Saturday, 29 May 2010

English Passengers

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

Wow, this was a good book. I mean, a really good book. Up there with Cloud Atlas as one of the best books I have ever read. In some ways it reminded me of Cloud Atlas - all the different voices in each section of the book, and there're some similarities between this book and one of the Cloud Atlas novellas.

In the 1850s, a mad English vicar, a doctor with unsettling theories about the relative merits of different human 'types', and a lazy youth whose parents want to make a man of him, inadvertently charter a Manx smuggling vessel, not knowing that stowed in the hold are barrels of brandy and other contraband. They are destined for Tasmania, which the vicar believes is the true site of the Garden of Eden. The smuggling vessel is on the run from English customs officials.

There's drama on the oceans, and when the expedition reaches Tasmania and treks through the bush they meet with life and death situations. I can't explain the whole plot, there is way too much of it, but there's humour, farce and drama throughout. Threaded through the tale of the three hapless Englishmen is the history of Tasmania's aboriginal population. This is one of those books where you learn some history as you read on - white settlers exterminated the entire population within about 30 years. There are some shocking incidents, based on actual history.

The novel's narrated in sections by different characters - an aborigine, the ship's captain, the vicar, the doctor, the youth, and shorter sections by other minor characters. Each one has a wholly different voice - you hardly need to read the section heading to know who's talking. It's a great book to read to see how this can be done, and the effectiveness of using different voices for each character.

I was blown away by this book, did not want to get to the end though I did want to know what happened to all the characters. Very satisfying ending. Thoroughly recommended - if you like historical novels you will love this one

Friday, 14 May 2010

Living In Perhaps

Living In Perhaps by Julia Widdows

Bought this one after reading a review on Sally Zigmond's blog (she has great taste in books, so I just follow her around like a puppy...).

Really enjoyed it. Brilliantly written, cleverly drawn unreliable narrator who you know you just can't trust from one page to the next. But what I loved most was the details of sixties suburbia, so beautifully observed. The author has created a world which felt so real I was really there. Carol's adopted, feels alienated from her family, isn't sure who she is, prefers visiting the eccentric neighbours, and living in her made-up world in which she's far more important.

The ending was left hanging - up to the reader what to believe. After all, the narrator's been lying all through, so who knows what really happened?

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

A spot of social history

I've just finished reading 'Through the Hard Times and the Good' by Chris Hare. This is a non-fiction book, a social history of Worthing from the early 1930s. It focusses on the creation and works of the organisation now known as Guild Care, which was previously known as Worthing Council for Social Services, and was a forerunner of the welfare state in Worthing.

The reason I bought and read this book is because I've been researching my family history, and my mum's side of the family are all from Worthing. Not only that, but my great-aunt was one of the original founders of Guild Care. In fact, she seems to have been something of a saint. I never met her - she was dead long before I was born - but I'd heard she was 'a bit of a charity worker'. Well that's the understatement of the century. She worked tirelessly, for no pay, for decades, helping Worthing's poor, needy and elderly. Some examples - she arranged for free dental treatment for children, care homes for the elderly, nursery provision for the young. A memo arrived from the Government, suggesting the setting up of Citizen's Advice Bureaus. My great-aunt got straight on to that the next day, and Worthing was the first town to get a CAB. Methold House, Guild Care's HQ in Worthing, is named after her.

This was a very readable book, well researched and illustrated. I feel I got to know my great-aunt as a result of it. It would be of interest to anyone interested in social history, or the history of Worthing.