2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Challenge – The Return of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

Genre: British Detective, Classics, Short Stories

Narrative Style: First person, 

Rating: 4/5

Published:1904

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Sherlock Holmes has been missing, presumed dead, after his encounter with Moriaty on the Reichenbach Falls. In the first story of this collection, he reappears, much to the surprise of Watson, his trusty sidekick. Together, they solve five more mysteries of varying degrees of complication. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition

Overall, I did enjoy this book but as always, whenever I read a Sherlock Holmes story, I have to overcome my irritation with the main character. Holmes is infuriatingly intelligent, able to spot things that most normal people don’t and always about three leaps ahead of everyone else. Unlike Watson, I don’t find these attractive attributes. I much prefer my detectives to be fallible – to be more human, in fact. But once you get over that – and Watson’s adoration which is also a little annoying – there is much to enjoy here.

The first story – which heralded Holmes reappearance – was perhaps the least satisfying. Holmes has information that Watson, Lestrade and the reader could not know. All that is left if for the reader is to admire Holmes’ abilities. Not much fun, to be honest.

The other four stories in this collection are all much more interesting and allow the reader to stretch their own powers of deduction a bit more. Indeed, I even worked out what one of the mysteries was. (Incidentally, I’m never sure if this pleases me or not. It shouldn’t be too easy to work out, nor too difficult. It’s a fine line or maybe I’m just difficult to please.)

The most enjoyable story was probably Black Peter. It was suitably twisty, it involved a policeman who jumped in the wrong direction, murder by harpoon and lots of cleverness from Sherlock including running through a pig with a harpoon to see how much strength it took.

Overall, I’m not a huge fan of short stories but they work nicely with detective stories. Obviously, if you have a full on police inquiry, you need a full novel but the quirky, interesting mysteries presented here are just complicated enough to sustain about 25 pages of text.

Alphabet Soup Challenge – Author Edition – G – Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Genre: Scottish Fiction, Allegory, Metafiction

Narrative Style: Non chronological, Third Person

Published: 1981

Rating: 3/5

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Lanark can’t remember who he is or anything about his past. His most recent memory is a train journey which has brought him to Unthank, a place where the sun barely rises. He longs for the sunshine. He meets a group of people but is unable to connect with them. He longs for love but is unable to find it. Is there any way he can escape from Unthank?

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Challenge

I thought I’d enjoy this more than I did. In fact, for quite a bit, I thought this would be a five star read. I really enjoyed the first three books but then it felt as though it was never going to end. Maybe that was Gray’s problem – he couldn’t figure out how to finish things off.

The novel starts with Book Three and Lanark’s arrival in Unthank on a train. Anything before that is a mystery to him. Unthank is a land of darkness – the hours of sunshine are getting less and less. There is an entertaining episode where Lanark goes to register so he can get money which is Kafkaesque in its pillorying of bureaucracy. There are swipes at the authorial process when Lanark is encouraged to write by Sludden, one of a group of people who lounge around in a cafe all day, and then, after a painstaking description of the writing process, is told that what he has written is no good.

It is clear that Unthank is some sort of punishment – hell, maybe – for an incident in Lanark’s life before. This is supported by the fact that Lanark keeps asking women if he killed them. This becomes even more apparent when Lanark starts to develop dragonhide. (Other characters have equally weird ailments such as eyes or mouths all over their bodies.) He then finds himself in the Institute where once cured, he is made to become a doctor and cure others of the same ailment. When he manages to save a woman, he is given the chance to speak to an oracle and find out about his life before.

Now we are given Books One and Two – the life of Lanark before Unthank when he was Duncan Thaw. The style changes here. We are now given a – mostly – realistic portrait of a Scottish childhood and young adulthood. Thaw has always wanted to draw but finds he is thwarted in many ways. His parents want him to get a more sensible job. The focus is on money and living the same life that everybody else does which Thaw does not want. Even when he eventually gets to art college, he finds it provincial and depressing, pushing him towards a teaching career he does not want.

Thaw is prone to fits of depression, illness and hallucination. During one of these times, he may have killed a woman. As a result, he kills himself and this is how he has ended up in Unthank. Now, he is given the opportunity to leave the Institute and find a better future for himself and the woman he saved. But before any of that, he must return to Unthank.

This is where it started to go wrong for me. The allegory became increasingly complicated as did the satirising of bureaucracy. There were unending obstacles for Lanark. It ceased to be funny and clever, becoming annoying and increasingly post-modern. There is a section where Lanark meets the author of the novel and they argue over what the end of the novel should be. Included in this section are a series of footnotes giving all the other writers that have influenced the story, seemingly trying to head off any potential critics who pointed out allusions. All very clever, but not much fun to read.

By the end of this novel, I didn’t mind how it ended, just that it did. I was quite sympathetic towards Lanark in the beginning; by the end I was just hoping for his death and for it to be over.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – No Surrender by Constance Maud

Genre: Feminist, Political

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological

Rating: 2/5

Published: 1911

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Jenny Clegg is a mill girl in Lancashire when she gets involved with the Suffragette movement. The novel follows her and her friend Mary O’Neill through marches, prison and force feeding during their fight for the vote. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup: Author Edition

I first heard of this novel in the BBC Two program, Novels that Shaped Our World in November, last year. It sounded interesting so I downloaded it onto my kindle. I’d never read a novel about the suffragette movement before – indeed, I don’t think there are many – and so I was quite excited to read it. Unfortunately, it did not live up to my expectations.

The main issue with this novel is that it is purely political. So you might expect when dealing with such a subject but there is nothing else in this novel, no subplots, no romance and no other way of separating characters. The players in this novel are good or bad depending on whether or not they are for or against women’s suffrage. In a lot of cases, this is their only personality trait. On both sides of the argument this led to stereotypical and hollow representations. The suffragettes were all good, moral women and those against them often seemed ridiculous. No one ever wavered in their feelings – no suffragette anyway. Some of the disbelievers come across to the suffragette side.

Secondly, the majority of this novel is dialogue. Not only that but a lot of it is written in dialect which is often hard to decipher and did make me wonder if Maud had ever actually had much to do with the working classes. It made the reading experience jarring at times. All the dialogue also made the pace quite slow. There wasn’t much action, more people describing action.

There are good things – important things – in this book. It describes a lot of the reasons that women wanted the vote really clearly and shows the injustices that women – particularly working women – faced at that time. It described the force feeding of Mary O’Neil in detail and showed how badly the suffragettes were treated in prison. All of this is important historical detail but unfortunately it didn’t override the other issues with the novel.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishigoru

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1989

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Stevens, the butler from Darlington Hall, is allowed some holiday and takes a driving trip to see the former housekeeper, Miss Kenton, who left the house some years earlier to get married. On his journey, he begins to think back over his time as butler and his relationship with Miss Kenton.

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup: Author Edition

I really enjoyed this book. I wasn’t sure whether I would or not as I’ve read two Ishiguro novels previously – When We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go – and I didn’t particularly enjoy either of them. All three are quite different from each other though and as such, I was unprepared for the emotional effect of this one.

The novel begins as Stevens, a butler for many years at the prestigious Darlington Hall, begins a journey to see the former housekeeper. At first, he is preoccupied with the idea of what makes a good butler and the idea of dignity. He gives the first details of his relationship with Miss Kenton when he describes an exchange after she tried to bring flowers into his office, an act which clearly baffles him. It is clear to the reader – although seemingly not to Stevens – how Miss Kenton feels about him. She is often frustrated by him and seems determined to provoke some emotion in him.

This is a very subtle novel. Stevens does not discuss his own emotions and the reader has to read between the lines to understand how he feels about events. At one stage, Stevens praises his own sense of dignity when he manages to keep working on the evening that his father dies. It is heartbreaking to read. Stevens, also never seems to realise that Miss Kenton is constantly trying to make him step outside of his professional persona. However, it seems like there is no man underneath the persona, Stevens so perfectly personifies the role of butler.

The reader is also made to think about the nature of loyalty and the relationship between master and servant. Lord Darlington, it becomes apparent, is part of a faction that is fascist and anti-semitic and during the war, he holds conferences with the aim of appeasing Hitler. Stevens thinks that he is right to have remained loyal towards his master and refuses to think that Lord Darlington could have been wrong in his ideas. Even when he is instructed to fire two Jewish members of staff, he follows these orders without question. It is one of the times that he disagrees with Miss Kenton as she thoroughly disapproves of these actions and threatens to leave if Stevens carries them out. Miss Kenton presents an emotional counterpart to Stevens’ repressed and proper personality.

The ending of the book, when Stevens finally meets with Miss Kenton, was very sad as they both realise what their lives could have been like if they’d been able to admit their feelings to each other. At the very end, Stevens ends up crying when talking to a man about his employer, his only show of emotion in the whole book. This suggests perhaps, that Stevens will at last be able to acknowledge his emotions and perhaps gain more enjoyment from what remains of his life.

Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Paris Echo – Sebastian Faulks

Genre: Literary fiction, History, The effect of war

Narrative Style: two first person narrators

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2018

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Two very different visitors to Paris meet and end up sharing a house. Hannah is in Paris to research life for women during Paris’ occupation during the second world war. Tariq runs away from home to try and find some information about his mother who was French. They both come to a greater understanding of themselves through their interaction with the city. 

Writing Challenges: Alphabet Soup: Author Challenge

This didn’t grab me. A while ago, I decided that I ought to read more by authors where I’d read one book which I’d really enjoyed. About fifteen years ago, I read Birdsong. I don’t know why that didn’t lead me to read more of Faulks’  novels then. Anyway, hence reading Paris Echo.

There are a lot of interesting ideas in this novel – about history and its ongoing effect on the present, about personal and political views of events and about our sense of self. In fact, the transcriptions of the interviews with French women who lived through occupation were probably the most interesting part of this novel and I found myself wishing it was more straightforward historical fiction. I would definitely have been interested in reading more about these women.

The main problem is that the two main characters never came alive for me. Neither of them really convinced. It also seemed unlikely that Hannah would have just opened her door to Tariq. A lot of interesting things happen to Tariq – he sometimes feels like he is watching himself from the outside, he meets a woman who may or may not be a ghost – a woman he has seen in a vintage photo shown to him by Hannah. But he isn’t really all that interesting and at the end of the novel, he is back home with the same girlfriend, taking up his life with no real changes. He has learned things and is perhaps more observant but his basic character is unchanging.

Hannah is even less convincing. It seems that Faulks feels for her. He describes her vulnerability well but she doesn’t have much else going for her. She has been scarred by a a relationship ten years earlier and while she eventually feels strong enough to start a new relationship, it isn’t entirely obvious why this has happened.

So not exactly successful but definitely interesting. And it did make me think. Also, it reminded me of a period in history I would like to know more about. And that is always a good thing.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Survivor – Chuck Palahniuk

Genre: Satirical, anti-heroes

Narrative Style: Stream of consciousness, First person

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1999

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: We meet Tender Branson as he has just hijacked a plane and is telling the sorry tale of his life to the black box recorder. He has let the crew and passengers go and has the length of time it takes for the fuel to run out to tell us of his life. What follows is a tragic tale of manipulation, fame, murder and suicide.

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition

This is a very strange book. I had some idea what to expect – I’ve read Fight Club and Choke – but even so this is an odd read. For a start, it is numbered backwards and the chapters run down to one which makes it difficult to judge exactly where you are in the book. It also gives the feeling of running to a huge event which is apt given that we are waiting for the plane that Tender has hijacked to run out of fuel and crash.

We are thrown into the middle of Tender’s story with little context and at first it is a little confusing. Tender works as a servant and we gather that this is the fate of the majority of young people in the Creedish cult. They are sold as servants. allowed out into the outside world only because they’ve been convinced to never have sex by means not explained until near the end.

It transpires that Tender is a survivor of the mass suicide that has killed the rest of the cult. Even those who are already out in the world have been trained to obey this call to heaven so eventually Tender is the only one left. At this point, he comes to the attention of The Agent and is thrust into the limelight – once they have made him camera ready, of course.

Palahniuk takes aim at the media industry as they completely take over Tender’s life, treating him like a product rather than a person. He is consistently manipulated throughout the novel – first by the Creedish church and then by The Agent who has already planned out his entire life before he  even meets Tender. He was just waiting for the right body to put before the cameras.  The take down is savage and I felt a huge amount of sympathy for Tender especially when he is eventually rescued by his twin brother, Adam and his friend Fertility Hollis. Stripped bare of all routines, not being told what to do, he is unable to cope. He has been told what to do his whole life. Even when it comes  to hijacking the plane, Fertility has to push him in the right direction.

This was a very enjoyable read. It is easy to get used to the stream of consciousness style and the characters were well-drawn and interesting. The ending is open-ended so it is possible to believe in a happy ending should you want to. It is darkly funny in places, as you might expect from the writer of Fight Club but ultimately I felt a lot of sadness when reading it.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – The Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

 

Genre: Magic Realism, South American Literature

Narrative Style: A series of stories told by Eva to her lover

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1989

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Eva’s lover demands that she tell him a story that she has never told anyone before. The stories mix the real and the fantastic and cover revenge, love, obsession and much more. 

Reading Challenges: Alphabet Soup 2020 – Author Edition

It’s been a long time since I read Eva Luna – about 25 years as I was at university – but I remember that I really enjoyed it. I’m not sure why this book has languished on the shelf got quite so long. Possibly because I’m not a huge fan of short stories.

As you might expect, these stories slip easily between reality and fantasy. Ghosts and miracles happen in the same way that ordinary every day things happen. Allende’s prose is rich and poetic and the stories are not reigned in by the constraints of prose. They are poetic in their nature.

There are many themes touched on here but the main thing I came away with was the power of love in the face of the worst situations. There is something hopeful and encouraging about these stories even when they are talking about the worst atrocities committed by man.

My favourite stories are’ Two Words’ and ‘Our Secret.’ ‘Two Words’ which tells of Belisa Crepusculario who learns that she has power over words and uses this power to sell words to people. When she is kidnapped by the Colonel, he tells her he wants to be president. She sells him the words to say but also gives him a bonus ‘Two Words’ for his exclusive use. With these words, she binds the Colonel to her and he becomes unable to think of anyone else. ‘Our Secret’ tells the story of  the story of a couple who cannot truly know each other until they have shared the secret traumas of their lives under the Chilean dictatorship.

Some of the stories are erotic like ‘Toad’s Mouth’ which tells of a  Hermelinda and her erotic games or ‘Wicked Girl’ which tells of a young girl’s sexual awakening and the effect it has on her mother’s lover. Others, like the final story ‘And of Clay we are Created’ are tragic and sad. All are unusual and exciting.

My only problem is one with short story collections in general and that is I like to get my teeth into stories, get to know characters. Here, whenever I felt like I was interested in a character, the story changed.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin

Genre: Fantasy, Magic

Narrative Style: Third person

Rating: 3/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 1968

Synopsis: Sparrowhawk is set to become one of the most powerful wizards in Earthsea. He has natural talent and it isn’t long before he comes to the attention of the other wizards. Taken away as an apprentice to Ogion, he is impatient for power and accidentally evokes a shadow creature that will haunt him forever. The rest of the novel covers his quest to rid the world of this evil. 

Reading challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition.

This really wasn’t for me. I gave it three out of five because it really isn’t badly written but it didn’t grab me at all. I think I was expecting it to be more science fiction and less magic based fantasy – not a genre I particularly like. It’s also a bit boy’s own for my taste – boy does quest at expense of everything else in his life is not something that is interesting to me.

To be fair, at first I thought it might be okay. Sparrowhawk (or Duny as he is originally called) has a natural talent for magic and is taught as much as he can be by his aunt. When his village is threatened by a neighbouring tribe, he manages to save them by conjuring a magical fog. This was quite exciting and well written. Even Sparrowhawk’s school days were quite exciting with rivalries with other wizards, one of which nearly leads to his death.

It is really the second half of the novel – which focuses on the chase after the evil shadow that Sparrowhawk has accidentally unleashed on the world. A lot of the time Sparrowhawk is alone and at sea – not very exciting to be honest. After all the chasing and running, you might hope that the final confrontation between man and shadow would be exciting but even that was anti-climatic.

I know that this is children’s literature and maybe I am too old to appreciate the innocence of this tale. I did find the ideas of good and evil simplistic as was the final solution to merge with the  shadow. It could be considered a bildungsroman with Sparrowhawk learning what it means to be a man in his world but because I found the story so unexciting, I didn’t really feel like Sparrowhawk developed all that much.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge – Boy21 – Matthew Quick

Genre: Young adult, Mental Illness, Family

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2012

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: For Finley and his girlfriend, Erin, basketball is everything. It is their ticket out of their downbeat neighbourhood and they spend long hours training together. When Finley’s coach asks him to look after Russ, a much sought after basketball player who has suffered such a severe trauma he has retreated into the persona Boy21, things change for him completely. Both boys are forced to face up to the tragedy in their lives. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge

I admit I bought this specially for this challenge, having no Q authors on my shelves – either physical or kindle. I’d seen the film of Silver Linings Playbook so I’m not sure why I didn’t pick that. This sounded interesting but unfortunately didn’t live up to its potential.

Finley is an interesting narrator and his family relations were convincing in their detail. Life was difficult for Finley, living in a rough neighbourhood, having to look after his disabled, alcoholic Grandfather while his father worked night shift and getting picked on for being the only white person on the school basketball team but as long as he was able to play and spend time with Erin, he was fine. So far so good, I thought. The scene was successfully set.

However, when Russ – Boy21 – is introduced into the story, things become less convincing. His persona didn’t really ring true. Although, undoubtedly, people do retreat into fantasy – in this case, believing they are from outer space – in order to avoid very real tragedy, I just couldn’t quite believe in Russ. Similarly when he recovers after starting to play basketball again, it just feels too easy.

One of the most interesting aspects of this story was the friendship between Finley and Russ, both of whom have suffered from tragedy. However, it is suddenly cut off as Finley is given a chance to escape but he will never be able to return to Belmont. I felt this was a shame and made the novel seem a bit pointless.

At the beginning of the novel, we are told that Finley’s mother is dead and that no one talks about it. Hints are made about the Irish mafia throughout the novel, particularly after Erin is involved in a hit and run accident that stops her from playing basketball. When the full story is revealed it is little wonder that Finley never wanted to talk about it but it does come quite late in the story and with little to really prepare the reader for what was to come. After Finley and Russ reveal the details of the violent acts in their lives, their usefulness to each other is clearly over as Quick then allows Finley the escape he was always wanted. Again, it felt too easy and unrealistic.

Overall, I did feel compelled to read on and it was an interesting story and I suppose for a younger audience, it was perhaps more important to have an optimistic ending rather than a realistic one but ultimately, I fell it didn’t quite ring true.

2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge Author Edition – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne

Genre: Irish Fiction, LGBT, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: First person, Chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2017

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Cyril Avery’s  adoptive parents never miss an opportunity to tell him that he is adopted and so not a real Avery. Cyril feels like he doesn’t really fit in anywhere and he soon realises that being adopted isn’t the only thing that is different about him. Being gay in Ireland in the 1950s isn’t easy and Cyril struggles with his sexuality. The novel recounts events from Cyril’s life at seven year intervals, taking the reader from the 1950s to the present day. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition

This was a very enjoyable read – as might be expected from John Boyne. It was different from the other two books that I’ve read by him as it seemed a much more personal project than The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or The Absolutist. Being gay and Irish clearly had a big influence on the subject matter of this book.

The novel starts with the story of Catherine Goggin, hounded out of her home town by the priest for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. She travels to Dublin to have the baby, planning to have it adopted as she will not be able to keep it as a single woman in the 1940s. On the bus, she meets Sean MacIntryre who is also running away from home because he is gay and he offers her a place to stay until the baby is born.

The story of Catherine’s child, Cyril Avery starts when he is seven years old and continues at seven year intervals until he is seventy seven. The novel covers a lot of ground in both Irish and LGBT history, taking in the power of the clergy, bombs, kidnapping, prostitution, AIDS, violence against gay people to name but a few. For the most part, this is fine. Boyne is a sensitive writer and covers issues in a very human way but it does sometimes make it obvious that this is fiction and not actually someone’s life.

I found the beginning of the novel very readable. I couldn’t put it down. Cyril becomes friends with Julian Woodbead at age seven and their friendship lasts for a long time. Cyril quickly realises that he is in love with Julian which is unfortunate as Julian is enthusiastically heterosexual. Some of the funniest parts of the novel came with Julian’s boasting about his sexual conquests and also the scrapes that he gets Cyril into.

Cyril hides his sexuality, reluctant to even admit it to himself which leads to furtive encounters and lots of loneliness. Early on, he acquires a girlfriend, Mary Margaret, who luckily for him, does not want a sexual relationship. Boyne manages to find the humour in this situation but he also stresses how difficult it is for Cyril to put forward a version of himself that society would find acceptable.

As the novel progresses  – and Cyril grows older – the story becomes less interesting. Without spoiling the story, there is only one romance in Cyril’s life and that does not last into old age. As is the way in life, I suppose, things start happening to other, younger characters which Cyril mainly observes. Even at the beginning, Cyril is never the life and soul so when life slows down for him, he becomes a bit boring.

This is the main reason that I didn’t give it five stars. That, and the fact that sometimes the plotting is a little clumsy. In the section set in New York when Cyril is volunteering at an AIDS hospital, the irony of the situation he finds himself in is heavy handed to say the least. There are also lots of coincidences and chance meetings (between Cyril and his mother, for example)  which I found a little annoying. Cyril shows a remarkable lack of curiosity about his mother and it is another chance meeting that eventually means they realise they are mother and son.

Overall, though this was a great read and it certainly opened my eyes as to how horrible things were in Ireland because of the power of the Catholic church. The novel ends on a positive note with Cyril’s grandson, George, and his boyfriend, Marcus representing a new and more open generation which gives some hope for the future.