Saturday, 19 March 2011

The End of an Era

The last independent shop, not part of any chain, in the town centre, has closed.  When we moved to this town, 29 years ago, the centre was full of small family businesses, all of which fell victim to extortionate rents and council tax, and the pressure of huge mulit-million dollar international businesses, which could afford to take a hit here because they would make it up in some other city centre.

I really, really wanted to cry when I (ironically) cycled past the bike shop.  Here we bought our children's first bikes, here we took their bikes to be repaired, here our children, now independent teenagers, went for advice on lights, helmets, cycle locks.  And were always received by the proprietor with time, courtesy and a range of products to choose from, backed by expert advice.  Only two months ago, I took my bike to be serviced, and it came back like new, with a new front light already fitted, and a free straightening of the front handle-bar which we only noticed was crooked as I was wheeling it out of the shop.

Now the window shows a pile of old second-hand televisions (overspill from the semi-pawn shop next door) and a sign reading "For Sale".

I really wanted to cry, but I found that my policy, developed over the last ten years or so, of never letting any person hurt to me that deeply, has had an unexpected side effect.  My tears have dried up for others, as well as for myself.  I wanted to be tougher, and now I am so tough, I can't express my sorrow for others.

This is perhaps not the result I wanted.   Is there a way back for me from this place, I wonder?

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

"Started Early, Took My Dog" by Kate Atkinson

Nearly all the books I buy are second hand (or much older than that). I get them from charity shops or from Amazon, both utterly inexhaustible treasure-chests of delight.

Occasionally, though, I can't wait for the latest best-seller to turn up in the Salvation Army shop. 

Last week I bought the latest novel by Kate Atkinson, whose first book, "Behind the Scenes at the Museum" was set in York, my alma mater.  That was prize-winning literary fiction, a one-off and hard to repeat, and in fact the author has never been able to repeat that strange, deep and eccentric genius, so this talented writer has more recently turned to detective fiction.

I bought this book from Sainsbury's on a "two-for £7.00" offer, and I paid for it with my Nectar vouchers so effectively it was free.  I don't know why I feel compelled to share that information.

Just like the last four books of hers that I've read, I found this a completely compulsive page-turner. I read it in a little over 6  hours.  I can be specific, because I read it on three return journeys by train, plus a few pages at the end finishing off at home.

Just like all her other books except the first, which was really quite mystical, this one left me feeling like you do after you've compulsively gobbled your way through a box of medium-quality chocolates.  Stuffed, slightly depressed, and somewhat sick.  Cheap chocs you don't finish, very expensive ones you can take in small doses and they don't leave you feeling any the worse.  This is the range in between. 

You feel sick because there are so many murders in the book, and so many really quite ridiculous co-incidences.  Why keep on reading?  Because of the story, you really want to find out what happens next.  And because of  the throw-away lines about modern Britain throughout the book, which keep you engaged, keep you waiting for the next one.  This is really what it's like in UK in 2010, you think, I so recognize that.

Almost all KA's books have the murder of a child at the heart of the story.  You would like to think that's unrealistic, but oh, no, it is all too easy to see echoes of so many real-life child victims ..  dead children and lost - little Madeleine McCann and Shannon Matthews as well.

Quite a few deaths in this story, oh, no, not too far-fetched at all. I heard a real-life story from the factory manager at work today which matched one of the characters almost exactly - a man strangled his awkward ex-lover.  In the real life case, the children had already lost their father to cancer, so they are now orphans.  Just like the book.

KA leaves a marker for her next book at the end, as a third lost child is never explained, and we will have to wait to find out her story.  I will no doubt buy this one new as well.  Some books are worth it.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

"Astonishing Splashes of Colour" by Claire Morrall

Shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize and published by the Tindal Street Press, a small independent company based in Birmingham which also published the 2008 Costa winner, "What Was Lost" by Catherine O'Flynn.  (The latter a simply amazing book about which I noted in my book diary "Best book I've read for years - comparable with JD Salinger".)  Claire Morrall is not quite so good, but clearly in the same vein.  The book is original, local (set in Birmingham), very easy to read, looks into a  dysfunctional but very lovable loner's private inner life, and has an unhappy ending.

This is perfect entertainment reading.  You feel very strongly for the central character, and will forgive her anything, (including snatching a new-born baby, and abducting a child) because of her unhappiness and sensitivity.  There are some major plot surprises, too. 

The author has since written a novel about a female sufferer from Asperger's syndrome.  I will look out for that.