click here to read my full review

The next ThrowbackThursday post is scheduled for December 1, 2022.