PD James – Death in Holy Orders

death in holy orders

Read May 2014

It’s an ITV drama! In fact, I think it might have been!

This is a classic middle England detective story. An isolated Church of England retreat house with a small number of trainee clergy is the scene. First a trainee commits suicide and then, when a senior clergy person visits with news that it must be closed, he is murdered. A number of other murders follow, apparently to cover up the first.
A senior Scotland Yard inspector, Dalgleish (the protagonist of many PD James novels), knows the place from his youth and so agrees to visit. Eventually it transpires that the murderer is one of the senior clergy there who has a secret adopted son who will benefit from the centre’s swift closure.

It’s quite a gripping book but left me a little cold: not only didn’t I care about the people (that’s hardly a requisite of a good book) but I couldn’t relate to the whole set-up. It felt far-fetched, fabricated and like the book was giving us an upper middle class rural England that never existed before telling us that morally there’s something very wrong with it. Zizek would have a field day!

Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road


Read April 2014

This is classic American fiction, telling the story of a couple who think they are remarkable and above normal people but find themselves settling into a conventional suburban existence. He gradually gets into his job, which he originally did in an ironic and detached way, but she can’t bring herself to accept the role of suburban housewife. It draws to a dramatic end when she (April) dies whilst trying perform an abortion on her third child.

The book provides intensely accurate descriptions of work places, feelings people have about themselves and the awkwardness of relationships. I read someone referring to it as an excellent study of self-deception, which it is. Neither character come across well, but the husband (Frank) does seem more sympathetically drawn though – April is depicted as psychologically disturbed as a consequence of her upbringing whereas he is painted as self-deluding and selfish.

Is it saying that it’s better to conform regardless of your views? Maybe, or it could just be drawing to attention the modern inflict between individualism and societal norms.

Slavoj Zizek – Event


Read June 2014

Slavoj Zizek’s short guide to the concept of the ‘event’ is his usual whistle stop tour of philosophy, psychoanalysis and pop culture. I studied for a PhD in critical / social theory and I struggled to understand a lot of it! He has an incredible ability to explain Lacanian theory, although he assumes too much understanding of the original concepts and, as always, fails to put ideas into their intellectual context. He tends to pluck them out of nowhere and use them to explain a particular phenomenon before tossing them away and grabbing another. But I love Zizek.

You come out of this book with a least three things. First, your imagination and critical faculties are sparked by a host of counter- counter- counter-intuitive ideas about society, politics and culture. It’s what Zizek does best. Second, you get a thorough understanding of the concept of the event. Not a definition as such (little in Zizek can be definitively defined) but you understand that an event is something occurring which transforms the frame through which both the present and the past is viewed. An event colours everything. Third, you get some brilliant concepts and ideas that can be applied to understand the things going on underneath the surface, the ‘unknown knowns’, as he puts it.

Here’s a classic Zizek-ism (pp148-9):

We all know the classic scene in cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice but goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. When a political regime, say, loses its authority, it is like the cat above the precipice: in order to fall, it only has to be reminded to look down.



Elmore Leonard – The Hunted

the hunted

Read May 2014

It’s hard to read Leonard without thinking about interviews with him saying that the reason he writes books is to get a film deal. It spoils it a little, whilst also making you visualise it in the style of Quentin Tarantino. But once you put that behind you – and the fact that it’s no literary revelation – The Hunted, like other books of his, are great: interesting characters; ridiculous, but not too ridiculous, plots; engaging dialogue; very readable. It’s about a guy who had done witness protection being tracked down by people wanting to kill him. They pursue him around Israel, where the book’s set. The guy teams up with an ex US marine and a female ex Israeli Defence Force as they try to defend themselves, all ending of course in a big violent showdown. Utterly gripping at the time; almost instantly forgettable.

AM Homes , May we be Forgiven

may we be forgiven

Read March 2014

A bizarre book – it reads like a series of set pieces connected only by the continuity of the main character, Harry Silver. After sleeping with his sister in law, his brother kills her, resulting in their children living with Harry, who has crisis after crisis before gradually gathering more and more people around him.

There’s a kind of old fashioned morality tale in the book – Harry starts out unfocused, lost, not attached to anything, narcissistic. But over time he becomes a member of a community and finds value in looking after people, ending up surrounded by a strange family he picks up over time.

But the author’s verdict on this is ambiguous. The family aren’t exactly his family – the kids of his dead sister in law, a death he is partly responsible for; another kid whose parents were killed by his brother; the ageing parents of a woman he met in the A&P and had a casual relationship with. Is it wrong that he is surrounded by all these people and that this has given him purpose? Or is it a reflection of the complexity of modern day families and communities?


Un Lun Dun – China Mieville


Read Feb 2014

An incredibly imaginative story of a girl who discovers an alternative London populated by  bizarre people and creatures. She ends up helping save Un Lun Dun from an evil smog that is trying up destroy it. What’s fantastic about the book is it’s creations and it’s imaginative ideas. It’s fun to read and very intelligent with references to post-structuralism, language and philosophy at various points. But it does lack characters you can identify with and care about. And in the end the plot is a girl reluctantly saves the world from an evil genius.

Sarah Waters – The Little Stranger


Read February 2014

The story of rural post war England, an aristocratic family in a large house and estate, and a doctor whose family had once worked as servants in the house. The doctor visits the house and become more and more involved with the family, who are struggling to keep things together as England becomes less easy for the aristocracy. The house, though, appears to have some kind of malevolent spirit that is tormenting the people there. First the brother goes mad and leaves, then the mother is tormented and eventually commits suicide, and in the end the woman (Caroline) who the doctor is to marry dies too. It becomes gradually clear that the ‘little stranger’ is a dark part of the doctor that is obsessed with the house and the family and gradually destroys them.

It’s an incredibly well written book, very well placed, more gripping than tense exactly. The characters are incredibly well described, and as people have said, it’s the house that it is in fact the central character in the book.

Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna


Read February 2014

The story of Harrison Shepard, a half US, half Mexican who lives and works as a cook with Frida Kahlo and then with Leon Trotsky. After Trotksy is killed by Stalinists he moves to the backwaters of the US, eventually becoming a successful writer. However, his past working with revolutionaries catches up with him during the Macarthy era and he is persecuted.Eventually he feigns suicide. He does it by visiting a lacuna in a bay, pretending he has drowned, but actually waiting in the lacuna until everyone has gone.

But the lacuna symbolises more than this – there’s a missing journal, and there is something missing from his life. An interesting thing is that the book gets progressively better and better written, presumably because it’s the notes of a young writer at the start, but eventually the notes of an older more experienced one.