Lost Empires by JB Priestley

Lost EmpiresLost Empires by J.B. Priestley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Set in 1913, Lost Empires is about a young artist who takes a job assisting his illusionist uncle in a travelling variety show. We follow young Dick over a 12-month period as he falls in lust with an older woman and in love with a young singer who initially does not requite his love. The heady passions of Dick’s love affairs are played out against the backdrop of a murder investigation as one of the troupe is found dead. The ticking clock of the build up to war and the mystery around ‘whodunnit’ give Lost Empires a thriller dimension, however, it is really a literary novel. The insight into a world that is about to be lost forever is incredibly moving and far more interesting than the half-baked mystery of the murder. For readers looking for a good whodunnit, this is not it. But if you are looking for a poignant portrait of a young man in love at a dying period of history then Priestley delivers the goods. I know Priestley primarily as a dramatist (Time and the Conways, An Inspector Calls) and this was the first novel I read. I think I will read him again, but not with the expectation of getting a well-constructed mystery.

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The Long Song

andrea-levy-the-long-songAs planned, I read The Long Song by Andrea Levy on my beach holiday in South Africa. And yes, there’s sand in the pages to prove it! What a brilliant book. I have never read any of Levy before, although I was aware of her as a Booker Prize nominee. But after reading this incredible novel I will certainly be looking out for her other books, including the critically acclaimed Small Island.

The Long Song is set on a Jamaican sugar plantation in the last years of slavery. Although it deals with some horrific events, it does so with a great deal of humour. This is in no small part due to Levy’s characterisation of her main character, the sassy slave girl July. The reader is saved from being consumed by misery by the device of running a dual narrative of July as a witty old woman looking back on her life. She will not allow her readers to dwell on the sadness of her past.

Levy also balances some of the crasser observations made by her earthy heroine (her opening line is about a black woman being ‘rear-ended’ by a white man) with the tut-tutting of her more cultured son, Thomas. As a reader we secretly delight in the graphic descriptions but are given the opportunity to save face behind Thomas’ admonitions.

The language is vibrant and lyrical and Levy deftly handles different voices and points of view. I also enjoyed the way July and ultimately Levy played with her readers by declaring every so often that what she had written was completely made up then presenting us with a revised, purportedly more truthful, version of the same events. This underlines the view that stories from the past are simply a collection of remembrances which are tainted in varying degrees by the way the teller wants to be remembered.

Although this is certainly a clever, literary book (as it would have to be to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) it should also find an appreciative readership with fans of popular fiction as Levy is such a fine storyteller.

I would highly recommend you add The Long Song to your ‘must read’ list. And if you like that, you should also like my historical literary thriller, The Peace Garden, which deals with the aftermath of the Soweto Riots and its repercussions in the lives of two young lovers.

Holiday reading

Finished work at the uni for the year (hurrah!) so after spending the last month reading student treatments for short films I’m looking forward to catching up on some reading of my own. Here’s my shortlist of what to pack in my suitcase. Really hard to decide what to leave out!

  1. The Long Song by Andrea Levy
  2. The Smell of Apples by Mark Behr
  3. Revelation for Everyone by Tom Wright
  4. The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
  5. The Bible

Yes I know I could take them all if I had them on Kindle (the bible though is), but I bought the rest in my pre-Kindle days and don’t want them to go to waste. Clean underwear is optional but good literature is not.

Bestselling RS Downie reviews Peace Garden

I’ve been reading my own reviews again. Sorry, bad habit. But this one’s a good’n:

“There’s much to enjoy in Fiona Veitch Smith’s debut adult novel, The Peace Garden, where the hopes and fears of modern South Africa disrupt the
neatly-ordered flowerbeds of suburban Newcastle. Natalie Porter, twelve years old and insatiably curious, starts to uncover the stories that have shaped the adults around her, and progresses from catching a plant thief to beginning to understand some of the complexities of life and love in a post-Apartheid society. The novel ratchets up to thriller pace and with a nice twist on the traditional ‘follow-that-car’scene as Natalie, older but not much wiser, realises she may be the only person who can thwart a potential murderer.The Peace Garden is a cleverly-plotted novel with nice comic touches, and the author’s personal background produces both a convincing setting for the Newcastle characters, and some telling insights into South African life.”

RS Downie is the New York Times bestselling author of the Ruso series of Roman mysteries.

Five Star review for The Peace Garden

Today I’m doing what everyone says you shouldn’t: reading my own reviews! The Peace Garden has had its first review on Amazon Kindle. And I’m relieved to see it’s a good one. The reviewer also manages to communicate the essence of the book far better than I could!

So, at the risk of blowing my own trumpet, here you go:

Suburbia meets apartheid,11 Oct 2011
This is the  fascinating tale of an uneasy mix between English suburban values and South  African apartheid, which builds up to an unexpectedly explosive finale. The
unlikely starting-point of plants being stolen from the gardens of a quiet  Newcastle street draws you in, as does the deftly-portrayed character of young  Natalie Porter, a floating trophy of her parents’ ever-shifting
diplomatic/journalistic lifestyle, who finds a semblance of permanence staying  with her Geordie grandmother – and leaps at the opportunity to emulate her  fictional heroine, girl-detective Nancy Drew.

Natalie’s sleuthing efforts  bring her into contact with an enigmatic black South African academic and his  teenage son living at the end of the road. Everyone has them down as the plant  thieves; and issues of racial prejudice are sensitively explored both in the  English suburban context and, later, in South Africa itself.

Interwoven with the escalating mystery of the missing plants and the past lives of the possible perpetrators – which brings the reader unavoidably face-to-face with the tragic history of apartheid – is the delicately portrayed off-and-on romance that  develops between young Natalie and Thabo, the bitter South African teenager now forced by circumstances to live with his father in Britain. Is he a `good guy’  or a `bad guy’? Natalie’s doubts on this score – and the reader’s – persist
almost to the last page.

This is a great story, with a compulsively page-turning conclusion, which also gives the reader an inside look at many of the conflicting issues of racial prejudice in its most notorious institutional expression – apartheid South Africa.

Ruso and the River of Darkness

I have recently finished the fourth book in the historical crime novel series about an amateur Roman detective called Ruso.  Ruso and the River of Darkness, is, in my opinion, the finest in the series by British author R.S. Downie.

Comparisons with Lindsey Davis’ Falco series are inevitable. In fact it was because I had enjoyed the Falco books (the mock-noir tales of a PI in Rome whose humour is drawn from our familiarity with the style of the detective novels and films of the Forties and Fifties) that I picked up the first in the series, Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, in the first place.

Unlike Falco, Downie’s sleuth is a reluctant detective. He is an army doctor (medicus) based in Britannia, who gets drawn into murder investigations via his patients (some dead, some living). I suppose he is a Roman version of Quincy – only far better looking! Yes, he’s a very attractive hero and female readers will inevitably fantasise who will play him in any film adaptation (I would opt for Ethan Hawke). However, unlike Falco, he is not a playboy (although in the latter books in the series, Falco has settled down). In fact, he finds romantic attachments a distraction. Despite this, he reluctantly falls in love; with whom I will omit from this post so as not to spoil the plot of the first book.

Again, like Falco, there is a great deal of humour in the books, but there is also a serious side. And that’s what I like about them. Like my own book The Peace Garden and all of my plays, I like mixing darkness and light. I also enjoy writing and reading books and scripts that deal with issues of social justice. In The Disappearing Dancing Girls it is human trafficking, in Ruso and the Demented Doctor it is the domestic oppression of women in forced marriages, in Ruso and the Root of All Evils it’s the issue of class and in The River of Darkness it is institutional corruption. But Downie has a light touch and the books can simply be read as rollicking historical crime drama.

If you’re not already familiar with the series, I would strongly recommend remedying this. For readers in the US, the books are published under different titles. (Medicus, for instance, is the American version of Disappearing Dancing Girls). And now, I’m eagerly awaiting the next in the series …

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