Category Archives: British

On Walking, by Phil Smith

On Walking, Phil SmithThis is one of those books you either love or hate.

It’s full title, On Walking:…and Stalking Sebald implies you will be following Phil Smith as he follows in the footsteps of the German author, W.G. Sebald, on a walking tour in Suffolk.

But the book is much more than a travelogue of the author’s trip. It incorporates a mix of poetry, philosophy, and reflections on walking. It is an entertaining, frustrating and challenging read. And is illustrated with photographs that both illuminate and mirror the scatological (in the urban-dictionary sense) nature of the writing. Continue reading On Walking, by Phil Smith

The Bellwether Revivals, by Benjamin Wood

Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin WoodThis is the first published novel by one of my Birkbeck tutors.

And, because the author is one of my tutors, I was nervous before I read it. What if I didn’t like it?

I needn’t have worried.

The story is crackingly good and involves a lowly care worker, Oscar, who falls under the spell of the Bellwether family. Specifically, he falls in love with Iris Bellweather and becomes enmeshed with her charismatic brother, Eden. Continue reading The Bellwether Revivals, by Benjamin Wood

Darkland and Bloodmind, both by Liz Williams

I am thrilled to discover a great, new (to me) science fiction author and very much enjoyed reading both these books. In fact, for the first time since I have begun reading deliberately to broaden my reading horizons, I find a writer who pulls me into her stories, so that I found it hard to put the books down and even harder not to think about the books when not reading them.

But if you are thinking of reading these books, do start with Darkland first. I think it would be very difficult to understand Bloodmind without beginning at the beginning. In fact, I really think these two books need to be published in one volume. Neither is a story complete in itself.

What I liked about the books:

Liz Williams has skillfully invented whole new worlds, complete with landscapes, climates, flora and fauna. I like the flawed – and scarred – main female protagonist. I like the depiction of a number of almost-familiar near-human species, but with distinctly different, non-human instincts, senses and powers. I particularly like the fact that this is proper ‘science’ fiction and does not resort to witchcraft or magic to explain events (although, to be honest, the stories would equally work if told as magical fantasies too).

In Bloodmind, different female characters took it in turns to narrate the story, along with the main female character from Darkland. This was a very compelling device, sucking the reader into the different characters – their hopes, fears and dramas.  The jumping about between characters and places could have been confusing, particularly as the story’s events take place across three different planets. But this was overcome by the pragmatic titles of the chapters – each chapter’s title simple states the name of the planet and narrator. A neat device and very useful.

What I didn’t like about the books:

The ending of Darkland was a cliffhanger and a clear hook to take the reader into Bloodmind. I would have preferred a more definitive ending to the first story. If I liked the book enough, I would read the sequel anyway.

The ending to Bloodmind was somehow dissatisfying. It felt foreshortened. I would have preferred more explanation and more exploration. And more resolution. Maybe it is intended to finish the story with a further book.

And now I am just nitpicking: Although the female narrators came from different backgrounds, had different experiences and expectations, there was a ‘sameness’ about their voices.

Black Dogs, by Ian McEwan

This is a book about two obstinate old people with a failed marriage – and how dangerous challenges can shape our lives.

I had previously read Ian McEwan’s more recent book, On Chesil Beach, and had not particularly enjoyed it. Since Ian McEwan is one of our most respected British authors, I was determined to have another go.

What I liked about this book:

  • The sympathetic portrayal of the main female character, who we first meet as an old woman. Later we learn of her experiences when young and how these shaped her life. (To start with, I thought the narrator was going to favour the analytical, but cold, husband.)
  • The underlying tension created by the vague menace of the episode of the ‘black dogs’, introduced early into the narrative, but not revealed in full until near the end.
  • The linking of the fall of the Berlin wall into the narrative – as this was such a powerful news story and had such tremendous resonance for those of us who lived through the age of the Wall and saw its fall.
  • The fact that walking plays an important role in the story. (As I am a keen walker and involved in my own epic walk around the coast).

What I didn’t like about this book: The book starts with an interesting preface. I would have liked to know more about the narrator, his family and, particularly, what happened to his neice, Sally. The main story opens at a languid pace and, being told through the eyes of a third person, I felt somewhat distanced from the main characters and the events that slowly enfolded, until the pace picked up and the story came alive in the second half of the book. Widgets