The Fellowship of the Ring – JRR Tolkien

One of those novels that is so foundational to the whole fantasy genre and much more, The Fellowship of the Ring is a book I wanted to re-read but found that, although I loved the world building, it’s maybe a weaker book than the Tolkien I’ve just read, The Hobbit.

The imagination, the world building, is, of course, astounding. What is great is how so much of it is the core of a now-established mythology – the creatures, the language, the ideas, they are found in different ways throughout popular culture. Orcs, goblins, hobbits, dwarves… everything. I’m not sure how much Tolkien invented and how much he borrowed, but it’s clear he builds a systematic world around them. Even things like Lembas, the life giving Elven bread, is the name of a wholefood wholesaler in Sheffield, for example…

Great too is the building of the ‘company’ with all their quirks and different skills. The introduction of Aragorn or Strider in particular is captivating, he’s such a strong character; and the company’s gradual bonding as they travel for months on end through dangerous or arduous territory is powerful.

But, as the first part of a trilogy, this feels like a pretty slow start. Despite some big moments, most notably Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog and Boromir’s challenge to Frodo over the ring, much of the book is scene-setting and descriptive, with the major battles yet to come in the second and third parts. The language too, especially the dialogue, is pretty antiquated.

I think the major drawback of the Fellowship of the Ring, as opposed to The Hobbit has, is that it lacks two important things.

Humour. Perhaps because the latter is written for younger audiences it’s a big lighter, more fun to read, whereas in the Fellowship there’s a lot of drudgery, which makes it ultimately less enjoyable, denser maybe and lacking an element of joy.

Second, moral ambiguity. Whereas in The Hobbit the ring is a corrupting influence – with Gollum a clear example, but even Bilbo struggling to do the right thing at times – in the Fellowship there is a much clearer sense of right and wrong with characters like Aragorn, Legolas and Frodo rarely tempted by darkness. And this lack of depth makes it in some ways a thinner book than The Hobbit despite it being twice the number of pages.

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“For anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather overcrowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort.”

JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

There’s so much hype about the film version of The Hobbit it’s easy to forget that it’s quite an understated book with a more complex take on morality than you might think.

The novel follows the journey of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit torn between homeliness and adventure. He is visited by a troop of dwarves, led by former King Thorin, and the wizard Gandalf. They persuade him to join them on a journey to reclaim the dwarves’ stolen treasure, guarded by an enormous and dangerous dragon.

An epic adventure ensues, meeting trolls, goblin armies, giants, elves, men, enormous spiders, golum – when Bilbo finds the invisibility ring – and eventually arriving at the mountain on the other side of Mirkwood, where they wait to enter and steal the treasure.

Their desire for the treasure is so strong that obstinate Thorin nearly begins a war between the elves, men and dwarves. It’s only Bilbo and, more significantly, an approaching goblin army that unites the three armies against a shared enemy.

In my mind, before reading this, I associated The Hobbit with a pretty blunt good versus evil morality tale, but reading it I see there are in fact some psychological subtleties. The three races of dwarf, man and elf are all good, in contrast to the goblins, but to some extent corrupted by money. The dwarves in particular almost cause a war with the elves and men because they won’t give up any of their fortune they consider theirs. It’s a position that is understandable given the historic theft of the gold and the consequent impoverishment of the dwarf kingdom, but nevertheless is short-sighted and foolishly selfish.

My feeling is that it’s quite a male book, because it focuses on war and gallantry and power – and because there are NO women characters, not a single female of significance in the whole book. So perhaps its story of what it takes to ‘do the right thing’ has a particularly masculine bent – I’m not sure – but nevertheless it doesn’t shy away from the competing drives that reside in the main characters, making it a good story with some satisfying depth.

Modern Gods – Nick Laird

This is a wonderfully written and closely observed book with two interwoven stories, one absolutely brilliant, the other less engaging, but both provoking questions about responsibility and guilt.

The novel centres on a Northern Irish Protestant family and particularly two sisters, Liz and Alison.

Alison had stayed in Ulster, has two kids, works at her Dad’s estate agency, and is about to embark on her second marriage to a seemingly nice if slightly uninspiring guy called Stephen.

Liz left Ulster for an academic life, lives in New York, and is about to go to Papa New Guinea to present a TV programme on a new religion that has sprung up there, but is back home for Alison’s wedding.

Alison’s story is incredible. It transpires, the day after they are married, that Stephen is in fact called Andrew and is a former terrorist who killed five innocent people in a pub shooting at the height of the troubles, but was given early release through the Good Friday Agreement.

Liz didn’t know because although she knew he had a past she’d never really wanted the details; the chapters building up to the wedding explain why she would rather bury her head in the sand than confront a difficult truth.

Liz meanwhile travels to Papa New Guinea with some BBC types and meets the leader of the new religion – Story – as well as a family of evangelical Christians spreading God’s message there. Things gradually unravel and Liz is thrown against the question of whether she should observe or intervene.

In a way that’s at the heart of the book, the question of how responsible you can be for something that you did not do or intend: how responsible is Liz when she doesn’t act against barbaric acts, or Alison for not enquiringly more about Stephen’s past, or Judith – their Mum – for always making Alison feel unloved, or Stephen for past actions?

The Gods of the title provide something of a guide to people, but not necessarily with the answers people want to hear.

Spare and Found Parts – Sarah Maria Griffin

This is a fine piece of science fiction, rich in detail, that slowly subverts ideals around work and family.

It focuses on Nell, a teenage girl, in a world where advanced technology is no longer allowed after it caused an epidemic resulting in people losing lives and, significantly, limbs.

After ‘the Turn’ – as its known – Nell’s Dad becomes a revered doctor / scientist who has created prosthetic limbs that allow people to live as they used to.

Everyone needs to make a ‘contribution’ to the city, to get it back on its feet. Neil’s friend Ruby is focused on fashion, her irritant-stalker-friend Oliver on prosthetics too, but Nell is unsure. Then she stumbles across a mannequin hand that gives her the idea to build a boy; and, after finding computers from before the Turn, she rigs up a functioning android called Io.

At the heart of the book appear to be two very conservative ideas – the nuclear family and work – but both are subverted by the end. Nell’s Mum has died and her father looks after her when not working. But it appears that actually her Dad, Julian, is a duplicitous plagiarist and a thief in his work, and her Mum, Cora, was so obsessed with scientific work that she effectively brought on her own death. Neither work nor family come out of this too well.

It’s a good plot, a nice subversion on the themes, but the book’s really brought alive by the detail of Nell’s cobbling and creations – limbs, wires, screws, all the stuff of basic electronics and (I guess, fantasy prosthetics) that give it a real hands-on feel.

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

Trumpet is a beautifully written novel that makes you think differently – you surely couldn’t ask for more from a book.

It begins with the death of the jazz trumpeter Joss Moody. On his death a secret only he and his wife Millie have known is revealed – that Joss was in fact born a woman (Josephine) and has lived his life as a man, bandaging up his breasts every day and telling nobody, not even their own adopted son Colman.

The book is a look at the fall-out from this revelation. We get a variety of first person perspectives: Colman in particular, who is very angry and is working with a tabloid journalist to write a biography and expose of his Dad; Millie who is mostly struggling with her son’s reaction, as well as reflecting on her past with Joss; and a variety of others, like the journalist, the drummer in Joss’s old band, the funeral worker, Joss’s Mum.

A big part of the book is from Colman’s perspective as he tries to deal with the realisation. His character is unlikeable – he is already a bit of a loser, like the children of high achieving famous people might be, and discovering his Mum and Dad had hidden something so big from him for years tears him apart. Over the book, though, he gradually realises that despite everything Joss was his father, he loved him, and he can’t go ahead with the expose.

Millie appears naïve, as if she hadn’t considered what would happen when the news was out. It’s interesting, and I wonder if partly this is because she and Joss had lived with the secret for such a long time that I had become normal. And the fact that they kept this secret, even from their own child, makes you realise that they did so because this is something that was and remains very hard to talk about, so it drives you to do things that aren’t necessarily perfect.

What’s clear, too, is the way that Joss and Millie had a very tight relationship, one guarded from the outside world – and one that probably excluded Colman quite considerably, though they might not have known it, and it was only when the secret was revealed to Colman that this became clear.

Trumpet is brilliantly written – simple language but very beautiful and affecting. And the story works on so many levels – as a love story, in part, as a complex take on the impact of social norms on the way relationships work, as a delve into the psyche of someone learning his life was not quite as he thought it was, and as a morally ambiguous story about families and secrets.

The Bricks that Built the Houses – Kate Tempest

The Bricks that Built the Houses is a lyrical novel, rich with accurate metaphors, and a gripping story with a social conscience.

It tells the story of the interweaving lives of twenty-somethings Harry, Becky and Pete. Harry, with her best friend Leon, is a high end dealer; Becky is an inspiring dancer who funds her aspirations through massage; Pete is Harry’s brother, struggling with finding direction in his life.

Pete and Becky are together, though their relationship is falling apart because of Becky’s job and Pete’s jealousy, but Harry and Becky fall for one another separately. Harry and Leon end up being set up in a drug deal and doing a runner with bags of cash an drugs. Becky’s Uncle, it turns out, is the dealer’s muscle, and everything comes to a head in the excellent chapter ‘Everybody Down’ (also the name of an album by Kate Tempest), where all the issues collide at Pete’s surprise birthday party.

The characterisations are excellent and because they are given such attention have a high level of complexity. Though there is a romanticisation of youth culture and an unbelievably high level of coincidence, the plot is gripping.

The absolute strength of the book, other than the evocative writing, is its ability to show how these three characters’ personalities and lives are shaped by a mix of social situation and pure luck. If goes back into third parents’ lives and how they affect their kids, with all experiencing tough upbringings – Becky especially – that make them sympathetic, believable and real.

Rose Tremain – Trespass

A gothic tale of retribution, family, abuse and the effect of histories, real and imagined.

Set in the South of France, it tells the story of two sets of brother and sister. First there is Arundun and Aramon, the former sexually abused by the latter for 15 years, with the encouragement of their father Serge, and the power relation is now embodied by their housing, with Aramon in the large and increasingly decrepit manor house and she in a small bungalow, ambiguously on the edge of his land. Tired of the house and the responsibility, he wants to sell up. She continues to harbour murderous thoughts of revenge, but is yet to enact them.

Then there is Veronica and Anthony, she living in France with her partner Kitty, he an antiques dealer still in London, but fed up with the work, struggling with his business, and wanting to move to France.

He is interested in buying Aramon’s house, though worried about the bungalow on the edge of the property, and as the to and fro of the house purchase goes on Arundun sees an opportunity to take revenge on her brother for the abuse he subjected her to and the life he destroyed in the process. 

What is really strong in this novel is its gothic style, with the house and the land has a force and presence of their own; stronger than any of the characters in many ways. People – with their histories, families, houses, memories – they come and go, but land is always there. 

And equally powerful is the ways in which our histories and memories shape and ruin our lives. For Arundun and Aramon these memories are real: the abuse suffered has destroyed both their lives in different ways, and at the very end, when in prison, he expresses sorrow and appears happy with his lot, finally. For Anthony, his life is determined by his connection to his mother, Lal, but according to Veronica, it’s an imagined connection – his love for her was largely unrequited, and the mother was interest in her life and apparently lacked the maternal affection Anthony holds so dear.

Trespass is a very good book. I was expecting something more action-packed, so it’s slower revelatory style was a surprise at first, particularly given the opening chapter sees a you girl finding a body. But when you realise it’s more family saga than crime drama, it’s brilliant.

Number 11 – Jonathan Coe

Through the separate and overlapping stories of childhood friends Rachel and Alison, Number 11 covers everything from the right wing press, wealth inequality, food banks and the bedroom tax to I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. 

With childhood memories of a summer in Beverley, Alison and her Mum Val struggling in Birmingham, Rachel becoming a live in nanny for London’s super rich, the pair losing touch after miscommunication on social media, and Alison ending up in prison, among much much else, the novel covers a lot of ground.

There are some wonderful ideas in here too. When Val appears on I’m a Celebrity all the good things she does are excluded from the show making her appear mean and malicious and, my favourite, the Maverick policeman who approaches any crime by first trying to understand the political and cultural context in which its occurs.

Number 11 is, needless to say, a contemporary state of the nation novel with a strong left wing political undertone to it, which was very occasionally a bit much – a kind of knowingness or cynicism about modern life that took away from the story – but actually this is a fine book. Funny, gripping, well written. John Lanchester’s Capital is a similar sort of novel, but Coe’s characters are fuller, more nuanced and although the situations they find themselves in are a bit cliched, the characters themselves are deeper and carefully drawn.

The end of the world running club – Adrian J Walker 

Both the concept and the execution of this book work – it begins when thousands of asteroids hit the earth, effectively destroying the infrastructure of human civilisation and killing nearly all the inhabitants of the UK and, though we don’t know for sure, probably the world. Ed is a half hearted father and husband whose family, after some dramatic scenes, is rescued shortly after the disaster. Being separated from them is a revelation for Ed, who suddenly realised that he may miss little else of civilisation, but his family is vital. The story follows his battle to get from Edinburgh to Falmouth on foot in 30 days before a ship leaves with his family and he loses them for good.

At its core this a page turner thriller. Ed, and his band of companions that he travels with (neanderthal Bryce, posh Richard, old Harvey and female Grimes) are thrown from one horrific situation to another – destroyed motorways, gun-toting aristocrats, a Manchester run by murderous gang, an obliterated Birmingham, and much else besides. The surprises keep on coming.

And at the same time there are some powerful themes running through it. There’s a strong tension, in particular, between the nuclear family being the ultimate value – Ed is absolutely fixated on finding his family because now, when he can see clearly, it’s all that matters – and the importance of wider solidarity, which we see through the close and mutually sacrificing nature of the group travelling to Falmouth together.

And what comes out through this is the relevance of Zizek’s psychoanalytic maxim: ‘we don’t want what we really desire.’ What Ed says he wants is his family, but what he appears to revel in is the finding of his family – the challenge, the pursuit – which is ultimately about him, internally, becoming something else and not about his family at all. When you get to the book’s finale, without giving anything away, you can’t help but wonder whether actually finding his family – as opposed to searching for them – was what he really wanted.

Being Dead – Jim Crace 

Read March 2015 

This book is all about the writing and characterisation – the descriptions are accurate, the perspectives unique, the depth amazing. From the fairly dull surface of a relationship between two middle class people we end up with a full and deep understanding of them and their relationship with one another.
They are murdered, at the place where they first met thirty years before. An unlucky coincidence, though that allows the author to trace the parallels and delve into the start to their lives together.
As well as the overall sense of knowing them (Joseph and Celice) that grows throughout the book, two particular parts are striking. One is a short description of the decomposing bodies, told, it feels, from the perspective of the flies and crabs that feed on the bodies. The other is the complex and changing feelings of the daughter, Syl, as she moves from resenting the mundanity of her parents’ lives to realising the important but ambiguous place in her life that they occupy.