Book Review: The Children Act — Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s newest book The Children Act has been tipped for all kinds of awards, and when I noticed it had been described by the Dutch newspaper the NRC as the book of the year, I decided it was worth looking into this one. I haven’t read much McEwan, probably since 6th Form, and I think the problem is that his books really suffer from the fact that Atonement is essentially perfect, or at least seemed that way to me when I read it as a 16 year old, and I think that, of course, all his other books suffered by comparison.

The novel tells the story of Fiona, who’s private life is untangling as her husband declares his interest in pursuing an affair with a much younger women he has waiting in the wings. As her private life begins to crumble, so does Fiona’s trust in herself and her own judgement. This comes just as an important case, that involving a young patient with leukaemia, whose parents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, are refusing to allow him to gain life-giving blood transfusion treatment. The story comes mostly from Fiona’s point of view, and with Jack’s transgressions, she gains an almost innocent, sacrificial lamb quality, which we see reflected in Adam, the 17 year-old with cancer whose fate lies in her hands.

In this newest book McEwan follows the same kinds of patterns as Saturday or Solar by taking a highly respected pillar of reasoned society, in this case a high court family law judge, and making her the mouthpiece for a cultural debate of the moment. Here, in my opinion is where the book falls short of its potential. Where McEwan could engage in a nuanced argument about the role which the law, and by extension, perhaps, wider society should play in the upbringing, protection and lives of children, instead he launches into an attack on religion. The tirade is not subtle in its approach; encompassing a Muslim father who kidnaps his own child, an extremist Jewish community with incredibly sexist views, and the central Jehovah’s Witnesses who deny life giving blood transfusions.

The irony, of course, is that McEwan is himself as fundamentalist and dogmatic in his belief in atheism as the characters he writes of so disparagingly are in their religion. Where Fiona, his paragon of justice, is well-educated, well-off and well-adjusted, the father of Adam is from a dubious background, and a manual labourer to boot. Where the mother who escapes from the Jewish community is able to gain an education, those left behind remain impoverished and working for free. These simplistic reductions are echoed in the rhetoric of the novel, Adam’s parents, far from being angry that their deeply held religious wishes have been ignored, instead are glad that the decision was taken from their hand. Religion is described as the “poison”; law, reason and justice as the “antidote”.

Even more annoyingly, Fiona, who has excelled in her chosen profession, a seemingly strong female character, succeeding in a usually male dominated field, finds herself yearning for children, incomplete without them. She has sacrificed the maternal for the career and is left weaker for it, and not only this, she has not made the sacrifice willingly and actively but instead it is described almost more as a mistake; a series of missed opportunities. Motherhood slid her by, without her noticing, until she is left suddenly at almost sixty feeling almost un-womaned by her lack of children. Another way in which she is turned into a victim, alongside her cheating husband.

The book is well written; sparky, well paced, humorous in places, wry in others, evocative, and engaging. However, it seems a shame that McEwan’s obvious talents aren’t turned to more nuanced arguments, or indeed more multi-faceted characters.

 

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Dulche no Leche: Vegan Spiced Apple Cupcakes

This week I’m recommending these little cuties to go along with your reading. The gelatin makes the recipe look kinda scary, but I promise you they’re super easy and super delicious. Top tip though — don’t think that greasing the cases isn’t a necessary step, or else they will stick like nothing else, and you’ll be fishing the bits of paper from between your teeth. It’s because these little guys are super low in fat, and get all their moisture from the apple butter. Yum.

spiced_apple_cupcakes

For the cupcakes you will need:

500ml apple juice
1tsp vege-gel (or whatever vegetarian gelatin you can find)
1 cinnamon stick
10 cloves
1stp allspice berries
150g apple butter
50ml oil
3tbs maple syrup
100g golden caster sugar
200g flour
1/2tstp bicarb soda
1tsp baking powder
a pinch of salt

1. Preheat your oven to 170 . Line a muffin tray with cupcake cases, spray with a cooking spray, or just dab in a little vegetable oil.
2. Weigh out your flour,raising agents and salt into a bowl.
3. In your mixing bowl combine the apple butter, oil, maple syrup, and sugar.
4. Put the apple juice and spices into a saucepan with the gelatin powder. Bring this to the boil. You need to reduce the liquid by about half, but you also don’t want it to boil over, so keep an eye on it. It took me about 15 minutes. You’ll need to keep stirring so that it doesn’t set on the edges of the pan.
5. Strain the liquid; I strained it into a measuring jug so I could check how much I had, because I am absolutely rubbish at spacial awareness, but you can just eyeball it.
7. Allow this to cool a little but keep stirring to make sure no lumps form as the gelatin sets, from now on it’s going to be prone to lumpy-ness so just keep moving.
6. Mix the warm liquid into the other wet ingredients, then sift in the flour a bit at a time stirring well to make sure everything is fully combined.
7. Spoon into your paper cases. The mixture is quite wet and so doesn’t rise a whole lot, so I would definitely recommend filling the cases to about 3/4 full, or even a wee bit more.
8. Bake for about 30 minutes, a toothpick won’t come out quite clean because it’s quite a crumbly mix, but you want crumbs sticking to it rather than batter.

Book Review: The Life I Left Behind — Colette McBeth

A friend once told me that you had to listen to a song three times before you could fully appreciate it. I don’t personally reread many books: there are just so many that I haven’t read, which I want to try, but I think the idea can be applied more broadly. I think often the more books you read in a certain genre, the more you start to recognise the themes and the nuances, and appreciate the style and plot. I think I’ve certainly reached a turning point in my relationship with crime fiction, although I’m not sure whether I enjoyed this book because I’ve gotten more used to the genre, or simply because it’s so beautifully well written.

This week I read “The Life I Left Behind” by Colette McBeth. By this week, I mean on Monday, I sat down, and accidentally read the whole book in a couple of hours. It was so good. The whole concept is really clever, the book is told from the point of view of the murder victim, Eve, although there are other sections which are told from a point of view more closely aligned with the murderer’s previous victim, Melody. There is some time spent on what Eve’s experience of the afterlife is like, however, mostly the focus is on telling the story of the two crimes, the one against Melody, which Eve was investigating, and the one against Eve, which is being investigated by a DI Rutter.

I genuinely could not put the book down, the plot is rife with twists and turns, but they never seem trite, or forced, rather the reader, the police, and the victims seem to be on the same path of discovery. Although you are not really given information before other characters in the books are, mostly because the narrator knows who killed her, there is still a sense that some you know more, because the opening chapter tells a story from the killers past, allowing you to compare each of the characters to the story, and try to figure out who it belongs to.

The characterisation throughout the book is strong: frail, scared Melody; feisty, positive Eve; arrogant, controlling Sam. However, over the course of the book it becomes clear that all the characters have something to hide, and that none of them are being honest with each other. There are no characters who are allowed to be blameless, or entirely innocent, which creates an interesting relationship between the reader and the characters, particularly the narrator.

It is suggested that after death Eve takes on an almost omniscient presence in the lives of the individuals she was investigating, which allows the narration to follow various viewpoints throughout the story from a third person perspective. Eve’s sections of the story are told in the first person, and there is little editorialising by Eve in the other sections, which gives the novel a slightly disjointed feel at times, it took me a while to figure out that presumably Eve is telling the whole story.

Overall the story is really well told, and beautifully crafted. I would definitely recommend this to anyone, whether you’re usually a fan of crime fiction or not.

Book Review: Gone — Rebecca Muddman

This week I’ve been reading Gone, by Rebecca Muddman, the latest in my foray into crime fiction. Like many of the books I’ve been reading recently, it seems, it doesn’t follow a strict chronological order, but rather tells the story in a series of episodes, both from what one might describe as the “present day” of the novel, and the time where Emma, the victim of the murder around which the story centres, initially went missing.

The novel tells the story of Emma’s initial disappearance and the investigation which surrounded it, as well as the investigation launched when her body shows up a decade or so later. The officers involved in both cases lead the action of the novel, as well as Lucas, Emma’s boyfriend at the time of her disappearance, who also appears to be a key witness, or perhaps even suspect, in the crime.

I think I particularly enjoyed this novel because, although there was a carefully plotted and tightly woven, fast-paced plot, there was also a great deal of time and space dedicated to character development within the novel. Usually I prefer the sections of books which explore the characters and their relationships with others and themselves. Here Muddman manages to tie the two together, the backstories of each of the characters weaves into the story which is being told, creating both depth of characters and plot without sacrificing the time spent on either.

What mostly struck me about the character development of the novel is that although some of the characters are intrinsically bad, most notably, and most completely Lucas, none are portrayed as entirely good. The police in the novel are not always efficient and effective in their jobs, but neither are they entirely inept. The victim is not portrayed as entirely blameless or innocent, and the are a range of characters who lie, cheat, steal and make other very human, very basic mistakes.

Both in books and in television, what I really enjoy in crime fiction, is where the creator allows their audience to pick up clues at the same time as their detectives, so the reader and the detective can figure out what is going on at the same time. Often the police or other investigators are allowed to seem like geniuses since they are party to some evidence before the audience, upon which the eventual outcome of the case hangs, but I prefer to be allowed to try to work out what happened myself. In this book, this is definitely the case, which I very much appreciated.

Overall, I thought the book was very well written, and conveyed a certain realism. I think the word “gritty” is probably overused in reviews like this one, and so I will avoid it, but I think it perhaps conveys the sense of what I enjoyed about the tone of the book.

Film Review: Manakamana

In her seminal work “Can the subaltern speak?” Spivak contends that Western academic research into the cultures and practices of the developing world can only be completed through a lens of colonialism. In Manakamana, this lens is literalised in a very physical way through the shooting on 16mm film in 400-foot magazines. A format which also lends itself to the episodic nature of the film.

Manakamana is unusual in that it is a documentary without added explanation or prompting from the outside, leaving the viewer with relatively un-edited footage of passengers climbing the mountain in a cable car system to reach the temple of the Hindu goddess Manakamana. For the full 118 minute running time the viewer is shown trips to and from the temple, simple narratives spanning one-, or sometimes two- way journeys up or down the mountain. The stories are mundane, but strangely captivating; two women trying to eat melting ice-creams, or a couple who bring a live chicken up the mountain, only to return, disconcertingly, with it dead, and cooked. Each episode takes approximately 10 minutes, which coincides with the length of the films, providing a synergy between form and material. This is exploited by the directors since both the beginning and the end of the cable car journey take place inside a terminal building, where the relative darkness allows the seams between the footage to be hidden.

This seamlessness is furthered by careful framing of each episode such that the view is identical, merely with a different cast of characters finding themselves in shot each time. The framing allows for a partial glimpse of the Nepalese countryside behind the subjects; we as the audience are shown a view which those riding the cable cars cannot themselves see, creating the basis for the uneasy relationship between the viewer and the viewed. Our view of the subjects of the film are framed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, the directors of the film, funded in part by Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. For all its seemingly unedited nature it is a carefully selected and posed series of episodes, created by colonialist outsiders.

In “Can The Subaltern Speak?” Spivak holds that ethnographical material is harvested in developing nations and brought back to the west to be sold and consumed for the benefit of the western spectator. Here this theme is very self-consciously explored; we see a western tourist explain to her friend that she cannot buy film for her camera in Nepal, and so had her parents bring it over from the States. If this is the case for black and white still film, then one can only assume this also to be the case for the film used on the camera capturing the conversation, the click of its shutter in the soundtrack constantly reminding the viewer of its presence.

We as the audience are the Western viewers Spivak speaks of, forming one half of the “them and us” dichotomy present in much colonialist discourse, and yet we see our own reactions to the film played out in the film itself; one of the subjects checks his watch, just as the audience might as the deliberately slow pace of the film reaches its peak. Similarly, at one stage the subjects are replaced by a group of goats who we watch for their full 10 minute ascent, just as we did with their human counterparts. In these ways the film not only creates but also subverts the colonialist narratives one might expect from a piece of this nature.

manakamana

Dulche No Leche — Apple Butter

This week’s Dulche no Leche is a bit of an odd one, but I’ve been wanting to make some recipes using apple butter for a while, and it sounds delicious and a wonderful dairy free buttery alternative. I added spices; cinnamon, ginger and cloves to compliment the apple-y taste and give a wintery warmth, but you could just as easily leave it out. I also made mine quite tart, but you could add more sugar, or mix the apple cider vinegar with water to taste. I’m excited to use it in baking, but I think it will also taste pretty delicious on toast on actually by itself…

apple butter

For the Apple Butter:
1.5kg apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunks
1.5 cups soft brown sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground ginger

Bring the apples and cider to the boil in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Once the cider is boiling reduce the heat and add 1/2 a cup of the brown sugar. Cook for 20 minutes stirring every so often to help release the moisture from the apples.

After 20 minutes take off the heat and blend until smooth. I used my trusty hand blender, but you could also use a regular blender, or just force the mush through a sieve.

Add the rest of the sugar, and the spices and return to the heat for 15 minutes. You will need to stir for the whole time, because it gets quite volcanic at this stage. It will thicken up quite considerably.

Decant the apple butter into glass jars while it’s still hot, put the lids on and then set aside to cool.

Apple butter should keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.

Book Review: Strange Girls and Ordinary Women — Morgan McCarthy

I think my favourite time to read is when it’s raining outside. I love bing curled up somewhere warm, with no where to go, some tea, a nice bit of cake and some quiet music. I like hearing the rain, but knowing that it doesn’t affect me or my plans.There’s something comforting about being inside in the warm. I tried to capture the rain drops on the window in the picture I took of the book this week, but it was surprisingly hard to do, something for me to work on.

As it turns out this book was the perfect book for a slow, rainy weekend. It’s beautifully written and keenly observed, and while the sentences are long and sinuous, for me there was never the feeling that McCarthy lost control over her narrative. The story itself unfolds slowly and never completely, only allowing glimpses into the overlaps between the three characters, the disjunctions between the locations and times creating gaps in the spatiotemporal flow of the book.

The story shows the intersections between the lives of 3 women. Alice lives in a comfortable, middle-classed world, while Kaya, still in Manchester works in a strip club and lives on a council estate having just moved out of her childhood home with her drunk mother. On the other side of the world in Madeira, Vic’s childhood friend Michael has moved back to live near the hotel where she works, sharing her job with a co-manager employed by the chain who bought her parent’s hotel, presumably to take over her job. Throughout the book these seemingly disparate worlds are brought closer and closer together.

It has to be said that the plot is slow moving, and even by my standards little happens, and not everything is explained. However, the story telling is so compelling and the characters so intriguing that I felt unable to put the book down. None of the characters are particularly likeable, and they all feel standoff-ish in a way I cannot quite put my finger on given the close third person perspective.

The story is told from the point of view of the three main female characters, but in the third person, and in the present tense. This creates both a barrier between the reader and the narrators where the first person narration would have been, but also only allows the reader to know what each of the women know at any given point in the story. This is intensified because the stories are told woven together, while chronologically they do not happen at the same time. An effect which is furthered by a clever use of the present tense, giving each story an immediacy and an urgency, and not giving the reader any clues about the ways, places and times at which the stories converge.

One of the key themes in the book is the way the women see themselves, verses the ways in which they see each other. As with most of our stories we only see how the women see themselves, in the same way we only see how we see ourselves. However at times the stories intersect and we are given glimpses from an outside perspective. The flaws which seem so clear from the inside are hidden from the outsiders view. Women who seem strange from their own telling are ordinary from the outside and vice versa. The reflections of the characters in the eyes of others are at times more telling than what they reveal of themselves.

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