White Teeth by Zadie Smith

I had to wait well over a year for White Teeth by Zadie Smith to get to me via the library, and by the time it did I couldn’t remember why I had been so keen to read it. It was only when I was almost finished the book that I realised that it was a James Tait Black Memorial Prize winner (2000). This is a personal project of mine – to read everything that has won that prize, I’m never going to manage that because I think some of the older books are just about unobtainable, but I’ll read as many as I can.

The main characters are Englishman Archie Jones and Samad, a Bangladeshi who has migrated to London with Alsana his wife via an arranged marriage. Archie and Samad had been friends while serving in the army during World War 2 and had continued with their friendship when Samad had moved to London. Archie’s second wife is a Jamaican and they have a daughter together, and Samad and his wife have twin boys. Religion and its influence on the families play a part in the story and as Samad ages he becomes more interested in his Muslim religion, he’s convinced that he should send one of his twin sons back to Bangladesh where he won’t be tainted by western ways, but which twin should he send away? Alsana has no idea that he plans to deprive her of one of her sons, when she discovers what he has done – after the fact – she has what I regard as a very mild way of dealing with it in that she refuses to speak directly to Samad ever again!

There’s a lot to this book, in fact as I always seem to be saying, it could have been doing with being a wee bit shorter, but basically it’s about people who feel that they’re essentially rootless. Those who have moved to the west from the east are never able to feel completely at home again. Especially the colour of their skin points them out as being different and they aren’t totally accepted by the so-called natives. However they wouldn’t be at home in their places of origin as things move on and change and they’re tainted by the west.

That all makes it sound quite heavy going but it really isn’t, there’s quite a bit of humour involved as well as some likeable if flawed characters.

Jack also read White Teeth and you can read his much more detailed review here.

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Saturday cover

Years and years ago, before I started blogging I read a book by Ian McEwan and it had such a horrible ending I swore I would never read any more of his, but his book Saturday which was published on 2005 won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. I have a personal project on the go to try to read all those prize winners, so I had to give Saturday a go. Luckily I found this one to be a lot better although I kept waiting for something awful to happen. It had its moments but nothing too horrific.

The story all takes place within Saturday, February 15th, 2003 in London. Later on in the day there’s going to be a massive anti-war demonstration – against what became known as the Iraq War (or the Second Gulf War.) But for Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon it begins very early in the morning as he woke up and found himself drawn to look out of one of his very large home’s windows. There’s something flying across the London sky and at first he thinks it might be a comet, but it’s an aeroplane with an engine on fire, possibly it’s a terrorist strike, given the political situation. He’s worried that the perfect family life that he and his wife Rosalind have with their two grown up children might be threatened.

It turns out that it’s something far more mundane that leads to a terrifying situation for them all. A silly car accident and the ensuing confrontation with the other driver and his side-kicks, coupled with Henry’s refusal to back down almost leads to disaster.

There’s a lot to like in this book, the loving relationship between Henry and his wife Rosalind, the very talented and successful arty off-spring Theo and Daisy who also seem to be very grounded, but it isn’t all sweetness and light – like most families. There’s also a cantankerous grandfather, and an awful lot of information on various neurological problems, too much maybe. McEwan certainly did his research, and not just in books, in operating theatres too.

The setting of the family home is great too, a huge house overlooking a London square that Rosalind had inherited. It’s a weird thing but at the moment I don’t seem to be able to get away from London squares – and I don’t mean Albert Square.

This was a surprisingly good read.

Personality by Andrew O’Hagan

Personality by Andrew O’Hagan was first published in 2003 and it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize that year. I have to admit that that was the only reason I read this one as I have a bit of a personal challenge going on – trying to read all the books that have won that prize.

The author does begin with a note to the reader claiming that this is a work of fiction, but in truth it is very heavily based on the life of the Scottish child star Lena Zavaroni who becane wildly famous at the age of ten when she won Opportunity Knocks in the 1970s, for several weeks running. O’Hagan didn’t even bother to change ‘his’ personality’s place of birth or family circumstances. It didn’t feel like the 1970s and he got names wrong – Quivers Jelly might sound right but it was actually Chivers.

Young Maria Tambini of Rothesay, Isle of Bute, whose parents own a cafe in the town is well known locally for her amazing singing voice and when a talent scout is in the audience at a concert where Maria is performing the upshot is a spot on the very popular talent show Opportunity Knocks. A warning to readers from me is that the ghastly human being Hughie Green appears quite a lot in this book, but as a decent human being, not the vile man that we all discovered him to be after his death, although most of us probably had our suspicions. So at the age of 13 Maria is an international star, living in London with her female manager and her husband and having very little contact with her own family. Surprise surprise she develops anorexia nervosa and does a tour of TV shows talking about her problems, just as Lena did!

There is one sex scene in the book between Maria and her very caring and loving boyfriend, not that you would get that idea from the way it is written and the language used to describe it is just so wrong for the situation. I was wondering if O’Hagan was hoping to win that Bad Sex prize.

The only difference is the ending, and by that time we’re getting into a version of the crazy fan à la John Lennon, with a twist to that too. Hurrah, the author used his imagination. I cannot imagine how this book won the James Tait Black Prize, there must have been many better books published in 2003.

I so hope that the next prize winner I read is better. I’m so annoyed that he ripped off a very sad life, she was used and abused enough in her lifetime.

Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett

Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett was one of the books that I read on my Kindle while I was on the Baltic cruise. I actually ran out of ‘real’ books to read on board, that’s because I found it quite boring, cruises are fine if you are keen on stuffing your face a lot, otherwise there isn’t much else to do but read, unless you’re interested in boozing or gambling!

Anyway, back to the book. Riceyman Steps was first published in 1923 and it won the James Tait Memorial Prize that year, which is one of the reasons that I decided to read it as I’m hoping to read as many as those prize winners as I can get my hands on. It is set in London’s Clerkenwell, mainly in a bookshop and attached flat which has been inherited by Henry Earlforward from his uncle. One window looks into The King’s Cross Road and the other onto Riceyman Steps. Henry had had to learn the book business quickly and despite the shop being really dirty and dingy he had a good number of loyal customers for the antiquarian books in stock. Books are piled everywhere, as is dust and as Henry is a terrible miser he only has one electric light, the rest of the building is lit by candles.

There’s a confectioner’s across the road, inherited by Violet who is a widow, and Henry has taken a shine to her. It isn’t really romance he’s after though it’s more the fact that she has a business and he thinks that maybe Violet would take over the cleaning in the shop. That’s a bit optimistic considering they both already share the same young cleaning woman/maidservant in the shape of Elsie. She has trouble with her young man who is a survivor of World War 1 but he suffers from shell shock, which causes huge problems within their relationship. Henry’s chief joy is to spend half an hour picking his teeth with toothpicks after a meal, not that he would ever go to the expense of buying toothpicks. His only other joy is to fashion spent matchsticks into toothpicks – waste not want not!

Violet isn’t really cut out for being a confectioner and when she decides to sell her shop she also decides to marry Henry, after all – he has good living accommodation. But they really know nothing about each other. When Violet decides to employ a firm of cleaners – complete with new-fangled vacuum cleaners to clean the interior of the building as a wedding present to Henry he is absolutely aghast. She had spent £14 on the firm of cleaners and of course everything had been moved. Henry thinks his customers won’t be able to find the books they are looking for.

Henry’s miserliness becomes worse and worse and he cuts back on food and fuel for both of them to starvation levels – with disastrous results. This sounds a bit of a grim read but I enjoyed it and it’s a lesson for all misers everywhere.

The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre

The Honourable Schoolboy cover

I was pleased when I realised that I could read The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre for The 1977 Club as we have all of his books in the overflow bookcases in the garage. Jack read them at that time. But I have only read A Small Town in Germany by le Carre previously. I was even happier when it dawned on me that this book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, I have a bit of a personal project going on to read as many as those prize winners as I can get a hold of.

I loved this book although for me it was essential that I had the time to read it over quite a short period of time, it’s not a 30 pages at bedtime before you fall asleep sort of book. Also as I was reading it 41 years after it was published it has a distinct feeling of nostalgia and historical fiction now.

It begins with the British secret service (the Circus) being under a cloud as far as the American ‘Cousins’ are concerned as Bill Haydon has not long been unmasked by George Smiley as a spy for Russia, recruited when he was a student at Oxford 30 years previously. Haydon had so much influence he had been able to have good members of staff pensioned off or elbowed out, leaving a very much weakened Circus. George Smiley is in charge of putting together a team to investigate money laundering in Hong Kong which was still a British Crown Colony at that time. He manages to bring back some of those that Haydon had ousted. The investigations lead from Hong Kong to Cambodia and Thailand and drug smuggling comes into it too.

That’s all I’m going to say about the story, it’s quite convoluted as you would expect of a spy story, but I really enjoyed this one and the fact that I haven’t read any of the other Smiley books which were written before this one wasn’t a problem at all, although I had watched them on TV years ago. I must say that I think Alec Guinness was the perfect Smiley.

1977 Club

Some previous 1977 books that I’ve read are:

The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I,Claudius by Robert Graves

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

The Black Prince cover

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch was first published in 1973 and I know that this is one of the few books that I had previously given up on, way back in the 1970s. I can’t remember now why I abandoned it but possibly when I realised it wasn’t historical fiction . I read this one because it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and I’m trying to read as many as those books as I can – a personal project.

I must say that although I can appreciate that it’s well written, it just wasn’t my cup of tea, it took me quite a while to read the 415 pages, about six days probably, just because I was never in a hurry to get back to the story. The book is written in three parts and then has several postscripts from various characters, but during the second part I was tempted to pack it in because I really didn’t like or care what happened to any of the characters.

The main story is told by Bradley Pearson who has recently retired from working in a government tax office. He’s hoping to concentrate on his writing as he has published some books in the past. His closest friend is Arnold Baffin who is a much more successful author and his life becomes entangled with Arnold’s family.

Or does it? Because Bradley isn’t exactly a reliable narrator – or is he? Like many people Bradley rewrites history to suit himself and the postscripts leave the reader none the wiser as other characters throw in their tuppence worth. Basically the reader ends up being judge and jury. Who is telling the truth?

Not for me. I’ll probably give it a three on Goodreads.

The Golden Bird – Two Orkney Stories by George Mackay Brown

The Golden Bird cover

The Golden Bird by George Mackay Brown consists of two novellas, the first one called The Golden Bird and the second one The Life and Death of John Voe. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1987. The author is probably better known for his poetry.

I really enjoyed this book although possibly the fact that we were in Orkney in June and so I knew a lot of the places mentioned contributed to my enjoyment. I could picture exactly a certain spot mentioned in Stromness main street and many other locations.

The settings are Orkney in the 19th century, a time when the way of life there was beginning to change. It was a hard and dangerous life and when two of the men who had been fishing partners and shared a boat fell out over the division of their catch, it begins a feud that continues for generations.

The second novella The Life and Death of John Voe is about a man who had left the islands to seek adventures abroad. He hadn’t wanted to knuckle down on the family croft as a youngster, but after years on the sea and in South America and even some time as a gold panner, a failed romance prompts him to turn for his home in Orkney. It’s time to get back to crofting, but all is not as he expects it to be.

These tales are an enjoyable glimpse back to the past.

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

The Towers of Trebizond cover

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay was published in 1956 and it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. I’m attempting to work my way through the long list of all the books that have won the prize, it’ll be a long task.

This is a book that some bloggers have been raving about, although I enjoyed it I did find it a bit of a drag at times, it’s definitely curate’s eggish. The thing is though – the good parts are really very good, so funny. I’m not a big fan of organised religions and there are quite a few long passages about Christianity and other religions that were just a bit too long for my liking. It seems it’s all very autobiographical.

Laurie the narrator sets of on a tour of Turkey with her rather eccentric Aunt Dot and a very high anglican priest called Father Chantry-Pigg. Aunt Dot intends to write a book about their journey and Laurie will illustrate it. Dot has an ulterior motive though, she’s a keen supporter of women’s rights and as she regards the Moslem religion as being so controlling of women, she’s on a mission to convert them to Christianity.

Father Chantry-Pigg is Dot’s terrifically intolerant and snooty companion, and Doctor Halide is a female doctor who has been converted to Christianity from the Moslem faith of her upbringing, mainly because she can’t agree with the way Moslem women are treated.

Laurie has been having an affair with a married man for the last ten years, and that has put something of a dampener on her religious life.

Famously this book begins: ‘”Take my camel dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’

The reason why she is having to travel on a camel is because while she had been dining with Prof Gilbert Murray and Archbishop David Mathew, her Morris car had been stolen by an Anglican bishop!

With Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg disappearing over the Russian border and Laurie having to continue her travels on her own with the camel, this is definitely worth reading although I can’t say I liked the ending.

You can read Jack’s much more detailed/analytic thoughts on the book here.

Claudius the God by Robert Graves

Claudius the God cover

Claudius the God by Robert Graves was first published in 1934 and is of course the sequel to I,Claudius. You can read what I thought about that one here.

I think inevitably Claudius the God wasn’t as gripping a read as I, Claudius probably because that one featured so many power crazy emperors, executions, murders and poisonings were constants so it was all go.

The story is of course being told by Claudius and when he reluctantly dons the purple robes of emperor (he wanted to bring back the Roman republic) he tries to put the country on an even keel by melting down all the gold statues that Caligula had had made when he was completely mad. Claudius is very popular amongst soldiers and ordinary people, but the senators aren’t so keen on him and a few of them had already tried to grab power before the army declared him emperor.

This book is Claudius’ account of what he did and why he did it. In some cases he behaved just as badly as previous emperors although he acknowledged his mistakes, the end result was still miscarriages of justice. The worst mistake he made though was to trust his wife Messalina. Despite the fact that he had seen how his grandmother Livia had abused the power given to her by her husband Emperor Augustus, Claudius gave Messalina just as much power as he had, giving her a duplicate of his seal so she could and did do whatever she wanted. As she was just as evil as Livia, she caused mayhem but poor Claudius had no idea of her real character at all.

Herod Agrippa features quite a lot and of course it was Claudius who invaded Britain so that is very interesting although I have no idea how true that account is. Did they use elephants and camels in the invasion terrifying the British who had never seen such animals before?

It seems that Claudius was wise in many ways, or maybe it was just that he was well read and ‘stood on the shoulders of giants’. But in many ways he was completely naive.

This book was one of my 20 Books of Summer and also counts towards my James Tait Black Memorial Prize Challenge as it won that prize in 1934.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

I, Claudius cover

You will probably notice that my copy of this book is the 1977 tie in to the BBC dramatisation of I, Claudius. Shockingly it has taken me 40 years to get around to reading it! The book was originally published in 1934.

I really enjoyed reading I, Claudius although I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed it so much if I hadn’t watched the BBC drama – twice over the years – as there are so many characters thrown at you. Mind you often they didn’t hang around for very long as so many people were poisoned or otherwise given the chop.

It’s a very readable history of Rome, up to A.D. 41 supposedly written by Claudius, a disabled, stammering, twitching grandson of Augustus who was despised by his entire family, but inside his less than perfect body there was a clever and quick witted brain which helped him to survive when all the rest were being murdered or banished to tiny islands.

This book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize as did the sequel Claudius the God which was published in the same year. Possibly they were originally published in one volume.

If you want a more in depth review of this book then hop over to She Reads Novels and Helen’s review of I, Claudius.

This is one of my 20 Books of Summer.

For once I think that the TV programme was just as good if not better than the book, Derek Jacobi was brilliant as Claudius and John Hurt as Caligula was unforgettable. Sadly he died earlier this year. Have a look at this excerpt where Caligula who has decided he is the god Jove has taken on his enemy Neptune.