Herewith the review of this book, which i finished a little while ago now.
One of the ‘Rose and Crown’ series, published by Sunpenny, concerns a young Scottish woman who is required to take her aunt’s ashes to South Africa – very much against her wishes. Not only does she not want to leave her fascinating research work in Scotland, but she didn’t like the aunt very much. What concerns her most of all, though, is that the trip will involve meeting her parents from whom she is estranged. Bought a flight with many connections by her cheap-skate sister, she finds herself stranded at Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, where she meets the amazing Jacobs family, who have problems of their own, particularly dark and edgy Caleb.
Sunpenny celebrates Christian fiction and works which are uplifting. Even though the ‘Rose and Crown’ is not specifically a Christian imprint, we see Amanda, the mc, wrestling with her faith in a way that is thoughtful and without sentimentality. There is no ‘Alleluia, I’ve seen Jesus’ moment. It is this incremental development of Amanda’s belief which constitutes the main plot, although there are many, many sub-plots and lots and lots of characters, some of whom (like the Jacobs grandparents) have a pivotal role for a chapter or two then disappear. From a literary point of view, there were aspects of the plot that were unsatisfactory – for instance, the parents’ reasons for absenting themselves from their son and daughters’ lives – but this sort of situation reflects real life, not what happens in books. “I’d rather get all this off my chest now, at the beginning of my visit, than pretend everything is okay until the last day of my stay,” says Amanda to her parents, towards the end of the book. Ho-hum. I think she’s talking about everybody’s family there!
This is a story which touches upon a lot of issues in modern society, anorexia, conservation, poverty and corruption in Zimbabwe, and the author has the honesty not to make any of her characters ‘resolve’ any of them. This writer, who clearly has wide experience of everyday life in southern Africa, has put it to good use by writing about it in painful detail.
So, do I recommend it? Yes, definitely. It was the characters of Amanda, Caleb and the others who kept me reading, and the hooks which led me to read more so as to find out what happens next.
Here are some more photos from Vietnam, not so good as the last lot, as I’m having problems transferring then from Android phone to Apple iPad.
Well, Dear Reader, I have now finished ‘The Berlin Novels’ and ‘A Flight Delayed’ by K C Lemmer, and visited Berlin over the course of the last month. I am now on holiday again, in Vietnam, and I wrote the reviews for both books yesterday on the plane, using Pages and with the iPad in ‘airplane mode’ so I’m now copying the first review into the blog, using the wifi available in the lobby of the hotel in Hanoi (or Ha Noi as the Vietnamese call it). Here goes!
The Berlin Novels by Christopher Isherwood
‘The Berlin Novels’ consists of two novels, ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’ and ‘Goodbye to Berlin’. Set in Berlin in the early 1930s, as Hitler and the Nazis were rising to power, amidst reports of violence in the street, these works never feature any historical figures directly and only refer to historical events in passing. They nevertheless contain some priceless vignettes of life in the Weimar Republic, as, for instance, when two Jews try to pick up two prostitutes and the Nazi SA drags the men out the car and beats them up. They refer to the effect of rocketing inflation and grinding poverty on the lives of ordinary people in those times and how many of them came to believe that the democracy ‘experiment’ had failed. This is surely the perfect angle for a historical novel.
The author does however favour the Communists in a sentimental 1930s/Spanish Civil War way, particularly in ‘Mr Norris’. What is surprising is that ‘The Berlin Novels’ were published in England immediately after the war, when the general public still hated Germans and was starting to fear Soviet Communism. Many of the German characters were written sympathetically, even though the author refers to people who share Hitler’s vision and values and become embroiled with the various arms of the Nazi Party, not all of the bad people by any means. Fraulein Shroeder, for instance, reviles their noisy neighbour because she is Jewish, yet, before that, we have read about her poverty and isolation.
Both novels feature an upper class Englishman who earns a living teaching English language. In Mr Norris he calls himself ‘William Bradshaw’, whereas in GTB Isherwood – unusually – uses his real name for his main character, although taking great pains, in the introduction, to state that the work is fictional and does not reflect his own experiences. However, we see strains of the real Christopher – because he is writing a novel, for instance.
Both books are episodic, in that they don’t follow a plot in the way we understand plots, nor is there any defined beginning, middle and end, where characters are developed, hooks laid and issues resolved. This is less the case with ‘Mr Norris’ because this is concerned with the same set of characters and there is a vague plot line in that Arthur (Mr Norris) is at first in thrall to his demonic secretary, then evading him and in the end fleeing to South America.
GTB is really three stories, the first of them concerning the famous ‘Sally Bowles’, the dissolute wannabe singer, about whom the film ‘Cabaret’ was made, although, in the book, Sally is very much English, the daughter of a Lancashire mill owner. (I suppose they had to make her American in the film, so that they could squeeze Lisa Minelli into the title role, in the same way Renee Zellweger was shoe-ed – disastrously – into the role of very English Bridget Jones). The significant thing about Sally Bowles was that, in a more proper age, she was sexually incontinent and proud of it, frequently boasting of fictitious sexual exploits, in a very twenty-first century way. Of course, Sally was the product of a male author’s imagination, literary porn, but clearly someone wanted to read it in 1948. Did they, I wonder, want to reinforce their view of the Weimar Republic as a decadent place full of fishnet stockings and suspenders… or did it happen the other way round? Did we gain this view only in the 1970s, when Cabaret was in the cinemas?
Sally disappears from the pages of GTB very suddenly, in a way that is unsatisfactory from a literary point of view, but which reflects real life and the nature of Sally as a character. The remainder of GTB ( just under 40%) concerns, firstly, Otto and his impoverished family (who still had enough to send him on an extended holiday to the Baltic Coast) and, secondly, the Jewish poor little rich girl, Natalya Landauer and her cousin Bernhardt. All these characters are well-developed, with that defined, leap off the page quality which I had, by now, come to expect of Isherwood, even though Otto was particularly vile!
I would recommend the Berlin Novels wholeheartedly, not an easy read and, to get the best out of them, you would need some knowledge of the history of Germany in the 1930s. It’s the level of detail makes these works, the way in which the author builds up suspense by describing every scene and every character’s action and every nuance of feeling.
I’ve decided it’s not fair to the book, or the author, to review ‘A Flight Delayed’ in this same post, so I will post it later. (It’s all written – honest!). Meanwhile, here are some photos (all mine) of Ha Noi.
Sally is, of course, known to we writers as the person who presents Competition Calendar in ‘Writers’ Forum’ magazine, although she has done much more than that – novels, pocket novels, lots of short stories and books about writing. Starting on 18 May and scheduled to finish this weekend, the course couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time for me, at the end of term, when students were rushing about finishing work and expecting me to mark it NOW. However, Sally Quilford is Sally Quilford, so I went for it. I’m now about to sign up for another course, which falls… right at the beginning of the autumn term, another of our busiest times.
So it must’ve been good? It was.
There were only seven of us, as it happened, all of us women and of around the same age (although I think I was the eldest). The format was that we wrote a piece every week (Yes! Every week!) and most of them were short stories, increasing in length as the weeks went by, to two thousand words in Week 7. We reviewed each other’s work and then Sally would give us her professional view later. Although no one held back and some of the comments were very critical indeed, it was all done in a very good natured way and many of us have exchanged contact details for after the end of the course.
I did find the schedule punishing. Teaching is always exhausting and returning home knowing that you’ve got to produce several hundred words in the evening was punishing. Sometimes I attempted to write at work, scribbling on scraps of paper while I was supposed to be teaching and typing in the staffroom while students’ work mounted up unmarked. Several of us took holidays during the course, me included, and I’m full of admiration for the two who actually managed to write whilst away – I didn’t. I think I was the last to upload her story every week, but each time one of the others would post something like “Oh, we thought we’d lost you” or “I knew there was one missing”. The sense of relief after uploading was palpable! (Am I allowed an exclamation mark?) Throughout the time I was writing, I kept thinking to myself, ‘This is not very good’ or ‘I’m not thinking this through properly’, and I made some stupid errors, like saying ‘Money is the route of all evil’. More than anything else, I was crying inwardly I DON’T WRITE THIS FAST! Now I’ve finished the course and had time to think, I realise that professional writers do have to create and write stories within a day or so and get it more or less correct first time round.
Although some of what we did reinforced what I already knew (‘show not tell’, for instance), it’s one thing knowing that this is good practice, and quite another putting it into practice. Sally showed us a very useful headings for reviewing stories, and, as has been said before (not by Sally), if you can’t review, you can’t write. Her knowledge of the womag industry, a market I’ve been trying to break into for ages, was illuminating and we chose to write womag-type stories most of the time (although one girl was into speculative fiction and my last post was for the Christian market).
So, I now have five brand new stories to edit and make ready for subbing. None of these would have happened without the course, Sally and the other girls. Thank you, all of you.
No, sorry, this isn’t the book review for Christopher Isherwood’s other novel. I haven’t finished it yet, because I – me, myself, personally – have actually been in Berlin these last few days… and the Kindle emptied its battery just when I needed it for the journey home.
Here are some of my photos of Berlin:
So much to see! And so many museums, mostly about the Second World War, although museums about Communism are propagating fast too. The DDR Museum and the Wall Museum (‘Checkpoint Charlie Museum’) tended to have more genuine artefacts in them (‘primary sources’), whereas the World War Two museums tended to be all photos with lengthy captions. Presumably this was because the 1930s and 1940s are further away than 1989, and also a lot of valuable historical material pertaining to the Nazis was bombed, or consciously destroyed by the Red Army. A piece of Art Deco inspired Nazi architecture, like Templehof Airport (used in the Berlin Airlift) is a rare find. When in these places, I try to look at what’s on display, rather than read captions, as I can do the latter in a book!
I make it a general rule not to write about any place I haven’t visited personally, as otherwise I could really put my foot in it. For instance, I had it in mind to make a passing reference to a Jewish child being placed on Kindertransporten at Frederickstrasse station and for her mother to walk home. Now knowing a little about the layout – and size – of Berlin, I realise that this would have been impossible. However, I came away determined to write several stories revolving around World War 2 or ‘The Division’.
Unfortunately, however, I wasn’t able to locate any of the places mentioned by Isherwood. My tourist guide told me that he tended to write about the ‘seedier’ areas.